(by popular demand; don't say I didn't warn you!)
To Her Imperial Majesty's Supreme Cabinet
All-obedient report. [vsepoddaneishee donoshenie]
By an order of Her Imperial Majesty given to me from the Siberian Department [prikaz] on the 16th of January last, under the authority of personal all-merciful decrees signed by Her Imperial Majesty's own hand, I departed from Moscow for the Chinese Empire with the State China Caravan on this January 19th, of which I reported all-obediently to the Supreme Cabinet the same, and with the travel-papers [podorozhnye; see below] for thirty-two cart and horse sets [podvody] that were given to me for my travel from Moscow to Tobolsk with my whole team, I made my way to Sol' Kamskaia [i.e. Solikamsk, roughly two-thirds of the way there] with all possible haste, and with these travel-papers my podvody departed everywhere without delay, and upon arrival in the town of Khlynov I sent the sworn agent [tselovalnik] Aleksei Diakonov with caravan servants ahead to the Tobolsk Provincial Chancery, so as to prepare for the reception of the caravan treasury of twenty five thousand rubles, as ordained by order of Her Imperial Majesty's Siberian Department, so as not to waste time with the reception of the treasury upon arrival in Tobolsk[. Diakonov,] upon arriving in Solikamsk on February 10th, announced his travel-papers which were for five podvody to the chancery there, but because the chancery refused to give him podvody, this Diakonov was forced to remain there until my arrival, and I arrived on the 12th and announced my travel-papers to this chancery, and demanded that I be issued the podvody indicated on the travel-papers, and a signature was made and the chancery promised to send the podvody[. But] then, verbally, the Solikamsk governor [voevoda] Prince Konstantin Kropotkin announced that with these travel-papers no podvody can be issued without a special decree from the Revenue College, at which I was forced to lose no time and demand the podvody from that Solikamsk chancery with a memorandum [promemoriia] explaining where and under whose orders I was traveling and with what rapidity I needed to reach the border, except this memorandum was answered on the 14th with a memorandum to the same effect, that without a specific decree from the Governing Senate, from the Comptroller of the Senate, or from the Revenue College (which I did not obtain due to my rapid departure from Moscow, not having seen under what authority my papers were issued and not having received a decree from anywhere or an announcement from the Siberian Department), this chancery would be unable to issue podvody, and the same day I demanded, in a second memorandum, that the aforementioned chancery would command podvody to be issued at least at double the usual price [(rate); progony], to which I received no response[. Then,] seeing that this halt and delay was pointless, I was forced to hire podvody from Sol' Kamskaia to Verkhotur'e, which also took no small amount of time, and according to the agreement four rubles twelve kopecks were paid for every podvoda, hence for thirty-two podvody I paid extra, over and above the travel money I was issued, ninety nine rubles eighty four kopecks and because of the aforementioned obstacles I was unable to depart Sol' Kamskaia on the podvody I hired earlier than the 19th[. Meanwhile,] people that happened to be passing through on travel-papers of their own [and joined up with us]--specifically, Ivan Oskolkov, sworn agent for the last caravan, and Vasilii Bulavoshnikov and Vasilii Krasheninnikov, overseers for the Evreinovs--and others, were all sent along without delay from Sol' Kamskaia[. And therefore,] I hereby all-obediently report to Her Imperial Majesty's Supreme Cabinet about the time lost through the caravan's aforementioned delay at Sol' Kamskaia, and also during this last winter travel and my arrival in Irkutsk, as well as the expenditure of excess money over and above travel funds for the hire of podvody, and I ask that this not be counted as any kind of lack of ability or poor effort on my part[. As] for the fact that I had no specific decree beyond my travel-papers from the Revenue College, as I explained above, this was because of my rapid departure from Moscow, and the Siberian Department and all other towns except Sol' Kamskaia issued me podvody without delay[. With] this, I hereby report to Her Imperial Majesty's Supreme Cabinet that I arrived in Tobolsk the 28th of February last and departed it this 6th of March.
Of this all-obediently reports Erofei Firsov, general director of the Chinese caravan and [collegiate] assessor, 7 March 1740.
N. Erofei Firsov
No. 782, submitted 10 April 1740
- RGADA, fond 248, kniga 1102, l. 1025-1026
First, a few remarks about the document itself. It is contained in a book labeled "Affairs of the Governing Senate from the former Cabinet, 1732-1742," although this is one of many books similarly labeled. This entire book deals with issues relating to trade with China and Far Eastern affairs in general. It is 1572 folio sheets long--that is, three thousand huge pages of thick eighteenth-century paper. The book looks more like an accordion, since the spine is approximately three or four times the width of the covers, making it quite difficult to use. In the original Russian, the text is one long sentence, with pairs of adjacent words generally run together, as was standard at the time ("Поуказу Ея Императорского величества данному мне изсибирского приказа минувшаго генваря 16 дня посиле имянныхъ заподписаниемъ Ея Императорского величества собственныя руки всемилостивейшихъ указов отправился я измосквы згосударственным китайским караваном вкитайское гдрство сего генваря 19 дня..."). Firsov's report is one of hundreds of such documents, many of them much more interesting, contained in this book. Nonetheless, the constellation of forces you can see at work here is not without interest either, if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing. (If you are eagle-eyed and curious, I have no idea what makes the 16th of January "last" and the 19th of January "this"--it is implausible that Firsov would have waited a year after receiving his orders.)
