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Peter III's Manifesto Freeing Nobles from Obligatory Service: 1762

During the first months of his reign Peter III issued a series of decrees evidently intended to create a favorable impression within the ruling elite. Most notable was Peter's manifesto freeing the nobility from its obligatory service to the state. The idea of a noble "emancipation" seems to have had its origins in the circle of Count Roman Vorontsov who, as father of the Emperor's lover, Elizaveta Vorontsova, had his ear during this period. Peter announced his intention to free the nobles from service to the Senate on January 17th, 1762, but it was only a month later, on February 18th that the actual decree was promulagated. Peter's Manifesto received a warm reception with the rank and file nobility, some of whom availed themselves of the opportunity it provided to return to their estates. However, the measure was not nearly enough to offset the negative impression created by Peter's eccentricities and despotic tendencies, particularly among the influencial elites who would have been least inclined to enter into premature retirement. More and more the elites looked toward Peter's estranged wife Catherine as the best hope for stable and enlightened rule.


All Europe, indeed the greater part of the world, knows what difficulties and effort that Peter the Great, wise monarch of immortal memory, Our dear sovereign grandfather and Emperor of all the Russias, had to expend in his efforts, solely with a view to bringing benefit and welfare to the fatherland, to introduce into Russia advanced knowledge of military, civil, and political affairs.

To achieve this goal it was essential first to coerce the nobles, the chief body of the state, and convince them of the great advantages enjoyed by enlightened states over those countless peoples who are sunk in the depths of ignorance. Because the circumstances of the time then demanded extreme sacrifices from Russian Nobles, he [Peter I] did not show any mercy towards them, he forced them into military and civil service, and furthermore required noble youth to study the various liberal arts and also useful skills; he sent [some of] them to European countries, and, to achieve the same goal as rapidly as possible, established various schools in Russia itself.

It is true that in the beginning these innovations were burdensome and unendurable for the nobles, as they were deprived of peace, were forced to leave their homes, were obliged against their will to serve in the army or to perform other service, and were required to register their children. In consequence some nobles tried to evade these requirements, for which they were fined or even forfeited their estates, since they had shown themselves indifferent to their own best interest and that of their descendants. These demands, though burdensome in the beginning and accompanied by force, proved to be much advantage during the reigns of Peter the Great's successors, especially during the reign of Our dear aunt, Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, of glorious memory, who followed in the footsteps of her sovereign father, who supported the knowledge of political affairs and who, by her protection, extended much useful knowledge throughout Russia. We can look with pride at everything that has occurred, and every true son of the country will agree that great advantages have resulted from all this. Manners have been improved; knowledge has replaced illiteracy; devotion and zeal for military affairs resulted in the appearance of many experienced and brave generals; civil and political concerns have attracted many intelligent people; in a word, noble thoughts have penetrated the hearts of all true Russian patriots who have revealed toward Us their unlimited devotion, love, zeal, and fervor. Because of all these reasons We judge it to be no longer necessary to compel the nobles into service, as has been the practice hitherto. Because of these circumstances, and by virtue of the authority granted to Us by the almighty, We grant freedom and liberty to the entire Russian nobility, by Our High Imperial Grace, from this movement and forever, to all future generations. They may continue to perform service in Our Empire or in other European countries friendly to our State on the basis of the following rules:

1. All nobles who are presently in our service may continue as long as they wish or as long as their health may permit; those serving in the army may request release or furlough during a campaign or three months before a campaign; they should wait for release until the end of a war; those serving in the army may request release or retirement permits from their superiors and must wait for these permits; those serving Us in various capacities in the first eight ranks must apply for their release directly to Us; other ranks will be released by the departments for which they work.

2. At their retirement We will reward all nobles who serve Us well and faultlessly by promoting them to a higher rank, provided they have served at least one year in the rank from which they retired; those who wish to retire from military service and enter civil service, provided there is a vacancy for them, should be rewarded only if they have served three years in a given rank.

3. Those nobles who have retired or those who have terminated their military or civil service for Us, but who should express a desire to re-enter the military service, shall be admitted, provided they prove worthy of those ranks to which they belong and provided they will not be elevated to ranks higher than those of their co-servicemen who were equal in rank at the retirement; if they should be elevated in rank this should go into effect from the day they re-join the service over those who have retired and also make it possible for those who have retired from one service to join other services.

4. Those nobles who, freed from Our service, who wish to travel to other European countries should immediately receive the necessary passports from Our Foreign College under one condition: namely, that should ever a pressing need arise, those nobles shall return home whenever they are notified. Everyone should fulfill this request as soon as possible; those who fail to comply with it will have their property confiscated.

5. ... [on Russians who would serve in other states]

6. By virtue of this manifesto, no Russian nobleman will ever be forced to serve against his will; nor will any of Our administrative departments make use of them except in emergency cases and then only if We personally should summon them; this rule also applies to the nobility of the Smolensk area. An exception to this rule is St. Petersburg and Moscow, where an ukaz of the Sovereign Emperor Peter I stipulated that some men from among the retired nobles should be made available for various needs at the Senate and at the [Heraldic] Office; We amend this Imperial rule by decreeing that henceforth there should be selected annually thirty men to serve in the Senate and twenty to serve in the Office. These men should be chosen by the Heraldic Office from among the nobles living in the provinces and not from those still in service. No one should be designated by name for this duty. Nobles themselves should decide who should be selected in the districts and provinces. Local officials should forward the names of those so selected to the Heraldic Office and also provide those selected with needed items.

7. Although, by this gracious manifesto we grant forever freedom to all of Our Russian nobles, except freeholders [odnodvortsy], Our fatherly concern for them as well as for their children will continue. These latter, We decree, should henceforth, whenever they reach twelve years of age, be reported to the Heraldic Office in districts, provinces, or cities or wherever is most convenient. From their parents or relatives who are bringing them up, information should be obtained about the level of the children's education up to the age of twelve and where they would like to continue their studies, whether within Our State in various institutions We have founded, in European countries, or, should the means of their parents allow it, in their own homes by experienced and skillful teachers. No nobleman should keep his children uneducated under the penalty of Our anger. Those noblemen who have under 1000 serfs should report their children to Our Cadet Corps of the Nobility, where they will learn everything befitting a nobleman and where they will be educated with the utmost care. Following his education each nobleman will assume his rank in accordance with his dignity and reward, and subsequently each may enter and continue his service as indicated above.

8. Those nobles who presently are in Our military service as soldiers or non-commissioned officers below the rank of oberofitser, that is, those who have failed to attain officer rank, should not be allowed to retire unless they have served twelve years in the army. 9. We grant this gracious act to all of Our nobles for eternity as a fundamental and unalterable law; by Our Imperial word We pledge to observe it in its entirety in the most solemn and irrevocable manner. Our rightful successors should not alter it in any way whatsoever, as their adherence to this decree will serve as an indispensable support for the autocratic throne of All Russia. We hope that in return for this act Russian nobles, realizing what great concern We have shown toward them and toward their descendants, will continue to serve Us loyally and zealously and will not withdraw from Our service; on the contrary, that they will seek the service eagerly and will continue it as long as possible, and will educate their children attentively in useful knowledge; those who will not perform any service will also lead purposeless lives and will not educate their children in any useful subject. Such people are not concerned with the general good, and We order all true sons of the Fatherland to despise and demolish [!] them. We will not allow such people any access to Our court, nor will We tolerate their presence at public assemblies and festivals.