The Service City
State and Townsmen in Russia, 1600-1800
J. MICHAEL HITTLE
[For classroom purposes, SAC editor has added boldface, bracketed IDs, and hypertext linkage]
IN LOOKING BACK over the history of the
posadskie liudi [townsfolk,
later called "townsmen" or "Russian middle class" here] in the eighteenth
century, one cannot help being struck by the contrast between a certain element
of dynamism—represented by the enlivenment of the rural economy and the vigorous
reform efforts of the Petrine
Catherinean [ID] governments—and a deep and
persistent conservatism—manifested in the tradition-oriented behavior of the
townsmen. It is this contrast, along with a comparison of Russia's townsmen with
those of Western Europe that has led the few historians who have written about
the posady [towns] to display, almost without exception, a measure of disappointment
with the modest role played by this social group in the history of early modern
Russia. Their work is preoccupied with the weaknesses of the townsmen, with sins
both of commission and omission: their shortcomings of commercial technique;
their overly close and stultifying relationship with the state; their failure to
develop positive, forward-looking ideas that would break the bonds of an estate
mentality; and their general timidity, if not outright incompetence. While none
of these charges is without some foundation in fact, they have nonetheless been
overdrawn, and it can be argued that they have often been advanced less from the
compelling force of evidence than for their symbolic value. They represent for
many historians the inadequacy of the Russian trade and industrial population in
the face of the monumental tasks that history appears to have set for the
bourgeoisie [ID]. Such judgments, of course, emerge from a perspective that holds,
whether explicitly or implicitly, that Western European development provides a
model for all societies. It is undeniable that the nascent Russian middle class,
the posadskie liudi, were far from being a driving force capable of sweeping
away the feudal order and ushering in a new historical epoch. In many respects
they showed themselves to be quite the opposite, that is, an archaic lot,
abetting the survival of an old order in its time of crisis. But one must be
careful in drawing such judgments lest the townsmen be measured against a set of
standards that are wholly extrinsic to their experience, standards [237/238]
that belong neither to the time nor place in which they moved. Justice to actors
on the historical stage demands, first of all, that they be examined in terms of
the real circumstances that governed their lives.
Russian townsmen operated in a complex world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the factors that shaped posad life were numerous and varied. To begin with, the sheer size of the country meant that city development would have to be, in the words of the Soviet scholar la. M. Polianskii, "extensive, rather than intensive." According to his argument, the expanding number of cities, a phenomenon that was itself a response to territorial acquisition and internal administrative needs, precluded the urbanization of any one part of the country and in the process ensured that large, socially complex, and economically powerful cities remained few and far between. Most of the cities that dotted the map of the realm thus waged an uphill struggle just to meet in a rudimentary manner the economic and administrative burdens incumbent on them; some failed outright. The resources, human and material, simply were not present.
Extensive development of cities need not entail an enfeebled product; but in the case of early modern Russia, a number of related considerations conspired to make it so. In part, the problem was one of numbers, of finding enough people to make the urban enterprise viable. On this count, the serf system clearly exercised a restraining influence on urban development. Though restrictions on mobility by no means cut off the flow of peasants to the cities, they did raise obstacles to that flow and, perhaps more importantly, made the shift of permanent residence from countryside to city extremely difficult. Although the cities did grow during the century, it seems hard to deny that serfdom restricted that growth and thus curtailed the human resources available to the cities.
In part, too, intensive urban development is a matter of wealth. Here, conditions within the cities, in particular the straitened economic circumstances of the posadskie liudi, worked against the development of a strong, aggressive urban order. Limitations of the domestic market, stiff foreign competition, unsophisticated business techniques, and the heavy burdens of tiaglo all restricted the accumulation of wealth in the hands of Russia's proto-bourgeoisie, a condition which, in turn, made it all the more difficult for them to meet their obligations as businessmen and citizens. [Tiaglo was a feudal dues or tax in money or in kind, levied on posadskie liudi and collected according to traditional krugovaia poruka [ID], from the time of Ivan III to the time of Peter the Great] To these hard realities of manpower and money ought to be added the matter of social status. The townsmen's subordinate role in the social hierarchy impeded their efforts to secure posad interests, especially where conflicts with the gentry and the gentry's rural dependents were involved. And as the eighteenth century wore on these socially inferior townsmen, devoted to an ever more anachronistic outlook on the social [238/239] and economic order, had to confront an increasingly powerful and independent bureaucratic establishment. The point is clear: the individuals on whom an intensive development of the city order would have to depend lacked the strength to get the job done. The townsmen could barely meet the essential challenges of their daily existence, let alone lead the way toward broader notions of economic development or civic life.
