Work on social estate (soslovie)

For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)

In this monograph, based on extensive archival research, I make a case for reevaluating the concept of social estate, or soslovie, in imperial Russian history. I argue that a tendency to focus on soslovie in the context of larger debates about their relation to idealized Western estates has obscured the ways that individual subjects of the Russian empire experienced soslovie. For most imperial subjects, soslovie had a local meaning as much as, and often more than, a larger, general meaning. Individuals were not simply peasants, townspeople, or merchants, but peasants of a particular village, and townspeople or merchants of a particular town. Those local associations had a significant role to play both in the overarching structures of mobility—for local societies had to give permission both for their members to leave and for others to join—and in the regulation of duties and provision of services. They were also usually associated with membership in a specific geographically defined society in a particular town or village. Although laws increasingly insisted that every subject of the empire possess a soslovie “for the common good and their own well-being,” they also allowed individuals to change their soslovie by following a particular bureaucratic procedure. The process of changing soslovie brought together three sets of actors: the individuals who wished to change their opportunities or duties, or who at times had change forced upon them; local societies, which wished to control who belonged to them; and the central, imperial state, which wished above all to ensure that every one of its subjects had a place, and therefore a status.

The book begins with an examination of four different ways in which soslovie identity had meaning to individuals, societies, and the state: it affected the obligations, such as taxes and military service, that individuals owed the state and their societies, and also the obligations that societies and the state owed them; it affected the economic, marital, and educational opportunities available to individuals; it implied belonging in a particular society, a particular place, or a particular way of life; and it implied hierarchy, with some statuses seen as clearly higher or lower than others. I then move to an overview of how the legislation and administration of soslovie evolved from the early eighteenth century through to the early twentieth century. In the eighteenth century, laws increasingly emphasized that all subjects of the Empire ought to possess a soslovie identity, but at the same time, they sought to allow a certain freedom of movement in order to allow for economic development. In part because of the conflict between these two goals, the local authorities that governed individual changes of soslovie were able to use the laws to serve their own interests, only sometimes coming into conflict with the central administration that sought greater order. Similar conflicts between local, individual, and state interests continued during the nineteenth century. Early in the nineteenth century, the idea that local societies had the right to accept or refuse new members came into conflict with the central administration’s goal that everyone have a formal soslovie, which meant also a place within a specific society. Later, as societies became responsible for the well-being of their members, they continued to wish to exert control over that membership as the central state began to think of them in terms of social control alone. The book ends with an examination of the ways that soslovie had an impact on individual lives, using memoirs and also archival sources to tease out the interrelationship between the idea of soslovie identity and real life.