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

An epoch of Peter I is a turning point in the Russian history. But the character of the changes is more difficult to be defined. The well-know view on Petrine reign as westernization, the turn from Asian, stagnant, introspective Moscow Rus' towards the Europe of the New Ages does not reflect the whole picture. The European influence was great indeed, but something in the nature of the Russian state the Great Reformer left does not allow to consider it European in full sense of the word (1).

The historical studies the at the beginning of 20th century (2) showed that there had been much in common between the social institutions of Middle Ages Moscow Rus' and Western Europe, especially in the social organization of a rural parish. Thus the works of Russian philosophers of a 19-th century, stating a totally original character of pre-Petrine Russian culture, society and the state and its basic differences from the European ones and seeing the reasons for it either in endless forestry planes of ancient Rus’ or in specific character of Orthodox faith should be treated very carefully dispite their popularity in modern Russia. The politics of 19-th century Russia influenced the disputes on Russian national identity much more one could imagine.

One more view on Petrine reign was expressed by soviet historical and especially, popular literature of 1950-th. Official soviet journalists and writers examined the Petrine state building reforms with special attention not at westernization but at the passion for changes, with the theme of the state as a cultural force. The novell of Alexei Tolstoy "Peter I" could be called the strongest expression of this idea. It examined Petrine reign and reforms from the point of view of Stalin’s ones and stated that the first Emperor of Russia had been responsible for the start of magnificent projects of state building, imperial ideology and merciless way of bringing all this into practice. Thus, probably, the author tried to justify the cruel methods which were too well known to him. Such interpretation of history was more or less appreciated by the official ideology.

Probably the modernity might influence at the interpretation of history much more than may think the researchers who see their example in mathematics or technology. One could understand the desire to reexamine the epoch of Peter the Great today, when the same facts could be seen as different in the mirror of current changes in Russia. Certainly, the historical facts of this period are already carefully studied, though important archival documents and facts could be discovered yet. The unpublished diary of the close friend of Peter I and important statesman General Patrick Gordon studied by Dr. Lindsey Hughes (3) could be a good example as well as the whole problem of the role of foreigners in the planning and implementation of Petrine reforms.

We would like to examine the Russian cadastral surveys of 16 - 17-th centuries in order to compare them with those of 18-th century, to follow the changes in the nature and purposes of a cadastre. This would be an illustration of the changes in the Russian society and in the priorities of the state policy. This research deals with the Russian land survey books of the 16-17-th centuries (pistsovye knigi) and with documents and maps of land and forest cadastres and few other geographical surveys of cadastral character of 18-th century.

Land taxes and vassal obligations served as the basement of administrative, financial and military life of the Moscow State in 16 - 17 centuries. These duties were determined in accordance with the quantity and feudal status of land holding and it's agricultural value. The state itself did not carry out any important economic projects. Stability of central administration, power and wealth of Moscow state depended on prosperity of peasantry paying taxes and landlords serving for the state with their vassals.

Since the end of XV century Pomestnii Prikaz [Administration of Estates] undertook regular surveys of the lands of Moscow State. During these surveys there were created descriptions of the whole state and it's separate provinces. These descriptions (pistsoviie knigi) included number of peasants in each village of the estate, quantity of arable, assart and meadow lands, approximate data on forests. Being improved from one survey to another, late descriptions of the 17th century demonstrate distinguished and complicated feudal tax cadastre.

They evaluated land estates in two-steps way taking into consideration quantity of productive arable lands measured in a very accurate way. Next step was the evaluation of quality of the arable soil: good, medium or poor. After that the data on quality had been recalculated in exact proportion into special units of agricultural productivity (vyt’) strictly depending on the quality of arable soil. That was the way of evaluation of agricultural productivity of estate.

Secondly, surveyors took into consideration feudal status of the land holding they described. The estates of Moscow Tsars, clergy, commons, hereditary estates (votchini) of medieval aristocracy and granted "pomest’ia" of nobility carried unequal duties. Thus, the data on agricultural productivity of estate had been recalculated once more into special tax units (sokha) in order to reflect status of the landlord.

Land cadastre of this period had been the tax cadastre - evaluation of settled and exploited lands. It dealt with arable, assart and hayfield lands, 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 a pretence for them in unsuccessful attempts of runaway from Russian service to Poland (4).

Besides numerous surveys carried out by Moscow Administration of Estates, many wealthy landlords compiled cadastral descriptions of their lands: sovereign Great Princes, Archbishops, monasteries. The well-known are the numerous descriptions of the biggest Russian clergy landlord Troitse-Sergiev monastery, Volotsky monastery, Great Principality of Tver. Compiled far earlier then the Moscow ones had been the descriptions of Novgorod Principality - the feudal trade republic. The latest served as a source for many classic works on the history of North-West Russia. All these sources, being different in methods of description and calculation served for the one purpose of determination of vassal obligations to the landlord.

