From Passions to Ambitions: Human Nature and Governance from Peter I to the Emancipation of the Nobility
The emancipation of the nobility in 1762 was, arguably, the central event in the social and cultural history of the Russian imperial elite and, indeed, a watershed in the relationship between the elite and the state in Russia, marking official recognition by the monarchy of the nobles’ autonomous subjecthood. The road toward this recognition, it is argued here, was paved with a thorough reconceptualization of human nature in Russian governance practices in the first half of the eighteenth century, and reconstructing the trajectory of this reconceptualization is the goal in this chapter. Indeed, attempts to understand human nature were central for political thinking of the age, from Locke, Puffendorf, and Montesquieu to Smith and the Founding Fathers of the United States. Scholars of government and practicing politicians in the West debated the limitations and opportunities inherent in human nature for organizing better governance of their societies. So, I argue, did their counterparts in Russia. Whereas in Petrine administrative thinking and legislation nobles appear as subjects swayed by their pernicious passions and thus requiring to be restrained, in subsequent decades the members of the elite were increasingly viewed in a more positive light: as entitled, by their praiseworthy ambitions and love of honor, to make decisions regarding their own lives and the public good in general.