Alexei Karimov, Ph. D., researcher in the History of Geography, Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences

The epoch of Peter the Great is rather controversial. From one side, the feudal representative system and traditional medieval state and social institutions had been replaced by the bureaucratic authoritarian empire. From the other – the country became opened to foreign influence overcoming the tradition of introspection and closeness. Not only the state administration, economics and technology had been changed. The western science of the New Ages had been developed in Petrine Russia with its’ social institutions and regulations which required the autonomy of thought, intellectual freedom and the whole environment for development of pure science and education. In this environment the statesmen, military officers, diplomats, architectures, geodesists – the whole educated elite was brought up.

At the beginning of the reforms the practical needs of efficiency of state management, army and navy reform determined the introduction of the Western state and economic institutions (1). The history of forest surveys show that state institutions of early Petrine Russia were based on the state and economic forms of the previous medieval period. Changed according to the current needs of the moment they developed from their medieval successors closer to the Western ones. The middle of the century is the date of total transformation of these institutions. Apart from the practical applications they begin to play an important role for academic science development, collection of geographical information and for the professional education. Thus they take part in introducing Western scientific community and social regulations corresponding to it. This may be called the duality of Petrine intellectual history.

Petrine forest surveys and the whole system of forest cadastre demonstrate the raise of power and influence of the centralized state. It illustrates the history of origin of the bureaucratic centralized empire. The comparison of forest surveys in Russia and England stresses even more the role of the total transformation of the character of the Russian state under Petrine reign. From the other side the history of forest surveys illustrates the different trend: the links and influence of Russian medieval state and economic institutions on the Petrine ones, shows the basis on which the Western approach to the state, economy and science was planted, illustrates the raise of academic geographical science developed from the various kinds of geographical practice.

Medieval forest descriptions are located in “pistsovye knigi” – survey books of Administration of Estates - “Pomestnyi Prikaz”. Since the end of 15 century it undertook regular surveys of the lands of Moscow State. There were created descriptions of the whole state and its separate provinces. They included number of peasants in each village of the estate, quantity of arable lands, slash-and-burn farming and meadowlands, approximate data on forests. Being improved from one survey to another, late descriptions of the 17th century demonstrate distinguished and complicated feudal cadastre.

Cadastre of this period had been the tax cadastre - evaluation of settled and exploited lands. It dealt sometimes with fisheries, apiaries, hunting estates of tsars. Virgin forests, empty lands and marshes “as is” attracted no attention of surveyors. This situation reflected abundance of agricultural resources and low density of peasant population. This shows the level of geographical knowledge of this period: despite the fact that mayor waterways and roads had been described and well-known, contemporaries of Ivan the Terrible or Boris Godunov seem to be unaware of endless Russian forests as foreign ambassadors and merchants had been on their way to the capital of Muscovy. Contemporary documents show that even for wealthy native aristocracy going astray while travelling in the forests of the Central Russia was not surprising. Sometimes it could even serve as pretence for them in unsuccessful attempts of runaway abroad from Russian service(2).

Petrine reforms meant the end of the old order. The state economy, pressed by necessity of urgent changes, increased day by day. Practically all economic projects (including military) had been based on the rich resources belonging to the state or quasi-state enterprises with forests, mines and slaves enclosed to them, such as the baron Stroganov’s tremendous estate in Siberia or - some time later - Demidov’s iron plants in Ural mountains. The request for natural resources was growing constantly. The forests were to satisfy the needs of navy and metallurgic industry, peasantry should also serve as a resource for magnificent state building. The rights of the classes had been strongly restricted, the basis of common rights regulating the relations between vassals and supreme power decreased. The development of serfdom in Petrine Russia, for example, is seen by P. N. Milukov as a result of the fiscal reform and growing state’s demand for taxes (3) .

First steps of Petrine reforms were caused by the urgent needs of the war. The beginning of the century is the period for searching of the form and ways to manage forest supply. First experience of Petrine forest cadastre took place in 1698 – 1701 when the first men-of-war had been built at Voronezh dockyard. In these years the tzar ordered surveys of Voronezh forests in attempts to find timber for shipbuilding (4). Documents of these surveys are stored among the papers of the “Tzarskii Shater” of Navy History Archive [RGA VMF], Petersburg. They show the survey techniques very much in common with medieval land surveys of “pistsovye knigi”. The only difference was that these detailed and explicit descriptions were devoted to forests instead of agricultural lands.

