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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.4 (2003) 783-815

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Measure of All the Russias:
Metrology and Governance in the Russian Empire

Michael D. Gordin


"It is hard in a few words to conceive the sorry state in which weights and measures are found in Russia," grumbled Learned Storekeeper V. S. Glukhovof the Depot of Exemplary Weights and Measures in St. Petersburg in 1889. 1 Charged with maintaining aging samples of standard units of length, weight, and volume, Glukhov felt understaffed, underequipped, and underappreciated. Just twenty years later, John Hill Jurigs, retired from the Indian Civil Service, wrote from England with a quite different message, alternately charged with optimism and imperialism, to Nikolai G. Egorov, the director of the Chief Bureau of Weights and Measures (Glavnaia palata mer i vesov—GPMV): "There seems to be a strong reason for believing that railways can conveniently act as pioneers of the metric system by using metric weights before that system has come into general use among the people. I am thus strengthened in the [End Page 783] hope that before long we may see the Kilogram carried by Russian railways to the Pacific ocean and the gates of India." 2 In the last years before World War I, metrology—the science of weights and measures—and its connection to governance had become so regularized in Russia that there was hope that the emerging universal standard, the metric system, would take root across the expanse of Asia.

The transition to which Jurigs pointed was largely the product of a change in management from Glukhov to Egorov's predecessor, the distinguished chemist Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907), best known for his 1869 formulation of the periodic table of chemical elements. The development of Russian weights and measures from an era of rampant fraud and lack of coordination to a metrological regime deemed to be one of the most advanced in the world was a haphazard development that took almost 200 years to accomplish, and it went through most of the fluctuations in governance and politics experienced by the Russian empire more broadly. Mendeleev, more than any other individual, appropriated elements of that vast tradition and transformed it into a coherent vision of a metrological Russia. This article explores the history of the standardization of weights and measures in imperial Russia, documenting how the gradual transformations in metrology displayed in miniature more general trends in the structure (or lack thereof) of Russian governance, and how the increasing definition of standardization in terms of the metric system, especially in the last two decades of tsarism, represented an episode in the integration of Russia into the organization of European powers.

At first glance, perhaps nothing seems more dry and impervious to historical analysis than a system of weights and measures. Yet every system of weights and measures requires an elaborate infrastructure built on convention, trust, and enforcement to ensure that the specified measures actually hold. In the case of Russia, the traditional measures (see Table 1) correlated only loosely with the other two modern systems of measurement (the British and the metric), and the conversion values fluctuated widely in different periods. Even the relations within the Russian system of measures varied according to local, and eventually imperial, practices. Once a system is defined, then the authorities, whoever they may be, must ensure that those measures are employed in trade and administration, and that the exemplars of those weights ("standards") do not deteriorate with time or use. All this makes for a continuous regime of governance that blends legal, traditional, punitive, commercial, technological, and scientific considerations in a manner characteristic of a particular place and time. The story of Russia merits a separate accounting for several reasons: [End Page 784] its idiosyncratic system of measures, its role in the development of the metric system, and the peculiarities of the Russian state in enforcing uniformity in the imperial period.

There has recently been increasing interest, especially among historians of science and technology, in the role metrology has played in...


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