Catherine’s conceptions of state and subject

Her reforms were progressive in the sense that they moved Russia towards modernization and brought the state in line with Western concepts of the relationship between a government and its subjects. One theme present throughout Catherine the Great’s reforms is an attempt to balance state powers and individual liberties. The Statute on Provincial Administration states that “the personal security of each loyal subject is quite precious to the Monarch’s philanthropic heart,”  and the establishment of an ordered, hierarchical bureaucracy within the provinces is one way to enforce order and protect personal security among and of the subjects. However, the bureaucratization serves a second purpose, which is to quantify and order a population in case the state wishes to mobilize them when they need labor or combat. Article 20 of the Charter to the Nobility mandates that no subject may “spare neither labor nor even life itself in State service,” reminding the nobility that they are subject to the same calls to war and work as the rest of the population.

However, Catherine’s reforms also implement checks on state power. According to the Charter to the Towns, no urban corporation may make regulations contrary to the laws of the state. Catherine’s reforms standardized the rule of law throughout Russia and ensured that no provincial power could infringe upon the rights of their subjects by creating their own regulations. Overall, Catherine’s reforms show the delicate balance, characteristic of many nascent modern states, between using a population as a resource and respecting the rights of that population to encourage their obedience to their government.


Did Catherine’s reforms favor either the subject or the state?

Peter the Great’s top-down reforms

Peter the Great sought to create a nuanced hierarchy of the Russian population. This goal is evident in his system of ranks and orders, which outlines military grades and created a new basis for determining social status. The system represents Peter’s efforts for top-down modernization of his population: he believed that by catering to the needs of the elite classes and bringing them up to pace with Western Europe, he would create a class of leaders that would then bring change to the common and peasant classes. To borrow a term from the Reagan administration, Peter executed his reforms with the belief that an organized court, military, and bureaucracy would create a “trickle-down” effect of lawfulness and order among his whole population.

This “trickle down” system of modernization meant that Peter had to identify and differentiate between the members of the upper, middle, and lower classes of the population. In order to mobilize his administration, he also had to create a hierarchy of command and different grades of civil servants. The Table of Ranks explain the duties of each rank and create a pecking order within the army, navy, and civil sectors. Such a system ensures that each member of the state and political structures know their place within a larger system of governance, eliminating any reasonable grounds for challenging the authority of those with higher power.




Food for thought….Were Peter’s reforms more successful than Reaganomics?

Domostroi 12-23

Chapters 12-23 of the Domostroi emphasize the importance of piety at all levels of society, from national politics to household affairs. Chapters 12 – 17 focus on the role of religion in the home and the importance of religious education for children. The man is the spiritual guide of his family, and he is expected to lead evening vespers and morning prayer for his wife, children, and servants. Men must go to church every day, and women and servants ought to attend services whenever they have relief from their domestic duties (Chapter 12). Children must observe religious rites from an early age: chapter 14 commands children to respect their father-confessors, and that they must invite him into their home, be revealing about their sins, and look to him for examples on how to live a good, useful life. Though children have spiritual guides within the community, parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s religious development and must protect them from sin. If a child sins, the whole family and village are implicated. Chapters 15 and 16 offer gendered guidelines for raising children: if a man has daughters, he must begin to amass her dowry as soon as she is born. If he has sons, he must “break them in early” when they are young and begin to beat them at a young age if they misbehave.

Chapters 18-22 describe relationships within the household, and show how behavior in the household is an extension of one’s devotion to God. Children must respect their parents in order to be blessed God, and a wife’s service to her husband and children are tantamount to her service to her Lord. Men must be devoted to God to be successful in their work. Slaves and servants should always respect their master, and will receive mercy from God if they go to church.

