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Regular version of the site

Champagne and Unsanitary Conditions: Trade in Siberia 150 Years Ago

New Bazaar Square in Krasnoyarsk, 1911

New Bazaar Square in Krasnoyarsk, 1911
Photo by Kraskompas.ru (from Krasnoyarsk Krai Local History Museum collection)

The increasing application of law in various spheres of life in the Russian empire promoted trade regulation and influenced everyday trade practices—even in remote regions. Tradespeople, in turn, tried to limit the application of new regulations while using laws to serve their own interests. HSE University has hosted a seminar on trade in Siberia in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The International Laboratory ‘Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective’ hosted an online seminar on ‘Trading by and against the Rules: Authorities and Tradespeople in Yeniseysk Governorate in the Second Half of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries.’ The seminar was supported by the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation and dedicated to the publication of a book by Tatiana Yakovleva, research fellow at the Peterhof Museum-Reserve.

Ekaterina Boltunova, Head of the Laboratory

Ekaterina Boltunova, Head of the Laboratory, explained that the book describes the history of relations between the law, state institutions and everyday life in remote Russian territories.

Tatiana Yakovleva told the audience that while working on the book, she used an array of administrative documents from Yeniseysk Governorate (which existed from 1822 to 1925 and was centred around Krasnoyarsk) and other resources in order to study the interactions between the authorities and tradespeople, whose activities were regulated by laws and rules that grew in number after the reforms of 1861.

She believes that the volume of trade and the structure of goods depended on economic development: trade peaked during the gold rush of the 1840s–1850s and during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. At the height of trade, locals could buy French champagne, pineapples and luxury goods despite the remoteness of the region.

Tradespeople made up a considerable part of urban and rural populations—much more so than merchants. After the reforms, they were required to follow certain rules and obtain documents certifying their right to trade.

In reality, some tradespeople operated without documents—it was common practice to get a lower-rank licence in order to pay less while formally complying with the law. Such violations were harder to identify. Despite popular opinion, tradespeople tried to give the appearance of abiding by the law, and when violations were uncovered, they claimed that their neighbours were doing the same.

Municipal governments were responsible for signing and renewing contracts for trade spaces. As such, issues were resolved differently in different cities. In Krasnoyarsk, arcade shops belonged to the city, and shopkeepers had to bid in annual auctions to keep their shops. In order to get a place in the market without going through the bidding process, some tradespeople undertook renovation projects, while others simply offered to pay the city government more money several years in advance. Long-term renting was uncommon in Krasnoyarsk.

Another important factor in these relations was the place and time of trade. Cities allocated special spaces for trading grain in order to limit wholesale purchases made by major individual traders and to avoid price growth. Despite this, resellers were still able to trade beyond city limits in an effort to retain profits. Venues for trade evolved and disappeared as the population grew and convenient new trade spaces appeared. For example, the Old Bazaar in Krasnoyarsk fell into decay at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, but a new one appeared in a more convenient location, followed by another one after the Trans-Siberian Railway was built. This provided for people living in the area beyond the railroad.

Old Bazaar Square in the southwestern part of the city, with a view of the shopping arcade, 1890
Photo by Kraskompas.ru (from Krasnoyarsk Krai Local History Museum collection)

The authorities tried to regulate trade, requiring sellers of similar types of goods to occupy the same row. This caused discontent and misunderstanding among tradespeople—among other things, they wondered whether canned-fish shops should be located in the fish row or the groceries row.

Counterfeit products were another problem, albeit not a common one. Goods of high and low quality were mixed, pasta was dyed to look better, milk was mixed with water and chalk, etc.

For tradespeople, sanitary restrictions were the biggest challenge. Newspapers of the time were full of stories about unsanitary conditions, such the use of boots to knead dough, or meat cut with intestines by workers wearing dirty clothes. In these circumstances, sanitary doctors became essential, as they were able to combine an insistence on high standards with a willingness to agree with reasonable arguments made by tradespeople. One doctor reported that if shopkeepers were fined for every violation, they would end up with no money to fix the problem. Doctors were heavily involved in instructing and explaining, and change—while slow and difficult—eventually affected the organization of trade.

With trade subject to increasing regulation by the authorities, tradespeople were forced to defend their position by various means, including appeals to the law. Corrupt practices were reported less and less often and included various instances of minor violations that were inconvenient to trading. For example, one such requirement was to shut the door between a shop and a small drinking establishment.

Tatiana Borisova, Senior Research Fellow at the HSE Centre for Historical Research, emphasized that the book combines social and legal history. It demonstrates that laws existed, affected the lives of people and the disputes between them, and that ordinary people started using the law as a tool to resolve conflicts. Tatiana Yakovleva’s work also demonstrates the moral values that underpin and reinforce the law. ‘Here, contrary to popular opinion, we see that the lower and middle classes were not silent. They had discussions, even as equals, and they fought, which means there was a foundation for a common conscience or justice to serve as a basis for the law,’ Tatiana Borisova said.

Willard Sunderland

Willard Sunderland, Academic Supervisor of the International Laboratory 'Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective', expressed his interest in the role of the region in forming relations between tradespeople and local authorities. He also asked how living conditions in the remote area affected the Siberian population’s identity. He emphasized the importance of local historical studies in Tatiana Yakovleva’s work. ‘Thanks to you, we can immerse ourselves in the life of this place. It is the history of Siberia, and it deserves more attention,’ he said. The book combines social history with legal history, the application of law and its interactions with everyday life. ‘We can see lots of interesting things: conflicts, cooperation and manoeuvring. The book is true to real life in every way, and it has its own specific set of characters. You demonstrate how these people became experts in legislation and how they implemented the law in their lives,’ he summarized.

Tatiana Yakovleva believes that the remote governorate, which was slow to adopt innovations, was partly characterized by a low level of respect for law and rules (although they did eventually take root in the area). The author believes that the regional identity of the tradespeople of Yeniseysk Governorate was not pronounced while close to home, but became more evident when they travelled to Central Russia.

Olga Kosheleva, leading research fellow at the RAS Institute of World History, and Yulia Egorova, research fellow at the International Laboratory 'Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective', also participated in the discussion of the book.

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