The Europeanized Elite in Russia, 1762–1825. Public Role and Subjective Self
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.
“Keeping the Books” includes an analysis of changing practices in accounting books maintained by the elite for their own use, which detailed income and expenditure. By way of an analysis of the categories through which the elite related income to expenditure, we identify emerging processes of rationalization and changing attitudes toward debt. The material presented in this section demonstrates that as sources of income diversifed in the last three decades of the eighteenth century, the elite became increasingly concerned with understanding and rationalizing their fnancial situation, which qualifes the received stereotype of an elite blithely contracting debts for the sake of ostentatious consumption.