The Russian medieval cadastres had been a kind of routine regular survey. Land descriptions of the whole state or separate provinces were planned and fulfilled by the staff of Administration of Estates. Each expedition sent to an administrative unit to collect land use data included at least two senior officials (usually an experienced chancery official and a wealthy aristocrat) and few junior officials for whom it was a kind of practice. All the expeditions received special written orders from the tzar and had the right to check land property documents, to solve land disputes of local landlords, in some cases even to confiscate estates. These decisions could be changed only by the special tzar orders. A record in the cadastral book had usually been the best proof of property rights. The cadastral officials used to compare contemporary land use with the documents of the previous survey. That is why it is often possible to find brief data of a previous survey in the books of the next one.

In 1660-th land tax had been replaced with poll tax. Despite this old feudal system remained untouched and the Moscow government continued to collect statistical descriptions of its principality in order to check the fulfillment of vassals dues and for redistribution of empty lands. The last important action of Administration of Estates had been the Total Bordering (Valovoie Mezhevaniie) in 1680 - 1686-th which examined all administrative units of contemporary Moscow tsardom. For the first time the aim was set of bordering of estates and not only of measuring. It was connected with transformation of slash-and burn farming to three-fields system with the stable borders of parcels and estates. At the same time this aim showed the new level of geographical knowledge and demand.

The system of a land cadastre of 16 - 17-th centuries used the old-fashioned methods of direct land measuring in area units (5) when contemporary European countries began to use land charts and maps. But there exist a couple of archival documents showing the use of charts and plans in medieval cadastres. Well known is the evidence of historian and statesman of 18-th century V. N. Tatishev who examined Survey Instruction of Ivan IV [Pistsovii nakaz] of 1556 “With enclosed land charts.” Though this fact is disputed by some historians, the general level of mapmaking which could be seen from the published translations of books on geometry and land measuring (6) allowed at least to presume the technical possibility of the brief land mapping of Central Russia. All this proves the similarity of medieval Russian land cadastres and continental cadastral system. We may suggest the system using these had also been similar to the European one. Several historians (7) show the similar nature of peasant commons and slavery which gives additional arguments to this opinion.

Probably due to the lower density of the population dispersed on tremendous space, if compared with the European, non of the classes could effectively protect their rights against the constant attacks, as landlords, peasantry and citizens in the countries of Western Europe did. Maybe centralization of the state and military power had been higher because of the military and cultural frontier existing for centuries. But before Peter the Great land relations in the Moscow state did not loose its feudal nature. It means tight mutual dependence of central government, peasantry, aristocracy, nobility, dependence of Moscow from the economic development of the territories and prosperity of all of estates, elements of self- governing of administrative units. A kind of legal treaty between the tzar and landlords formed the basement of the civil and military service and financial system. All this is an indirect evidence of classes' representative system - a kind of feudal “democracy”.This was the system replaced by the tsar - reformer.

Petrine reforms meant the end of the old order. State building projects of Peter I, his political and economic projects, building of navy and re-organising of the army, mining and industry development, studying of the natural waterways and projects of channels - all this caused the centralisation of power, unknown before. The old order of state and military service was unable to satisfy the growing demands for qualified and numerous authorities corresponding to the complexity of the aims of the reign. But one of the main things was the impossibility of feudal system to answer to the increasing demand for civil and military staff due to the decreasing land resources which served as the “payment” for state service earlier. Politically weak vassal and tax classes were unable to resist the energy of the tzar.

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. As D. Shaw (8) stated, Petrine conception of modernisation did not care about the majority of Russians. The rights of the classes had been strongly restricted, the basement of common rights regulating the relations between vassals and supreme power decreased. The development of serfdom and growing pressure of peasant commons against the individuals is often seen as the result of Petrine reforms (Milukov, Op. cit.).

It was shown that Petrine reforms raised from the urgent demands of state management during the war and that Peter I had no definite concept of “westernization” (9). One can hardly believe that this practically - minded man could be interested in the largely abstract ideas of introducing of the foreign culture. We would like to show on the example of forest cadastres that foreign methods introduced in Russia developed not only in the different social and cultural context, but even in the versus administrative and management environment.