The preceding argument has been developed largely without reference to the state (the obvious exception being, of course, taxation), and with good cause, for one cannot stress too much the limited capacities of the townsmen themselves. But it is also true that the activities of the state constituted the single most important influence on the lives of the townsmen. In one manner or another, the hand of the state could be seen in most essential relationships within the posad as well as in relationships between the posadskie liudi and other segments of Russian society. Building from land arrangements to the burdens of tiaglo and on to administrative matters, what the state structured for, received from, and expected of the townsmen added up to an enormous bill of particulars. It was precisely this bill of particulars that was responsible for the strong historiographic tradition holding the state accountable for the unsatisfactory condition of the towns and their inhabitants—that is, for the backwardness of urban Russia. Of course, the evidence was given a certain twist, commensurate with the intellectual climate of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russia. The central government was made to appear both massive and willful, capable of penetrating the nooks and crannies of posad life, all to the purpose of serving the ends of that abstract entity, the state, as opposed to the ends of the people. And, of course, only a state jealous of its political prerogatives and suspicious of its citizens could have stifled so effectively all signs of urban autonomy.
This tendency to blame the state for the failings of the townsmen, and, indeed, for the weakness of all elements of Russian society, continues to find expression in the literature, though the sharp, accusatory edges of the argument in its prerevolutionary manifestation have been blunted by the somewhat less value-charged rhetoric of social science. An excellent example of the old argument in new dress can be found in Hans Torke's exploration of the process whereby bureaucracy and society (both viewed in Weberian terms) emerged as independent forces on the Russian scene, parallel in essential character and function to bureaucracy and society in historic Western Europe. Though Torke's attention falls chiefly on the properties of these two institutional phenomena, the state stands always in the background, ready to assume its role as the ultimate arbiter of social relations. Autocracy, in his view, was "an over-developed form of absolutism," which, for political reasons—that is, its reluctance to yield [239/240] up political power — refused independence not only to society or to the leading element of society, the gentry, but also denied that independence to its own chief agency of rule, the bureaucracy. This position is somewhat balanced by Torke’s willingness to acknowledge that not all elements of society were ready for a more independent role and that the townsmen, for their part, effectively rebuffed the guarded efforts of the government to transfer some responsibility to them. But his overall emphasis is clear: political considerations led the state to restrict the budding estates of the realm. [1971:Canadian Slavic Studies#5:457-76 & 1972:Canadian Slavic Studies#6:10-12 (dk1.c2)]
The state's profound influence on social relations is one of the persistent realities of early modern Russia. But care must be taken lest arguments developed from that basic reality become one-sided, ignoring what was in fact an interaction between state and society and in the process exaggerating or distorting the powers of the state. In the case at hand, while it would be folly to contend that the state was not the dominant partner in its relations with the townsmen, the fact remains that the links that bound state and posad arose not so much from the overwhelming strength of one party and the abject weakness of the other, as from the respective weaknesses of each. The inadequacies of the townsmen are obvious enough, and they can be accounted for in a significant degree by the inherent deficiencies of the Russian mercantile community. The weaknesses of the state, however, are less obvious. To understand them, matters of political power must be sorted out from those of administrative capacity, that is, the power to make decisions must be distinguished from the ability to effect them. [Now arises the question of sequencing of political change and economic change. Absence of political transformation of old-regime style political centralization put obstacles to economic modernization. Here Hittle explores the curious Russian condradiction between unrestrained political power and limited administrative ability to apply that power.]
