Russia's Western Borderlands, 1710-1870

Russia's Western Borderlands, 1710-1870

by Edward C. Thaden


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ISBN-13: 9780691611976
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #33
Pages: 292
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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Russia's Western Borderlands, 1710-1870

By Edward C. Thaden


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05420-9



Estland and Livland, which had been depopulated and devastated by the famine of 1695-1697 and the Great Northern War, would seem to have had little more than 200,000 inhabitants at the time of their conquest by Peter the Great. They occupied an area about the size of West Virginia, or six percent of the land area (that is, approximately 60,000 out of one million square kilometers) of the western borderlands acquired by Russia between 1710 and 1815. These two small provinces had close contacts with Germany and Scandinavia, and their local elites possessed the sort of military and administrative experience and skills that Peter I considered important for his own work of internal reform in Russia. Estland and Livland, then, represented for Peter a means of bringing Russia closer to the West, especially if their German townsmen and nobles could be convinced that it was in their interests to serve Russia.

The Baltic Germans' political and legal institutions and forms of social organization had evolved gradually since the Middle Ages. The municipal institutions of Reval (Tallinn) and Riga had their origins in the thirteenth century, while the first general diets of the vassals (that is, the future Baltic nobles) of the Teutonic Order and the bishops of the Livonian Confederation were held in the fourteenth century. The four separate Ritterschaften and the Diets (Landtage) of Estland, Livland, Osel, and Kurland appeared in the sixteenth century with the triumph of Lutheranism in the Baltic provinces and the partition of the former Livonian Confederation between Sweden, Poland, and Denmark. Under Sweden in the seventeenth century, the Diets in Estland and Livland and on Osel (or Saaremaa, an island belonging to Livland guberniia) became exclusively assemblies of the landowning nobility (except for the two delegates from Riga in the Livland Diet) as well as the highest administrative organ outside the cities and towns. In Estland the executive branch of the provincial administration was the Chancery of the Nobility (Ritterschaftskanzlei), and in Livland the Council of the Diet (Landratskollegium) In Livland, in particular, peasant, judicial, administrative, and police institutions were integrated into a legal-administrative system that extended downwards from the Landratskollegium through district high church wardens (Oberkirchenvorsteher) to the local church, police, and court institutions of the parish and peasant community. This comprehensive police, court, and church network put the nobility in a good position to control the activities of Latvian and Estonian peasants and to oblige them to conform to patterns of economic, social, and political organization imposed on them from above.

During the last several decades of Swedish rule in Estland and Livland, an attempt was made to introduce Swedish laws, institutions, and social practices. This new policy seriously threatened the existing political and social order in these two provinces. Sweden was a well-governed state in which the peasants were free men with the right to participate in local self-government and to be represented in the riksdag. Not approving the total subordination of Latvian and Estonian serfs to the arbitrary power of German landowners, Swedish officials undertook to improve the legal position of these serfs, regulate their economic relations with the landowners, promote literacy among them, and involve them in rural self-government, though leaving the ultimate control of parish and other local institutions in the hands of the German nobles. During the 1680s and 1690s King Charles XI extended to Estland and Livland Swedish legislation requiring the reversion to the Crown of lands to which nobles could not prove legal ownership. This so-called reduktion took about one-third of the land from the nobles in Estland and five-sixths in Livland. The reduktion was resisted particularly energetically in Livland. In retaliation, the Swedish absolutist state undermined the foundations upon which the Livland Landesstaat rested by abolishing its principal administrative organ, the Council of the Diet, and the post of marshal of the nobility.

On the whole, the privileged German strata of the population remained loyal to Sweden until Russia completed her conquest of Livland and Estland in 1710. In many ways, the two provinces had benefited from Swedish rule. The Swedes had organized local government, founded secondary schools and the first Dorpat University, protected and reformed the Lutheran Church, and improved the administration of justice in town and countryside. The Baltic towns had no particular quarrel with the Swedish king, and the conflict between nobles and king during the 1680s and 1690s was not as serious in Estland as in Livland. Even in Livland, Swedish absolutism became more accommodating toward the local nobility after the death of Charles XI in 1697 and the beginning of the Great Northern War in 1700.

