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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 14: Welfare •


Moscow Foundling Home, built between 1764 and 1770. Courtesy of Michael Zolotarev Collection, Moscow

Moscow Foundling Home, built between 1764 and 1770.
Courtesy of Michael Zolotarev Collection, Moscow

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Philanthropy in Imperial Russia from the 18th to the early 20th century

Galina Ulianova, Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia

In the history of Russia, as well as in that of other countries, poverty was one of the key problems of social and economic development. (1) The Russian historian Vasilii Kliuchevskii offers the following picturesque view of a medieval city: 'The unpaved Moscow street of the 17th century was very dirty; covered in mud, misfortune, indolence and sin were sitting, crawling and lying side by side; beggars and cripples were crying out their pleas to passers-by for alms, drunks were sprawling on the ground'. (2) The English diplomat and traveller Giles Fletcher who visited Moscow in 1588, wrote in his work 'Of the Russe CommonWealth': 'The number of their vagrant and begging poore is almost infinite, that are so pinched with famine and extreme need, as that they begge after a violent and despérate manner, with give me and cut me, give me and kill me and such like phrases'. (3)

In these circumstances, from the 11 to the 17th century, the major form of poor relief was almsgiving. (4) Russian donors followed the teachings of St John Chrysostom, the Byzantine thinker highly respected in Russia, who had called for wealth to be used for purposes of almsgiving and philanthropy, and who preached: '[you] give silver, and receive the absolution of your sins; ... [you] deliver a poor man from hunger, and he delivers you from the wrath of God'. (5) In the 17-18th centuries, there emerged a practice of donating to the poor by means of testaments. (6)

The ease of receiving alms stimulated the expansion of professional mendicancy, which became a real problem, especially in big cities. The 1691 and 1694 decrees established severe sanctions against mendicancy, which were especially harsh with regard to 'fraudulent' beggars (' ... the beggars for the first time be sent back to their native towns, and caught a second time would be beaten [with the knout] and exiled to Siberia'). The first quarter of the 18th century (the period of Peter the Great's reign) was a time of transition from spontaneous almsgiving to the creation of public relief institutions organised to a uniform plan and subject to corresponding regulations. Legislation specified the categories of population entitled to relief - decrepit and disabled soldiers, cripples, illegitimate babies, and orphans. Peter the Great suggested that secular hospitals, almshouses and orphanages should be established along similar lines to the charity institutions he saw in England, France and Holland. However, the number of such institutions created in the capitals and the provinces since 1715 was insufficient, and most of the children, the elderly and the disabled who were in need of assistance were distributed among the monasteries where the unfortunates were taken care of by the monks. Almsgiving in the streets was prohibited on pain of a fine, but by the 1718 and 1720 decrees donations to hospitals were permitted. The 1721 decree established that one per cent should be deducted from the allowances of 'people in any positions, excepting soldiers' so as to maintain hospitals and to provide for the patients.

Starting from the final third of the 18th century, when Russian society came under the influence of the ideas of European Enlightenment, secular poor relief and charity also began to develop in Russia. By the 1763 decree of Empress Catherine the Great, foundling homes were created in Moscow (1764) and St Petersburg (1772). (7)

In accordance with Empress Catherine's 1775 Statute on Provincial Administration, Social Welfare Boards (prikazy obshchestvennogo prizreniaia) were established in 49 guberniias (provinces). Within the framework of those boards, individuals and associations were permitted to create specialised charitable institutions, including almshouses, insane almshouses, orphanages, workhouses, etc. Quite soon, there emerged a number of charitable institutions, such as the boarding schools for children of needy nobles in the provincial centres of Vologda (1784), Kaluga (1793), and Kostroma (1797) funded by donations provided by the nobility.

The development of philanthropy in the Russian empire in the 19th- and early 20th century was determined by social, economic, and institutional changes. On the one hand, pauperisation was evidently on the rise in the context of urbanisation; while on the other, there was an active process of civilising which expressed itself in the Europeanisation of the forms of social life.

