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The Economy and Material Culture of Russia, 1600-1725

Author(s):Hellie, Richard
Reviewer(s):Hughes, Lindsey

Published by EH.NET (January 2000)

Richard Hellie, The Economy and Material Culture of Russia, 1600-1725.

Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999. xi + 672 + pp. $42

(cloth), ISBN 0 226 32649 7

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lindsey Hughes, School of Slavonic and East European

Studies, University College, London.

Professor Richard Hellie of the University of Chicago is a major authority in

the field of early modern Russia history and a new book by him is bound to be

greeted with eager anticipation. The Economy and Material Culture of

Russia does not disappoint, although, like all Professor Hellie’s writings,

it challenges and occasionally provokes. The purpose of the study is

“to tell the reader what material commodities existed in Russia between 1600

and 1725 and how much they cost” (p. ix), an “elementary” exercise which turns

out to be both extraordinarily illuminating and occasionally frustrating. It

does this through an analysis of more than 107,000 records drawn from some 350

volumes of published documents, representing

“transactions”-purchases, sales, donations, bequests, confiscations, fees,

taxes, dues and so on-involving some 33,300 individuals and institutions. A

historical introduction is followed by twenty-two thematic chapters, each

covering a “sector” of the economy. I list them all in order to do justice to

the vast scope of the project: agricultural produce; domestic animals and

fowl; wild animals and furs; fish and sea produce; processed and imported food,

beverages and tobacco; forest products; construction materials; metals,

minerals, chemicals, gunpowder and currencies; paints,

in k, dyes and oils; gems, perfumes, spices, drugs and jewelry; manufactured

goods : (i) metal and glass, (ii) wood, and (iii) books, candles, paper,

rope, rugs, tapestries and tents; hides, leather, horn, feathers, bristles;

textiles; notions and linen; clothing and accessories; real estate; wages;

vehicles and transportation costs; services and income transfers; taxes,

fees, fines. Each chapter includes itemized charts (listing the number of

mentions, inclusive dates, minimum, median and maximum prices) and graphs

indicating price swings over decades or sometimes over the course of one year

(e.g. hay, figure 2.12, horses, figure 3.2). There are also case studies of two

rich men-M. I. Tatishchev (document from 1608) and Prince V.

V. Golitsyn (1689-90).

Although market behavior and price fluctuations in early modern Russia are not

without interest to the present reviewer, I approached this book mainly as a

cultural historian. On this level it yields insights too numerous to list: on

fees for weddings, payments for dishonor, taxes on caviar, wages for

gardeners; the role of candles in the Russian climate; reading habits

(books range in price from 1 kopeck to 100 rubles, with prices falling over the

period); nails (twenty-eight different kinds, priced in different units, some

in containers of unknown size). Beef was the most popular meat,

but fat was especially prized in the Russian diet (p. 98, with a slight detour

into the Moscow University cafeteria in the 1960s). Death “offered myriad fee


funeral payments to all officiating clergy,

burial prayers, commemorative services. The information on the possessions of

Prince Vasilii Golitsyn (ca. 1643-1714) is drawn from a remarkably complete

data set occasioned by the valuation of his property following his exile in

1689. Professor Hellie provides separate tables for different categories. Here

as elsewhere, certain cultural conclusions require further thought. Did

Golitsyn’s eighty-one mirrors express his desire to “look at himself as an


individual” (as suggested by Professor Hellie, p.

592) or were they in fact fashion accessories intended to make rooms look

bigger and their owner seem richer, often set too high on the walls actually to

look into? We learn that “Golitsyn was probably [

my italics]

some form of Orthodox believer” (p. 594), whereas the icons and religious books

found in his houses mark him out as much a believer as any of his

contemporaries. What we can be sure of is that, by Russian standards,

Golitsyn was very rich indeed, although he was probably only modestly wealthy

in comparison with a top French aristocrat, say. By comparison, the earlier

rich man studied, Tatishchev, was “not far from a peasant” (p.

602), while Golitsyn spent more on one set of curtains (400 rubles) than the

anonymous peasant could accumulate in a lifetime. (The composite picture of the

Russian peasant (ninety percent or more of the population)

as “an unwashed right-brained pre-literate eking out a drab existence in a log

hut” (p. 644) may offend


On a broader plane, this study throws light on the role of the state, one of

those “eternal questions” of Russian history. State intervention was large in

the factor market but small in the domestic product economy. The state did not

fix prices,

for example, except for slaves (3 rubles apiece from the 1630s). It helped to

lower costs by imposing standard measures and running the excellent state post

road system, and was also an innovator in technology transfer, but (in Hellie’s

view) it tended to stifle or crush initiative from below and did not promote

contracts (“never part of the Russian consciousness” (p. 642)).


data yields on Russia pre-1700 are very impressive. We can now calculate,

for example, that a Muscovite laborer with his 3 kopecks per day

(p. 419) could buy 10 inches of the cheapest woolen cloth , 3/50ths of a pig,

15 bricks and so on (p. 632). But given that the major source used for Peter

I’s reign was the incomplete Letters and Papers (Pis’ma i bumagi)

of Peter the Great

(so far published only to 1713) and that a paltry 432 of the records analyzed

were generated in St Petersburg (c.f. 37,584 in Moscow), I would urge caution

when it comes to drawing conclusions about cultural developments in the period

1700-25. Hellie notes that very few

new [my italics] items appear in his data set after 1700 and that “the

influence of the Petrine era on the material culture of Russia was trivial”

(p. 642), with borrowed vocabulary items mainly limited to naval and military

objects. But inclusion of just a few more Petrine documents could produce a

rather different picture. A part of my own research recently has concerned

Peter’s dress reforms and their impact on elite women. (As is well known, Peter

forced urban dwellers to adopt Western fashions by decree.) Hellie’s chapter

“Clothing and Accessories” provides a wealth of information on Muscovite

clothing (which represented a substantial investment in elite households) and

also points to the strong influence of Turkish/Tatar vocabulary: the extent to

which pre-Petrine Russians dressed more like “infidel” Turks and Tatars than

Christian Europeans is truly remarkable and under researched. But the data sets

fail to chart the appearance of Western vocabulary items, including only



and “shliapia” (the latter both pre-Petrine borrowings anyway). Delo o

pozhitkakh gosudaryni Natalii Alekseevny [1716] (Moscow, 1914) or

Doklady i prigovory sostoiavshiesia v pravitel’stvuiushchem Senate v

tsarstvovanie Petra Velikogo (6 vols , St Petersburg, 1880-1901) would

have yielded “shlaforok” (from German: informal unboned day dresses );

“bostrog” (from Dutch, short jacket); “fantanzh” (from French, “fontange,”

headdress with

ribbons and lace); “korsetki” (boned bodices) and much else

besides. These and other borrowed terms would not have showed up in Professor

Hellie’s data sets because they were not priced. A study of the extent to which

Peter changed the appearance of his subjects outside urban centers would

require a different kind of data set than the one used for a study of prices.

Despite this reservation, The Economy and Material Culture of

Russia, 1600-1725 is an indispensable compendium of information for

students of

early modern Russia. One of its many virtues is its accessibility to

non-economists, while economic specialists on Western Europe will find rich

comparative data. Professor Hellie and his team are to be congratulated.

Lindsey Hughes is Professor of Russian History, School of Slavonic and East

European Studies, University College London. Her most recent book is

Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, Yale University Press, 1998.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century