- Soslovnoe obshchestvo Rossiiskoi imperii (XVIII–nachalo XX veka) by Natal´ia Anatol´evna Ivanova and Valentina Pavlovna Zheltova
In their exhaustively researched Soslovie Society of the Russian Empire, N. A. Ivanova and V. P. Zheltova present a chronologically broad, general history of the many social categories established by law that governed the lives of the empire’s subjects. In their introduction, the authors claim their place in the long historiography of soslovie in Russia. They list a series of major discussion questions from that historiography: whether sosloviia were “general sociological categories” or “historically specific”; exactly when sosloviia became fully established; whether they were established purely out of higher state interests or grew out of larger “social–economic and political” developments emanating from below; and how Russia’s sosloviia compared to those of Western states (7–11). Ivanova and Zheltova further note that although at various times the concept of soslovie had many wider meanings, their approach is based on a more specific understanding of the concept. They state firmly that they see the word soslovie as primarily “carrying a legal, juridical character” (12); as a result, they draw most heavily on legal sources, particularly the various editions of the Complete Collection of the Laws (Polnoe sobranie zakonov) and the Digest of Laws (Svod zakonov) of the Russian Empire, to investigate these various questions.
Above all, this book has great value as a work of reference. The authors present a full and detailed account of almost every way that soslovie identities or organizations came under the purview of the law. Each chapter focuses on a different soslovie or group of sosloviia (nobles and townspeople warrant two chapters each, divided chronologically at the Great Reforms), starting with the imperial family (which the authors see as a soslovie unto itself), moving through the nobility, churchmen (churchwomen are not much mentioned), townspeople, Cossacks, and peasants, before finally ending with the empire’s internal others (the inorodtsy, or aliens). Ivanova and Zheltova deserve particular credit for broadening their investigation of sosloviia to include non-Russians [End Page 457] within the larger empire. They do so both in the section on churchmen, where they discuss non-Orthodox clergy, and by including the inorodtsy as more than a side group, looking for categories within that broad category. Most chapters begin with a review of relevant literature on the subject, focusing on the work of Russian historians but with occasional mention of foreign ones. Then, in each chapter, the authors describe how legal identities were determined; the role they played in regulating everything from the marriages individuals contracted to the work they did, the taxes or service they owed and the property they owned (or used); the way their status did (or did not) pass to their heirs; and the ways that soslovie became associated with administrative organizations. The discussion begins with the early 18th century (often with a Muscovite prelude), but the very late imperial era receives the most attention, presumably because that is where the authors’ major research experience has been previously.1
Throughout, the focus is on the laws and how they structured life in a soslovie: essentially, how the imperial state’s schemes of categorizing its population involved not just labels but legally defined duties, privileges, and “corporate organizations,” as the authors call them—the various structures established to administer sosloviia on the local level. They successfully show how many of these rights, duties, and structures changed over time. They note, for example, that state service, which Peter the Great made a duty of the nobility, changed into a privilege of the nobility (105), and that changes in the status of the nobility by the end of the regime reflected not so much their loss of privilege as increases in the privileges accorded to other sosloviia (153). In a later chapter, they further argue that the idea of a peasant soslovie, as opposed to individual peasants or even individual peasant communes, did...