The State Service of Moscow Merchants in the Second Quarter of the Eighteenth Century

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, Russian merchants were obliged to fulfil specific service to the State. The most important service that they rendered to the State was the collection of tolls and tavern revenues. The collection of tolls and tavern revenues were forms of indirect taxation. In the seventeenth century, more than half of State income came from these indirect taxes while, in the eighteenth century, such indirect taxes were behind the Poll Tax in terms of State revenue. Hence such service by members of the merchantry was very important for the Russian state in the early modern period.

Members of the urban community elected the administrators of the customs houses and of the tavern revenues. These elected administrators served their term without any salary.

The most important monograph devoted to the question of this form of State service by the merchantry is by Kizevetter (Посаднская община в России XVIII века, published in 1903). In Soviet historiography, this topic was not particularly popular, although more recently, Bulgakov has published a monograph (Государственные службы посадских людей, 2004), which deals with the question of merchant service in the seventeenth century. Kizevetter's research shows that service obligations were very hard for the merchants. The system of Russian merchant service was known from the sixteenth century and existed until the reforms of Catherine II in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that there were some social strategies that could help merchants to survive, and indeed flourish, despite the burdens of this service.

One of the purposes of my research is to shed light on the social strategies amongst the merchants in State service. A detailed, micro-historical reconstruction of Moscow merchant State service provides some means to explore these social strategies. In the second quarter of the eighteenth century was a key period, after Peter the Great's reforms, but when the old system of merchant service continued to exist without any serious changes. Moscow was the economic center of Russia in this period.

A detailed reconstruction of the merchant services required a careful search through the available archival sources. In particular, the materials of the Moscow Magistrature (RGADA, ф.308), of the Senate (RGADA, ф.248), of the Kamer College (RGADA, ф.273), amongst others.

Elected administrators had to be wealthy and literate. The reconstruction of election process reveals that Moscow merchants often elected sick or poor people to the posts in the Custom houses and tavern administrators. Some of the candidates were considered mentally ill. This was in direct violation of the law. Sick, poor, or mentally ill were not considered able to manage such affairs effectively. Each customs houses or tavern had a fixed budget (оклад), which that administrator was obliged to collect. Under the law, any shortage in the budget had to be compensated by the elected administrator personally, or by the town community collectively, if the adminstrator could not pay.

My research shows that elected administrators were mostly unable to pay. As a result, urban communities were obliged to compensate this budget deficit. There were some significant reasons for urban communities to elect sick and poor persons.

Merchants knew that the judicial investigation of any budget shortage would take a long time; sometimes ten years or more, in some cases. As a result, it can be suggested that, for the urban communities, it was very important to save merchants with average earnings and the richest merchants at present. Usually the richest members of the urban community paid the main part of the taxes. Any direct taxes were paid by members of the urban community collectively.

The social strategies of the merchants also can be illustrated by their behaviour during the judicial investigations of any shortages. Naturally any accused merchants tried to prove their innocence. In most cases, they failed, but their active role in investigations helped to delay this outcome. Some of the accused merchants left their town in the meantime.

Of course, such social strategies were not the only factor that helped Russian merchants to adapt to difficult conditions associated with such merchant service. In many ways, the Russian State favoured the development of merchant trade. Merchants had a monopoly right on trade. The social strategies of the merchants, however, were a very important and unknown aspect of this topic.

- Егорь Наседкин, Российский государственый архив древных актов

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