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Information and knowledge in Russia in the XVIIth – early XIXth centuries: Governance, Infrastructure, educational strategies, and social practices

Priority areas of development: humanitarian
Department: Centre for Modern Russian History

Goal of research

The goal of this study was to explore the role of information and knowledge in the functioning of the state and society in Russia in the 17th – early 19th centuries, as well as to test the applicability of existing models of the early modern “information revolution” to Russia.


Methodology of this project involves both the use of mass sources (primarily, official records reflecting the types of information collected by state agencies, its volumes, and directions of its flows) and unique personal sources that allow studying the context in which this information has been created and used of this information, the ways of its use by actors.

Empirical base of research

The study draws on a wide range of archival materials that have not been previously examined much or at all by scholars, including materials from the central and regional archives: RSADA, RGVIA, SPFA RAS, AVPRI, OR RSL, RGIA, RO IRLI RAS, TsGA of Moscow, in addition to numerous published sources. The key types of sources used in this study include materials on service registration of noblemen at the Heraldry; official correspondence of the Land Survey Office and key government bodies; a set of information on the movement of grain prices in the XVIII century; personal correspondence of dignitaries; and others.

Results of research

This study allowed to test the applicability of the notions of “information state” for understanding the history of early modern state in Russia of the 17th  – early 19th centuries and to identifying the key features of the “information state” in Russia of this period; to explore the functioning of knowledge and information in the context of intercultural interaction, as well as the models and types of such interaction; to analyze the the role of knowledge as a form of social and cultural capital and the ways in which it was accumulated and used by members of the elite in early modern Russia, in particular, for the purposes of building a bureaucratic career.

One specific case of transfer and adaptation of Western European social, economic and political ideas in Russia is the work of Baron A. von. Luberas who served as vice president of the Berg-ManufacturCollege and authored numerous notes and projects. Members of the project team identified new biographical documents of von Luberas, as well as new manuscript versions of his works and their translations. A comparative analysis of von Lubers’ projects and the legislation of the Petrine era indicates that his ideas influenced not so much the drafting of the regulations for the Peter's colleges as designing the procedures of bureaucratic work within these bodies. From the point of view of this study, the writings of Baron Luberas are also of interest as he was one of the first officials in Russia to reflect on the problem of organizing accounting and collection of statistical information, as well as archival clerical work.

Educational strategies of the top Russian nobility of the second half of the 18th century have been explored using a dataset that covers the largest landowners of the realm (from 1000 to 5000 male serfs). Among the various forms of education, study at the Land Cadet Corps came first after home schooling in terms of popularity among these largest landowners, while study abroad came next. Study abroad was also more common among the children of the holders of the general officer ranks (more than 20%); while among the children of mid-level noblemen the share of those who received education in Europe was very low (less than 6%). The latter preferred artillery and engineering education, which was neglected by the magnates. The largest landowners, just like the children of the generals, preferred the study at the Corps of Pages and court service. Slightly over 11% of all sons of large landowners studied at the gymnasiums of Kazan, Moscow University, and the Academy of Sciences.

The real functioning of the practices of collecting, transmitting, processing and storing information and knowledge in context of the early modern Russian state is explored by the study of the criminal dimension of everyday life of one of the most educated parts of 18th century Russian society, the employees of the Land Survey Office who conducted the General Land Survey. Our exploration of the documents of the Land Survey Office resulted to identifying the main types of offenses, both specific to land surveyors and common to the Russian officialdom as a whole; the differences in the approaches to various misdeeds by different courts that dealt with these infractions by land surveyors. We also identified offenses that attracted the most attention from the authorities. Nevertheless, the study also confirmed the reliability of the survey materials that has long been a subject of debate among historians.

Political proposals put forward and discussed by Nikita Panin and his opponents in 1762-1763 were used as a case study of transfer and adaptation of Western European knowledge and its transformation in the context of Russian political and social system in the middle of the 18th century. As demonstrated by the new sources discovered and explored in the framework of this study, ideas of N.I. Panin and his allies covered not only a reform of the system of central government, but also a reorganization of local system administration (developed by by Prince Ya.P. Shakhovskoi) and the introduction of a new “law on the nobility” which provided for the legislative consolidation of the privileged status of the noble estate. However, the Panin program was implemented only to a very limited extent, and the very idea of setting up “fundamental laws” has been been abandoned already by the end of 1763 - beginning of 1764; Panin himself was removed from the management of domestic affairs, to which he was so eager to contribute, and given the honorific position of the presiding member of the College of Foreign Affairs. In 1764, however, Catherine II herself began drafting the Instruction to the Legislative Commission where she outlined her vision of the “legal monarchy” as a political system; notably, her program was largely consistent with the provisions formulated by Panin in his draft report of 1762. As our study demonstrates, not only a new political vocabulary takes shape in the first half of the 18th century, but the political consciousness of the educated nobility undergoes a significant transformation as well.

A fascinating case of appropriation of medical knowledge by a member of the mid-18th century Russian elite explored in-depth in the course of this project is the diary of A.I. Rzhevsky, a major of the Shirvan Infantry Regiment. The reconstruction of practices of treatment and self-medication that he resorted to focuses on his consultations with foreign medics in the capital and in other cities, as well as with regimental medics. Rzhevsky understood his afflictions and methods of their treatment within the framework of the prevailing humoral theories, but at the same time he also seems to have used the methods of traditional medicine. This unique source has significant potential and could be drawn upon by scholars in a variety of fields, from anthropology of the body to history of the medical market.

Exploring the appropriation of medical knowledge by A.I. Rzhevsky required also a comprehensive study of the biography of this member of the elite, as well as the notebook itself as an artifact. While the main content of the notebook is the author’s diary for 1757–1758, A.I. Rzhevsky also used it to make notes pertaining both to his service and to his domestic and financial matters. Our analysis indicates also that Rzhevsky’s diary belongs to a transitional, intermediate stage between the two types of biographic narratives, that is, between the “annalistic” texts of the first half of the 18th century and the proper “memoirs” of Catherinian era.

Another case explored in the framework of this project is the paperwork of a key institution of the “information state,” the Moscow Archive of the College of Foreign Affairs - a repository of information that was crucial for the functioning of modern bureaucracy. Historically, the archive preserved and classified dynastic and foreign policy documents, as well as the information about the land tenure of the hereditary nobility of the realm and the services of their ancestors. At the turn of the 18th – 19th centuries, these documents gained new relevance, as a result of which officials of the Archive began to construct a new identity for themselves, one that stressed their involvement in politics and public administration. Particular attention in the course of our research was paid to the ways in which this documentation was used by the Archive’s officials as a tool of self-representation. From the methodological point of view, this study shows that clerical documents were deliberately employed by middle-level officials to craft narratives that suited their needs. This observation allows us to explore the social identity of such officials, many of them coming from the ranks of clergy, and who played in the first half of the 19th century increasingly noticeable role in state administration.


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