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Service State


The service state has been the major factor in the past half millennium of Russian history. It has saved Russia from foreign conquest by mobilizing and controlling at crucial moments the basic factors of the economyland, labor, and capital. It has used major ideologies to legitimize itself and then has proceeded to try to control most areas of artistic and intellectual life. The service state has gone through three major phases which may be described as "service class revolutions" and serve as classic illustrations of path dependency.

Each service class revolution has been a response by Russia's rulers to perceptions of significant military threats from foreign adversaries. The first can be dated roughly to 1480, when Russia threw off the Mongol yoke. From then the independent state was on its own and faced foreign threats from various quarters, but the major one was from Lithuania, the largest state in Europe with holdings in Vyazma, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Moscow. Moscow's conquest of the Republic of Novgorod in 1478, the execution and deportation of its secular and religious elite, and the annexation of their vast lands created the opportunity for the creation of a service class, the backbone of the new service state. The Novgorodian lands were handed out as service landholdings (pomestie ) to provincial cavalrymen for their maintenance. These cavalrymen had no independent base and were totally beholden to Moscow. They were ranked according to perceived service performance and compensated accordingly. In exchange for the pomestie, they had to serve Moscow for life. As Moscow annexed other territories, it converted them to pomestie tenure. In time, Moscow had a corps of 25,000 pomestie cavalrymen at its beck and call to confront any military emergency. This method of fielding an army was deemed so effective that in 1556 the government mobilized all seignorial land and required estate owners to provide the army with one fully equipped, outfitted cavalryman for each 100 cheti (1 chet = 11/3 acres) of populated land.

In 1480 a master ideology was lacking to support the forming service state, but it did not take long for one to appear. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Joseph, the abbot of Volokolamsk Monastery, advanced the precept of Agapetos (fl. 527548) that "in his person the ruler is a man, but in his authority he is like God." This conflicted with the views of Grand Prince Ivan III, who wanted to annex all church lands and convert them into pomestie holdings; his son Basil III, who preferred to let the church continue to own a third of all the populated land of Russia; and other churchmen who believed that the church should not be so involved in "the world." This variation on the divine right of kings gave the Russian ruler unquestioned control over everything. The idea reigned at least until 1905, probably until 1917.

Such military might and autocratic pretensions needed financial means and bureaucratic coordination to support them. After 1300 the government apparatus was part of the Moscow ruler's household, but around 1480 specialization began to develop in the grand princely household administration. Around 1550 special chancelleries with their own record-keeping apparatus began to develop to keep track of the service land fund, the provincial cavalry, the new infantry arquebusiers who had been created to complement the cavalry, and the taxes needed to support these activities. By the mid-seventeenth century there were about forty of these chancelleries, which seemingly were as efficient and professional as any similar, contemporary organs on Earth.

The last element in the construction of the service state was the inclusion of the masses. To support the cavalry, the peasantry was definitively enserfed between the 1580s and 1649. In an attempt to ensure the stability of the government's cash receipts, the townsmen were bound to their urban places of residence and granted monopolies on trade and industry and the right to own urban property. By 1650 the service state was fully formed. Its completion had been forced by the June 1648 Moscow rebellion against the corrupt regime of Boris Morozov, which compelled the government to convoke the Assembly of the Land, whose product was the Law Code of 1649.

During the Thirteen Years' War (16541667), the old military service class's obsolescence was revealed, and it was replaced by new formation regiments commanded by foreign officers. Yet the old landed service class retained its privileges and its monopolies over much of the country's land and peasant labor. This proved to be the trajectory of all service classes: creation, hegemony, decline, and obsolescenceyet retaining all privileges.

The second service class revolution was the product of Peter the Great's perception that Sweden's Charles XII desired to annex Russia. After losing to Charles at Narva in 1700, Peter completely revitalized the service state. All the surviving military servicemen were put back in harness, the dependency of the serfs on the landowners was strengthened, the army was reformed, the Table of Ranks of 1721 told the service state's agents where they belonged in the merit-based hierarchy, and the government apparatus was reformed. The Orthodox Church, which had been created by the state in 988 and was nearly always the state's obedient servant, was converted into a department of the state government with the creation of the Holy Synod in 1721. This continued the secularization of the church administration that had been introduced in 1649 but had been halted when Tsar Alexei died in 1676. Alexei's son Peter made the clergy more active members of the service state by requiring them to report to the police what they heard in confessions as well as to read government edicts to the populace from the pulpit.

