11. Routine court business. The First Romanovs (1613-1725)
Let us follow the Tsar to Court and see him transact business, and learn at the same time to know the names and the offices of his chief servants who had the inestimable privilege of 'beholding his bright eyes', to use the semioriental Court jargon of the period.
Early every morning the gentry and nobility of old Moscovy were obliged to assemble at Court, the old men coming in carriages or sledges, according to the time of year, the young men on horseback. Everyone dismounted some little distance from the Tsarish Court, and approached the krasnoe kruirtso, or `red staircase', leading from the great square na verkh, or 'upstairs', to the innermost apartments of the Tsar. But only a select few had the right to go so far and so high. The less important molodine, or 'young people', remained at the foot of the staircase awaiting commands from 'upstairs'. Among these are to be noticed some of the five hundred stolniki. or chamberlains, the children of fathers in high positions but not of the first rank. whose office at Court it is to carry dishes to the Tsar's table on solemn occasions.
They also supplied most of the ordinary envoys to foreign parts, the voivodes, or rulers of towns and provinces, and the members of the prikazes, or public offices. The stoinfid were also called ploshchadniki, or 'people of the square', in contradistinction to the komnatnild, or 'people of the apartments', the children of more illustrious parents who served the Tsar in his private apartments. Along with the stolniki on the staircase, we also find many of the two thousand eight hundred stryapchie, who were employed on less important missions, and the 4a1d and podyachi, 'scribes' and Sub-scribes', men of lowly birth but skilled in affairs, and becoming more and more indispensable with the spread of civilization. The d'yaki and podyachi numbered two thousand at least, and forty of them were constantly in attendance at Court. Flitting continually up and down the staircase are the zhilesui, or gentlemen-ushers, also employed as couriers. All the 'young people' respectfully make way for the boyare, the okolnichie, and the dumnuie dVaki who do not stop on the staircase, but gravely ascend it on their way to the Tsar's ante-chamber. They represent the three highest grades of Russian officialdom. The word boyar is as old as the Russian language, the dignity existing in the days when the Russian princes were nomadic chieftains, and the boyars their dose comrades and trusty counsellors. The okolnichie* first appeared at a much later date, when a regular Court had become established.
They were pre-eminently courtiers, and acted at first as masters of the ceremonies, introducers of ambassadors, and grand heralds. But at a later date they held no particular office, but simply ranked as the second class of the official hierarchy, the boyars being the first. The third grade was held by those who had not yet attained to the boyartsvo or boyardom, and yet were members of the Tsar's Council, the dumnuie dvoryane, or `nobles of the Council'. Attached to these three first grades were the four dumnuie d'yald, or clerks of the Council, erroneously identified by many contemporary foreigners with the imperial chancellors elsewhere, because, practically, they conducted the whole business of the Council, and being men of great experience, and relatively learned, were the Tsar's principal advisers, and necessarily enjoyed great influence in a state where the wielders of the sword could not always handle the pen.
The dumnuie d'yaki first rose to eminence in the reign of Ivan the Terrible, who, constantly suspicious of the nobles, confided more and more in these astute upstarts, and in course of time they came to be regarded as oracles of statecraft. But in the Tsar's antechamber also there were degrees of privilege and precedence. Thus the blizhnie boyare, or 'near boyars', stood a little closer to the door of the komnata, or `bedchamber', than the other boyars, awaiting a favourable opportunity of entry — a privilege denied to the rest, who had to remain outside. But at last the outsiders also received the reward of their patience. The doors of the bedchamber were thrown open and the Tsar entered and sat down in a large armchair in the peredny ugol, or 'chief corner', where the lamps burned before the holy ikons, whereupon all present did obeisance to the ground. The Tsar then beckoned to those with whom he would take counsel, any absentees being summoned to his presence forthwith, and severely rebuked for their want of respect. Those whom the
Tsar did not honour with his conversation drew discreetly aside while he talked with their more favoured brethren. Then other boyars came forward and prostrated themselves to the ground before the Tsar. These were petitioners begging leave to attend christenings, marriages, or other family feasts at their countr houses. In all such cases the Tsar carefully inquired after the health of the boyar and every member of his family, and gifts were exchanged between them, the Gosudar being regarded not merely as the master, but also as the father of his people. The reception over, the Tsar dined in state with his whole court, and after the usual siesta, the rest of the afternoon was devoted to business, each of the prikazui, or public offices, having its allotted day. Business of unusual importance was transacted in a general assembly of all the boyars, called 'The Session of the Great Gosudar and his Boyars', the boyars sitting at a little distance from the Tsar on rows of benches according to rank, first the boyars, then the okol'nichie and then the dumnuie dvoryane, while the dumnuie d'yaki, really the most important people there, remained standing unless the Tsar bade them be seated. The Tsar opened the session by asking the opinions of the boyars, but many of them, as a contemporary chronicler quaintly tells us, only 'stroked their beards and answered not a word, inasmuch as the Tsar graciously makes many to be boyars not because of their learning, but because of their high birth, wherefore many boyars are ignorant of letters'. On very urgent occasions, such as the beginning of a war when extraordinary subsidies were required, sovyetnuie lyudi, or 'national councils', consisting of representatives of all classes, including the merchants and artificers, were held under the presidency of the Tsar, that they might assess their own burdens and thus have no excuse for subsequent complaint. During the troublous and disastrous seventeenth century, the liberality of these extraordinary popular assemblies had to be appealed to pretty frequently, as we shall see.
All ordinary routine business, on the other hand, was done in the prikazui. The difficulty of determining the origin of these, the most salient and characteristic instruments of old Moscovite administration, is due to their very simplicity. From time to time the Gosudar of the day prikazuival, or directed, one of his servants to see to this or that affair, gave him a scribe and a sub-scribe to assist him with the necessary clerical work — and a prikaz, or 'directory', sprang at once into existence.