Ural Federal University: In the 18th Century, Wilhelm de Gennin Confronted the Provincial Administration

At the end of the first quarter of the 18th century, Peter the Great conducted extensive reforms in public administration. One of the main directions of the reforms was a change in its structure: the separation of judicial and administrative powers and general civil and sectoral administration. If the changes in the “center” took place and defined the structure of the Russian Empire for almost a century, the reforms in the field were moving forward uneasily.

One of the executors of Peter’s decrees in the region was Major-General Wilhelm de Gennin. In the Siberian province, which for the most part included the Urals, he tried to create a special mining and factory administration, opposing provincial authorities, catching bribe-takers, and replenishing the treasury. Dmitry Redin, Professor at the Department of Russian History at Ural Federal University and Senior Researcher at the Institute of History and Archaeology, Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, talks about what it was like.

Non-systemic management

During the period of the “Great Reforms” in the Urals (beginning in 1720) a system of mining and factory administration was being formed. It was sectoral, vertically subordinate to a central body – the Berg Collegium. At the same time, mining institutions were not included in the system of local authorities of general civil administration, and their activities did not have the proper regulatory framework. In the Siberian province the sectoral system of administration, begun by Vasily Tatishchev, continued to create the Major-General Wilhelm de Gennin: Peter the Great granted him extraordinary administrative and investigative powers.

“Wilhelm de Gennin received Peter the Great’s sanction to “fix and investigate all the wicked things that are against the factories”. Although the order was given to him verbally, it nevertheless allowed him to form a personal office of “his department,” by analogy with the then existing extraordinary investigative “major” offices, which were headed by senior guardsmen officers. When the general arrived at a new place of service, he began to act as the Tsar’s authorized, who had authority not only over the miners, but also over all the institutions, officials, people, in one way or another come in contact with the factory production. Although de Gennin became the de facto head of the branch department in the Urals, he himself was outside the departmental system of subordination, as he was subordinate to the highest authorities, like any head of an extraordinary central commission of the first quarter of the 18th century,” explains Dmitry Redin.

Whistleblowers and complainers

The general did not tolerate bribe-takers. He believed that bribe-taking officials hindered him in carrying out his royal commission. As he understood his mission to be exceptional, Wilhelm de Gennin utilized ostentatious punishments for official thieves, who would after interrogation confess their crime and return what had been taken from the people.From his first weeks in the Urals, de Gennin began to receive complaints and denunciations from the population about the criminal actions of various officials. Apparently, local residents took the news of the general’s special rights with great enthusiasm, says the historian. Naturally, the peasants did not understand the extremely complicated interdepartmental relations. The main thing for them was that the chief, who had come from the capital, was an envoy of the tsar, and therefore had the power to punish extortionists and protect the people.

“According to the data I have only for a little over two years between 1722 and 1724, the office of “Mr. Major-General” received various complaints against two dozen commissioners, judges, clerks of various departments. If you add to this investigations into criminal cases committed by “nefarious people” associated with theft, theft, robbery and disciplinary offenses among factory workers, peasants and soldiers, the judicial activity of the mining authorities under the board of Gennin can be assessed as very high,” said Dmitry Redin.

Confrontation with Kozlovsky: the Case of the Commissars

The province at that time, by coincidence, in the absence of the governor and vice-governor, was led by Duke Semyon Kozlovsky, head of the Tobolsk supreme court. The prince’s administrative qualities were not at their best, which was an occasion for friction with de Gennin. They were especially acute against the background of court cases, the main subjects of which were officials accused of committing malfeasance.

One example is the case of Venedikt Tomilov and Feodor Fefilov, judicial and zemsky commissars of the Uktusky and Kamensky districts. Both officials were involved in crimes, among which was the extortion of bribes from the taxpayers. The civil servants did not shy away from their actions: they beat peasants, kept them “for nothing” under arrest, harassed them, and delayed court cases. In addition, Tomilov was accused of embezzling stolen goods and livestock seized from caught thieves, and of patronizing robbers and murderers, whom he let loose for a reward.

