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The practice of appointing men from eminent families to high positions in the military or government according to social status and service record.

Mestnichestvo or "precedence" refers to a legal practice in Muscovy whereby a military officer sued to avoid serving in a rank, or "place" (mesto ), below a man whose family he regarded as inferior. The practice was open only to men in the most eminent families and arose in the second quarter of the sixteenth century as a result of rapid social change in the elite. Eminent princely families joining the grand prince's service from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Khanate of Kazan, and Rus principalities challenged the status of the established Muscovite boyar clans. Thus mestnichestvo arose in the process of the definition of a more complex elite and was inextricably connected with the compilation of genealogical and military service records (rodoslovnye and razryadnye knigi ).

Relative place was reckoned on the basis of family heritage and the eminence of one's own and one's ancestors' military service. A complicated formula also assigned ranks to members of large clans so that individuals could be compared across clans. Litigants presented their own clan genealogies and service precedents in comparison with those of their rival and their rival's kinsmen, often using records that differed from official ones. Judges were then called upon to adjudicate cases of immense complexity.

In practice few precedence disputes came to such detailed exposition in court because the state acted in two ways to waylay them. From the late sixteenth century the tsar regularly declared service assignments in a particular campaign "without place," that is, not counting against a person's or his clan's dignity. Secondly, the tsar, or judges acting in his name, peremptorily resolved suits on the spot. Some were dismissed on the basis of evident disparity of clans ("your family has always served below that family"), while other plaintiffs were reassigned or their assignments declared without place. Tsars themselves took an active role in these disputes. Sources cite tsars Ivan IV, Mikhail Fyodorovich, and Alexei Mikhailovich, among others, castigating their men for frivolous suits. Significantly, only a tiny number of mestnichestvo suits were won by plaintiffs. Most resolved cases affirmed the hierarchy established in the initial assignment.

Some scholars have argued that precedence allowed the Muscovite elite to protect its status against the tsars, while others suggest that it benefited the state by keeping the elite preoccupied with petty squabbling. Source evidence, however, suggests that precedence rarely impinged on military preparedness or tsarist authority. If anything, the regularity with which status hierarchy among clans was reaffirmed suggests that precedence exerted a stabilizing affirmation of the status quo.

In the seventeenth century the bases on which precedence functioned were eroded. The elite had expanded immensely to include new families of lesser heritage, lowly families were litigating for place, and many service opportunities were available outside of the system of place. Mestnichestvo as a system of litigation was abolished in 1682, while at the same time the principle of hereditary elite status was affirmed by the creation of new genealogical books for the new elite.

See also: legal systems; military, imperial era


Kollmann, Nancy Shields. (1999). By Honor Bound: State and Society in Early Modern Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Nancy Shields Kollmann

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