Navy building had been one of the main priorities of Peter I reign. The regular forest surveys were ordered in 1703. Soon all the timber forests of European Russia - from Baltic sea to Volga were managed by the Admiralty. I mean not only the forests of the crown but also private, common and clergy forests. It became illegal to the owners to cut their timber without a permission of Admiralty officers who should state that this timber is not suitable for the navy. The historiographer of the Ministry of State Property Lev Zakharov consider it to be the nationalisation of forest resources (10).Only at the reign of Ekaterina II liberalisation of the forest statute took place and in 1802 Forest Department became the body of Ministry of Finances (11).

All the timber forests were examined and mapped by the navy officers. All the oaks, pine-, lime - and fur-trees were counted and measured. It was a forest doomsday indeed. Hundreds of large-scale maps and charts, accompanied with tabular 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” from the Hermitage Collection of Manuscript Department of the National Library in Petersburg. These surveys were carried out even where forests were never used later.

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 (12). It was largely borrowed from the Western mapmaking. The aim of Petrine cadastres - navy building - is similar to the one of Colbert’s, who managed the French crown estates at the same way (13).But while the Colbert cadastres 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 nationalisation seem to have nothing in common with European management of natural resources.

Land cadastres could be opposed to the forest one. Highly developed in 16 - 17 centuries, it degraded during Petrine reign. The reason for it is not the tax reform (Total Bordering of 1680 - 1686 was successful despite it) but the transformation of feudal state into highly centralised bureaucratic system. With few exemptions, such as Ingermanlandskoie bordering survey in Baltic provinces, regular land surveys did not take place any more despite the fact that landed nobility remained the source for recruiting of military and civil statesmen. We may say that the land property of nobility, giving them independence, was considered as an obstacle to their state service. The implementation of obligatory strict forms of state service for nobility is a confirmation of this statement.

Despite the large map surveys of Petrine geodesists in the internal provinces of Russia, where most of land estates was situated, these maps do not reflect land property rights, as well as land use and evaluation. It is not an exaggeration to say that these documents are similar to the later surveys of Russian frontier and colonial territories of Crimea, Siberia, Mid-Asia. The main aim of those is the use of maps for the effective state management and the search for resources for the growing quest of state enterprises. The Petrine Generalnii Reglament [General Regulations] in the chapter devoted to maps and plans stated the purpose of mapping: “In order that each college [ministry - A. K.] should have an authentic inventory and information concerning the condition of the state and of the provinces belonging to it, it is necessary that there should be general and particular maps or charts in every college“. The decisions making statesmen consider the population to be only the one of the resources or an object of social planning.

The growing number of land disputes and conflicts had been the result of ignoring of he land registry. The Royal decrees of the 1750-th often mentioned land disputes and fights. Since the Total Bordering of 1680 - 1686 till 1770-th there were no important land surveys. The known Elizavetinskoie bordering survey of 1755 - 1759 met the resistance of nobility whose property rights should be checked. Only 250 parcels of land in the Moscow province were mapped at all. Major part of the nobility had no documents to back up their property rights. All this confirm the destruction of old cadastral system and total disorder of land property (14).

The activities of the newly founded Geographic Department of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences reflected the demand for the modernisation. Senate questionnaires of Tatishev and Lomonosov, complex geographical descriptions (cadastral in the wide sense of the word) show the expectations of the great social changes in which the state should play a leading role. The Petrine statesmen searched for the useful geographical objects, natural resources, fertile arable soil, new waterways. They tried to examine the obstacles to the economic development of the cities and regions and to study the ways of solving these problems. The original “resource” paradigm of Russian academic geography studied by Alexandrovskaia (15) is tightly connected with the planned reforms of central power and the strengthening of authoritarian trend. The fact that Petrine science was mainly practical-oriented and showed less interest to abstract theory (16) is an argument that Petrine state reforms served as an engine of academic geography development.

The emergence of “resource” paradigm in Russian geography and implementation of resource cadastres instead of tax ones is the result of Petrine modernisation. For long time till now these traits of Russian geographical knowledge remained linked with the active reforms carried out by the central power. Though the scientific basis of forest cadastre of Peter I - the most remarkable of his cadastres - had been borrowed from the European science, this stresses the original way of natural resources' management.

The weakness of the social classes and institutions of the pre-Petrine Russia played an important role in such a strengthening of the state. Peter I had opened “A window to Europe” indeed, but science and technology borrowed from abroad at first served for control and domination of bureaucracy upon people. The reforms revived slavery at the period of its last days in Europe, they destroyed the traditional representative institutions, converted the landed nobility into state employees. They widened the gap between Russia and Europe (17) as well as the gap between the power and civilians. The ambitious, traditional, bureaucratic Russian Empire replaced the feudal Rus’. And only the next step was the accepting of the reforms and emergence of new cultural basis on which the scientific and philosophical thought enriched by ideas of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution started to develop.

