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Pomestie, "service landholding," was a parcel of land (hopefully inhabited by rent-paying peasants, later serfs [see Serfdom]) in exchange for which the holder (not owner) had to render lifelong service to the state, typically military service, but occasionally service in the government bureaucracy. Ideally, when the service ended, the landholder had to surrender the pomestie to another serviceman. The pomestie was granted for use only to support the serviceman and his family (including slaves) by peasant rent payments to him in lieu of cash. It has been calculated that this was far more efficient than paying servicemen entirely in cash: the transaction costs of collecting taxes, taking them to Moscow, and then paying them to the servicemen were likely to result in a fifty percent loss, whereas there was no such shrinkage when the rent and taxes did not go through Moscow. Occasionally pomestie is translated a "military fief," but this is totally misleading. There was no feudalism in Russia. The pomestie was granted directly by the government's Service Land Chancellery (Pomestny prikaz ) to a specific serviceman for his support in lieu of support of other kinds (such as cash, or feeding in barracks). There were no reciprocal rights and obligations between the Service Land Chancellery and the serviceman, and there was no subinfeudation.

The pomestie bears at least superficial resemblance to forms of land tenure elsewhere, especially the Byzantine pronoia and the Persian ikhta. It is dubious, however, that the Russian pomestie was borrowed from either, and it seems likely that it was an autonomous creation by the Russians themselves.

The origins of the pomestie are shrouded in the mists of the early Muscovite Middle Ages. The first recorded use of the term was in 1499, but the phenomenon definitely existed before then. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, servitors (probably military) at the Muscovite court may occasionally have been given temporary grants of land in exchange for service, but that was an extraordinarily uncertain form of compensation and therefore cannot have been used often. Until the 1450s all peasants were free and could not be compelled to pay rent to anyone [see Enserfment], and they could move at a moment's notice. Thus no system of compensating servicemen by conditional grants of land developed at that time.

The origins of the pomestie system (and also the service state) can be traced to Moscow's annexation of Novgorod in 1478. Some elite Novgorodian laymen and churchmen preferred either to remain independent or to have Lithuania as a suzerain rather than Moscow. Those people were purged after 1478 and either executed or forcibly resettled elsewhere. Their vast landholdings were confiscated by Moscow and parceled out to loyal cavalry servicemen (pomeshchiki ) for their support. The census books compiled subsequently by Moscow indicate that each serviceman was probably assigned land occupied by roughly thirty peasant households. It is fairly certain that the servicemen did not live directly on their land grants, but in groups nearby. A third party collected the traditional rent and gave it to the servicemen. Thus the servicemen had no direct connection with "their" peasants and no control over them. Moscow soon discovered that this was an efficient way to assure control over newly annexed territory while simultaneously maximizing the size of the army. As Moscow annexed other lands, it handed them out to servicemen as pomestie estates. The pomestie came to embody the essence of the service state. Each eligible serviceman had an entitlement (oklad ) based on his service. If he could locate land up to the limit of his entitlement, it was his. This was an effective incentive system, and servicemen strove mightily to increase their entitlements.

Two or three generations later, during the reign of Ivan IV ("the Terrible"), several important events occurred concerning the pomestie. For one, the government advanced the service state significantly in 1556 by decreeing that all holders of service estates (pomestie) and hereditary estates (votchiny ) had to render the same quantity of military service (i.e., provide one mounted cavalryman per one hundred cheti of land actually possessed). Second, it is probable that during Ivan's reign sons began to succeed to their fathers' service landholdings when their fathers died or could no longer render the required lifetime service. Third, during Ivan's Oprichnina, service landholders were given control over their peasants, including the right to set the level of rent payments (a change that caused massive peasant flight from the center to the expanding frontiers [see Colonial Expansion]). And fourth, the Oprichnina exterminated so many owners of hereditary estates that it appeared as though outright ownership of land was on the verge of extinction.

The holders of pomestie estates were primarily members of the provincial middle service class cavalry who began to live directly on their service landholdings somewhere during the middle of the sixteenth century. This experience, combined with the developments of the reign of Ivan IV, convinced them that they had the right to consider the pomestie as their personal property, which not only could be left to their male heirs, but also could be alienated like votchina property: sold, donated to monasteries, given to anyone, used as a dowry, and so forth. This project became the goal of a middle service class "political campaign," somewhat akin to the political campaign to enserf the peasantry. Such aspirations totally violated the initial purpose of the pomestie and undermined the basic principles of the service state. The Law Code of 1649 carefully retained the distinction between the pomestie (chapter 16, nearly all of whose sixty-nine articles are postdated 1619) and the votchina (chapter 17), but the distinctions were fading in reality. During the first half of the seventeenth century, the pomestie essentially became hereditary property, but service still was compulsory and holders could not freely alienate it. During the Thirteen Years War (16541667), new formation military units began to replace the obsolescent middle service class cavalry, and after 1667 the service state nearly disintegrated. With it went the principle that service was compulsory from pomestie land.

Peter the Great restored the service state in 1700, and all landholders and landowners had to render military service again. But the uniqueness of the pomestie was lost in 1714 when it and the votchina were juridically merged into a single form of land ownership.

See also: dvorianstvo; enserfment; law code of 1649; serfdom; syn boyarsky; votchina


Hellie, Richard. (1971). Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hellie, Richard, ed. and tr. (1988). The Muscovite Law Code (Ulozhenie) of 1649. Irvine, CA: Charles Schlacks.

Richard Hellie

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