Kormlenie (Pre-Soviet Russia)

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Kormlenie
Location: pre-Soviet Russia
USSR map.png
Author: Sergei Bogatyrev
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Original text by Sergei Bogatyrev

Kormlenie, literally meaning ‘feeding’, comes from the old East Slavic word kormiti (to maintain, to feed) and refers to the practice in pre-modern Russia of maintaining local officials at the expense of those they governed. Kormlenie entitled members of the court elite to receive three types of revenue and benefits from the local community. Firstly, it was maintenance (korm) consisting of a small annual assessment per household; labour service in the local official’s household; and holiday supply of food and fodder presented to the official on Christmas, Easter and St Peter’s Day (29 June). Secondly, the officials received fees for administering justice, the branding and registration of horses, the registration of visitors, tolls on shops, custom duties and marriage fees. Thirdly, the local community gave the officials gratuities as tokens of respect.


Kormlenie originated from the ancient practice of the prince and his retinue going on tribute-gathering rounds. During these journeys the prince dispensed justice in local communities, but heavily relied on those communities’ supplies to sustain the itinerant royal court. The prince gradually delegated to prominent members of his court the privilege to administer justice, together with entitlement to associated fees and benefits, in some of his towns. The tenure of a particular office granted to a courtier on the basis of the kormlenie system varied depending on his rank and service record, as well as the wealth and prestige of the town given to him. Originally such tenures could last as long as seventeen years. By the end of the fifteenth century a typical tenure had contracted to one year as the prince sought to reward as many servitors as possible with kormlenie (extensions to this period were possible as a token of royal favour). For the same reason the crown significantly reduced the size of territories distributed in accordance with the kormlenie practice.


The social status of kormlenie-holders ranged from top-level boyars acting as vicegerents (namestniki, officials exercising delegated power on behalf of the prince) in large prosperous cities like Novgorod, Kostroma, and Vladimir to cavalrymen who were entitled to collect certain fees in small rural communities, which were often situated far away from the cavalrymen’s home towns. In some instances the cost of visiting such remote territories was higher than the amount of due income, a situation that caused some cavalrymen to farm out their kormlenie revenues.


Description: Faithful photographic reproduction of the two-dimensional "The Town Governor (Voyevoda) Arrives to a Provincial Town" work of art done by Sergei Vasilievich Ivanov (1864–1910).Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As for the general nature of kormlenie, Marxist scholars see it as a form of feudal rent (Enin 2000: 315[1]). Revisionist studies treat kormlenie in the context of anthropological theories of generalised exchange in traditional societies like kula in Papua New Guinea (see entry in this volume) and dan in Northern India. These theories assume that gift presentation and exchange established solidarities and mutual obligations (Mauss 1966: 71-72[2]). Kormlenie was therefore similar to assigning fiefs and fee benefices in pre-bureaucratic societies (Davies 1997: 39[3]). Kormlenie was originally anything but a sinecure, since kormlenie-holders were the only local agents of princely power charged with responsible administrative, fiscal and military duties who did not receive any salary for their work (Veselovskii 1947: 267[4]).


The relationship among the central authorities, the kormlenie-holders and the local community is a matter of scholarly debate. Traditional scholarship emphasised the abuse of power by the vicegerents who tended to extract excessive payments from the local population. According to this interpretation, by the middle of the sixteenth century the corruption of local officials became so intolerable that in 1555/56 the central authorities abolished kormlenie and replaced it with a fixed sum of money that the locals paid not to the vicegerent, but to central fiscal bodies (Nosov 1986: 37-38[5]; Nosov and Paneiakh 1987: 27-35[6]). However, korlmlenie survived as an informal practice which led to the corruption of local officials; hence anachronistic parallels between kormlenie and corruption in Imperial Russia (Pipes 1974: 282[7]).


