Academic journal article Kritika

The Ideal Citizen and Real Subject in Late Imperial Russia

Academic journal article Kritika

The Ideal Citizen and Real Subject in Late Imperial Russia

Article excerpt

Can the term and concept of citizenship be fruitfully applied to the study and understanding of late imperial Russia? If Russia was an autocracy, its individual members were subjects, not citizens. By this logic, "autocratic citizenship" appears to be an oxymoron. This goes a long way toward explaining why--despite the flourishing and expanding study of the history and theory of citizenship in many different national contexts--the term and concept have been used in only a few (mostly quite recent) instances in the case of imperial Russia. Yet as the contributions to the Spring and Summer 2006 issues of Kritika from a Harvard Davis Center conference on citizenship and several recent articles published elsewhere show, the concept can stimulate fresh ideas on some of the key old questions about imperial Russia.

A standard definition of citizenship is "a personal status consisting of a body of universal rights (i.e., legal claims on the state) and duties held equally by all legal members of a nation-state." (1) Inherent to the concept is the presence of both rights and obligations. This essay begins by outlining the predominant focus on the obligations side of the concept in recent scholarship applying the term "citizenship" to imperial Russia. Then it turns to the ideas of Vladimir Matveevich Gessen, a prominent liberal legal theorist who undertook the only comprehensive study of citizenship ever attempted in imperial Russia. A reconstruction and exegesis of this representative liberal leader's theory helps explain the way liberals framed some of the core dilemmas of the time, reveals some of the weaknesses of their philosophies, and argues that the problem of the autonomy and rights of the individual cannot be excluded from a robust theory of citizenship. Gessen's preoccupation with this problem, I argue, reflects a broader contention, that the weak position of the individual in Russia intensified the search for the self and citizen outside the field of historically evolved Russian practices and institutions. In short, the weakness of the really existing Russian subject increased the impetus to focus on an ideal citizen grounded in universal principles.

Rights and Obligations

To begin to deal with the basic problem of applying the term "citizenship" to the autocratic Russian polity, a few general comments about the nature of the concept are in order. From the definition cited above, it is readily apparent that no state has ever reached full citizenship. Certainly around the beginning of the 20th century, the gap between the definition and reality was wide even in the most democratic and constitutional of societies like the United States, where women, blacks, native Americans, and many others had no access to the "universal" rights of all members of the state. Whether we are speaking of an autocracy or a democracy, the term "citizen" assumes a certain distance between reality and an ideal.

If "citizenship" as defined above is an ideal type that has never been fully realized, the same can be said about "autocracy." The term refers to the unlimited power of the single ruler over his subjects, who as a corollary would have no "rights" in the common legal and political sense of the term. The argument has been made that this was not far from the case in 6th-century Muscovy. (2) However, there is by no means a scholarly consensus on this argument. Valerie Kivelson recently reviewed a large body of scholarship to support her argument that six different aspects of what we think of as the "rights" of the modern citizen had at least tenuous analogues in Muscovy. (3) If the autocracy of the 6th century allowed Muscovite subjects some immunities and forms of resistance to its rule, the subject of the 9th and early 20th centuries certainly was not completely powerless before the state. The expansion of the formal rights of the nobility in the 8th century was followed by the extension of rights to other groups--including the introduction of courts, concepts of the rule of law, and finally, in 905, explicit civil legal protections of the rights of the citizen against the state. …

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