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Response to Review no. 64

It was with both keen anticipation and some trepidation that I learned that Professor Richard Hellie, a historian for whose work I have the greatest respect, was to review my book. His research, like my own, spans the later Muscovite and the Petrine periods, which gives him a keen sense of the crucial issue of continuity and change. We also share an interest in Russian material culture. (Recently, he has written on the possessions of Prince Vasilii Vasil’evich Golitsyn, on whom I published a short book in 1984). On the other hand, I am not a graduate of the ‘Hellie school’ of economic and social history (many representatives of which now teach in US universities) or an expert in the use of quantitative methods, but come rather from a background in Russian cultural history. Luckily, the fact that Professor Hellie’s general response to my book was so positive makes the task of responding to some of his criticisms a challenging and constructive exercise.

I am gratified that Professor Hellie believes that there is ‘nowhere else that a reader can gain a more thorough appreciation of Peter himself than in this book’. In pointing out my failure to employ a psychoanalytic approach, however, he perhaps unwittingly alighted on one of the major dilemmas which I faced when planning a book on this scale. As I noted in the Preface, I did not set out to write a biography of Peter but a study of his reign (hence the thematic structure, the main elements of which Professor Hellie lists in his review), while remaining well aware that by studying the reign I was inevitably profiling the man. (A number of reviewers have insisted on referring to the book as a ‘biography’, nonetheless). I also made a decision to concentrate on the period of major reforms , i.e. from Peter’s return from the Grand Embassy in 1698 to his death in 1725. In the end, I compromised by slipping in a chapter towards the end of the book on ‘Peter: Man. Mind and Methods’, which focuses on the grown-up tsar. So, yes, young Peter’s psychological background does get rather short shrift. To compensate, I direct readers to my book *Sophia, Regent of Russia. 1657-1704* (Yale, 1990) and I am also currently preparing to write a short biography of Peter, which will be unashamedly chronological and Petrocentric, thereby allowing me to explore some topics omitted from the big book. Whether I venture into what some regard as the pseudo-scence of psychoanalysis remains to be seen.

In raising the important question of the ‘revitalization of the service state’ through the second service class revolution, which he regards as ‘the real significance of the first quarter of the eighteenth century’, Professor Hellie is very firmly on his own territory. It is a tribute to his influence on today’s historians of Russia that his formulation of the concepts of lower, middle and upper service class have become common currency. (My failure specifically to cite his admirable book *Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy* is more an oversight on my part (its focus is on the Muscovite period) than an indication of its absence from UK libraries. I have certainly read and been influenced by it.) As he notes and quotes, there are dozens of statements throughout my book supporting the thesis about the Service State, so many in fact that the reader can hardly miss the point. But, yes, probably I ought to have spelled out that these particular trees make a wood.

In defence of my use of the terms ‘nobility’ and ‘nobles’ (apart from falling back on the fact that nearly all other historians of Russia also use them), I agree that ‘upper service class’ is a usefully precise term when discussing the structure of society and the role of this group in the service state, but it can be unwieldy and distracting for use throughout a long text, when one is referring to this or that individual or group of individuals. It is true also that ‘landowner’ is a problematical term in relation to Russia, where Western-style rights to landed property were not instituted until Catherine II’s reign (and arguably not even then). On the topic of slavery in Russia (limited contract bondage of native-born Russians), I did consult Professor Hellie’s magisterial work on the same, but undoubtedly I could have done with his advice on specific cases. I suspect that I am not the only historian of early modern Russia who finds the terminology of slavery in the sources problematical and may occasionally confuse a slave with a servant or even a serf. The point I stressed in my book is that Peter ended this sort of slavery by making former slaves subject to the poll tax. Arguments over terminology will run and run.

On the Church, I would question whether the creation of the Monastery Chancellery in the Ulozhenie of 1649 did represent the secularization of the church administration. It was undoubtedly a step towards it, but perhaps a matter of one step forwards and two steps back, as long as the Church retained ownership of lands and serfs and much power locally. Peter removed the Church’s economic control over its resources in 1700-1 with the creation of his own Monastery Chancellery, but to some extent restored it in 1721 in anticipation of the creation of the Holy Synod, stopping short of actually secularizing the church lands, which happened only in 1764. As for secularization in the wider sense, I believe that Peter attempted to widen the secular sphere which had been growing, albeit slowly, for a century or more, but he did not secularize Russia or attempt to do so.