Under the patronage of the imperial family and with the participation of the elite of the nobility, the largest charitable organisations - the Department of the Institutions of Empress Maria (Vedomstvo uchrezhdenii Imperatritsy Marii, 1797) and the Imperial Philanthropic Society (Imperatorskoe Chelovekoliubivoe obshchestvo, 1802) - were founded, under the aegis of which a nation-wide network of charitable establishments developed. Although the Department of the Institutions of Empress Maria and the Imperial Philanthropic Society, as well as the Social Welfare Boards, were incorporated into the system of state institutions, the charitable institutions subordinated to them were created and financed by private donations. At the same time, the Boards and the Institutions of Empress Maria were legally entitled to annual state subsidies which covered 20-40 per cent of their expenses. The dualism of this situation, characterised by the maximum of state administering and the minimum of state financing thus determined all the specific features of the Russian system of charitable institutions.

Regardless of the official status of the newly created institutions, their activity was regulated by a single statute first published in 1818 by the Ministry of Police under the title 'On Public Relief' (which was updated in the 1857 Statute on Public Assistance). In the first half of the 19th century, the initiative in the development of philanthropy belonged to the elite strata of society - first of all, to the educated nobility, and it was under the patronage of the Tsar's power that this initiative was being carried out. The upsurge of patriotic feelings in the course of the 1812 war against Napoleon resulted in active collection of funds for the wounded. During this period, philanthropic activity became the most important channel for the appearance of women and the representation of non-privileged social groups (for example, rich peasants) on the public arena. (8) One of the milestones was the publishing of the Journal of the Imperial Philanthropic Society (1817-26), the first Russian periodical devoted to the matters of charity. It was from the 1810s to the 1850s that a number of major charitable institutions emerged in various cities, including the Almshouse of Count Sheremetev 'for the sick and homeless' (1803), Zlobin's Hospital for Barge Haulers in Saratov (1809), and the Moscow Workhouse (1837). (9)

After the Era of Great Reforms (including the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, the introduction of the Zemstvos in 1864, and the Municipal Reform of 1870), philanthropic voluntary associations were quickly maturing and attracting tens of thousands of participants brought up in the spirit of public duty. Against the background of social restructuring (of which the erosion of the old estate-hierarchical system was most noteworthy) civic identity was being formed, and various civic institutions - first of all, voluntary associations - were developing. Among various sorts of voluntary associations, it was philanthropic organisations that were the least suspicious to the autocracy and therefore the most numerous (4,672 by 1902). For example, in 1899 there were 355 philanthropic associations in St Petersburg, 259 in Moscow, 165 in Riga, 74 in Odessa, 46 in Kiev, 39 in Saratov, and 15 in Tomsk. In this historical process, it is necessary to distinguish three founding stages. The first (1862-92) began when the old restrictive procedure for establishing a voluntary society became simpler - on the basis of what were known as Tipovye Ustavy (model statutes). The second (1892-1906) followed the famine of 1891-2, when the social role of voluntary associations began to be broadly recognised by public opinion; and the third (1906-1917), starting on 4 March 1906, when the Temporary Law on Societies and Unions was adopted, which marked the emergence of civic institutions on the state level.

From the 1860s to the 1890s, the process of power decentralisation became one of the dominant features of the Russia's modernisation. The self-governing municipalities in the big cities and Zemstvo self-government in the rural districts took upon themselves the task of securing all aspects of life of local communities, including poor relief. After the adoption of the Zemstvo Statute of 1864, the Social Welfare Boards were closed in 34 Zemstvo provinces, and the task of providing rural poor relief was entrusted to the Zemstvos. In 1870, with the adoption of the Municipal Statute of 1870, similar responsibilities were entrusted to municipal authorities (city dumas and municipal boards). Since then, donations at the local level were addressed, in the main, to local self-government bodies which proved to be the most trustworthy managers of donations transferred to them for the purpose of establishing and maintaining hospitals, orphanages, almshouses, schools, doss-houses, soup kitchens, and cheep or gratuitous housing for the poor. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, Moscow had 628 institutions established with the help of charitable donations; 464 of them emerged in 1861-1914. Since 1894, first in Moscow and then in more than 30 other cities and towns, there emerged Municipal Guardianships of the Poor functioning under the aegis of municipal authorities with the purpose of assisting the poorest residents of the urban districts. (10)