Chapter 23 reflects the belief that the fate of the Russian state depended on the piety of its citizens. All disasters and diseases are “caused by God’s wrath.” If citizens are not devoted to God, the nation will be “captured and slaughtered by pagans” who will burn their churches. An angry God may “cause the Tsar to seize our property in anger,” suggesting that Ivan’s caprice was the result of divine intervention. Citizens could avoid such fates by practicing charity and, “above all, commit[ing] no evil” (page 125).

The Psychology of Ivan IV

As a young child, Ivan IV was a victim of the same caprice and cruelty that would later characterize his own reign. After his mother’s “haughty and arbitrary”  ((RS 101)))  regime, the young Ivan lived under chaotic boyar rule where “imprisonments, exiles, executions, and murders proliferated.” ((RS 133))  The boyars who had served Ivan as an autocrat while his mother was alive became neglectful and cruel of the young heir in his private life. Ivan seized his rule at age 13 and insisted that he be crowned as tsar (rather than Grand Prince) at age 16. Though he enjoyed a happy marriage to Anasatsia of the Romanov boyar family, Ivan’s personal traumas continued. Soon after his wedding a great fire razed Moscow, leading to riots that killed his uncle and nearly killed Ivan himself. Riasanovsky and Steinberg call the riot “one of the psychological crises that were periodically to mark his explosive reign.”

I found Ivan’s psychology intriguing, since he – like Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin – was a fearsome ruler who grew up in a home marked by violence and trauma. Ivan’s psychological profile seems to be a topic of interest in Russian history, since the 1897 portrait by Victor Vasnetov is characterized as a “psychological portrait.” The actions that characterized his Reign of Terror (such as the founding of the oprichniki) don’t seem so much like sadistic punishments of his people as a they do a measure of personal protection.


Discussion questions:

What were Ivan’s motivations for his Reign of Terror? What events in his life made him paranoid and fearful for his personal safety and hegemony?

The Novgorod Judicial Charter and the Sudbnik

Comparing the Novgorod Judicial Charter and the Susbnik of 1497 tells us a great deal about the evolution of judicial procedures after the arrival of Ivan III. The most drastic change that the Subdnik brought was the introduction of investigations into criminal proceedings. The judicial practices outlined in the Novgorod charter follow three steps: a plaintiff levels a charge, the judge issues a decision, and the defendant is punished or exonerated for wrongdoing. The charter placed restrictions on who could serve as a witness (slaves, for instance, could only act as witnesses in cases where other slaves were being tried) and the court proceedings were threaded with religious rites and rituals.

The Sudbnik, by contrast, introduces a heierarchal judicial structure wherein boyars and major-domos administer justice and secretaries are present in all courtrooms. The sudbnik outlaws bribery and criminal charges in the name of “revenge or favor.” Notably, the document also outlines procedures for overturning unjust court proceedings and for keeping written records of trials and decisions. Even though the new judicial codes were written as the church intensified its presence in Russia, there is no religious influence on the state’s legal practices.

How does the Sudbnik compare to contemporaneous legal codes in western European states? What broader changes did Ivan III bring to Rus’ that we see reflected in his legal codes?

The Mongols and Russian Progress

What struck me in tonight’s reading was the Mongols responsibility for effectively severing Russia’s historical and cultural ties to the West. We can only place so much stock in historians’ projections for what could have been, as Riasanovsky and Steinberg write, “it has been suggested that, but for the Mongols, Russia might well have participated in such epochal European developments as the Renaissance and the Reformation.” ((RS 68))  The Mongols imposed exacting financial punishments on the Russians, divesting an already poor society assets and property. As a result, the Kievan standards of living went into a sharp decline and the society saw its development stunted “by some 150 or 200 years.”  ((RS 68))

The Mongols made a limited number of constructive contributions to Russian society, but in many ways these contributions anticipate modes of population management and infrastructure that wouldn’t arise in other societies until the Modern Era: they took a census of the Russian population and created roads that helped centralize their empire. Their superior military organization “resembled a modern general staff,” ((RS 67)  and they greatly evolved the Russian Calvary forces. They also brought the Russians a crude postal system. ((RS 70))