A definite analogy with the medieval tradition of natural resources management could be observed. First experience of forest management show that the young Petrine administration used the experience of Pomestnyi Prikaz, pistsovye knigi surveys and the whole tradition of taxation for the new purpose – survey and management of Navy forests. Navy officers and clerks seem to have just the same functions as Pomestnyi Prikaz d’iaki and pistsy. In one case the officials sent to Voronezh uezd for ash forest survey are old-fashionably called “pod’iachie”(5). They received special tzar instructions and were vested power to order local landlords and clergy, to check property rights and to put requisitions. The content of these descriptions is similar to the pistsovye knigi, except the fact that in contrast to them, forest statistics is set up in river basins while pistsovye knigi were set up in local proprietors, name after name. But terms, measurement and professional language seem to be just the same.

First forest surveys are fragmental descriptions in order to supply the building of just several Navy vessels. Only the most suitable forests along main rivers near the city had been described. No systematic, regular cadastral surveys were planned and fulfilled at this time.

Much more detailed and full are the survey documents of 1720th – the period of Baltic Navy activities. They show the first attempts to develop the regular forest cadastre required by the Baltic Navy forest supply. A decade later they resulted into a regular cadastre. In 1720th a set of surveys organized according to the identical plan took place around Petersburg, at the islands of Neva delta, along the rivers of Novgorod gubernia (6). They meant the first attempt of systematic regular surveys of Russian forests. The Admiralty classes contain correspondence on copying and distribution among uezd military offices (voevodskie kantseliarii) “val’dmeister books of 1722-nd and 1723-rd” – descriptions of preserved forests(7). Probably, a large part of Russian forests had been described at that time.

Important is the fact that Admiralty surveys were among the earliest regular geographic surveys in Russia. Navy geodesists formed the basis for the mapmaking of the whole country. The Senate decree “On the sending of the Petersburg [Navy] Academy pupils for mapmaking” [O posylke uchenikiv S.-Peterburgskoi [Morskoi] Academii dlia sochineniia landkart] issued in 1720ty shows that Navy was considered to posses the approved “know-how” of geographical surveys and descriptions of the country. Professor of the Naval Academy Farquharson prepared official instruction to the Petrine geodesists performing surveys under general supervision of Senate secretary Kirillov (8) . We may say that forest surveys among other geographical activities of the Navy played a key role in the geographical practice development in Russia.

The decade of 1720ths is the period of emergence of the general program of mapping and geographical exploration of Russia in order to raise efficiency of the central government and to establish strict control under the regions. (See topographic map of Nizhegorodskii uezd, ~1733). Forest surveys of 1720th are contemporary to the “General Regulations” [Generalnyi Reglament] where effective state administration was stated to be the main purpose of mapping and geographical exploration of the Empire (9). They started at 14 March, 1720, fourteen days after the “General Regulations” had been issued (10). According to this program a large amount of geographical activities took place and forest surveys were the earliest and most important.

In 1720th the special order of forest management (established by the Decree of 1703) finally got into power. It restricted forest owners and in fact meant nationalization of forests. Since that time Admiralty became de-facto supreme proprietor of high quality timber. We studied documents devoted to the building of the road from Moscow to Petersburg (11). They include special orders, allowing to cut any suitable timber for this purpose despite of its ownership. The correspondence of Admiralty with the Holy Synod include Synod orders to the monastery peasants of Novgorodskaia guberniia to obey the orders of Navy officers - surveyors of Novgorod forests (12). At this time and later forests suitable for the Navy supply lying at the established distance of 50 verst from big rivers and 20 - from small ones were banned from cutting. These restrictions included not only state, monastery and common forests: all the private owners were banned from cutting their high quality timber without a special permission of Admiralty officer stating that this timber is not suitable for the Navy. The historian of Ministry of State property L. Zakharov definitely stated that private owners received their rights back only it 1782 by the order of Ekaterina the Great (13).

