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  • Rulers and Ruled, 1700–1917
  • Martina Winkler (bio)

The assignment to write a historiographical article on “Rulers and Ruled” in Russia led me to reflect on a vital aspect of Russian history, arguably one of the most significant paradigms of our view on the Russian past. The lessons of the traditional state school and the judgmental concept of a despotic autocracy have to a large extent been left behind.1 Yet, while it appears to be pretty clear what lies behind us, it is much less clear where we are headed. This is, to be sure, not a bad thing, although it can be vexing. Fifteen years ago, the title suggested by the editors for this essay might have been “State and Society,” or “Autocracy and the People,” or perhaps even “Autocracy versus Society.” Such a title would have implied that the Russian past was genuinely problematic and pointed to the same old question: “What went wrong with Russia?” By contrast, “Rulers and Ruled” opens up a wide range of intriguing new questions. Does this conceptual pair imply a dichotomy or rather an integrated entity; does it suggest tension or harmony, separateness or interaction? Who exactly are rulers, and who belongs among the ruled? What existing paradigms in the field can help us grasp this pair?

The answers to these questions depend strongly on the object of our focus. In political terms, historians often translate the words “rulers and ruled” into “emperor and elite.” In this binary opposition between emperor and elite, the latter often appear to play the progressive role, struggling for more individual rights and less autocratic arbitrariness. For instance, noble interest in property rights in the 18th and 19th centuries is generally understood in a liberal context.2 Yet the seemingly progressive nobility quickly adopts the role of the [End Page 789] oppressor when the historian’s perspective shifts. If we examine the relationship between nobles and the enserfed peasantry, the nobility’s enhanced property rights stand for increased administrative and personal power over humans. This essay is not going to deal with the history of serfdom or serf owners. But the ambiguous position of the Russian nobility as subjects and masters demonstrates the fluidity of power-based relationships. “Rulers and ruled” is a relative concept. Arguably, this is one of its advantages: it promises a more flexible approach than the traditional dualism of “autocracy and society.”

Historians’ perspectives on “rulers and ruled” have also shifted due to the complexity of imperial relationships. Although I do not focus on the results of research in any detail here, it has been widely acknowledged that all power relationships in Russia were necessarily influenced, sometimes reinforced or at times transformed, by the dynamics of ethnic and cultural hierarchies.3

Finally, chronology is of the essence. Even if the period covered by this article can be categorized simply and consistently as “imperial Russia,” scholars divide it up among themselves quite strictly. The 18th century, only rarely spilling over into the reign of Alexander I, provides one era of specialization, while the early 19th century is usually distinguished from the post-1861, “late imperial,” period. I believe that the questions mentioned above will be answered differently, depending on the time frame. The relationship of “rulers and ruled” appears differently to historians of the 18th century than to those of the late imperial era. For this reason, I structure this article according to the generally accepted periodization and begin with the 18th century.

The 18th Century: The Challenges of Enlightenment

The 18th century is generally considered to be a time when enlightened discourses dominated a narrow intellectual elite. From Peter I to Catherine II, rulership was conceptualized in the frame of the modern state and enlightenment, and the administration endeavored to include all subjects [End Page 790] into the project of a “well-ordered police state.”4 This universal inclusion can be considered progressive or coercive—or a mixture of both—but it suggests a concept of integration rather than fragmentation. In addition, such politics could not work in a simple top-down pattern.

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Adrien Migneret, Peter the Great on Lake Ladoga, 1827 Engraving after a...