Discussion question: How is the role of Mongol involvement in Russia treated in by historians today?

examining natural rights in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Men

Written within ten years of each other on the eve of two different revolutions, the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Men remain today as influential revolutionary texts. While both documents examine natural rights, they do so in different contexts, for The Declaration of Independence was the assertion of a fledgling democracy’s right to political autonomy, while the Declaration of the Rights of Men enumerates and demands the protection of the individual natural rights of an oppressed class of citizens. Though the focuses of the two documents are different, examining them in tandem shows us the inextricable relationship between government and individual rights.

The Declaration of Independence lists the colonists’ grievances against the King of England and does not identify individual human rights, believing that these truths were “self-evident” (Blaisdell 63). The extensive list of complaints against King George are concerned with his interference in different institutions within the colonial government – cutting off trade, dissolving representative houses, and “refusing to assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers” (Blaisdell 65). While this declaration is a response to the oppression of the natural rights of a sovereign nation, the Declaration of the Rights of Men was written in response to the oppression of individual rights – namely, those of the Third Estate, the class of all french citizens who were not part of the gentry or nobility. The Third Estate was burdened with “all the really arduous work, all the tasks which the privileged refuses to perform” (Blaisdell 72). The French National Assembly listed fewer grievances in their declaration than the American Continental Congress and instead offered a comprehensive outline of the natural rights of individual citizens, ranging from freedom of speech to the right to property.

Different though their content may be, each declaration examines half of the relationship between citizens and their government. Both the french and americans agreed that a government is instituted to protect its citizens’ rights, and in return for this protection citizens will sacrifice certain rights of their own. The Continental Congress shows us government protection of rights in action – an elected group of officials protesting the abuse of another power against their own citizens. The French national Assembly outlines the second half of this political equation, showing how citizens sacrifice for their government through acts such as paying taxes and limiting their natural right to those which will not infringe upon someone else’s. Together, these documents show us how individuals allow for the creation of government, and how a government allows for the protection of natural rights.

Relationship between the ruler and ruled

In Plato’s The Republic and More’s Utopia, both writers examine the relationship between ruling class and the ruled within a just society. Within each work, both classes are bound by the mutual sacrifice and duty that perpetuates justice, but the writers’ individual experiences with different forms of governance lead them to diverge when discussing the control that the ruled have over their rulers.

In both Utopia and The Republic, sacrifices on behalf of both the rulers and the ruled forge solidarity between members of the two classes. Plato and More agree that just as every man has a talent to offer, every man must also forsake certain pleasures to promote the functioning of the society as a whole. This is why in neither work do rulers have more wealth or luxury than those they rule over, for justice in both societies demands equal distributions of happiness and material goods among members. Rulers in both works also have a duty to be a guide for other citizens to follow. Just as Plato’s philosopher kings must descend back into the cave to lead others to enlightenment, magistrates in Utopia must encourage industrious spirit among citizens by performing manual labor.

However, their experiences with democracy and monarchy lead Plato and More to defend different forms of government, resulting in different powers that the ruled have over their rulers. Plato critiques democracy and believes that leadership roles ought to be filled by those whose intrinsic talents are best suited to the job. Thus, citizens are unable to elect their rulers. Because each member of society is fated to perform a certain role regardless of his own desires, there is an irreconcilable divide between the rulers and the ruled, for no ruler can ever be removed from power, and no ordinary citizen can ever rise to the level of a ruler. In contrast, More’s version of governance allows for social mobility. After living under a monarchy for his entire life, More promotes a democratic republican form of government wherein citizens elect a number of magistrates who then make decisions – such as selecting the prince – with their interests in mind. The ruled can revoke the power of the magistrates if they are thought be be unjust or abusive. This check on the power of the ruling class ensures balance and an equal distribution of power throughout the society that is essential to maintaining justice.