In 1902, the Russian empire had more than 19 thousand charitable associations and institutions, including parish guardianships (in 1914, the latter kept, at the corresponding churches, 44 hospitals with 920 beds, and 683 almshouses with 9,156 beds, privately financed by the parishioners). It is estimated that in the mid-1900s the number of persons receiving care at rural Zemstvo and urban municipal institutions probably amounted to 2.5 million, and those at all institutions regardless of their departmental subordination - to more than 3 million.

The specific national features of philanthropy in the Russian empire manifested themselves in the existence of anonymous donations which amounted, in monetary terms, to 10-15 per cent of the total. Starting from the last quarter of the 19th century, an item of expenditure on charity was envisaged in the budgets of many big banks and firms - in strict accordance with their charters. (11) Along with individual donations, equally important in Russia was mass collection of money and things for the poor, such as charity-box collection, subscriptions, charity lectures and concerts, lotteries, and charity f?tes. Since 1910, 'White Chamomile Day', devoted to fund-raising to support hospitals and shelters for tubercular patients was held annually (in 1910, 104 towns took part in the event).

The turn of the 19th century was marked by the theoretical issues of philanthropy being 'crystallised' in social journalism and public opinion. A number of specialised periodicals were launched, including the journals 'The Charity Herald' (Vestnik blagotvoritel'nosti, 1897-1902), 'Work Relief' (Trudovaia pomoshch', 1897-1918), and 'Relief and Charity in Russia' (Prizrenie i blagotvoritel'nost' v Rossii, 1913 - September 1917). The All-Russian Union of Organisations, Societies, and Activists in Public and Private Relief (a national charitable organisation) was created in 1909. On its initiative, two national congresses on charity were organised in 1910 and 1914.

Russian experts repeatedly attempted to determine the number of the needy - cripples, the elderly, insane, blind, and deaf persons, mutes, homeless children, and orphans. Their number in 1896 was calculated at 3.2 million. According to the 1897 census, there were 406,659 persons with physical disabilities, 401,365 persons obtaining their livelihoods by means of beggary, 108,013 persons living in charitable institutions, and 314,276 persons whose subsistence depended on monetary grants from charity funds. Consequently, the total number of persons who needed relief amounted to more than 1.2 million (or about 1 per cent out of the population of 125 million). In 1914, in his speech to Russia's Congress on Public Assistance, Minister of the Interior Nikolai Maklakov put their numbers at 8 million (out of the population of 160 million).

Despite a substantial growth of charity funds, the level of development of philanthropy in Russia was assessed by experts as very low by comparison with the countries of the West: in Russia (1907), the per capita expenditures on charity amounted to 9 kopecks - or 33 times less than Great Britain, 21 times less than in Switzerland, 13 times less than in France, and 10 times less than in Germany.

Because of its low standards of living and militarised state budget, it took much longer for Russia than for other European countries to begin to realise society's responsibility for providing livelihood to the poor. In Russia, local self-government and other institutions of civil society began to develop later than in the rest of Europe. In these unfavourable conditions, the inability of the authorities to solve the problems of poverty was compensated by the initiatives and resolute actions on the part of social forces and philanthropy.

