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  • A Retired Brigadier Caught between Feelings and Social HierarchyThe Concept of Friendship in a Late 18th-Century Epistolary Exchange
  • Maya Lavrinovich (bio)

Specialized treatises on friendship gained wide currency in the 18th century, prescribing what constituted friendship and how it should operate. Practical guides such as letter-writing manuals (pis´movniki) supported friendship, among other relationships, between people of different social strata.1 Letters became a way to convince people of the genuineness of friendship and to make them aware of reciprocal feelings, as well as an important means of improving one's social position.2 In addition, correspondence became a self-disciplining practice among Freemasons in the 18th century.3 In this context, Kenneth Loiselle examines the letters exchanged by members of the Masonic lodge Grand Orient in the 1730s and 1740s. He suggests that the personal [End Page 293] bond between Freemasons began as a formal, ritualized friendship contracted through initiation. The subsequent exchange of letters and in-person visits could transform these ritualized friendships into "unritualized" ones, even as the declarations of friendship and mutual oaths in their letters bore traces of the initial formality.4

Rarely does the issue of interpersonal relationships among members of the ruling class in 18th-century Russia occupy such an important place as it does in the correspondence that I discovered between one of the most influential dignitaries of the Russian Empire, Aleksandr Romanovich Vorontsov (1741–1805), and the retired brigadier Aleksei Stepanovich D´iakonov (1734–89), whose name is unfamiliar even to historians. At a minimum, we can say that Vorontsov's 33 letters and the 16 from D´iakonov were written between 1783 and 1789.5

Examining this correspondence raises the question of how relationships between members of the political elite and those lower on the social ladder were constructed. What brought together high-ranking dignitaries and educated commoners? Why did members of the elite address their correspondents using sentimentalist rhetoric developed by Masonic lodges? In this article, I examine spontaneous social experience, which resisted pressure to adopt the new language. The Vorontsov-D´iakonov correspondence illustrates the tension that arose around friendship in 18thcentury Russia. Vorontsov was quite clear on this point: in his letter of December 1788, he referred to himself and D´iakonov as friends ("Friends can discuss all the developments you mention in two hours"). He regarded D´iakonov's previous letter as friendly, although its central topic was reflections on history and politics; only at the end did D´iakonov add best wishes for the coming year.6 But if Vorontsov often used the word "friendship" and its derivatives (47 words with the root drug*/druzh*), D´iakonov seldom did. An excerpt from Vorontsov's letter of 1785, made by D´iakonov in 1788, proves that he was not sure what friendship meant. Vorontsov wrote: "we will discuss everything when we meet in person; for now, it is enough to say that in considering our friendship to be mutual you are not mistaken; for on my part, it really is so and always will be."7 A letter [End Page 294] from D´iakonov, written not long after this one from Vorontsov, echoes the reflection on "our friendship." Thanking Vorontsov for a letter that was replete with "all possible signs of good disposition and favors," D´iakonov referred to the letter by Vorontsov from 1785 quoted above: "and as you yourself deign to call it—your friendship." It was important to D´iakonov that Vorontsov presented their relationship as friendship, but he did not wholly accept the idea himself. That is why he immediately switched the discussion from friendship to patronage: "I am so happy to acquire such a rare benefactor who gives me all possible solace through his genuine open-heartedness, praising my humble abilities above their real value."8 In fact, the correspondence between Vorontsov and D´iakonov emerged and evolved within the usual patron-client relationship.

The patronage system penetrated all social and political structures of early modern European societies, including Russia, based on specific social contexts and operating in a specific language (vocabulary and style).9 In 18thcentury Russia, where the ancien régime remained in force, patronage as...


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