Peter articulated one of the basic principles of the service state: anyone was eligible to serve, as long as he performed the duties demanded of him. This was absolutely crucial in holding together an ever-expanding multinational empire. Peter articulated this in comments about his foreign minister, Pyotr Shafirov, a Jew, and other Jewish people in his administration: "I could not care less whether a man is baptized or circumcised, only that he knows his business and he distinguishes himself by probity." In the perfectly operating service state, there was no place for nationalism (such as Russification) or persecution of national minorities or alien religions (e.g., Jews). Those occurred only at times when the service state was in decline.

The Petrine service state was very successful in defeating Sweden and putting Russia's other major adversariesthe Rzeczpospolita and the Crimean Khanateon the defensive and ultimately exterminating them. These successes lessened the demands on the service state, and in 1762 Peter III freed the gentry land- and serf-owners from compulsory military service. Need for revenue forced most younger gentry to render military service anyway.

The other major personnel segment of the service state, the peasantry, was not freed in 1762, and the condition of the seignorial serfs was abased to the extent that they became akin to slaves by 1800. Defeat during the Crimean War (18531856) did not provoke Russia to initiate another service class revolution, although a dozen major reforms were enacted between 1861 and 1874. In 1861 all seignorial serfs were freed from slavelike dependency on their owners, but were bound instead to their communes and were allowed to move freely only in 1906. This largely ended the second service class revolution, although the autocratic monarchy persisted until February 1917.

Certain features of the service state did not die in 1762, 1861, or even 1906. The government maintained its pretensions to control all higher culture by censoring literature, the theater, all art exhibitions, and musical performances. Secret police surveillance was continuously strengthened as the government used repression, jailing, and exile in its attempts to cope with the rising revolutionary movement opposed to the autocracy and serfdom. The industrialization of Russia launched by Minister of Finance Sergei Witte during the 1890s was a demonstration of service state power reminiscent of Peter I and anticipating Josef Stalin.

The October Revolution abolished Christianity and the Agapetos formula as the regime's ideology. The Bolsheviks replaced it with Marxist-Leninist dialectical historical materialism. Stalin, sensing a threat from the United Kingdom in 1927, used the new ideology to legitimize his launching of the third service class revolution in 1928.

The Soviet service state proved unable to manage the economy efficiently, but the service class remained during the Leonid Brezhnev (19641982), Yuri Andropov (19821984), and Konstantin Chernenko (19841985) years. The Soviet service class had already begun to generate into a privileged elite (what Milovan Djilas termed "the new class") by the end of the 1930s, and this degeneration had turned into a rout by 1985. By the middle of the 1970s "the working class pretended to work and the state pretended to pay them." The general trend was for people to go to work to socialize with their friends, not to produce anything. By the time of the coup of August 19, 1991, attempting to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, the privileged elite (the "nomenklatura") rode around in their own private motorcars and went straight to the head of long lines for ordinary consumer goods such as newspapers and magazines while getting most of their goods from closed stores open only to the privileged elite. It was obvious that the Soviet service state was no longer working, could not make the economy grow or improve the lives of its subjects, and was little more than a debauchery of corruption. Gorbachev, another believer in socialism, tried to reform the system, but it proved impossible. The service state lost its teeth when he repealed Article 6 of the Brezhnev constitution, which had given the Communist Party a monopoly on Soviet political life. The Communist Party had also assumed a monopoly on all elite positions, so that one had to be a member of the CPSU to hold many jobs. That had not been true during the times of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. This change was another sign of the degeneration of the service state under Brezhnev.

When Gorbachev delivered the coup de grace to the Soviet service state, no one wept. The service state was a major Russian "contribution" to the human experience. Whether there ever will be a fourth service class revolution remains to be seen.

See also: economic growth, soviet; economy, tsarist; industrialization; military, imperial era; military, soviet and post-soviet; russian orthodox church; serfdom


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Hellie, Richard. (1987). "What Happened? How Did He Get Away with It? Ivan Groznyi's Paranoia and the Problem of Institutional Restraints." Russian History 14:199224.

Hellie, Richard. (2002). "The Role of the State in Seventeenth-Century Muscovy." In Modernizing Muscovy, ed. J. T. Kotilaine and Marshall T. Poe. Leiden: Brill.

Kliuchevskii, V. O. (1960). A History of Russia. 5 vols., tr. C. J. Hogarth. New York: Russell & Russell.

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Tucker, Robert C. (1990). Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 19281941. New York: Norton.

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Richard Hellie

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