Academic journal article Kritika

The "German" Reign of Empress Anna: Russia's Disciplinary Moment?

Academic journal article Kritika

The "German" Reign of Empress Anna: Russia's Disciplinary Moment?

Article excerpt

A fictional dialogue that appears to have circulated relatively widely in the 18th century in manuscript form purports to convey reflections on Russia's current affairs by two soldiers in the summer of 1743. The soldiers begin by commenting favorably and self-assurediy on Russia's performance in the ongoing war with Sweden, which is then juxtaposed to the abuses and outrages perpetrated by the "German" clique during the previous reign, that of Empress Anna Ioannovna (r. 1730-40). Because one of the soldiers participated in Anna's war against the Ottomans, his reflections are very much centered on Field Marshal Burkhard Christoph von Munnich (1683-1767), who commanded Russian forces in that conflict. Unlike some other "Germans," von Munnich is not faulted for corruption: instead he is accused primarily of needless cruelty--insisting on pedantically following the formalities of military discipline and failing to care about the hardships that the troop endured due to his pedantry. "Even elderly and distinguished colonels" would be punished "for the most trivial things": for example, whenever von Munnich happened to notice that "an officer has a tie which is not white or his wig is not powdered; but who would care about this on the steppe?" (1)

This dialogue sums up nicely the narrative of the 1730s as the era of a "German yoke," with its corruption, nepotism, oppression of the good Russian servitors, and, yes, petty and cruel pedantry. This narrative was very much a truism in 19th-century historiography and in the popular imagination; from there it was transmitted, in a still cruder form, into Soviet textbooks. There are very good reasons, of course, to view this narrative with great skepticism, as it reflects a propaganda campaign launched by Empress Elizabeth in the 1740s to legitimize her coup. It also reflects the emergence of Romantic (and eventually, less than romantic) Russian nationalism in the 19th century, for which the "German" served as an important "other" against whom "Russianness" was imagined and defined. (2) Scholars argue convincingly that while the German-speaking ministers may have been corrupt and prone to promote their clients, no less so were the "good Russian patriots"; that the repressions that took place during this decade were neither broader nor significantly bloodier than during Peters reign; and that political alignments of Anna's era were not defined by "Germanness" or "Russianness." (3) The "German party" as a political faction or clique simply did not exist.

This article argues, however, that this is not a reason to ignore the "foreignness" of the key ministers of the 1730s altogether. In fact, the supposed association of "Germans" with the strict, mindless observance of discipline that we find in the 1743 dialogue, as well as in other texts, might actually be hinting at something important. The key to understanding Anna's era, I propose here, may be thinking of her "German" officials not in terms of their ethnicity (for whether they conceived of themselves as "Germans" is questionable, and it is even more questionable whether they felt any affinities to one another on that account) but rather in terms of their relationship to certain peculiar anthropological sensibilities. While these sensibilities did not necessarily translate into a coherent, much less a coherently formulated, policy program, it appears at the very least plausible that these sensibilities could be reflected, however vaguely, in these ministers' basic "administrative instincts," in the ways in which they saw human nature and understood human interactions--and that this, in turn, shaped the policy choices they made at the helm of the Russian Empire.

More specifically, I propose that taking the Pietist sympathies and connections of Anna's key ministers as our point of departure allows us to tentatively identify shared patterns and meaning in a variety of policy initiatives pursued by these dignitaries that hitherto have not been adequately explained. …

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