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Vast Powers of the State


As a result of the increasing need for legal regimentation of all aspects of public life, the state began to grow, and its administrative apparatus considerably expanded. The backbone of the Russian state was formed by central administrative institutions known as prikazy (‘chancelleries’).  The system of prikazy had evolved naturally in the course of the formation and development of the centralized state, growing gradually out of the archaic institutions of the  courts of Russia’s earlier grand princes. By the end of the seventeenth century the overall number of  administrative prikazy reached over 80-90, with about 40 of them  permanently functioning. 

Prikaz chamber. Kolomenskoe Museum, Moscow. Photo:

Of particular importance were  prikazy with all-Russian competence. Among these was the Razriad - the chancellery which administered matters pertaining to the serving nobility, including the oversight of their service, and also kept a roll of the nobles. The Pomestnyi prikaz ensured the proper functioning of the manor system: it directly oversaw the distribution of the land (together with peasant households on it) among the serving nobility, formalized transactions involving manorial lands.

The Privy prikaz  was headed personally by the tsar and oversaw the activities of supreme governmental bodies and top civil and military officials.  Military matters were controlled by several prikazy, each one in charge of a particular branch of the armed forces.  The Muscovite administrative system may look archaic now, but, in its day, it was, obviously, capable of ensuring the stability of the Russian system of social estates as well as maintaining vital  functions of the State.

The important point to make here is that in the pre-Petrine Russia the development of  the system of social estates was inextricably linked with the evolution of the administrative apparatus. Indeed, they represent two sides of a single process.  The social estates emerged and evolved under the direct intervention of the state, whereas the administrative institutions and government agencies were created to ensure smooth operation of the system of social estates. As a result, the social estates and the state became entwined. The close dependence of social estates and the state on each other gave rise to a specific type of  the Russian state, a service state. All its subjects were bonded either to the place where they lived or to the service they were obligated to perform. All had as their raison d’être service to society. And above all of them reigned the government with absolute, unrestricted powers.  It was difficult to draw the line between society and the state: each social estate, stratum, group performed certain service functions and occupied a clearly defined and legally binding place in a strict hierarchy of power and privilege. 

The unique relationship between Russia’s social estates and the state has been summed up by Martin Malia who observed that: ‘By the sixteenth century, the service gentry was wholly subordinated to the autocratic tsar, and the peasants were enserfed to support the gentry, while both the peasants and the small class of townsmen paid taxes to the state, and the clergy prayed  for the success of the whole. Thus, in Russia the lord-peasant order of traditional Europe was organized to meet the military needs of the monarchy in what is best described as a universal service state’.

The landed nobility became the backbone of Russia’s social organization. The ascendancy of this ruling group went hand in hand with the imposition of various restrictions on other social classes and, first of all, on the peasantry, but also on the merchant class and the townsmen. The merchants were ‘tied’ in a hierarchy of guilds, following a similar ‘state-control’ pattern. The tight legal regimentation of the social structure constricted economic growth, for it made difficult the development and free play of the market forces. The result of the centuries-long evolution of Russia’s distinctive social organization was that social progress became possible only through state regulation of all aspects of socio-economic development. In contrast to the West, where social progress was achieved through the natural development of economic relations, the Russian state drew its strength and vitality from the use of non-economic methods, such as coercion. Eventually, the state concentrated in its hands the control and distribution of the nation’s entire human and material resources. In the words of the Russian historian  George Fedotov:


The entire process of historical development in early Russia took the opposite course to that of Western Europe; it was a development from freedom towards slavery. A slavery dictated not by the whims of rulers, but by a new national goal: the creation of an Empire on the basis of a meagre economy. Only extreme all-embracing tension, iron discipline and terrible sacrifices could maintain this beggarly, barbarian, continuously expanding state... Consciously or unconsciously, [the Russian people] made the choice between power as a nation and freedom...

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Pre-Petrine Russia

Origins of Kievan Rus
Emergence of Muscovy
Imperial Expansion
Key Historical Factors
Environment and Climate
Geopolitical Factor
Religious Factor
Social Organization
"Service State"
Consolidation of Serfdom
Vast Powers of the State
Traditional Society
Political Regime


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
Catherine the Great
Alexander I
Nicholas I
Alexander II
The Revolutionary Movement
Appearance of Marxism
The Last Romanovs
The Birth of Bolshevism
The Revolution of 1905-7
Between Revolutions
The Revolutions of 1917
Interpretations of 1917
The End of an Empire
Tables and Statistics

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