In 1730th the forest surveys and management developed into mature and stable system. It is the period of initiation of systematic exploration of Russian forests and the countrywide cadastre according to the program worked out in the previous decade. In 1732 the first countrywide instructions on forest preservation had been issued. At that time forest cadastre was considered to be not only the source for Navy supply but the institution at the service of the state. The mapping of forests was started. We studied Admiralty forest statistics in the Navy History archive and found that in some cases it corresponds to the forest maps stored in Dept. of Manuscripts, Library of Academy of Sciences (OR BAN). In fact statistics from the Navy History archive and corresponding to it maps from OR BAN belong to the same survey. Titles of Admiralty files from RGA VMF mention mapping and statistical descriptions as two components of the survey (14) . Navy geodesists and Senate officials, whose activities were tightly connected with Geographic Department of Academy of Sciences, worked hand in hand having common aims. (See Admiralty map of Navy forests in Nizhegorodskii uezd, ~ 1736).

Forest maps were not included in the most important geographical atlases (Kirillov Atlas and the Big Academic Atlas) because they did not cover a large territory. But they were kept at the same map collection as maps of Petrine geodesists used for the compilation of these Atlases. Academy of Sciences participated in working out the program of mapping of Navy forests. Orders on the beginning of Admiralty forest surveys had been issued by Senate (15) . In many cases forest maps and statistics covered the areas where general topographic mapping took place few years before (16). All this shows common interests of Senate, Geographic Department and Admiralty, existence of unified and coordinated program of mapping of the country.

The fact that forest surveys are surprisingly detailed and exact deserves special attention. Also surprising is the large quantity of forest maps and statistics in various archives. Taking into consideration the fact that large-scale mapping had been new in the practice of Russian state management, we could see the importance of forest surveys for Petrine administration. It makes clear the great shipbuilding plans of Admiralty and Peter himself, this “Sailor and carpenter”, as he was called by Pushkin. The mapped resources of timber forests are many times more than the real forest consumption and shipbuilding had ever been at this time or later.

The technology of the forest mapping is well known (17) . It was largely borrowed from the Western mapmaking. The aim of Petrine cadastre and the general style of forest management is similar to the Colbert’s forest cadastre and management of the French crown estates (18)..But while the Colbert cadastre managed only forests of the crown, all the Russian forests in practice belonged to the crown for almost a century after implementation of Petrine cadastre. This nationalization seem to have nothing in common with European management of natural resources.

In the middle of the century forest mapping became an obligatory part of forest cadastre. A set of surveys had been performed in 1740th, at the same time general countrywide regulations on forest preservation had been issued. At the middle of the century all state forests were divided into three categories: Navy forests (Pic. 2) (19), forest defense lines (Pic. 3) - with the frontier's movement to the South this category soon lost it's importance, Berg-collegium forests enclosed to mines and plants (Pic. 4). Forest exploitation rules had been introduced. Some of the Berg-collegium maps show the plan for the forest rotation. But most of the forests were left in the property of Admiralty and it continues their mapping and statistics survey.

All the timber forests were examined and mapped by the Navy officers. All the oaks, pine-, lime - and fur-trees were counted and measured. The last third of the century was a forest doomsday indeed! Hundreds of large-scale maps and charts, accompanied with statistics were prepared. Later these documents served as the source for general forest atlases such as well-known “General Atlas ... of various kinds of forests”(20). It reflects in particular the plan of 1734th of the first Russian forest plantation - Lindulovskaia forest plantation under Petersburg.

At the end of 18th century forests were commuted under the management of the Ministry of Finances. At this time the Map collection of it’s Forest Department included 4549 uezd and guberniia Admiralty maps and 8 atlases of guberniia: Petersburg, Khersonskaia, Tavricheskaia, Novgorodskaia, Iaroslavskaia, Kazanskaia, Vologodskaia and Olonetskaia (21) . At that time forest cadastre becomes a stable institution and ordinary form of geographical practice in Russia. The very form of survey had been worked out which existed until the revolution and even until today.

Petrine cadastre illustrates the changes in the character of the state and development of an authoritarian bureaucratic empire. It is especially clear if compared with the English experience of forest surveys and management.

English cadastral tradition assumes the leading role of local initiative in surveying of the territories. This is especially true for the land cadastre and evaluation. Land use regulations, land evaluation and taxes distribution had been the duty of the local commons, not state officials. All great number of land maps of Parliament Enclosure and Tithe Commutation include maps of separate land holdings and parishes. In the history of English land mapping there were no centralized land surveys (except few exclusions) similar to the Russian General Bordering Survey of 18th century.

