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Decentralization and Self-Government in Russia, 1830-1870
By S. Frederick Starr
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1972 Princeton University Press
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The Undergoverned Provinces, 1830-1855
There is nothing more strange than the entirety of the internal administration of any province of Russia.
Sergei Uvarov, 1827
In the last century the province of Kherson on the Black Sea coast was a prosperous region noted for its mild climate and its horses. Its capital, the town of Kherson, was a sleepy community dominated by the cathedral, the tomb of Catherine II's favorite, Potemkin, and the province's administration buildings. The latter, ample stone structures, housed the headquarters of all the region's public agencies, the treasury, and the board of taxes. For two generations before 1861 these same buildings had been the scene of a systematic embezzlement of public funds by civil servants. During 1860, for example, 760 rubles vanished from the accounts of the poor relief agency. In the same year another agency succeeded in spending 150,000 rubles for a bridge in the Odessa district without so much as the foundations to show for it.
No public institution in the province was immune from corruption. Like all provinces, Kherson had a small hospital under the control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in St. Petersburg, 625 miles to the north. The hospital was a modest institution and rarely housed more than four or five patients at a time. As was the custom, the doctor treated horses and cows during the frequent periods of idleness his official duties allowed him. In 1860 officials in the Kherson office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs quietly paid local merchants 825 rubles, or the annual salary of three clerks, for soap with which to wash the hospital's linen; secure in the knowledge that the expenditure had gone unnoticed, they allocated 104 more rubles for the same purpose in January 1861, and ten to twenty rubles more in each of the following months.
If we are to believe contemporary accounts, the situation in Kherson was exceptional only in that the evil-doers were finally brought to justice. Otherwise, similar stories could be told of most provinces in the empire. So widespread was this corruption that Nikolai Gogol could exploit it as a fact of common knowledge in his grotesque but disturbingly realistic stories and plays. "Of course I take bribes," declared the district judge in The Inspector General (1836) 'Tiut there are bribes and bribes." The mayor in the same play accepted this distinction and philosophized that "There is no man who has no sins in his past. This is the way things were arranged by God himself." Such lines were calculated to amuse or appall, but certainly not to shock the audience with unexpected revelations. Poorly managed institutions and the consequent bribery and peculation had left their mark on the public.
The fact of large-scale mismanagement and corruption in the provinces is too well documented to be doubted. Its importance for the succeeding period, however, has been questioned. The most recent Soviet specialist on the subject acknowledges the existence of chaos in the provinces but minimizes its impact on the state and society as a whole. In his view, the reforms in provincial government introduced in the sixties are to be explained primarily in terms of the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. This hypothesis inclines him to consider only briefly the concrete problems of regional administration in Russia before passing on to the more dramatic political conflicts in Petersburg at the time of the abolition of serfdom.
Such a perspective distorts the motives of many of the reformers and drastically oversimplifies the dynamics of change in mid-nineteenth century Russia. Unfortunately, it is reinforced by much of the historical writing on the decades before 1861. The primary thrust of research on the reign of Nicholas I has been on the state apparatus in Petersburg and its leading functionaries. The closest attention that the provinces have been afforded has resulted from the populist interests of a variety of writers rather than from a balanced view on the role of the provinces in the state and society of Russia. Accordingly, the only institutions studied are those of the rural peasantry, and the term "society" is understood in its ethnographic rather than its political sense. For opposite reasons, both the "statist" and the "populist" views see the Russian provinces primarily as the stage on which the Russian Volk waged its age-old battle against serfdom.
In fact, historical writings on the period have considerably underestimated the importance of the provinces to Russian life. The themes of contemporary literature present a different picture. Gogol's Dead Souls (1842), Aksakov's A Family Chronicle (1856), and all but one of the novels of Turgenev are set squarely in the provinces at the estates of the middle and lower gentry. Although critics were increasingly impressed by the young Dostoevski's use of urban themes, scores of readers relished the mood of corruption and motley confusion presented by the brilliant vice-governor of Riazan and Tver, Mikhail Saltykov, in his popular Provincial Sketches.
