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2. The system of government

a) The central government and its institutions

The tsar. Let us begin with the royal person, for he was an institution in his own right. In contrast to some monarchies, the Russians do not seem to have recognised or even known about the ‘king’s two bodies’ doctrine. The clergy said and commoners believed that the tsar was selected by the Lord, not to hold the office of tsar, but to be tsar. This is why one finds so much talk of the ‘true tsar’ and ‘pretenders’, particularly during the Time of Troubles when it was hard to tell the difference, but also after the ascension of the Romanovs.

Though one reads occasionally in Muscovite didactic texts that the tsar should do this or that (take council, be merciful, be wise), he really had only two hard and fast duties: to produce a suitable heir and to rule the country in consultation with his boyars. There were, naturally, rules about how he would perform these two tasks, the former governed by Christian doctrine and the latter by custom. The tsar had the full authority (civil, judicial, administrative and military). Nothing was mentioned about his status in Sudebnik, as he declared as outlaws. The fall of Byzantium extols the Moscow State. Marriage of Ivan III and the niece of the Byzantine emperor Sophia Palaeologus strengthened the historical continuity of the Byzantine Empire. January 19 of 1547 Ivan IV was crowned. To its title “The Emperor and the Grand Prince of Moscow”, had been added the word “king”, which equated Ivan the Terrible to the “Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire”. Byzantine patriarch and all the Eastern clergy recognized the royal title after him.

The sovereign’s court (gosudarev dvor) was the locus of political power in Muscovy. It was not a place (though the royal family did have quarters in the Kremlin called a ‘court’ or dvor), but rather a hierarchy of ranks. As one would expect, higher ranks were more honorable than lower ranks, and generally less populous. To some degree, different rank-holders did different things: the men in the duma ranks (boiare i dumnye liudi) advised the tsar in the royal council (duma), an ill-defined customary body whose power waxed and waned depending on the age of the tsar, the authority of those around him and the number of counsellors present. Those below the duma ranks generally worked as footmen of various sorts at court – serving at table, guarding the palace, performing in ceremonies, escorting emissaries and so on. Despite their modern ‘servile’ connotations, these lines of employ were considered very honorable duty by high-born Muscovites (and certainly better than serving in the provinces).

Finally, the administrators served in the chancelleries (prikazy). Because they performed servile work (writing), they were drawn from a less honorable class (sluzhilye liudi po priboru, or ‘service people by contract’) rather than from the ranks of hereditary servitors (sluzhilye liudi po otechestvu, or ‘service people by birth’).

Tsar himself made all appointments to and promotions through the ranks. Yet in fact he did not rule alone, but rather with the aid of close relatives, advisers and mentors. These confidants would and could bend the tsar’s ear when it came to appointments and promotions. The second major class at the Muscovite court were old elite servitors, that is, men of very high, heritable status whose families traditionally held positions in the duma ranks. These were Muscovy’s aristocrats: for centuries, they had commanded Muscovy’s armies, administered Muscovy’s central offices, and governed Muscovy’s far-flung territories. Their right to high offices was guarded by mestnichestvo, early Russia’s mechanism for protecting the order of precedence.

Finally, men and families serving in the lower orders of the sovereign’s court – the thousands of stol’niki, dvoriane moskovskie, and striapchie who occupied minor offices in Moscow and the provinces. They could never reasonably hope to win appointments to the duma [2, 436].

Tsar Alexis changed the system of political order.

In the context of a rapidly evolving administrative and military situation, the traditional boyar elite had become distinctly less useful. Talented men – regardless of birth –who were willing to serve and serve well were needed. Given the rules of appointment to the boyar ranks, such ‘new men’ had no chance to attain the highest honours. Merit was not being rewarded, at least not in the way Alexis believed it should be. Obviously, the rules had to be changed so as to allow the entry of the ‘new men’. The tsar did not bring the ‘new men’ into the duma all at once. He could not do so without risking a costly and dangerous political battle with the old elites. Rather, he pursued a conservative approach, appointing a few ‘new men’ at time. But even here his options were limited by the hold of the old elites over the upper ranks. Alexis knew that they would probably grumble if he promoted men of lower status to the highest ranks in the duma orders, for these were the traditional preserve of the old elite. Neither could Alexis make the more honourable of the ‘new men’ conciliar secretaries (dumnye d’iaki), for that rank was deemed too low for the hereditary servitors in the sovereign’s court. Therefore Alexis opted for a strategy that would at once appease the hereditary boiarstvo and permit him to promote the ‘new men’: he transformed the rank of conciliar courtier (dumnyi dvorianin). During the war the tsar began to promote his dumnye dvoriane into the ranks of okol’nichie.

Under Alexis, then, two prominent ‘new men’ came to rule Russia. Others exercised less visible but no less important roles as leaders in the chancellery system. In all, Alexis appointed forty-eight low-status ‘new men’ to the duma ranks.

Alexis’s alteration of duma appointment policy destroyed the equilibrium between the tsar and the elite families that ended the Time of Troubles. By the end of the Thirteen Years War, the tsar clearly had the upper hand in political matters. Alexis had successfully transformed the duma ranks from a royal council controlled by hereditary clans into a fount of royal patronage to be distributed as the tsar desired. The tsar no longer ruled exclusively with the duma men, but instead via special conciliar and executive bodies.

In the late XV – early XVI centuries were created a new organs of central administration – Chancellery (Prikazi).

