Academic journal article Kritika

Unsalaried and Unfed: Town Clerks' Means of Survival in Southwest Russia under Peter I

Academic journal article Kritika

Unsalaried and Unfed: Town Clerks' Means of Survival in Southwest Russia under Peter I

Article excerpt

In the last two decades, the historiography of administration in the Muscovite state and the early Russian empire has been enriched by a whole range of in-depth studies on a variety of themes such as the internal organization of the Military and Robbery chancelleries (prikazy), the identity and composition of Moscow secretaries (d'iaki) and clerks (pod'iachie) during the Time of Troubles, the paperwork procedures of the patriarchal chancelleries, the efficiency of the St. Petersburg colleges, attempts by Peter I to create an independent court system, the inner workings of the Petrine Senate, and the Chancellery of Investigations' methods of combating crime. (1)

The revival of administrative history is particularly welcome after its ebb during the 1980s and 1990s. (2) Researchers specializing in the history of governance (and I include myself) should, however, acknowledge that the general picture of the Russian administration during the 17th and 18th centuries that we offer to a larger readership no longer corresponds to the state of the art. In otherwise useful reference literature, students read statements such as "what was solely a palace administration in 1450 evolved into a differentiated system based on 'proto-Weberian' functional chancelleries a century or so later"; the 17th -century Muscovite chancelleries were staffed "by a professional bureaucracy which did not depend on personal relations"; (3) "Russia's bureaucratic processes, expectations, and conduct [in the 17th century] were ... a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, much like computerization in late 20th-century life." (4) Yet the research of the past two decades has warned us to be more cautious, alerting us that Muscovite administration had little in common with what the public today recognizes as bureaucracy. We should not, therefore, continue to give readers the sense that they would feel at home in a Moscow chancellery, let alone a provincial town governor's office. I do not dispute the stability and efficiency of the Muscovite state administration from the 16th century onward, a fact proven long ago. (5) It is also entirely plausible that in the second half of the 17th century, certain choice parts of this administration actually acquired some of the functional traits of modern bureaucratic organizations (this was the case in the most sophisticated central bureaus, such as the Military Chancellery). But to claim that the administrative organs of the Muscovite state and the early Russian empire constituted a bureaucratic system or that their agents were professional bureaucrats is either to eviscerate the definition of bureaucracy or to persist in applying an abstract concept to a historical situation that it cannot explain. Far more convincing is the opinion of historians who date the professionalization of administrative personnel, its unification into a specific social group, and the development of a particular civil service ethos to the 19th century. (6)

One of the largest-scale tasks awaiting historians of the Muscovite and early imperial administrative systems is to describe and account for their regional diversity. Although historians have never ignored this phenomenon, we have certainly paid too little attention to it. (7) The centralization of administrative authority in Moscow or St. Petersburg does not itself signify that administrative practices and personnel profiles were uniform throughout the state. N. F. Demidova has led the way, uncovering stark regional differences in the socioeconomic profiles of secretaries and clerks in the center and north, west and southwest, and Siberia when compared with Moscow. (8) Before a new general synthesis can be offered, therefore, the study of the administrative system must continue to pass through a period of local and regional investigation, with a special attention devoted to cross-regional comparison. (9)

One of the current tasks for the historiography of administration is to reveal the sources of the economic survival of clerks in the 18th century. …

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