In political terms, the autocratic regime ruled the country with apparent ease. No social group, except perhaps the peasants rising in a jacquerie, could be considered a serious rival to the tsar's sovereignty. And yet, when it came down to the capacity to govern, both to manage the daily run of affairs and to carry through pressing reforms, the Russian state appeared considerably less forceful. In the countryside the state effectively surrendered control over vast numbers of its citizens, partly to secure and reward the service of the gentry [pomeshchiki (ID)], partly because the machinery of the state could not deal directly with so many souls. The urban service relationship emerged when neither the cities nor the central bureaucratic establishment proved up to the complex tasks of national administration. This stern necessity forced the state to look to the townsmen for vital assistance in a number of areas of state and local administration. To strengthen this relationship and, not incidentally, to promote the power and well-being of the nation, the state also found it desirable to protect and to foster urban economic enterprise, a policy that at the same time accommodated the basic interests of the posad community. All this is to [240/241] say nothing of the failure of some of the more grandiose plans of Peter I and Catherine II to transform both the townsmen and the cities into models of middle-class behavior and organization.
If, then, the state's political power remained beyond challenge, the same cannot be said for its administrative abilities. Indeed, one might well adhere to J. L. H. Keep's assertion that in a sense the country was undergoverned, that the wherewithal for effective administration was conspicuously absent. From such a perspective, what has appeared to many scholars a country suffering from an all-powerful, willful, and domineering state apparatus turns out in truth to be a rather badly administered one whose sovereign and bureaucracy grasped at every opportunity to rule or to compel others to rule in their behalf, lest the job simply not be done at all.
Urban service arose at a time when the state's bureaucratic machinery was just coming into its own and was far from being able to meet the challenges incumbent upon it and at a time when urban [241/242] society itself had only the most limited administrative capabilities. The service arrangement did work, in the sense that it enabled the state to manage its affairs adequately, if not ideally, in a vital era of transition. But once the conditions that gave rise to and sustained service began to alter—in particular, once the central government grew in size and efficiency—the service system began to wind down, though the remnants of service that lingered after the reign of Catherine II suggest that a completely satisfactory replacement for it was hard to come by. The deterioration of service stands as a final piece of evidence of the inverse relationship between service and central-government power; and it reinforces the notion that service sprang from state weakness rather than from excessive state power.
Implicit in this history of the townsmen and the government lies yet another challenge to those who hold an inordinately strong state responsible for the rocky path of Russian development. One might well ask how the apparatus of a nation-state could grow so powerful while its cities and their nascent middle class remained so weak. Would not the state apparatus need the material wealth and human resources of the cities to reach such heights? Surely the rise of the modern nation-state in Western Europe is unthinkable without the contributions of its prosperous and powerful cities. The Russian nation-state, by contrast, had to make do with considerably less in the way of wealth and of individuals trained to manage complex administrative institutions; and the state order that emerged there, heavily dependent on the service of its citizens, represented a necessary accommodation with that reality. It goes without saying that the result of such an accommodation was a state less sophisticated and less effective than many of its European rivals.
All this is not to say that the townsmen did not find the state powerful and at times oppressive; from their perspective the state was an ominous force, demanding much and returning little. The origins of that condition, however, lay not in a simple, one-sided relationship, but in the paucity of resources available to both parties in the face of the exigencies of national development.
In the final analysis, then, the early history of the Russian middle class is firmly rooted in the difficulties of building a nation-state in a vast and relatively poor country. Such a perspective best accounts for the service relationship that took shape in the seventeenth century, just as it accounts for the strains and alterations put on that system in the eighteenth century when the interests of an expanding state and a traditional urban estate began to part ways. Moreover, it is from that perspective that the tug of war between continuity and change, so central a feature in the eighteenth century, stands out most clearly. The contrast of the old and the rooted, on the one hand, and the new and the sought after on the other, lay at the heart of the history of the posadskie liudi [townsfolk]. One can see Kizevetter [ID] struggling to reconcile the ambitious goals of the sovereigns, goals with which he was largely in agreement, with the "dull and humdrum" realities of the posad life that his researches had uncovered. It is with an almost despairing resignation that he remarks in connection with the reforms of Peter I: "The new wine of the elevation of city culture was poured into the old skin of the tiaglo [feudal dues or tax] organization of the posad commune." But that, of course, is precisely the point. The new wine could only be poured into the available skins, and the tiaglo relationship was both necessary and available. It was only in the latter decades of the eighteenth century that the government could begin to entertain the notion of altering the skins: but even that exercise, as it turned out, relied in practice as much on old materials as on new ones.
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