Acknowledgements. I am happy to acknowledge the Organizational Comittee of the XX International Congress for the History of Science (Liege, Belgium, 20 - 28 July 1997) for the financial support of my participation which gave me an opportunity to discuss this paper. I am grateful to professor Denis Shaw, Dept. of Geography, University of Burmingham, whose ideas on geography during Petrine reigh strongly influenced this paper. My colleagues did much to encourage me during this work, I am espessially grateful to Prof. A. V. Postnikov, Dr. O. A. Alexandrovskaia and Dr. N. I. Kuznetsova. The research was supported by the Russian State Foundation for Human Sciences (project No 97-03-04051).

Alexei Karimov,
Institute of History of Natural Sciences and Technology,
Staropansky 1/5, 103012 Moscow, Russia


  1. The author understands that the idea of “Europe in general " is largely theoretical in 16 - 18-th centuries. The continental social institutions may differ from English ones much more than from Russian. Under the idea of Europe I mean the hardly defined synthesis of Christian and Renaissance geopolitics (see M. Heffernan "The idea of Europe in Early Modern period: an historical geography" in Abstracts of RGS-IBG Annual Conference., Exeter-97 p. 129, for example). Further comparison of Russian and European cadastral and social systems are certainly disputable, but it is possible at least to follow the similarity of Russian social institutions with those of the European countries with strong central power.
  2. Milukov P. N. History of Russian Culture [Ocherki po istorii russkoi kulturi]. Moscow, 1902, Pavlov-Sylvanskii N. P. Feudalizm in Russia {Feodalizm v Rossii] St. Petersburg 1907
  3. "Between two Worlds: Tsarevna Natal'ia Alekseevna and the "Emancipation" of Petrine Women." in A Window on Russia. Papers from the V International Conference on Eighteen-Century Russia. Gargnano, 1994
  4. Alexeev L. V. Okovskoi les "Povesti vremennikh let". in Kultura srednevekovoi Rusi., Leningrad, 1974.
  5. Postnikov A. V. Razvitie krupnomashtabnoi kartografii v Rossii. [Large-scale mapping development in Russia] Moscow., 1989.
  6. Kniga imenuemaia Geometriia ili zemlemeriie ... daiushaia sposob izmeriat' mesta samiie nedostupniie, ploskosti, debri. [Book named Geometry or Land Measurement ... giving a method of measuring of the very inaccessible places, plains, jungles].
  7. See, for example, Milukov P. N. Ocherki po istorii russkoi kulturi. [History of Russian Culture. Moscow 1902, Pavlov-Silvanskii N. P. Feodalizm v Rossii [Feudalism in Russia] Petersburg 1907.
  8. Denis J. B. Shaw. Geographical practice and its significance in Peter the Great's Russia. in Journal of Historical Geography, 22, 2 (1996).
  9. Lebedev D. M. Geographiia v Rossii Petrovskogo vremeni [Geography in Petrine Russia] Moscow - Leningrad 1950, D. Shaw, Op. cit.
  10. Zakharov Lev. Istoricheskii ocherk po upravleniiu gosudarstvennimi imushestvami za stoletnee sushestvovaniie.[A hundred years of Ministry of State Property management.] Petersburg, 1911. Russian State Historical Archive , class 381, inv. 47, file 426.
  11. Gul' S. M. Istoricheskii ocherk organizatsii lesnoi geodezicheskoi s'emki [History of Forest Survey organization]. in Trudi Lesotekhnicheskoi Academii im. Kirova, 1950, vol. 69.
  12. Gul', Op. cit., Postnikov, Op. cit.
  13. Kain R. J. P., Baigent E. The Cadastral Map in the Service of the State. Chicago & London. 1992.
  14. The General Bordering Survey of 1765 accepted this disorder «as is» not trying to check property rights of landowners. In order to reduce costs and time of survey property rights had been checked only in case of land disputes, but in this case if the surveyors found surplus of land compared to the documents, it could be confiscated.
  15. Alexandrovskaia O. A. Stanovleniie geographicheskoi nauki v Rossii v XVIII veke. [Geographical Science Formation in 18-th century Russia]. Moscow, 1989.
  16. Kuznetsova N. I. Sotsial'nii experiment Petra Velikogo i formirovaniie nauki v Rossii. [Social experiment of Peter the Great and Emergence of Science in Russia] in Voprosi Philosophii, 1988, 2.
  17. D. Shaw, Op. cit.