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Administrative Reform


The centerpiece of Peterís administrative reform was the replacement of the Muscovite chancelleries (prikazy)  by a network of central administrative colleges modeled on the system that existed in Sweden and other parts of Europe. In contrast to the traditional system of prikazy, in which all administrative activity had been based on custom and precedent, colleges were modern government departments in which the business of government was conducted on a proper legal basis of norms and regulations. The setting-up of the new administrative system reflected Peterís attempt to create executive apparatus that could ensure proper functioning of a Ďregularí state. In contrast to the old Muscovite prikazy, the new imperial administrative system of colleges was characterized by a higher degree of unification, centralization and differentiation of  administrative functions. The radical overhaul of  central institutions of government enabled Peter to overcome the resistance to his innovations in the higher echelons of his administration and forge an executive arm capable of pushing through his bold reform measures. 


Boyars of the 16th-17th centuries

The process of the rationalization of government involved the restructuring of the traditional hierarchy within the ruling class itself, as well as the reform of the state institutions. The modernizing Tsar needed a ruling elite which was efficient and compliant. To some extent, the rise of the new bureaucracy had been prepared by the gradual erosion of the unchallenged privileged status traditionally enjoyed by the top layer of the nobility  known as the boyars.

The elevated status of the boyars, in contrast to the lower gentry, the pomeshchiks, was based on the claim of high birth, as many of them were the descendants of princes who held principalities in the fragmented Russia before the establishment of the unified Russian state by the Moscow rulers. In the first quarter of the eighteenth century this upper echelon of aristocracy still had enormous economic wealth based on their vast landholdings and the ownership of great numbers of peasants.  But their position of privilege was increasingly challenged by the elements from the gentry of a less distinguished and ancient lineage whose claims to power rested on their growing economic prosperity and successful political career.

1722 Table of Ranks

Peter formally overruled the primacy of the old principle of subordination based on pedigree by the introduction, in 1722, of the Table of Ranks, which was directly influenced by similar developments in Prussia and other countries of Europe. The Table of  Ranks attempted to combine such parameters as lineage, rank, merit and years of service to define the status of a civil or military servant  in society.

It established for all those who owed service to the State a hierarchy of fourteen grades of individual merit which applied to military officers or their civilian counterparts. Service, whether in the army or navy or in civil administration, was for life.  All entered at the lowest grade and all were given the opportunity to rise to the top. Promotion to the eighth grade carried with it the noblemanís privileges, among others, of owning serfs. Service, in this sense, became a career open to talent.

The Table of Ranks signified greater systematization and unification of the administrative service and thus its rationalization. It helped promote the principle of fitness for government service above considerations of birth and pedigree. It institutionalized, to some extent, a degree of democratization within the ruling elite and permitted a measure of upward mobility by legalizing the possibility of obtaining noble status through career promotion. The new hierarchy of ranks undermined the position of the big boyar aristocracy as a privileged social caste by eroding its power monopoly and expanding the representation of the lower nobility in the high reaches of government. By setting down clear principles of its service for the State and codifying its social position and privileges, the Table of Ranks accelerated the process of the transformation of bureaucracy into a social estate in its own right.

At the institutional level, the creation of a Senate in 1711 as a top government agency to replace the Boyar Duma reflected the waning fortunes of the top boyar group. In the pre-Petrine Russia the Boyar Duma was a supreme consultative body for passing laws and running the administration. Its members were appointed by the tsar and were drawn from old, established boyar families. In effect, members of the Duma were the very apex of the ruling elite of the Muscovite State, a group of the tsarís top advisers. In the newly created Senate members were also appointed by the tsar, but in one significant respect it represented a governmental institution of a new type. Ability took priority over high birth, for the modernizing tsar needed capable top administrators who could supervise effective operation of the new system of administrative colleges, draft necessary legislation and, in general, spearhead the reform of central government.

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