- Russia’s Administrative Agony 400 Years Ago
There is no other epoch in Russian history matching the consummate disorder and unraveling of statehood of the Time of Troubles (Smuta), 1598–1613, with its seemingly endless dismantlement of dynastic and political legitimacy, government, military effectiveness, social cohesiveness, territorial integrity, and of national control over the capital itself. Though they elicit parallels with the Smuta, the Russian Civil War (1918–21) never saw its capital cities fall under foreign control, and the tumultuous 1990s still had a ways to go to mirror the Russian state’s calamity four centuries earlier. Imperial Russia’s numerous 18th- and early 19th-century coup attempts were tame by comparison; even the horrific Pugachev rebellion (1773–75) was short and geographically confined. The Smuta’s trauma fashioned a post-1613 restorationist saga, deeply imbued with social conservatism, to endure throughout the Romanov dynastic era, and refortified a social order, despite its many imperial alterations, to survive deep into the 19th century.1 [End Page 865]
The dimensions of the Smuta’s calamity intrigue historians of Russia of all periods, for this episode indelibly affected Russian historical memory, reminding officials and subjects alike of a certain fragility of the power held in the capital. And fragility there was in the decades running up to the late 1590s, when the Rurikovich dynasty became extinct: the stresses of the ultimately unsuccessful Livonian War (1558–83), the horrors of Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina (1565–72), and the gradual subjugation of a big percentage of the population to forced labor of various forms. All this carried with it potentially high risks of social explosion for any regime.
Judging by the historically quite low ratios of administrators to the general populace—significantly lower than in European countries—it is, perhaps, remarkable that the Russian government was able to survive at all into the 19th century. Staffing the capital, major cities and towns, and the provinces was always a barrier for early modern Russian civil administration. There were insufficient numbers of trained officials available, even taking into account a gradual rise in the administrator-to-population ratio between the early 17th century and 1800. Although we have a dearth of quantitative information for the lesser central and provincial administrative officials of 16th-century Russia, there can be no doubt—given the immaturity of the chancellery system into the late 1590s—that 16th-century staffing ratios would have been even lower than in the 17th century. Not surprisingly, the 400th anniversary of the Time of Troubles witnessed a swelling of Russian-language scholarship on its causes, events, institutions, dramatis personae, and outcomes. From the 1990s to the present, academic Russian historians have published a plethora of articles, books, and document collections on the general time period of the Smuta, with many of them touching on the civil administration.2 D. V. Liseitsev and N. V. Rybalko capture our attention for their recent, lengthy monographs on Time of Troubles’ central administration. All specialists in Russian history can study these two works profitably.
The broad dimensions of Muscovite Russia’s Time of Troubles are generally well known, but until recently this statement is less true of the numerous blows delivered to the central and provincial administration—the one institution, along with the Russian Orthodox Church, keeping the country stitched together. Liseitsev’s and Rybalko’s studies provide answers [End Page 866] to scholarly questions stemming from Muscovy’s administrative sufferings and, more broadly speaking, show why the country did not disintegrate. Accordingly, their findings are pertinent to historians of any period of Russian history striving to fathom the tenacity of governmental administration in Russia.
An inherent dilemma confronting the historian of the chancellery system is the relative absence—in contrast to Muscovite serfdom or 17th-century religious issues—of contentious...