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.
This article presents an attempt to reconsider the role of “Germans” in Russia in the 1730s by reconstructing the Pietist anthropological sensibilities of the key “German” ministers of Empress Anna Ioannovna. While these sensibilities did not necessarily translate into a coherently formulated policy program, it appears that they could be reflected in these ministers’ basic “administrative instincts,” in the ways in which they saw human nature and understood human interactions, and that this, in turn, shaped the policy choices they made at the helm of the Russian Empire. In particular, the article explores the reorganization of noble service, the promotion of education, and religious policies. Two themes are stressed: the focus on “interiorization” of obedience and the ways in which this focus drove a shift to developing more intrusive and systematic bureaucratic tools of observation, regulation, and assessment intended to effect this interiorization. From that point of view, the “German” ministers of the 1730s played a key role in extending the project of “Westernization” by actually stepping beyond the Petrine paradigm of “progress through coercion.”