Between 1710 and 1712 Estland and Livland rights and privileges were confirmed in capitulation agreements and letters of privilege issued to the corporations of the nobility and the upper strata of the German population in the towns. Russia guaranteed the rights of the Lutheran Church, returned to the landowners the land that had reverted to the Swedish Crown in the 1680s and 1690s, restored the Landratskollegium and the post of marshal of the nobility in Livland, confirmed German as the language of the courts and administration, and left local government and police and the administration of the courts and the church in the hands of town councils or of the Diets, councils of the nobility, and other autonomous bodies controlled by the Ritterschaften. Peter I, however, ignored German protests concerning the inclusion in these agreements of a conventional clausula majestatis and limited the granted rights and privileges to "the present government and times." The two provinces did not receive the higher court they had requested but were obliged to live with the subordination of their local courts to the higher authority of the Russian Justice College and Senate. Although the rights of the Lutheran Church were formally recognized by Russia, it lost the former position it had enjoyed in Swedish times of being the only officially sanctioned and tolerated church in Estland and Livland, for Article 10 of the Treaty of Nystad (1721) provided that Orthodox believers also had the right to practice their faith in the two provinces. Furthermore, on more than one occasion Peter acted arbitrarily and in disregard of local rights and privileges in his dealings with Estland and Livland between 1710 and 1725.

Despite this occasional assertion of Russian sovereign rights in Estland and Livland, in the first half of the eighteenth century there was no question about the special position of these two provinces within the Russian Empire. It is interesting that Peter I granted Livland and Estland their privileged status at about the same time he began the dismantling of Ukrainian autonomy. Why did he follow such divergent policies in the Ukraine and the Baltic provinces? The mere fact of Mazepa's betrayal of Russia in 1708 is only part of the answer, which must also be sought in connection with Peter's work of internal reform.

The Petrine military, political, and social reforms profoundly affected the relationships of the Left-Bank Ukraine and of Livland and Estland to the rest of the empire. By the end of Peter's reign a large European-style, standing army had come into existence, the foundations of a modern bureaucracy had been laid, and the central state had undertaken to regulate in minute detail the activities of its subjects in the manner of the European Polizeistaat of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Peter secularized and depersonalized the political authority in Russia and minimized the influence of the Or thodox Church on state affairs. Henceforth, the "common good" and "general state interests" were to be promoted according to the precepts of good government and within the framework of institutions that Peter and his successors borrowed chiefly from Sweden and cameralists trained in the universities and bureaucracies of Germanic central Europe.

One reason for the preferential treatment Peter I gave to Livland and Estland was the high opinion he had of their political institutions, which seemed to have much in common with the Swedish and German models he wished to imitate. The laws, church, courts, and local government of Estland and Livland had their origins in the Germanic Middle Ages and Reformation, and in the seventeenth century they were organized and reformed on Swedish lines. In reforming local government in the interior of the empire, not only Peter but also Catherine II found a good deal worth imitating in the existing courts and political institutions of Estland and Livland. The privileged local Germans, to be sure, did their utmost to broadcast the virtues and advantages of a political and legal system that enabled them to control and run the affairs of the Baltic towns and countryside. On occasion, this local monopoly of political power was questioned by Polish, Swedish, and Russian rulers. In the face of such challenges to their rights and privileges, the Baltic German burghers and nobles usually managed to overcome internal differences within their diets and town councils, however, they not only defended the status quo with dogged tenacity but also frequently succeeded in responding realistically and resourcefully to changing conditions and circumstances.