The preponderance of provincial themes in the literature suggests that the hegemony of the two capitals in Russian life was far from complete, and the population statistics of the middle years of the century indicate that in this respect literature accurately reflects reality. Though extremely crude and approximate, the census data of the years preceding 1861 indicate the extent to which Russia retained its nonurban character. In the 1840s, majestic Petersburg, Catherine II's "Northern Palmyra," was less than half the size of Paris. As late as the 1850s this center of Russian political life did not have numbered streets, and buildings were identified merely by the names of their owner. Despite Peter I's hopes, so much of the city was built of wood that when Otto von Bismarck arrived in Petersburg in 1859 he was confronted with a ban on cigar smoking in the streets. In 1849 Moscow still had only 349,000 inhabitants and open country began within view of the Kremlin walls. At the end of the Crimean War the combined populations of Petersburg and Moscow did not make up even two percent of the seventy million people of European Russia. Both cities were expanding steadily, but their greatest growth did not come until the 1870s. Two years after the emancipation of the serfs a journalist could still ask seriously, "Are there cities in Russia?"
In a country in which four of every five people were peasants, the raw statistics on population distribution must be further refined to be of significance to political and administrative history. After all, except that they represented a permanent threat of spontaneous revolt, the serfs were without political weight in the state. Even if they had been invited to take an interest in the life of the society of which they were a part, which they decisively had not been, their low literacy rate would have barred them from participation in all but the most rudimentary practical matters. Nor was political participation the prerogative of all nonserfs. Due to impediments imposed by the government and the poverty of most members of the so-called urban classes, the political significance of this group was minimal. Similarly, the Orthodox clergy was excluded from taking a political role in local society. And the few statesmen who advocated wider civic involvement for the clergy had to apologize for their general ignorance and backwardness.
Thus, the Russian political community was confined to that amorphous group of landlords, small farmers, military officers, and upper civil servants known grandiosely as the gentry. In the late 1850s members of this service class numbered 886,000, or about one and one-half percent of the population. In spite of their small numbers, the Russian gentry held a near monopoly of political skill and power in the tsar's empire. Yet this statement cannot be applied to the gentry as a whole. Thousands of members of this class were, from the standpoint of culture and education, virtually indistinguishable from the peasantry, even to the point of wearing peasant beards.
Where did members of this exclusive political class live? A constant accusation of western visitors was that they circulated idly about the court in Petersburg, to the neglect of their estates. Undoubtedly, scores of noble courtiers were much in evidence at the Winter Palace and at the royal estate of Tsarskoe Selo. But the overwhelming majority of the gentry lived not in the two capitals but in the provinces. In 1831 the gentry domiciled in Petersburg numbered 42,900; in the years 1834 to 1840 the gentry population of Moscow stood at 15,700. During the years 1830 to 1835 the total population of Russia stood at about 48 million, and the number of gentry at approximately 720,000. Accordingly, only about 8 percent, or one out of twelve gentry in the middle of Nicholas' reign, were living under the direct supervision of the central authorities. Even if the figure of 92 percent of the class Hving in the provinces is adjusted by the subtraction of the large number of those who were only technically gentry but were actually undistinguishable from peasants, we still have a preponderance of the politically relevant members of Russian society living under the wing of provincial rather than central institutions.
Under such circumstances, the day-to-day functioning of the organs of provincial government assumed an importance that it would not have had in a more highly urbanized and geographically concentrated society. The provincial resident's most frequent contact with governmental authority would have been through the local agencies of the ministries rather than with the central authorities themselves. For him, the Russian state was embodied most immediately in its provincial administrative apparatus. Policies could be announced with pious resolution at the parade grounds in Petersburg, but they became concrete facts in the lives of most Russian subjects only when applied at the provincial level.
The ability of provincial administrations to execute policy thus became the prime determinate of the success of domestic rule in Russia. During the reign of Nicholas I many changes affected the performance of local administrations. The cumulative impact of these changes was to be so pernicious as to call forth a broad-based reform movement after 1855.
THE GROWTH OF BUREAUCRACY
No characteristic of the administrative apparatus of Nicholas I stamped its mark more firmly on the minds of contemporaries than the seemingly boundless growth of the civil service. The weird image of Gogol's hunched scribe Akakii Akakevich, rising posthumously in the Petersburg sky to haunt the administrator under whom he worked, was transformed into a symbol of the era. Dmitrii Tolstoi, later Minister of Education, observed the shadow cast over government by the bulging chancelleries and declared bureaucrats to be "no less strong and much more dangerous than the Poles." The French bon vivant, the Marquis de Custine, visiting Petersburg in 1839, considered the "machines inconvenienced with souls" to have become the very essence of the Russia of Nicholas I.
The overriding importance which contemporaries assigned to the mushrooming of bureaucracy readily became a historian's shibboleth, admitting of no challenge and requiring no proof. I. Kataev, in a book devoted to the prereform bureaucracy, did not deem it necessary to investigate the actual number of civil servants during the reign of Nicholas. This has recently been done in a masterly fashion by Professor Pintner, but his study focuses primarily on the composition of the central bureaucracy.