Revisionist studies argue that the central authorities did not attempt to abolish kormlenie in the sixteenth century. Rather, they adjusted the system with the aim of increasing the crown’s revenues and systematising the military service of the court elite. In addition to the abuse of power by the vicegerents, there were other serious reasons for the revision of the kormlenie system in the mid-1550s. These included the growing dissatisfaction of kormlenie-holders with the income assigned to them (apparently a response to the crown’s increasing demand for their military service); the disobedience of local populations; and the fiscal inefficiency of smaller kormlenie allocations (Veselovskii 1947: 277[8]; Vernadsky 1972: 141[9]; Nosov and Paneiakh 1987: 31[10]). This is why in 1555/56 the central authorities commuted maintenance to a tax payable directly to the central treasury. This reform was implemented not across the country, but only in those territories where it was fiscally and military expedient, or where the local population was particularly restless and where the central authorities did not trust individual vicegerents (Davies 1997: 48[11]). Instead of their kormlenie revenues, the vicegerents in affected territories now received cash payments from the central treasury. In practical terms the authorities abolished the inefficient smaller ‘feedings’ held by cavalrymen and a few of the large-scale ‘feedings’ of some magnates who had lost royal favour. In many other territories the vicegerent administration continued to function on the basis of the kormlenie system.


The practice of granting generous ‘feedings’ to influential courtiers received a new impulse during the reign of Fedor Ivanovich (1584-1598). In the seventeenth century the authorities replaced the vicegerents with town governors (gorodovye voevody) who existed until 1775. The latter were under the close supervision of central chancelleries, but still received no remuneration for their administrative duties, which might have significantly increased the officials’ travel expenses and the maintenance of their staff and agents, who were often the governors’ relatives (Enin 2000: 311-12[12]). Town governors thus continued extracting kormlenie remuneration from the local communities, some of which were forced to pay the officials over a quarter of their annual income. The early Romanovs were reluctant to formalise kormlenie along the lines of the past legislation issued in the first half of the sixteenth century, apparently fearing open resistance from the taxpayers (Davies 1997: 53[13]). Sporadic attempts to ban or legalise unofficial extortions and bribes under the early Romanovs (1620, 1661, 1679), Peter I (1713, 1714, 1720) and his successors (1726) were abortive and inefficient.


The practice of kormlenie originally provided local communities with various means of safeguarding their interests. From the late fifteenth century the central authorities regulated kormlenie through ordinance charters (ustavnye gramoty) issued to particular communities, through revenue entitlement lists issued to the kormlenie-holders and through the Law Codes of 1487 and 1551 (Davies 1997: 45[14]). The ordinance charters specified the amount of maintenance in kind due to the vicegerent and his agents and allowed the locals to define the amount of unregulated offerings of gifts or service. Should the officials be displeased with the provided maintenance, they could substitute it with payments in cash, the amounts of which were also stipulated in the charters. As ordinance charters fixed the amount of cash payment without taking inflation into account, private and church landowners tended to commute maintenance in kind to cash payments. In return for maintaining the local administration, members of the community were entitled to participate in court hearings held by the vicegerent. The charters also protected the community from the local officials attending communal celebrations without invitation and from unpaid requisitions of provision by the prince’s agents lodging with the locals (Vernadsky 1972: 132[15]).


The dismantling of the legal basis of kormlenie in the 1550s left the taxpayers with very few formal instruments for protecting their interests. Local communities recorded their ‘feeding’ payments in expenditure books, which served as a documentary evidence for petitioning Moscow against the extraordinary extortions levied by individual town governors. Deprived of its legal foundations, kormlenie became a matter of private arrangement between the official and the locals based on traditions and customs. From an anthropological perspective, kormlenie removed from the town governor his impersonal status of a bureaucrat and involved him in generalised exchange with the local community. Maintenance also performed an informal regulatory function by establishing prices for certain services rendered by the official for the community. For these reasons a community could even mutiny against a town governor who rejected communal maintenance and gratuities, as the locals saw such an attitude as reluctance to enter into informal reciprocal agreement (Davies 1997: 57[16]).