“Both defendants were under the direct jurisdiction of Tobolsk: Tomilov – as a judicial commissar under the jurisdiction of the supreme court, Fefilov – as a manager appointed by the provincial office in 1719, that is, at a time when in the Urals there was no mining administration and state factories were under the civil administration,” says Dmitry Redin.

Gennin, giving the order to begin an investigation, was concerned about taking it out of the competence of the Tobolsk supervising court: the case was classified as of state importance, and both commissioners were arrested.

On July 20, 1723 from the personal office of de Gennin sent a memo to Tobolsk about the crimes of Fefilov and Tomilov, demanding to identify judges to conduct investigations. On July 26, the Tobolsk court of nadvors confirmed receipt of the document (very quickly, since the previous similar response took almost half a year). And on August 9, Semyon Kozlovsky signed a decree, which took the “lihomim” under protection. The document considered their arrest as illegal, which contradicted the verdict of the provincial chancellery on December 11, 1722. De Gennin was accused of having unlawfully interfered with the competence of the Justices’ College and its subordinate court.

“And if henceforth the stewards and zemstvo kamisary certain judges will cause a disturbance in the judicial and investigative affairs, and for that they will be fined a considerable fine,” warned Kozlovsky.

“General Gennin was not one of those who could be stopped by provincial threats of fines. Confident of his rightness, he went on with his work. Demonstrating his ability to compromise and cooperating with the provincial authorities, the general ordered to send to Tobolsk the defendants and all documentation related to them: a detailed description of the case, copies of the protocol of interrogation, the petitions incriminating them, and a register. However, he retained control of the judicial and investigative process. Gennin agreed to yield to his opponents, if the court was ready to make a fair decision and publicly punish the criminals. In all further cases he demanded immediate accountability,” says Dmitry Redin.

Meanwhile, the provincial justice had no intention both to report to the pushy general and to judge his appointees. The proven weapon of bureaucracy – red tape – was used. The commissars arrested in Uktus and accompanying documents reached Tobolsk on October 1. In the court of inquiry they were dealing with papers for a week, followed by several days of preparation of the answer and, at last, on October 12 a new note was sent to the “mister major-general’s” office. In its essence it was reduced to the fact that it was impossible to carry out an investigation because the authors of the complaints, “informers and whistleblowers”, had not been sent to the court of inquiry. Only their personal presence in Tobolsk to conduct confrontations would allow the search to continue. Gennin’s chancellery was offered to organize the arrival of whistleblowers to the provincial center – and it was about dozens of people.

The essence of the conflict

According to Dmitry Redin, the basis of General de Gennin’s clashes with the Siberian provincial administration is more institutional than interpersonal.

“A certain amount of drama was introduced by subjective circumstances, including the personal qualities of the main actors, but the essence of the conflict, in my opinion, is different. “The Great Reforms of 1719-1725 were designed to create, at last, a stable and intelligible system of specialized state administration. In all the preceding years of his reign, Peter I never managed to achieve this. His administrative reforms invariably bore the mark of urgency and only by the 1720s the created state machinery began to acquire the vague outlines of regularity dear to the tsar’s heart,” explained Redin.

However, even in the 1720s the plans could not be fully realized for objective and subjective reasons. Shortage and unpreparedness of personnel, general lack of resources, lack of knowledge and underestimation of the scale of the country by the higher authorities prevented rapid and unified reforms, illusory hopes on the power of decrees, and many others impeded the implementation of the reforms. The weak effectiveness of the administrative system was especially evident in remote provinces, which primarily included Siberia, the historian explains.

Ekaterinburg Office

As a result, de Gennin’s extraordinary powers were not actually confirmed. By 1725, the general’s personal office was eliminated, and Vilim Ivanovich himself headed the branch management of the Ural mining manufactures.

“Becoming head of the Siberian ober-bergamt, de Gennin, certainly raised its administrative status. The general was not prevented from creating within the departmental administration of the tax and judicial bodies of the provincial rank, and the Siberian Ober-Berghamt finally got not only the mines and factories, but also the territory with the population living in them, under its direct jurisdiction. In the end, during the years of Gennin’s leadership in the administrative-territorial space of the Siberian province that very special, exclusive in relation to the civil authorities “Ekaterinburg department” was formed, which by all accounts became a kind of “mining province”,” concludes Dmitry Redin.

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