Part of the cause of this lacuna in research was pointed out by the eminent scholar, Vasilii Kliuchevskii. Although thoroughly familiar with the available sources, he had to acknowledge that "Unfortunately, we do not have precise statistical evidence with which to measure the growth of the bureaucracy." During much of Nicholas' reign detailed civil service lists were kept, but only a partial set of these is preserved in Soviet archives. Pintner has shown the excellent use to which these can be put, but serious problems are nonetheless present. First, they are incomplete even for single agencies, and the principle of selection is erratic to the extreme. Second, the numerous petty clerks at the lowest two ranks are not included. Third, these records are so incomplete for the early part of Nicholas' reign that it is difficult to make valid growth calculations. And finally, there must be serious question of the accuracy of all records kept by officials whose thoroughness and even honesty was generally doubted by contemporaries.
A second class of data is available in the official Adres-Kalendar, published annually by the Academy of Sciences, and in other more reliable lists issued by individual ministries. The Ministry of Internal Affairs' List of Chinovniks for 1829 indicates that the overall staffing of top provincial offices was nearly uniform in all of the fifty provinces of European Russia, regardless of their area or population. In 1829 the principal local officials were the civil governors who kept staffs of only two or three assistants. Equally modest were the advisory staffs to the Provincial Directorates (gubernskie pravleniia) which varied between five and six members. Thus, the top provincial officers for the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the late 1820s never numbered more than nine.
A startling growth occurred in the following decades. The government of Kostroma province, which had managed in 1829 with an advisory staff of 7, in 1848 required 54 officials to do essentially the same work; the governor's chancellors and the Directorate in Viatka grew from 8 in 1829 to 38 by 1863, while those of Voronezh expanded from 9 to 54 between 1829 and 1862. As a control, it should be noted that the rate of population growth in the same provinces for the period from 1830 to about 1860 was in the area of 10 to 50 percent. Top provincial offices for this one ministry, then, increased in number fourfold and even eightfold in an approximately thirty-year period, during which time the population did not expand by more than half. In some provinces the growth was registered within a few hectic years. In Vladimir, for example, the governor's staff of aides was enlarged from 14 to 21 in the two years between 1849 and 1851, and the general force of ranked civil servants in the Provincial Directorate from 85 to 114. It should be noted, moreover, that these figures do not include the army of clerks and scribes who had to copy, mail, and file the reports drawn up by the officials.
A similar growth took place in staffs at the district level. In 1829 few districts in the country required more than six officials to handle the affairs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Adding an equal number of representatives from the ministries of Finances and Justice — whose staffs, however, were often smaller — a total of approximately eighteen officers is reached. By 1853 three sample districts of the steppe province of Orel had 41 to 42 people working in the same offices. A typical Chernigov district in 1857 had 44 ranked civil servants of all ministries, and another in Kursk required 43. A single district in Vladimir province employed a 48-man staff to conduct its affairs in 1851. The unusually low figures of 20 and 26 officials in two Viatka districts were not repeated outside of the far north and the southeastern border where the steppe merges with desert. Thus, the local representatives of the three principal ministries in the approximately five hundred districts of the country more than doubled in number within the two decades after 1829. Taking the entire period of Nicholas' reign it appears that there was a two to eightfold growth of the total staff of provincial and district governments with the greatest expansion occurring in the provincial offices.
To accommodate this mushrooming, a corresponding expansion took place within the government's central organs in Petersburg. Again, the irregularity of the statistics for the early part of the period renders difficult any precise appreciation of the magnitude of change. But to take as an example a single division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Economic Department, the number of its staff members with titles listed in the Table of Ranks expanded from 63 to 115 in the decade 1839-1848. Each of these officials would have required in turn more secretaries and helpers. A similar explosion took place within the Ministry of Finances. The new Ministry of State Domains grew rapidly after its foundation in 1837-1838, and the Chief Communications Administration, a quasi-ministry, enlarged its staff repeatedly as functions were transferred to it from other ministries between 1832 and 1847.
It is not enough, however, to point out this startling proliferation of bureaucracy without taking notice of its causes and consequences. Clearly, the impression created by a large staff would be different if it labored to broaden the public services of a province than if it was serving ends largely unrelated to the needs of the region. Official data on government expenditures indicate that the provincial public received few direct benefits from the expanded bureaucracy.
Excerpted from Decentralization and Self-Government in Russia, 1830-1870 by S. Frederick Starr. Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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