Here's a brief outline of the administrative structure this entire text depends on. I've patched this together from primary and secondary sources--I'm sure there are multiple definitive studies in Russian but I haven't gotten to them yet--and I am eagerly awaiting John Randolph's next book, which should do it much more clearly. "Podvody" are fixed units of transportation usually composed of a cart, two horses, and a iamshchik to drive them (the word can also refer to the cart alone, but my sense is that the typical usage treated this as a metonymy). Typically, travelers around Russia, especially Siberia, did not rely on their own private transportation. Instead, they were issued with travel-papers authorizing them to command, in each town along their itinerary, a certain number of podvody, depending on the party's size, importance, and baggage, which would get them between administrative centers. Podvody were controlled by local administrative bodies--usually the chancery--and employed peasants, for whom "freight duty" was one of the oldest and most-resented obligations. The whole network of administrative centers was woven together with more-or-less standardized books containing official itineraries between various cities, which contained all the intermediate stops and the distances between them. In other words, traveling in 18th century Russia was a lot more complicated than just finding the shortest road and driving down it: a traveler, especially one with state business, was constantly forced to interact with local institutional interests who could either hold him back or help him. This could be a bad thing--as it seems to be here--but it could also be very good, because travelers could generally be sure of finding adequate transportation resources in even the most remote administrative centers in Siberia. By and large, it seems that the transportation system in Russia worked quite efficiently: after all, even with the delay, Firsov and his enormous caravan made it from Moscow to Tobolsk (a distance of over a thousand miles) in just over a month.
So why was Firsov delayed here and not, apparently, anywhere else? There could be a number of explanations, but the one that I'm tentatively considering is that Solikamsk was one of the centers of activity for the powerful Demidov family, who controlled industrial production in the Urals. Accordingly, they seem to have put a lot of pressure on local government; in Britain or the American colonies this would have taken the form of controlling local elections, but centrally-appointed voevodas could still be dealt with, though perhaps more indirectly. If this was the Demidovs' doing, it was probably simply an attempt to demonstrate to the central agencies that carrying out dubiously profitable Moscow or Petersburg orders was not a priority here.
The broader implications are more interesting. The Chinese trade caravan was, despite its striking lack of commercial success, one of the most important foreign- and trade-policy priorities of the early-18th century Russian Empire. The broad discretion assigned to its administrator and the extraordinary care devoted to protecting the silver it brought back from China testify to this. Yet once the orders were issued, the central government was helpless to expedite its way to China, since anything that required its intervention would add additional weeks as couriers carried messages back and forth to and from the center.
This meant that caravan administrators had to be resourceful and willing to overstep their nominal authority in order to get to where they were going within the narrow time limits imposed by seasonal weather patterns, and it also meant that in practical terms local government was often far more important to their livelihood than the center was. It is possible--though the possibility is easy to forget--that this entire story was concocted by Firsov in collaboration with someone at Solikamsk in order to scam an extra hundred rubles out of the Siberian department. Here, this is unlikely: there were much less risky ways of making a few extra bucks, though more brazen attempts got several of Firsov's predecessors in hot water. Disturbances in the transportation network were peculiarly difficult for the center to respond to, since its own couriers had no choice but to use that very same network.
I have a probably bullshit pet theory that this is all somehow fundamentally similar to the Halting Problem in computer science. My layman's understanding of the problem is that it is impossible to develop a universally-applicable method to predict in advance whether a given program will terminate or not given a certain input. If I simulate the execution of code through an interpreter, and my program never terminates, then my simulator will never terminate either. Likewise, when the communication system was functioning, knowledge and correspondence could travel more or less efficiently back to the center--but when it was not, there was often no way to tell. Is the courier or agent reliable? You'll have to take his word for it, or find another agent to watch the watchmen.
I think I and many other historians who deal in one way or another with issues of travel over great distances often operate unconsciously using the sort of model of transmission in which one can pick up the phone and say "The check is in the mail." In other words, our latent assumption is that data or content were always separable from metadata, that a letter or a message traveled faster than a bale of goods, that if one channel of communication failed there was always some other channel. What I'm constantly seeing here is how tenuous the separation often was. Letters frequently did travel faster, but only if they were carried by couriers that could be dispatched independently from the caravan itself. When a blockage happened, the furs that were going to China stopped just as solidly as the correspondence describing the blockage.
This is not only tremendously interesting for me to try to wrap my head around (harder than it sounds, which is why I'm less coherent than I could be about this issue), it also says something about the difficulties of ascribing the features of contemporary bureaucratic surveillance to earlier social systems. Since the emergence of the telegraph, information-gathering has largely ceased to require travel, and the amount of travel required is still constantly shrinking. In the eighteenth century, travel was integrated into every form of administration, which meant that dysfunctions in travel could disrupt information-gathering completely. Even if a Russian empress had had a mind to collect an exhaustive assemblage of cold, hard administrative facts, she could still never have gotten a letter or a shred of quantitative data from Irkutsk to St. Petersburg without two dozen local agencies and two dozen iamshchiki guiding, expediting, and delaying its passage through the realm. Information, in many ways, is simpler today than it ever was then.
(I lied about the politics of reputation bit, sorry. Another time!)