Boyar Duma

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Boyar Duma is a scholarly term used to describe the royal council or the upper strata of the ruling elite in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. The term duma often appears in the sources with the meaning "advice," "counsel," or "a council." The influential Romantic historian Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin first used the combination "boyar duma" (boyarskaya duma ), which is never encountered in the sources.

East Slavic medieval political culture, which relied heavily on scripture, morally obligated every worthy prince to discuss all weighty matters with his advisers. In the tenth through fifteenth centuries, princes often discussed political, military, and administrative issues with other members of the ruling family, senior members of their armed retinue, household officials, church leaders, and local community leaders. The balance of power between the ruler and his counselors, as well as the format and place of their meetings, varied depending on the circumstances. The Muscovite tsars adopted the tradition of consulting with their closest entourage, continuing to do so even during periods of political turmoil, like the Oprichnina and the Time of Troubles. The 1550 Legal Code refers to the tradition of consultation, but there were no written laws regulating the practice of such consultations or limiting the authority of the ruler in favor of his advisers in judicial terms.

The growing social and administrative complexity of the Muscovite state during the sixteenth century resulted in the increasing inclusion of distinguished foreign servitors, high-ranking cavalrymen, and top-level officials at meetings with the tsar. The sources describe the practice of consultations by inconsistently using various terms, including duma. From the mid-sixteenth century, the term blizhnyaya duma (privy duma) appears in the documents more regularly.

The state school of nineteenth-century Russian historiography interpreted the tradition of consultations between the ruler and his advisers in formal, legal terms. Historians linked the appearance of a clearly structured council, which they termed the boyar duma, with the formation of the court rank system during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was assumed that the boyar duma included all people holding the upper court ranks of boyar, okolnichy, counselor cavalryman (dumny dvoryanin ), and counselor secretary (dumny dyak ). Students of law treated the boyar duma as a state institution by focusing on its functions and competence.

The artificial concept of the boyar duma as a group of people entitled to sit on the council because of their status became a basis for various interpretations of the character of the pre-Petrine state and its politics. Vasily Osipovich Klyuchevsky pioneered this trend by describing the boyar duma as "the fly-wheel that set in motion the entire mechanism of government." Klyuchevsky's concept of the boyar duma was developed in the numerous prosopographical and anthropological studies of the Muscovite elite. Vasily Ivanovich Sergeyevich questioned the concept of the boyar duma, observing that there is no documentary evidence of participation of all holders of the upper court ranks in consultations with the ruler. In line with this approach, other scholars shift their emphasis in the study of the practice of consultations from the court ranks of the sovereign's advisers to the cultural background of this practice.

See also: boyar; muscovy; oprichnina; time of troubles


Alef, Gustave. (1967). "Reflections on the Boyar Duma in the Reign of Ivan III." The Slavonic and East European Review. 45:76123.

Bogatyrev, Sergei. (2000). The Sovereign and His Counsellors: Ritualised Consultations in Muscovite Political Culture, 1350s1570s. Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. Also available at <>.

Kleimola, Ann M. (1985). "Patterns of Duma Recruitment, 15051550." In Essays in Honor of A. A. Zimin, ed. Daniel Clarke Waugh. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers.

Sergei Bogatyrev