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Regular version of the site

Book chapter

1771-1772 Great Plague in Moscow and Old Believers Economic Growth

Historians’ interest toward the history of disasters, primarily epidemics and pandemics, is longstanding, nevertheless, the 1997 publication by David M. Herlihy was a pioneering one since it offered a new and well grounded vision of the influence the 14th century Black Death had on the development of Western Europe. Significantly, besides its influence on the social, cultural, scientific and technical development, the Black Death effect on the late-medieval economy was also noted. Following that publication, Disaster Studies were no longer seen as a marginal area, and research literature on the impact of epidemics, earthquakes and tsunamis around the globe from the Caribbean (Haiti) to the Central Asia (Uzbekistan) in various historic periods, started to appear, and here the books edited by David Herlihy, Samuel K. Cohn Jr., Rosemary Horrox, etc. may be mentioned. A broad discussion followed, with some researchers insisting the pandemics had solely devastating effects on the European civilization (Philip Ziegler, Robert S. Gottfried, Guido Alfani), but it has failed to fully explore the impact such disasters had on the economy in general and the entrepreneurship specifically.

It is noteworthy, the arguments of both sides ignore Russia’s experience of stimulating impacts the plagues had on business, namely, the emergence and development of the major centres of the Old Believers denominations (soglasiyas). The religious dissidents became economy leaders (in textiles, grain supplies, etc.) at the Russian industrialization’s initial stage. Abundant historic documents, both published and archive kept, illustrating the Old Believers’ activities (religious communities constituent documents, sets of rules, statutes, police reports, denouncements), are available and exhibit the mechanisms of the Old Believers’ major economic and religious centres and entrepreneurial networks establishment and development.

Due to ruthless persecutions of the late 17th and first half of the 18th centuries, the Old Believers fled to the outskirts of the Russian Empire and could not legally return to its central areas. Operating from the enclaves by the White Sea in the north, in the Ukraine in the south-west, and in other areas, they built up businesses based on the new labour ethics, new business perceptions, and new corporativity. Still, their contribution to the national economy was insignificant due to the regional marginality and de facto illegality of their activities.

Plagues in Russia were less dramatic compared to Europe, but in 1771-1772 the most devastating plague in Russian history hit Moscow where the authorities had no mechanisms to fight epidemics. The help came from the merchants, Old Believers primarily (somewhat 300 major traders), so the authorities had to accept public support. It was an emergency measure towards persecuted Old Believers which allowed lawful establishment of certain institutions. It was permitted to arrange two private quarantines on rented lands nearby Moscow, the then biggest economic enclave in European Russia. The rare Moscow Old Believers nursed the ill, set hospitals, dorms, orphanages and tabernacles. Many Moscovites brought to Preobrazhensky and Rogozhsky quarantines accepted the faith of their life-savers while dying patients left their assets seen by the Old Believers as Christ's property, to religious communities.

Later, an official status was granted to the enclaves where almshouses for survived and children of the dead, and actually headquarters of two main Old Believers' denominations were located and archdioceses of soglasiyas emerged. They became religious and economic centres of the denominations and supported communities and businesses of other towns. Within two decades various confessional, ethic, legal, social factors brought up thousands of industrial and merchant companies shaping foundations for the Old Believers’ economic power. Moscow communities formed around plague cemeteries and hospitals of the epidemics period, remained major centres.