Transformation of the Russian "Leviathan" over the Centuries.

AuthorGrinev, Andrei V.
PositionArticle 2 - Essay

Towards the end of 2014 the popular Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan came to American screens. The following year the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated it for an Oscar. The film was named after the treatise by the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, (1) which used the image of the Biblical monster Leviathan to describe the power of the state ("mortal God"), which suppresses human rights and his dignity.

The Russian "Leviathan" in the form of Muscovite kingdom began to form at the end of the fifteenth-beginning of the sixteenth century. It formed from a conglomerate of former independent principalities and fiefdoms that had been subordinated in the thirteenth century by the Mongol Tatars. The subsequent formation of a single Muscovite state occurred under the powerful pressure of the politically experienced Tatar's Golden Horde, who borrowed from the material and political cultures of the Chinese, Mongols, Persians, as well as the Turks. (2)

Beyond Eastern cultural, political, and historical influences, the Muscovite kingdom evolved following an Eastern developmental pattern that predetermined by other factors. Geographically, the country was located on the Great Russian Plain and was open on all sides to foreign intrusions, which occurred especially often from the Eurasian steppe where over the centuries hordes of nomadic peoples replaced each other. Unceasing raids by the Tatar Mongols on the Rus' (3) bore an especially destructive character since they were accompanied not only by looting and the destruction of villages, but also by massive murders of the urban and rural population, with the survivors driven it into slavery. If feudal strife in Western Europe was periodically interrupted by truces, the struggle of the Rus' with the "Steppe" was almost constant. The outstanding Russian historian N. M. Karamzin, describing the Rus' of the mid-sixteenth century, exclaimed pathetically: "Russia, now really strong, still remained a victim of sudden attacks: we wanted the enemy to give us time to prepare a defense, drove him out, but our villages became empty, and the state lacked its main jewel: people!" (4)

As a result, Russian society was forced to spend vast resources--not on the development of the economy and social or spiritual sphere--but on maintenance of a centralized military apparatus for repelling the onslaughts of militant nomads. However, maintenance of permanent, large, armed forces was impossible without an increased tax burden on the population. This need helped form the Muscovite state tax system, created by the Tatars for squeezing out tribute. After the conquest of the Russian principalities, they made a list of the whole local population in 1257-1259 and imposed a tithe on it, which after deliverance from the Tatar yoke shifted into the hands of the Muscovite prince, creating a financial base for his power. In addition, the Horde's former Yamskaya duty (5) worked in his favor, and his treasury was enriched by money from redemption of Tatars' captives and other duties. (6) The Russian state, by the very logic of its development, became the most effective mechanism of compulsory removal from the bulk of the population their surplus goods (which were quite limited due to the sparse nature of the northern country), (7) for reallocation for the most important needs, as defined by the authorities.

In the struggle for unification of Russian territories, the Muscovy grand duke tried to replace the right of land ownership of the semi feudal princes with his own right. From formal supreme owner of the land and possessor of the title "Grand Duke of Vladimir," he turned into a real sovereign. (8) The other Russian principalities became ordinary districts of the Muscovy Grand Duchy through capture, peaceful association, or purchase. After 1480, when the Muscovy prince Ivan III cast off the Tatar yoke, once voluntary feudal lords switched to a position of servants at his throne, and the boyar (9) vassalage was transformed into a subordinate relation. (10) The German diplomat Sigismund Gerberstein, who visited Muscovy in 1517 and 1526, spoke of Grand Duke Vasilii Ivanovich, son of Ivan III and father of Ivan IV Groznyi (the Terrible):

"The authority that he applies in relation to his subjects easily surpasses all the monarchs of the world. And he also finished what his father began, and precisely took away from all the princes and other lords all their cities and forts.... He oppressed all similarly with severe slavery, so that, if he ordered someone to be at his court, or to go to war, or to send someone on an embassy, that person was forced to carry out all this at his own expense.... He uses his power on the clergy the same way as on the laity, disposing freely and at his will the life and property of everyone; of all the councilors whom he has, not one uses this position to dare to differ with him or to reject him in an affair." (11) Characterizing this time of transition of Russian society from a period of "udel'naya Rus"' (when Russia was fragmented into many independent principalities) to Muscovy absolutism, (12) the well-known Russian historian N. P. Pavlov-Sil'vanskii wrote:

"Free servants of the grand duke of the feudal period are replaced in the Muscovy state by slaves of the sovereign.... The feudal order was gradually falling starting with Ivan III by deprecation of the feudal princes under the heavy hand of the Muscovy sovereign. Tsar Ivan Groznyi, having taken in 1565 into his "oprichnina" the remains of the hereditary feudal possessions of the princes, (13) ultimately weakened them, having taken away support for their political claims." (14) While agreeing on the whole with such characteristics, it should nevertheless be emphasized that there was not "feudal order" in the Rus' before Ivan IV Groznyi, nor after, but rather only elements of a feudal way of life existed, a kind of "quasi-feudalism." (15) Initially the Muscovy state was formed not as feudal one, but as a politarian. Politarism (from the Greek word [phrase omitted]--the power of the majority, that is, in a broad sense, the state (16)) is a social system, the basis of which is the supreme property of the state on the fundamental means of production and primary bulk of the population. (17) In Western and Russian scholarship, politarism is often referred to as "Asiatic mode of production" (Karl Marx), "patrimonial state" (Richard Pipes), "etatism" (Vadim Radaev and Ovsei Shkaratan), "redistributive economy" (Ol'ga Bessonova)," "state feudalism" (Leonid Milov), and so on. (18) Outwardly it is reminiscent of feudalism: in both cases supreme private (that is, connected with exploitation) ownership of both the land and the laborers working on it exists. In both structures the workers (peasants) though dependent, still to a certain extent are owners of their land (or at least the labor inventory and other property) as well as their person. However, there are also differences. In feudal societies each individual feudal lord was in fact an independent supreme private possessor of a large land property, (19)and to him went the surplus product from it. The last was the basis of his economy, and practically, also political independence, as a consequence of which there was a period of feudal fragmentation in Western Europe. With politarism, only one supreme owner exists, who collectively exploits the whole class of producers--the state (bureaucratic) apparatus. In other words, in one case private-personal property (feudalism) dominates, in the other--private-state (politarism). Since the earliest and most developed forms of politarism had become widespread in countries of the East, Karl Marx designated the local civilizations as "societies with an Asian method of production." (20)

Since the Muscovy Rus' developed within the framework of an Eastern model of civilization, the establishment of a centralized state occurred in a fundamentally different way than in Western Europe. In the West, the decline of feudalism and the formation of royal absolutism were carried out on a base of flourishing of cities, the development of goods-monetary relations, and a union of emerging urban bourgeois with royal authority against the abuses of local lords, which ultimately led to the creation of a nationwide market and state. (21) In the Muscovy Rus' it was not market but military power that united the country in a single whole. (22) The central princely (and then royal authority) in its struggle with the separatism and willfulness of the local princes and boyars was supported by the bureaucratic apparatus, landowner nobles, and agrarian communities (societies). The peasants-commoners, incidentally, were well aware of the supreme ownership of their lands by the state in the person of the grand duke (tsar). (23) In the strong royal authority they saw defense from external enemies, looters, and internal oppressors--boyars, governors (representatives of the local administration), and kulakmiroeds. (24) However, supreme authority needed the community for reasons of convenience when it came to fiscal taxation and control over the local administration. From the symbiosis of the...

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