Great Britain had been much more dependent from forest supply than Russia due to the importance of the Navy for the country. But despite that the central authorities responsible for forest supply did not even suggest any restrictions of property rights to say nothing about nationalization. There existed three basic means of timber supply: import from the Central and Northern Europe, purchase of private timber in the country and timber supply from the Crown forests and plantations(22). So, internal forestry was only one way of forest supply among others. Special attention to English forests had been attracted during military conflicts in the continental Europe threatening to the overseas timber supply.

During Napoleonic wars the Parliament, British Navy, and Forest Commitioners were anxious to find an adequate replacement to the imported timber (23) . The continental blockade threatened the building of new vessels. One of the Parliament acts on New Forest suggested the policy of forest preservation: "...the wood and timber, not only in the New Forest, but in this kingdom in general, had of late years been much wasted and impaired, and the said Forest, that might be of much use and convenience for supply of His Majesty's Royal Navy was in danger of being destroyed if some speedy course were not taken to restore and preserve the growth of timber there." (24)  Parliament Act of 1812th on Alice Holt Forest  (25)  stressed the obstacles for timber import and lack of private forests. It suggested to start a policy of forest planting for timber supply in future. Some other Acts also suggested planting forests. According to these acts a couple of plantations had been founded: in the New Forest, for example, there were known artificial forests of 1700, 1756, 1775, 1808 – 17, 1830, 1847-62, 52 – 62 – corresponding to the contemporary Parliament Acts(26). But in general all these efforts did not result into a stable and coordinated program of forest planting, preservation and mapping for the common approach to the management of lands and forests had not been based on the leading state initiative but on local initiative and trade. The two countries developed controversial but nevertheless effective ways to satisfy the demands of their Navy.


Russian forest cadastre of the 18th century and it’s evolution is an example of evolution of methods and organization of medieval tax cadastre. It shows the influence of the practical needs of state and Navy building, industry development. Petrine forest cadastre developed into a separate state institution, with stable organization, regular updates and scientific basis.

The general style of forest management aroused under Peter the Great show the raise of the influence of the state, emergence of authoritarian bureaucratic empire. This is especially clear in comparison with the English tradition of land and forest management. Supreme Russian authorities consider rich natural resources (as well as the population) to be the immense source of power and strength, giving hem an opportunity to fulfil political, economic and social plans. Property right and other traditional rights were restricted and allowed only in consequence with the state interests.

Development of the scientific basis applied in forest surveys illustrate the introduction of Western science in Russia in general. It shows that introduction of Western science had been based on the demand for state reforms and improvement of efficiency of state administration and economics. But being introduced, forest cadastre became one of the means of geographical exploration of the country not only for practical needs, but for scientific purposes.

Acknowledgements: The author is grateful to the Organizing Committee of the International conference “Peter the Great and the West: new perspectives”, Greenwich, 1998 for the financial support of his participation at the conference which gave an opportunity to discuss this paper. I would like to thank Professor Lindsey Hughes, Head of Dept. of History, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London for the kind encouragement and all arrangements which allowed me to attend the conference. I would like to acknowledge the financial support of Russian Humanities Foundation (RGNF), I received for this research (project No 98-03-04093). I am grateful to the staff of Manuscript Dept. of Academy of Sciences’ Library, Russian State Historical Archive and Navy History Archive, St. Petersburg. My colleagues, Prof. A. V. Postnikov, Prof. V. K. Rakhilin and Dr. O. A. Alexandrovskaia gave me important advises for which I am grateful. I am happy to thank Dr. I. A. Merzliakova who was my first reader and critic.

