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"My life nowadays is most distressful and miserable," complained Prince Mikhail Mikhailovich Golitsyn in a letter to his brother-in-law on 2 April 1711. The prince, a member of a large and illustrious aristocratic family, was one of the young "volunteers" sent abroad by Peter I (r. 1689-1725) to study "nautical sciences." (1) In the letter from Amsterdam, Golitsyn bemoaned his fate, which separated him from his wife and family. Nor was he getting much from his studies. "I could spend my entire life learning [navigation], and I still would not master it," the unfortunate aristocrat despaired. One reason for Golitsyn's sense of hopelessness was that he did not know any foreign languages. Besides, the 27-year-old Muscovite believed that he was simply too old to learn new tricks: "my age is already past these studies." Most important, however, the prince complained about his inability to go to sea because of constant seasickness. In fact, Golitsyn was quite certain that he had no chance of "carrying out this task [learning navigation]," for his "nature [natura] cannot bear seamanship." However, as the prince himself well understood, all this did not matter much to Peter, who promised a "grave disaster" to those "volunteers" who failed to master navigation or did not spend a sufficient amount of time at sea. This is, perhaps, an archetypal example of Peter I's trademark disregard for the desires and preferences of his subjects. As we know, Peter made every effort to emphasize the fact that state servitors had no say in choosing the mode, time, place, and length of service to be rendered by them (although in practice the nobles, of course, quite often found ways to pursue their preferred life strategies by resorting to foot-dragging, corruption, and similar methods). Several years after Peter's death, however, the situation began to change. When the government in 1731 established the Noble Cadet Corps, it explicitly refused to draft young nobles into this school by force, hoping instead to attract those who actually wanted to study. (2) Although service remained obligatory, in the third decade of the 18th century young Russian noblemen were given increasing opportunities to choose the branch of service they wanted to join. This freedom to choose was codified in the decrees of 6 May and 31 December 1736 and 9 February 1737, which proclaimed the right of young noblemen to choose the school and the branch of service "according to [their] own desires." (3) Much like the overall relaxation of the regime after the death of Peter I, this formal legislative recognition of individual preferences has traditionally been interpreted as an example of the rise of an increasingly self-assertive and self-conscious nobility, which gradually wrestled its freedoms from the hands of the emperor's weak successors. (4) As we know, the nobility did, indeed, play a key role in the numerous palace revolutions of the 18th century; especially significant in this respect is the succession crisis of 1730, when the noble elite put forward a number of demands on both "political" and "bread-and-butter" issues) However, the extent to which the nobility retained any actual influence over the government's decision making after the crisis of 1730 and, no less important, exactly how this influence was exercised in practice still remains to be demonstrated. (6)

22 septembre
Slavica Publishers, Inc.

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