The Left-Bank Ukrainians also had their Cossack and municipal institutions of self-government, which had been confirmed by both Russia and Poland. Repeated interventions of the Polish and Russian governments in local Ukrainian affairs during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries prevented, however, the Ukrainians from developing regional institutions and diets capable of uniting the various elements of local society and dealing effectively with outside threats to the Ukrainians' autonomy and common interests. However much the Ukrainian townsmen and Cossack starshyna were attached to their local institutions, Magdeburg law and the hetmanate had little attraction for an eighteenth-century Russia interested in building a well-planned and relatively sophisticated bureaucracy on the Swedish model. Russian policy toward the Ukraine vacillated, but from the beginning it was clear that frequent disorder and unrest in the Ukraine very much troubled the tsar and his advisers. For them Ukrainian privileges and rights had been graciously bestowed and could be revoked at any time.

Russia's hunger for European expertise and scientific, technological, and professional knowledge was the second reason why the Baltic Germans were more successful than the Ukrainians in holding on to special rights and privileges. Wishing to develop the Russian economy and to build a modern army and rationally organized bureaucracy, Peter I and his successors needed educated and experienced officers, officials, technicians, and specialists familiar with the theory and practice of European government, warfare, technology, and economics. Although a new Russian service nobility identifying itself with Peter I's innovations then came into existence, throughout the eighteenth century there continued to be a chronic shortage of qualified individuals to carry out the Petrine work of reform. The Russian government, therefore, felt obliged to recruit educated and skilled non-Russians for service in the imperial army, navy, bureaucracy, and economy. In the eighteenth century Estland and Livland were the most important single source of such recruits, for here thousands of the local German nobles and burghers had the military, administrative, professional, and technical expertise Russia sought. Almost three-fifths of the Swedish army of Charles XII was commanded by officers from Livland and Estland; in the 1730s about one-fourth of the officers for a much larger Russian army consisted of Estlanders and Livlanders. The nobles from Estland and Livland generally preferred military to civil service, but a considerable number of them, often with higher juridical training from German universities or the first Dorpat University (which functioned intermittently between 1632 and 1710) were willing to avail themselves of opportunities to serve as officials in the interior of the empire. Other Livland and Estland recruits for civil service in Russia came from the so-called literati (Literaten), that is, university-trained Baltic pastors, doctors, jurists of non-noble origin. Together, Baltic German nobles and literati accounted for 355 of 2,867 (or one-eighth) of the high-ranking officials Erik Amburger mentioned in his study of the Russian bureaucracy between 1710 and 1917. More than two-thirds of these 355 high officials came from the four Baltic Ritterschaften. Baltic literati families, on the other hand, providid not only high civil servants for Russia but also physicians, pharmacists, scientists, educators, legal specialists, and Lutheran pastors for small, German-speaking settlements scattered across European Russia.

In the seventeenth century, Ukrainians had also played an important role in transmitting European knowledge and culture to Russia. They then especially contributed to the development of Muscovite higher education and Orthodox theology because of their contacts with Polish civilization and the training many of them had received in Polish Catholic schools and academies and in their own secondary schools and Kievan Academy. In the eighteenth century, however, Russians wanted direct contacts with the secular culture of the West. Ukrainians continued to serve the tsar as religious advisers, scholars, and administrators, but they could not compete with the Baltic Germans as representatives of the Western world that official Russia wished to emulate.

A third reason for the special treatment accorded the Livlanders and Estlanders has already been mentioned in another context: Russia, in order to achieve her foreign-policy objectives in Europe, needed the support of privileged elites in the western borderlands of the empire. The Ukrainian Cossacks did not fit into this picture, for they tended to be unpredictable and to act in a manner that endangered the objectives of Russia's foreign policy. Mazepa's defection in 1708 is but one illustration of this point. His successor, Pylyp Orlyk, continued the struggle against Russia for another generation, intriguing with Russia's enemies and disturbing the sleep of Russian leaders with rumors of an anti-Russian uprising of 60,000 Cossacks in the Ukraine.

