January 01, 2012

Peter's Table of Ranks

Tsar Peter Alexeyevich (a.k.a. “the Great”) strongly believed that everyone in his country should serve the State. The nobility was required to perform a term of military or civil service (the former, naturally, bestowed greater honor). Merchants and artisans had to participate in the construction of fortresses and, most importantly, the city of St. Petersburg, whatever sacrifices that might entail. There even came a time when the construction of stone buildings was banned throughout Russia except for the new northern capital, and stone masons, carpenters, and anyone else who could prove useful in erecting a city in a swamp was brought to the site of the future capital, to help make its avenues and palaces a reality.

The peasants were, of course, also required to do their part. Some percentage of them was now pressed into a lifetime of military service, a term that was later reduced to 25 years, which did not, generally, leave much life to live. And if a fortress or road happened to be built near a particular village, the peasants would be driven from their fields to work on it, or if a manufacturing facility was placed nearby, the entire village could be “attached” to the factory. The household tax was replaced with a soul tax, in other words a tax on each male, regardless of age. Before Peter’s reign, the family had been the unit of taxation, so grown children often continued living with their parents as a means to dodging taxes. By switching the unit of taxation to each male “soul,” Peter was able to immediately boost revenues to support the army and his expanding government apparatus.*

Peter’s subjects were not exactly thrilled with these measures. The peasants came up with all sorts of ways to try to escape the onerous duties being placed on them and to evade military service. Artisans naturally did not want to leave hearth and home for the frigid banks of the Gulf of Finland. And the nobility was not at all pleased at the prospect of handing over their young sons to serve in the military, especially as they would be starting at the lowest ranks, and, on top of that, might be sent abroad to some distant, strange, and frightening lands.

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