Kormlenie was not corruption in our modern sense and should be distinguished from later practices of bribery. Kormlenie was a practice typical of the pre-modern administration that struggled with limited financial and logistic resources. The central authorities saved on payments to its local officials by involving communities of taxpayers in maintaining local government through a combination of legal and informal mechanisms. In return for the maintenance they provided, communities gained access to justice through local officials acting as extensions of royal power. The state’s withdrawal from the legal regulation of kormlenie undermined the community’s position in dealings with the local officials as they increasingly entered into reciprocal exchange with individuals or specific interest groups within the community (Enin 2000: 312[17]). Kormlenie gradually gave way to recognisably modern forms of corruption such as bribery, that have plagued Russian administration ever since.


Notes

  1. Enin, G. P. 2000. Voevodskoe kormlenie v Rossii v XVII veke. St. Petersburg: Rossiiskaia natsional’naia biblioteka. 9
  2. Mauss, M. 1966. The Gift. Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Cohen and West Ltd.
  3. Davies, B. 1997. ‘The Politics of Give and Take: Kormlenie as Service Remuneration and Generalized Exchange, 1488-1726’, in A. M. Kleimola, G. D. Lenhoff, Culture and Identity in Muscovy, 1359-1584. Moscow: ITZ-Garant: 39-67
  4. Veselovskii, S. B. 1947. Feodal’noe zemlevladenie v Severo-Vostochnoi Rusi, vol. 1. Moscow, Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo AN SSSR.
  5. Nosov, N. E. (ed.) 1986. Zakonodatel’nye akty Russkogo gosudarstva vtoroi poloviny XVI – pervoi poloviny XVII veka. Teksty. Leningrad: Nauka, Leningradskoe otdelenie.
  6. Nosov, N. T. and Paneiakh V. M. (eds.) 1987. Zakonodatel’nye akty Russkogo gosudarstva vtoroi poloviny XVI – pervoi poloviny XVII veka. Kommentarii. Leningrad: Nauka, Leningradskoe otdelenie.
  7. Pipes, R. 1974. Russia under the Old Regime. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
  8. Veselovskii, S. B. 1947. Feodal’noe zemlevladenie v Severo-Vostochnoi Rusi, vol. 1. Moscow, Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo AN SSSR.
  9. Vernadsky, G. (ed.) 1972. A Source Book for Russian History from Early Times to 1917, vol. 1. New Haven, London: Yale University Press.
  10. Nosov, N. T. and Paneiakh V. M. (eds.) 1987. Zakonodatel’nye akty Russkogo gosudarstva vtoroi poloviny XVI – pervoi poloviny XVII veka. Kommentarii. Leningrad: Nauka, Leningradskoe otdelenie.
  11. Davies, B. 1997. ‘The Politics of Give and Take: Kormlenie as Service Remuneration and Generalized Exchange, 1488-1726’, in A. M. Kleimola, G. D. Lenhoff, Culture and Identity in Muscovy, 1359-1584. Moscow: ITZ-Garant: 39-67
  12. Enin, G. P. 2000. Voevodskoe kormlenie v Rossii v XVII veke. St. Petersburg: Rossiiskaia natsional’naia biblioteka. 9
  13. Davies, B. 1997. ‘The Politics of Give and Take: Kormlenie as Service Remuneration and Generalized Exchange, 1488-1726’, in A. M. Kleimola, G. D. Lenhoff, Culture and Identity in Muscovy, 1359-1584. Moscow: ITZ-Garant: 39-67
  14. Davies, B. 1997. ‘The Politics of Give and Take: Kormlenie as Service Remuneration and Generalized Exchange, 1488-1726’, in A. M. Kleimola, G. D. Lenhoff, Culture and Identity in Muscovy, 1359-1584. Moscow: ITZ-Garant: 39-67
  15. Vernadsky, G. (ed.) 1972. A Source Book for Russian History from Early Times to 1917, vol. 1. New Haven, London: Yale University Press.
  16. Davies, B. 1997. ‘The Politics of Give and Take: Kormlenie as Service Remuneration and Generalized Exchange, 1488-1726’, in A. M. Kleimola, G. D. Lenhoff, Culture and Identity in Muscovy, 1359-1584. Moscow: ITZ-Garant: 39-67
  17. Enin, G. P. 2000. Voevodskoe kormlenie v Rossii v XVII veke. St. Petersburg: Rossiiskaia natsional’naia biblioteka. 9