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  • Thoughts on the Absence of Elite Resistance in Muscovy
  • Richard Hellie (bio)

This essay considers, in general terms, a vexing hypothetical question: why did the Muscovite elite (the ranks of syn boiarskii through boiarin) not rise up to limit in some fashion the authority of the autocratic tsar? The question presupposes an ancient and commonsensical theory of political behavior, namely, that oppressed people (and particularly notables), if they "understand" their downtrodden situation, will often rebel against the oppressive power. This theory is generally supported by late medieval and early modern European constitutional history, which may be seen as a struggle (largely waged by the powerful) against intrusive and oppressive monarchy. The case of the Muscovite elite is interesting because it does not follow the theory of resistance to oppression or the European historical pattern that unfolded in accordance with it. Rather, Muscovite constitutional history seems to represent a political paradox. By all appearances, the Muscovite elite was, comparatively speaking, quite downtrodden by the crown: its members referred to themselves as "slaves," submitted to "merciless" floggings with the knout, were subject to expropriation of property, and so on. As might be expected, the high-born and powerful occasionally expressed their comprehension of this peculiar status. Yet (and herein lies the paradox), the Muscovite elite did not seriously attempt to limit either Riurikid (prior to 1598) or Romanov (after 1613) autocratic power.

There are a number of ways to resolve the paradox of the downtrodden though passive Muscovite elite. First, several scholars have argued that the elite was not really oppressed, but only pretended to be so in front of foreign visitors.1 Not understanding that the elite's fawning and ritual abasement was a kind of political show, visiting Europeans described (erroneously, according to this theory) the tsar as a "despot" and his men as "slaves." Second, it is possible to imagine that Muscovite notables were so isolated from European-style constitutional [End Page 5] theory that they did not know they were downtrodden or they somehow believed that the "servile" (by our lights) order of political affairs was just.2 After all, the Muscovites did not receive (nor could they likely have understood) the Classical texts valorizing "liberty," so they may have felt that what we would call "servitude" was a proper form of rule. Finally, it may be the case that there was widespread elite rebellion in Muscovy, but we just have not paid sufficient attention to it.3 As every Muscovite historian knows, the sources are incomplete and it is dangerous to jump to global conclusions about the absence of this or that.

The following essay will examine these issues to determine whether the elite was oppressed, whether its members were conscious of their status, whether they in fact rebelled against intrusive autocratic authority, and, if not, why they were so quiescent. I will conclude that the elite was oppressed, understood this at least occasionally, and that Muscovite notables only rebelled when there was no legitimate Riurikid or Romanov monarch. I will suggest that the likely reasons the upper orders did not rise up to limit autocracy were: the elite's understanding of monarchical authority; its social and economic dependence on the state; its lack of social and political cohesion; the absence of "traditional" institutional restraints on royal power; and, finally, positive governmental measures aimed at squelching opposition.

Was the Muscovite Elite Oppressed?

There seems to be little doubt that, in comparison to European notables, the elite of Muscovy was seriously abased. Evidence of this fact is available from both Muscovite and European sources. As to the former, we know from numerous Muscovite documents and episodes that the high born called themselves "slaves" and, to a considerable degree, were treated as such, or at the very least in a way that contrasts sharply with contemporary notions of "nobility." For example, notables could be dispatched on service assignments at will, they could not travel abroad, their property could be confiscated without any pretense of "due process," and, perhaps most convincing of all, they could be flogged or put to death by their ruler.4 The same was basically true of all Muscovite subjects, from the [End Page 6] highest...


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