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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 433-458

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In the State's Embrace?

Civil Acts in an Imperial Order

Dept. of History
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway
Las Vegas, NV 89154-5020 USA

One of the principal characteristics of the modern state has been its aspiration to acquire extensive and detailed information about the population it oversees. As James C. Scott remarks, whereas its premodern counterpart was content with levels of intelligence sufficient for only the most basic practices of governance, "the modern state increasingly aspired to 'take in charge' the physical and human resources of the nation and make them more productive." John Torpey has likewise noted, "In order to extract resources and to implement policies, states must be in a position to locate and lay claim to people and goods."1 It is only in the past two centuries or so—and in many cases much more recently—that states have developed the administrative capacity to make confident claims on their subjects and citizens. Until then, there were often great discrepancies between the interventions to which states aspired and the instruments available for their realization.

The recognition of such discrepancies enjoins us to focus attention on the processes by which states construct relationships between themselves and [End Page 433] their subjects. Torpey has rightly noted that the prevailing analytical tendency to describe states' growing capacity to "penetrate" or "reach into" societies fails to account for the precise mechanisms by which such relationships are forged and sustained. As an alternative, he suggests that we regard states as seeking "not simply to penetrate but also to embrace societies, 'surrounding' and 'taking hold' of their members—individually and collectively—as those states grow larger and more administratively adept." Torpey's emphasis is on the grasp of the state rather than on its reach, on the techniques of governance concerned with the unique and unambiguous identification of individuals that rendered other, more prominent and visible projects—such as conscription and taxation—possible and enforceable.2

The present article analyzes a crucial aspect of the Russian state's infrastructural "embrace" of its population: the establishment and operation of a system for maintaining civil acts registering the births, marriages, and deaths of the empire's population. I focus in particular on the "metrical books" that were maintained by religious servitors of the empire's various confessions and that constituted the closest approximation to an order of universal registration.3 These registers served as the foundation for civil status and the exercise of rights, as well as for the state's claims on its subjects in a growing range of contexts. I argue that even as the state aspired to embrace its population more firmly through the extension of metrical books to an ever-widening circle of confessional groups, administrative weakness compelled the autocracy to effectuate this embrace indirectly, through mediating religious personnel and institutions. Particularly as the state's need for reliable and comprehensive documentation on the identity of its subjects grew, the deficiencies of the resulting order became ever more consequential. My emphasis in the present study is thus on the gradual character of the state's infrastructural growth, the crucial mediating role of confessional institutions, and the complexities that thereby conditioned the development of a comprehensive, if differentiated, civil order in Russia. [End Page 434]

At the center of my inquiry is a fundamental tension between universality and particularity in the documentary regime constructed in Russia over the course of the imperial period. On the one hand, metrical books represented the standard method for ascertaining the identity and civil status of the empire's entire population, without reference to social distinction or abode. As imperial law itself indicated, these registers were the one set of deeds that were "common to all statuses" (obshchie dlia vsekh sostoianii).4 In this respect, metrical books represented a universalistic practice of governance. On the other hand, metrical books remained particularistic in at least...


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