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How Muscovy Governed: Seventeenth-Century Russian Central Administration

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The modern Russian state's first governmental administration, the chancellery system (prikaznaia sistema), guided Muscovy from the 1470s to the 1710s. A handful of state secretaries (d'iaki), subordinate clerks (pod'iachie), and several nascent bureaus matured into over ten permanent, well-codified bodies with decision-making boards, archives, professional hierarchies, and merit-based hiring and promotion by the 1550s. By the 1670s there were 60 chancelleries, and their Moscow staffs by the 1690s had increased to about 3,000, from the highest civil ranks (boyars and okol'niche) through the professional administrative ranks: duma state secretaries (dumnye d'iaki), the state secretaries, and clerks. The chancelleries (prikazy) discharged an array of state, royal court, and church functions, but military concerns were foremost. An arresting internal complexity typified the larger, more important chancelleries, like the Military and Foreign Affairs Chancelleries, divided into sub-units.

The chancellery system was entirely homegrown, owning nothing to Roman Imperial and Medieval Latin traditions. The Russians borrowed some paperwork (scrolls) and zealous attention to that from the Mongols, as they did Byzantine and Lithuanian legal elements. Documentary language was a vernacular, Middle Russian register, with burgeoning specialized vocabulary and phraseology. Strict oaths guided conduct, though judicial bureau personnel were notorious for bribe-taking. Foreign travel accounts commented on the obsequiousness of documentary format wherein petitioners referred to themselves as “slaves” (kholopy) and used first-name diminutives.

Seventeenth-century Muscovite centralized administration acquired Weber's hallmark features of a bureaucracy; the prikazy guided Muscovy and acculturated its subjects, from tsar to peasant, into its rationale, mechanisms, and operations. Weathering major social traumas and challenges, such as Ivan the Terrible's Oprichnina, the Time of Troubles, the Thirteen Years' War, and the 1682 Musketeers' Uprising, the chancelleries provided the bureaucratic continuity for the Imperial Russian and Soviet states.


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