Elena S. Korchmina: The Practice of Personal Finance and the Problem of Debt among the Noble Elite in Eighteenth-Century Russia. Abstract # 3 (random order)

“Many historians have written about the financial problems of the Russian nobility, but its overall debt burden has, as yet, not been even roughly estimated (Madariagi 2002, 757; Kahan 1966). Researchers note that little work has been done on income, debt, and credit in eighteenth-century Russia (Munro 1997, 552). It is generally accepted that the debt burden of Russian noblemen was high, which is seen as a result of a reluctance or inability on their part to put their own finances in order and of their typical ignorance of their own financial situation, entirely dependent as it was on the ‘extortion’ of their serfs. Despite the prevalence of this phenomenon throughout Europe, the economic behaviour of the Russian nobility has often been seen as irrational (Kahan 1966).

This assessment underestimates the complexity of the problems Russian aristocrats had to deal with. In the eighteenth century, and particularly in its second half, the upper echelons of Russian society had to adapt very quickly to profound economic changes, e.g. the emergence of banks and ‘cheap’ state credit or an increase in the size and number of sources of personal income, etc. These changes all caused a sharp increase in the financial possibilities open to noblemen and in their demands as consumers confronted with a new economic way of life.

In this article we consider how, in the second half of the eighteenth century, Russian noblemen tried to find their feet in a rapidly changing financial environment, how they tried to put a value on their financial resources and their possibilities as consumers by producing accounts of their income and expenditure. The focus will be on an exceptionally narrow group of ‘Enlightened Seigniors’ (Mokyr 2005, 289), the richest noblemen in Russia, who belonged to the ‘ruling families in the Russian political order’. In a departure from the approach that has traditionally been taken in the historiography on the subject, the focus in this article will be on the nobleman’s personal finances rather than on his income from votchiny.

In this article, an attempt is made to analyse personal books of revenue and expenditure, in which the annual budgets of high-ranking members of the nobility were itemized, on the basis of the financial papers of the Kurakins, the Vorontsovs, the Naryshkins, the Bulgakovs, and others. The archives contain many types of financial document in use among the nobility: books of monetary revenue and expenditure, record books, and sheets of financial calculations. Keeping books of revenue and expenditure—that is, preparing annual inventories of income and expenditure—became one way in which a nobleman could keep his finances in order. Evidence suggests that this type of financial document first appeared in the eighteenth century, since, on the one hand, seventeenth-century equivalents are unknown, and, on the other, such books were already in widespread use by the nineteenth century. The noblemen themselves kept nearly all of the books analysed in this article. Indeed, the books had more of a personal character, since they were not used as evidence in financial disputes, but could be referenced in private correspondence in the case of a conflict.

By its very nature, the introduction of books revenue and expenditure was a private matter of state importance, since the aim of personal bookkeeping was to save the heavily indebted noble elite from bankruptcy, to regulate financial life, and to align with European practice. The Russian Empire as a whole was confronted with an essentially similar set of challenges, including a disparity between its financial resources and the level of its spending, the fact that its daily spending commitments were undermined by its receipt of large sums of money in irregular instalments, the inevitable difficulties of budgetary planning (given the increase in the number of sources from which it received money and of its spending commitments), the availability of internal loans, and so forth. The magnates who kept books of revenue and expenditure in the eighteenth century were, for the most part, dignitaries, and thus the principles of personal finance and those of state spending were not completely separate in their minds.”


Elena S. Korchmina (National Research University – Higher School of Economics; Moscow)

Presentation: Oct 22, 3.50-4.10 p.m., Haus der Begegnung [PROGRAMME]


Picture credits: Johann Friedrich Anthing, 1784 [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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