  1. Many points in this paper are discussed in the monographs: A. Lindenmeyr, Poverty Is Not a Vice: Charity, Society and the State in Imperial Russia (Princeton, 1996); G. Ulianova, Blagotvoritel'nost' moskovskikh predprinimatelei, 1860-1914 (Philanthropic activity of Moscow Entrepreneurs. 1860-1914) (Moscow, 1999); Blagotvoritel'nost' v Rossiiskoi Imperii. XIX- nachalo XX veka (Philanthropy in the Russian Empire. 19th - early 20th century), (Moscow, 2005). The first time a short survey on philanthropy in Russia before the 1917 Revolution was presented in: B. Q. Madison, Social Welfare in the Soviet Union, (Stanford, 1968). Back to (1)
  2. V. Kliuchevskii, Dobrye liudi Drevnei Rusi (Sergiev Posad, 1892), p.16. Back to (2)
  3. Cited from the 1643 (2nd) edition: G. Fletcher, The History of Russia or The Government of the Emperour of Muscovia with the manners & fashions of the People of that Countrey, (London, 1643); the 1st edition was published under the title Of the Russe CommonWealth. Or Manner of Gouvernement by the Russe Emperour (commonly called the Emperour of Moscovia), with the manners and fashions of the people of that Countrey (London, 1591). Back to (3)
  4. See: G. Ulianova, 'Moskovskie nishchie (Moscow Beggars)', (Moscow, 1997), 140-58; Hubertus F. Jahn, 'Bettler in St. Petersburg. Gedanken zur kulturellen Konstruktion sozialer Realität', in Gesellschaft als lokale Veranstaltung. Selbstwervaltung, Assoziierung und Geselligkeit in den Städten des ausgehenden Zarenreiches, ed. G. Hausmann (Göttingen, 2002), pp. 433-46. Back to (4)
  5. See: A. Lindenmeyr, 'The ethos of charity in Imperial Russia', Journal of Social History, (23) 1990, pp.679-94; G. Ulianova, 'Not for wealth but for God (on Moscow merchants' motives for Charity)', Russian Studies in History, (39) 2000, pp.28-51. Back to (5)
  6. D. H. Kaiser, 'Testamentary charity in early modern Russia: trends and motivations', Journal of Modern History, 76 (2004), pp.1-28. Back to (6)
  7. On the system of foundling hospitals in Russia and their history over 150 years (1763-1917), see D. L. Ransel, Mothers of Misery. Child Abandonment in Russia (Princeton, 1988). Back to (7)
  8. On women's philanthropy, see; W. Rosslyn, Deeds, Not Words. The Origins of Women's Philanthropy in the Russian Empire, (Birmingham, 2007); B. Meehan-Waters, 'Popular piety, local initiative and the founding of women's religious communities in Russia, 1764-1907', St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, 30 (1986), 117-42. For the late period: B. Meehan-Waters, 'From contemplative practice to charitable activity: Russian women's religious communities and the development of charitable work, 1861-1917', in Lady Bountiful Revisited. Women, Philanthropy and Power, ed. K. D. McCarthy (New Brunswick, 1990), pp. 142-56; A. Lindenmeyr, 'Public life, private virtues: women in Russian charity, 1762-1914', Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 18 (1993), 562-91; G. Ulianova, 'Wohltaetige unternehmerinnen in Moskau, 1860-1914', in Gesellschaft als lokale Veranstaltung. Selbstwervaltung, Assoziierung und Geselligkeit in den Staedten des ausgehenden Zarenreiches, ed. G. Hausmann (Goettingen, 2002) pp. 405-32. Back to (8)
  9. J. Bradley, 'The Moscow workhouse and urban welfare reform in Russia', Russian Review, 41 (1982) 427-44; Muzhik and Muscovite. Urbanization in Late Imperial Russia, (Berkeley, 1985). Back to (9)
  10. A. Lindenmeyr, 'A Russian experiment in voluntarism: the Municipal Guardianships of the Poor, 1894-1914', Jahrbuecher fuer Geschichte Osteuropas, 30 (1982), 429-51. Back to (10)
  11. G. Ulianova, 'Charitable activities of Moscow banks', in Commerce in Russian Urban Culture. 1860-1914, ed. W. Brumfild, B. Anan'ich, Y. Petrov (Washington, 2001) pp. 59-78. Back to (11)

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