New book: Arakcheev on Power and "The Land"

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Posted by Daniel C. Waugh <>

V[ladimir] A[natol’evich] Arakcheev. Vlast’ i “zemlia”: Pravitel’stvennaia politika v otnoshenii tiaglykh soslovii v Rossii vtoroi poloviny XVI-nachala XVII veka.  Moskva: Drevlekhranilishche, 2014. 512 pp. ISBN 978-5-93646-234-4.

Merely summarizing this complex volume is a challenge; a proper review must be the task for others. The author, who teaches at the Ural Federal University in Ekaterinburg, has been mining the archives for years; a number of his previous publications anticipate what he pulls together in this book.  He sets here multiple goals (p. 17): 1) elaborating methodology; 2) exploring the dynamics of the process of enserfment in the second half of the 16th century, especially  in the establishment of the “Forbidden Years”; 3) studying the process of the binding to fiscal obligations (tiaglo) two categories of the population—townspeople (posadskie liudi) and “black” peasants; 4) studying the enactment of the land administration reforms of the 1550s and the actual functioning of the institutions created; 5) analysis of social change especially with reference to legal status; 6) analysis of changes in central administration in the second half of the 16th century, especially in the work of the fiscal chetverti and their special agents, termed poslanniki; 7) demonstrating changes in the structure of the state and suggesting approaches to developing a typology of Russian statehood.

            As his comprehensive 100-page survey of the literature and sources makes clear, a huge and contentious scholarly literature in Russian already exists on most of these topics. Except for a couple of peripheral items by Western historians who happen to have been translated into Russian, he does not cite scholarship by Western Russia specialists (perhaps because he considers their work to be derivative?). He insists that a lot of documentary material normally not used in discussions about enserfment is in fact relevant—for example, some of the cadastral records. Those not familiar with the terminology for the different kinds of documents undoubtedly would have been grateful for a glossary, but then, despite the basic clarity of the writing in separate parts of the book, he clearly is aiming it for an audience that is already well informed about much of the subject matter. The transitions from one major topic to another sometimes leave the reader gasping to keep up with where it all is heading.

            To deal with enserfment, he has to step back to the 15th century, for which he undertakes a careful analysis of the few charters which reflect the beginnings of restriction on obligated groups in the population, and then considers anew the key paragraphs of the law codes of 1497 and 1550.  In general, enserfment was a state-down process, as many have argued, not one in which the government was responding to self-interested pressures from particular socio-economic groups. However, this was a process in which the subjects of the restrictions were complicit, since it was in their interest that members of the community could not escape any collective fiscal obligations. Already in this section of the book Arakcheev brings to bear some newly discovered material (he includes in a documentary appendix a number of key documents he has found, some published previously in his earlier articles). His analytical approach employs the tools of formal diplomatic analysis (to demonstrate significant changes in formulae) and also careful attention to the etymologies and meaning of key terms. One important thing which emerges here is his determination that restrictions on the movement of townspeople and black peasants seem to have begun earlier than other scholars would have it.

            The analysis of the changes in local administration strikes me as particularly interesting. On the one hand, the vicegerents (namestniki) co-existed with the “elective” organs of land administration longer than I had realized, even as the formers’ powers were being curbed and their “feeding” transformed into monetary compensation. The fiscal interests of the state were primary in the decisions about administrative change; there is no contradiction between the strengthening of the state and central government and the apparent devolution of responsibilities to “The Land.” One of the most important responsibilities of the new organs of local administration was enforcement of fiscal obligations. These functions were, if anything, reinforced during the Oprichnina in ways that then laid the foundation for the establishment of the “Forbidden Years.” The socio-political structures in place by the end of the 16th century were little affected by the Time of Troubles. Of course the documentation regarding the administrative reforms and their social consequences is uneven. Arakcheev recognizes that there was regional variation, at the same time that he may conclude that a regionally-specific set of documents reflects measures that applied as well to other parts of the state. 

            In short, this ambitious book promises a lot. How much of it is really new is a good question, as many of the parts have been anticipated in other scholars’ work, which the author is careful to credit as he goes along.  My guess is that anyone interested in Muscovite political institutions will definitely want to pay attention to what he says, since he concerns himself not merely with the legal framework embodied in their creation but also with what we can learn about their actual functioning.