The Military and Society in Russia: 1450-1917

By Eric Lohr; Marshall Poe | Go to book overview

MILITARY SERVICE AND SOCIAL HIERARCHY:
THE VIEW FROM EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY
RUSSIAN THEATER
Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter

Across Russian society, service bound individuals and communities to the person of the monarch and to the administrative structures of the state. Promises of advancement and appeals to honor encouraged the individual serviceman to define himself in terms of the monarchy, civic society, and the common good. Yet at the same time that the obligation to serve called forth a transcendent identification with the imperial polity, it also exposed the gap between moral principles and concrete rewards. The injustices of everyday life not only contradicted proclaimed principles but also seemed more egregious because of the sacrifices service entailed. Through the prism of eighteenth-century theater—an institution where Russia's educated service classes imagined themselves as members of a larger social body—this essay explores the tension between service as a source of positive identification and service as a challenge to social hierarchy.1

The theatrical depiction of service raised difficult moral and practical questions for which it could offer no fully satisfactory answers. How, for example, could merit and performance be rewarded in a society where legal rights were unequal and hereditary, or where political power depended on patronage and family networks? How could strict hierarchies of command and discipline be maintained in combat conditions, where all men, regardless of rank or social status, were equally vulnerable to death and equally capable of heroism?

____________________
1
The relatively limited historiography on social attitudes toward service tends to emphasize sources of disaffection. My purpose is to explore ideas that promoted reconciliation. On the nobility, see I. V. Faisova, “Manifest o vol'nosti” i sluzhba dvorianstva v XVIII stoletii (Moscow: Nauka, 1999); E. N. Marasinova, Psikhologiia elity rossiiskogo dvorianstva poslednei treti XVIII veka. (Po materialam perepiski) (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1999), chap. 2; Michael Confino, “À propos de la notion de service dans la noblesse russe au XVIIIeet XIXe siècles, ” Cahiers du Monde russe et soviétique 34 (1993), 47–58; Marc Raeff, Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966). On popular attitudes, see Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, From Serf to Russian Soldier (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

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