I anticipated that Professor Hellie would have plenty to say about my chapter on the economy, for me the hardest of all to write. Aware that I was unlikely to come up with any fresh theories, I attempted to make sense of the scholarly debate at least to my own satisfaction and added some new primary material. I take some consolation in the fact that even economic experts seem unable to agree whether the poll tax (collected for the first time in 1724) represented a greater or a lesser burden than the household tax which it replaced. Yes, there is a stupid error on p. 137, where kopecks should, of course, have been roubles. My reference to the ’70 grivna poll tax’, on the other hand, comes from a contemporary complaint about Peter, in which the protester identified portraits of Peter alongside the goddess Minerva as the ‘icons of Antichrist’ and the 70-grivna poll tax as the seven-headed serpent. It was the protester who got the denomination wrong, but I should, of course, have pointed this out in a footnote. I do, by the way, refer to Peter’s own anti-Semitism (p. 377). I think that Professor Hellie and I broadly agree on the overall picture that Russia remained desperately impoverished. As for the broader, vital issue of Russia’s economic development and where it ‘went wrong’ from the historian’s viewpoint, this requires a whole conference rather than the few pages allowed here. Professor Hellie’s thoughts on this subject are very well made.

I remain unapologetic about my use of the work of Russian semioticians such as Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspenskii, whose approach I have always found illuminating and invigorating, opening up fresh approaches to such topics as the question of pretence and pretendership and the cultural significance of St Petersburg. Professor Hellie would concede, I hope, that I do not employ the ‘mumbo jumbo’ of semiotics (in the sense of theoretical jargon), or any other sort of ‘mumbo-jumbo’, come to that. (One reviewer pointed out — I’m not sure whether in praise or censure — that in 600 pages I do not once use the term word ‘discourse’). I have never had any compunction about borrowing the tools of different disciplines and approaches, without subscribing to any single over-arching theory. I would agree entirely that most Russians in Peter’s day were ‘pre-literates’, which would also be true of early modern Europe as a whole. In Russia, the problem went deeper because most members of the upper service class/nobility, too, if not functionally illiterate (in so far as most had learned to read from the Psalter and could sign their names), neither read nor possessed books. I was struck recently by Max Okenfuss’s reference to Muscovy as a ‘bookless wasteland’ (*The Rise and Fall of Latin Humanism in Early Modern Russia* (Leiden, 1995), p. 32-33), a situation which Peter, for all his efforts to publish new reading matter such as naval manuals (which even the literate didn’t want to read), scarcely rectified. As noted above, secular printing nearly collapsed when Peter died and did not recover and make progress until the reign of Catherine II. But attempts to analyse this deficiency in terms of right-brain and left-brain mentalities I find more perplexing than semiotics and must pass on any further discussion.

It’s a pity there was no time further to develop and discuss ideas about lack of possessions as a reflection of poverty of existence. Peter himself, it seems to me, at least sensed the importance of a rich environment crammed with objects for stimulating the intellect and the imagination as he amassed his own ecletic mix of items — scientific instruments, globes, bottled babies, stuffed dogs, maps, masquerade costumes, fireworks, foreign wines and cheeses — even if he never got as far as serious intellectual activity (for all the efforts of Soviet historians to argue that he was a man of science).

Finally, to what extent should one pass judgement on Peter and his methods? Professor Hellie, with his mild rebuke about my failure to tally how many thousands of corpses comprised the foundation of St Petersburg (although I do state how many forced labourers were sent to work there, p.213), is not the first reviewer to note my failure to condemn Peter’s cruelty outright (although no one so far has dared to find this unwomanly.) Let the facts speak for themselves — Peter’s cruelties are enumerated throughout my book I have little doubt that no one, from whatever class, would have chosen to live in Peter’s Russia, still less in Peter’s immediate vicinity. At the same time, it is hard not to admire Peter’s attempts to change things from the safe distance of three centuries, even though, taking the long view, you could equally say that Peter’s very success was Russia’s tragedy. The fact that the Petrine approach (rule from above plus servitude) was so successful internationally (it won wars and territories) and also created a Westernized upper service class with a stake in maintaining the status quo meant that all his successors tried to emulate the same magic formula (and sometimes succeeded), until eventually the magic began to fail (the Crimean War), at which point they still could not bring themselves to discard the whole package. According to opinion polls taken in Russia today, Peter remains the people’s first choice as top ruler. It is alarming that many Russians remain under the illusion that another Peter the Great and his dubious magic wand would be a solution to their problems when he patently failed to solve the internal problems of his Russia.

In conclusion, I thank Professor Hellie for his review of my book. Responding has been an enjoyable experience rather than an onerous task and I hope that we can find other occasions to continue the debate on some of the issues raised here.