A Social History of the Russian Empire, 1650-1825

Article excerpt

Janet M. Hartley. A Social History of the Russian Empire, 1650-1825. London and New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998. xi, 312 pp. Chronology. Glossary. Maps. Select Bibliography. Index. $44.00, paper.

The two overarching themes of Janet Hartley's Social History of the Russian Empire will be familiar to any student of Russian history: namely, the relationship between state and society and the degree of stratification and mobility within and between social groups. She sets out to examine how successful the state was in moulding society to suit its needs and where intervention failed. Her conclusions-that Russia remained, in many respects, minimally governed until the nineteenth century, despite gradual administrative reform, and that, ultimately, the regime became "a victim of its own success" (p. 261)-are also standard judgments in the literature she surveys.

Hartley's goal, however, is not to challenge historians' views, but to offer a richly detailed synthesis of recent scholarship on Russian society during the long eighteenth century. Each chapter examines some dimension of state and society: the division of society into legal categories, or estates; the rights and obligations of each; the viability of local institutions; the beliefs, lifestyle, and occupations of each estate, and family life. Although structured as narrative, Hartley's work introduces the primary historiographical debates to general readers. She devotes considerable attention to the porosity of social groups, as well as their heterogeneity, despite the best attempts of Russia's rulers to simplify Russian social structure into four legal categories (nobles, clergy, townspeople, and peasants) and to define the role each would play. In contrast to many historians, who contend that the Petrine reforms resulted in a cultural schism between noble and peasant, Hartley argues that the gulf between a "Europeanized" nobility and "Russian" ordinary people should not be exaggerated (p. 195). Emphasizing continuity over change, Hartley also demonstrates that progress in many areas was incremental and uneven, especially in the realm of education and the development of corporate institutions and identity. Given Hartley's extensive research in legal history, her discussion of law and order stands out in particular: she presents vivid examples of the state's efforts to implement the rule of law and to combat peasant flight, brigandage, and corruption among officials, as well as the extent to which the population managed to elude these efforts. …


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