Each Chancellery was headed by “closest boyars and okol’nichie”, at the disposal of which was the whole staff of officers. ‘Prikaznaya izba’ had its agents or authorized persons on places. 

The following Chancelleries were known: 

  • Privy Chancellery of the Tsar (Prikaz tainykh del) where the ‘boyars and duma men do not enter . . . and have no jurisdiction’. “And that chancellery was established in the present reign, so that the tsar’s will and all his affairs would be carried out as he desires, without the boyars and duma men having any knowledge of these matters” [6, 285]

  • Ambassadorial Chancellery (Posol’sky prikaz) – was in charge of foreign affairs; 

  • Robbery Challencery (Razboi’ny prikaz) – punitive authority; 

  • Land Chancellery (Pomestnyi’ prikaz) – was in charge of land distribution for the service; 

  • Yamskoy Challencery – was in charge of the postal service; 

  • Military Service Chancellery (Razriad) arguably the most powerful prikaz in seventeenth-century Muscovy

  • The Treasury Chancellory (Kazenny prikaz) – was in charge of financial affairs of the state. 

The tsar, the court and the prikazy were the central stable elements of Muscovite governance throughout the seventeenth century. This being said, there were two other institutions, quite different in character, that we find in this era: the so-called ‘boyar council’ (boiarskaia duma) and “Assembly of the Land” or “Land Council”(zemskii sobor).

The competence of the council appears to have been extensive but is indistinguishable from that of the prince. No formal definition of powers is found in any source. Similarly, nothing is known of the internal operation of the council in the early period. The princely council underwent considerable development in connection with the rise of Muscovy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Law Code (Sudebnik) of 1497 directs that the ‘boyars and okol’nichie are to administer justice’ (suditi sud boiaram i okol’nichim), and it is known from surviving cases that they did so. In like measure, the duma seems to have had some legislative authority, as can be seen in the often-repeated Muscovite formula “the sovereign orders and the boyars affirm” (gosudar’ ukazal i boiare prigovorili).

Zemskii sobor took the special place in the government. It was called by royal charter. Its functions were: to solve the issues of foreign and internal policy, legislation, finance, played role of the electoral body during the interregnum, had been a deliberative body.

b) Local government administration.

In XIV – XV centuries principalities were divided on uyezdi and volosti. Town administration was represented by vicegerent (namestnik) in the uyezdi and volostelyami in volost. Local administration was based on the system of “kormleniye”.

At the beginning of XVI century there was carry out a series of zemsko-gubnih and judicial reforms.

After 1613 most of the local administrative organs common before the Troubles were liquidated or were absorbed into town governor administration. The title of vicegerent (namestnik) was still used at court as a ceremonial honorific, but vicegerents no longer governed in the provinces. The fortifications and siege stewards declined in number and became subordinate officials (prikaznye liudi) of the town governors’ offices. Customs and tavern administration remained in the hands of elected community representatives or taxfarmers, but they came under the supervision of the town governors, who supervised their operations and gave them quarterly or annual accountings. District-level and canton-level elected zemskii offices for tax collection and justice continued to exist in the north, but most of them were subordinated to the town governors, so that zemskii officials no longer dealt with the chancelleries directly but only through their local governor; the more important kinds of court cases traditionally heard in the district-level zemskii court were now held in the governor’s court, which also became a court of second instance over those matters still heard in zemskii courts; and the tax-collection activities of zemskii officials were subject to especially tight control from the governor’s office, for the governor had the authority to beat zemskii officials under righter (pravezh), that is, in the stocks, for any tax arrears or irregularities and the tendency was towards requiring zemskii collections to be turned in to the governor’s office.

For some time the guba constabulary offices for policing and investigating felonies were permitted greater autonomy, for Moscow saw some advantage in keeping the defence of the community against banditry and violent crime in the hands of elected community representatives – especially as those elected as chief constables were supposed to be the communities’ ‘best men’, ideally prosperous dvoriane or deti boiarskie, reporting their investigations directly to the Robbery Chancellery (Razboinyi prikaz) at Moscow for pronouncement of verdict.

The guba system was therefore not expanded; the town governors increasingly sought to subordinate the guba officials de facto; and in 1679 all guba offices were closed.

Town governor administration operated under closer central chancellery control than had vicegerent administration in the previous century because the town governors’ offices were held to higher expectations of written reporting and compliance with written instructions. The town governors were guided in their general or long-term responsibilities by written working orders (nakazy), and in more particular and non-routine matters by decree rescripts from the chancelleries; they were expected to submit frequent reports, even if all they had to relate was their progress in implementing relatively routine directives; and they had to maintain an increasingly wide range of rolls, inventories, land allotment and surveying books, court hearing inquest transcripts and account books for various indirect and direct revenues. Inventories of the archives of governors’ offices generally showa significant increase in the rate of record production, especially from mid-century. This reflected the increasing demands upon the governors’ offices by the central chancelleries, but also the demands upon them from the community in terms of litigation and petitioning of needs and grievances. [2, 467]

Because the primary purpose of the governor’s office was to gather and systematize information to facilitate executive decision-making in the central chancelleries and duma, the clerical staffing of the governor’s offices was a crucial concern. It was the governor’s clerks (pod’iachie) who produced, routed and stored all this information and kept order in the town archive and treasury. The clerks also performed important tasks in the field – supervising corv´ee, conducting obysk polling at inquests, conveying cash to and from Moscow, or surveying property boundaries.

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