  1. For the recent work giving the general picture of reforms see Lindsey Hughes, Russia in the age of Peter the Great, 1998.
  2. L. Alexeev, ‘Okovskoi les "Povesti vremennikh let" in Kultura srednevekovoi Rusi., Leningrad, 1974, p. 8.
  3. P. N. Miliukov, ‘Ocherki po istorii russkoi kul’tury.’, Part 1, St. Petersburg, 1896, p. 198.
  4. Probably the first Petrine forest survey is ‘Knigi … lesov opisannykh kapitanom Ivanom Verkhovskim po Severnomu Dontsu’, 1698 – 1701, RGA VMF, fond 177, opis’ 1, delo 7, p. 88.
  5. RGA VMF, fond 175, opis' 1, delo 13. 'O posylke pod'iachikh v Voronezhskii uezd dlia osmotra i opisi iasenevykh lesov' pp. 37 – 54.
  6. Eg: RGA VMF fond 223 opis’ 1, delo 234 ‘Opis’ sosnovym i beriozovym lesam, osmotrennym v 1723 g. na ostrove Dago s oznacheniem razmerov derev i sortov lesa.’ p. 304.
  7. RGA VMF fond 138, opis’ 1, delo 280. ‘Ob otpravke v Borovskuiu voevodskuiu kantseliariiu kopii s opisnykh val’dmeisterskikh knig 1722 i 1723 godov ob okhrane zapovednykh lesov dlia rukovodstva v voprose sokhraneniia lesov’
  8. O. A. Alexandrovskaia, ‘Stanovlenie geograficheskoi nauki v Rossii v XVIII veke’, Moscow, 1989, p. 30
  9. V. F. Gnucheva, ‘Geograficheskii departament Akademii nauk XVIII veka’, Moscow – Leningrad, 1946, pp. 20 – 21.  Ibid, p. 21.
  10. RGA VMF fond 212 Ukazy III otdelenie, delo 5, O pozvolenii rubit’ les dlia pochinki i postroiki “Moskovskoi preshpektivnoi dorogi” – vo vsekh dachakh, ch’i by oni ne byli’, p. 52ob.
  11. RGA VMF fond 212 Ukazy III otdelenie, delo 74, ‘Po isprosheniiu u Dukhovnogo Sinoda Poslushnogo ukaza v Novgorod, v Arkhiereiskii prikaz … o podchinenii krest’ian v votchinakh arkhiereiskikh, monastyrskikh i tserkovnykh kapitanu Dubrovinu, komandirovannomu dlia osmotra i opisi korabel’nykh lesov’, p. 27.
  12. Rossiiskii gosudarstvenyi istoricheskii arkhiv (RGIA), fond 381, opis’ 47, delo 526 Zakharov Lev, ‘Istoricheskii ocherk … po upravleniiu gosudarstvennymi imushestvami za stoletnee sushestvovanie’.
  13. See RGA VMF, class 138, opis’ 1, delo 68. ‘Ob otpravke geodezista Zubova dlia opisaniia kedrovogo lesa i sostavleniia karty Iarenskogo uezda Vologodskoi gubernii.’
  14. For such an order see ibid, p. 3.
  15. See illustrations from fond 35 OR BAN: Pic 1 - ‘Landkarta Nizhegorodskogo uezdu’ (No 496) – and Pic. 2 - ‘Landkarta Nizhegorodskogo uezdu chast'. Reestr korabel'nym dubovym lesam.’ (No 583) prepared soon after the first one, as could be seen from it’s design. All illustrations in this paper is courtesy of Academy of Sciences’ Library, Petersburg.
  16. S. M. Gul’ ‘Istoricheskii ocherk lesnoi geodezicheskoi s’emki’ in Trudy Lesotekhnicheskoi academii in. S. M. Kirova, vol. 69, 1950, A. V. Postnikov ‘Razvitie krupnomasshtabnoi kartografii v Rossii’, Moscow, 1989.
  17. Kain R. J. P., Baigent E. The Cadastral Map in the Service of the State. Chicago & London. 1992. Pp. 210 – 212.
  18. Pic. 3 – map of forest defence line contains an amusing mistake: confusion of the cardinal points. North (nord) is written at the bottom and south (zuid) – at the top, though the geographical situation is shown properly. This may point at an old Russian geographical drawing of XVII century as a source for the map.
  19. Pic. 4 – map of Novopavlovskii plant forests show plan of annual forest rotation (parcels under letters A, B, C, D).
  20. Russian National Library, Petersburg, Dept. of Manuscripts, Hermitage Collection, delo 610
  21. RGIA, fond 387, opis’ 47, delo 454 pp. 45 – 45ob. ‘Sluzhebnye bumagi Lesnogo Departamenta’, 1806.
  22. R. G. Albion, Forests and sea power. The timber problem of the Royal Navy. Cambridge, 1926.
  23. See PRO, class CRES 60/2, First report of the Surveyor General of His Magesty’s Land Revenue, 1 Dec. 1796, p. 6 and Fourth report of the Surveyor General, April 1809, p. 186.
  24. Acts of Parliament, 9&10, Will. 3, c. 36, 48.
  25. Act 52, Geo. 3, c. 72.
  26. PRO, class F3/1167.