German-speaking elites, on the other hand, then helped to further the objectives of Russia's foreign policy. German, more than any other language, was the lingua franca of the Baltic region and Central Europe. German nobles and townsmen dominated a string of provinces beginning with Schleswig-Holstein in the southwest and extending to Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, Prussia, Kurland, Livland, and Estland toward the east and north. Sweden, Russia's principal opponent in the Great Northern War, had possessions in Germany and on the eastern shore of the Baltic and had established her presence in Poland. The war with Sweden brought Russian troops into Poland, Finland, Kurland, Estland, and northern Germany. As a result of the anti-Swedish coalition formed during the war, Russia came to be linked through marriage with the ruling houses of Kurland, Mecklenburg, Braunschweig-Wolfenbiittel, and Holstein, opening for Russia new opportunities to influence what happened in Poland and northern Germany. Only Estland, Livland, Ingria, and a small part of Finland were annexed during Peter's lifetime. Russia had every reason to treat the local privileged estates in this newly annexed area generously and to respect their traditional rights and privileges. It was essential for Russia to maintain and to further develop established Baltic commercial and financial connections with Germany and Western Europe. The satisfaction of the Baltic Germans in Estland and Livland was an assurance to other privileged elites in Kurland, Poland, Finland, Prussia, Mecklenburg, and Holstein that they had nothing to fear from Russia.

A fourth and final reason for the divergent fates of Baltic and Ukrainian autonomy was that the Ukrainians lacked an effective lobby in St. Petersburg. The presence of Baltic and other Germans in high governmental posts facilitated the defense of Baltic autonomy throughout the Imperial period. The delegations of townsmen and nobles, who periodically took up residence in St. Petersburg to lobby for the special interests of the Baltic towns and nobility, were usually led by high-ranking town officials and marshals and counselors of the nobility whose official positions in the Baltic provinces automatically conferred on them high standing in the Russian Table of Ranks (for the counselors and marshals of the nobility, the fourth rank, which was equivalent to a major general in the army or real privy counselor in the civil service), aiding them to deal effectively with rank-conscious Russian officialdom When the connections of their friends in the government failed to manipulate the patronage and personal clientele networks of the Russian capital to the benefit of the Baltic Ritterschaften and towns, bribery often did u Russia's rulers, who were generally well disposed toward the Baltic Germans, customarily confirmed the special rights and privileges of the Baltic towns and Ritterschaften at the beginning of each new reign up to the ascension of Alexander III to the throne in 1881 But even under the last two emperors, when cosmopolitanism and the influence of the German element waned in the Russian capital, representatives of the Ritterschaften and of Baltic towns succeeded in preventing the total destruction of the special position of their provinces within the Russian Empire.


Excerpted from Russia's Western Borderlands, 1710-1870 by Edward C. Thaden. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. v
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Abbreviations. List of Maps, pg. xi
  • Introduction, pg. 3
  • Chapter 1. Estland and Livland: Two Privileged Provinces, 1710-1762, pg. 5
  • Chapter 2. Catherine II and Baltic Rights and Privileges, pg. 18
  • Chapter 3. Eastern Belorussia, Lithuania, and the Right-Bank Ukraine, pg. 32
  • Introduction, pg. 59
  • Chapter 4. The Polish Provinces, pg. 63
  • Chapter 5. The Grand Duchy of Finland, pg. 81
  • Chapter 6. Livland, Estland, and Kurland, pg. 96
  • Introduction, pg. 117
  • Chapter 7. The Western Gubernii, pg. 121
  • Chapter 8. Congress Poland, pg. 144
  • Chapter 9. The Baltic Provinces, pg. 169
  • Chapter 10. Finland, pg. 201
  • Conclusion, pg. 231
  • Glossary of Place and Territorial Names, pg. 243
  • Bibliography, pg. 245
  • Index, pg. 261

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