Richard Hellie, 19372009: Monument to Early Russian Studies

For over four decades Richard Hellie was the locomotive for Eastern Slavic and pre-Petrine Russian studies in North America. His output, qualitatively and quantitatively, was legendary among North American and European scholars in these fields. His scholarship on Muscovite social, economic, political, and military history created enduring pathways of data-compilation, interpretations, and methodological breadth that have stimulated two generations of early modern Rus’/Russian investigators. Hellie’s erudition and completeness were such that one returns time and again to his monographs, and continually finds new inspirations. But his imprint was in no sense limited to Muscovy.

The dominant preoccupation of Hellie’s professional life was to establish not only that a Russian civilization and history existed prior to Imperial Russia, but that it constituted the foundation for the Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods. His second global contribution was to force the profession to realize that social science approaches were numerous and pregnant with insight to be abjured only at one’s peril when researching Eastern Slavic and Russian history.

Richard was born in May 1937, in Des Moines, Iowa, and died on April 24, 2009, in Chicago, Illinois. The University of Chicago was his life as an undergraduate (195559), graduate student (195964), and professor in its Department of History (19652009). Very much the pathfinder, Hellie was intrepid in seeking new ways to understand the civilization to which he had dedicated his life from high school days.

An empiricist and non-ideologue to the core, he welcomed any perspective, provided it was analytically rigorous. His infectious intellectual hunger and omnivorous topical and methodological preoccupations encompassed practically everything one could think of. An enfant terrible in his own way, Hellie relished the recasting of older pathways by drawing upon the best that the Chicago School’s multiplicity of cross-disciplinary approaches had to offer.

The trademark forthrightness, appetite for work, and expansiveness of his native Mid-West infused his legendary productivity, curiosity, eagerness to help others, generosity with time, and informal manner. These attributes along with his intriguing wit and sense of humor induced many to sojourn to the Southside of Chicago and to hang around longer than originally planned. He led through example, and in an understated way dared us to foster within ourselves an intellectual growth we never could have imagined.

But these qualities also drew to him the Russian history profession outside the University of Chicago, and his contact network was extraordinary. Never for a moment was Hellie not dead-on-center, intellectually honest, and blunt. He was equally unsparing in criticism of scholarship that he judged unsound, whether written by those who had worked under him or those who had not.

His bibliography is in “Russian History” 34, nos. 1-4 (2007): 110 (10 books, 53 articles, 54 encyclopedia entries, 7 unpublished articles and chapters, and many reviews in 10 journals), not including his output for the remaining two years of his life. Hellie certainly had another 10 if not 15 years worth of scholarly productivity in him, His day always had 30 hours of activity. Left undone were his nearly completed work on the structure of Russian history from its origins to the present and volume 2 (commentary) of the 1649 Sobornoe Ulozhenie.

I first met Hellie in March 1970, when exploring graduate schools after my having received notes of graduate-school acceptance. Hyde Park, Southside Chicago, with its lousy weather, high crime rate, and smelly pollution from coal-fed furnaces and South Chicago and Gary, Indiana oil-cracking plants and steel mills did not appeal to me … nor, for that matter, the somewhat curt response from Richard when I phoned him to confirm our meeting for later in the morning. Prior to our appointment, I was counting the hours to when I could enplane and fly back to Southern California. But, within 30 minutes of what ballooned into a three-hour-long meeting, I had become enthralled by his disinterested friendliness and the voluminous fund of information he was imparting in such an unstilted manner. My decision was automatic, and I turned down Columbia and Pennsylvania to go to the University of Chicago. As many can testify, Hellie was an avid correspondent and talker, whose volume and preoccupational range would have given a Parisian philosophe a run for the money.

Hellie’s path-breaking works, all published by the University of Chicago Press, are “Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy” (1971), “Slavery in Russia 14501725” (1982), and “The Economy and Material Culture of Russia 16001725”. Next are his translation, “The Muscovite Law Code (Ulozhenie) of 1649. Part 1: Text and Translation” (Charles Schlacks Jr., Publisher, 1988); “Muscovite Society. Readings for Introduction to Russian Civilization” (Syllabus Division, The College, University of Chicago, 1967, 1970); his editing of “The Plow, the Hammer, and the Knout: Essays in Eighteenth-Century Russian Economic History” by Arcadius Kahan (University of Chicago, 1985); and his over 600-page long translations of seventeenth-century Middle Russian documents and of contemporary Soviet historians’ articles for an undergraduate course syllabus (1975).

His last major published study was “The Economy and Material Culture of Russia 14501725,” and exposition of it can serve as a fulcrum for grasping the perspicuity and comprehensiveness of his oeuvre. “The Economy and Material Culture”, as is true for all of Hellie’s other books, is encyclopedic in scope, and is absolutely packed with clearly framed arguments and explanations, detail, interpretation, historiographical discussion, connections, and sources. The book’s text, tables, graphs, and appendices are a boon to historians, economists, linguists, literary scholars, and anthropologists.

Hellie’s imposing responsibility was to locate, compile, and study, covering a period of 125 years, a staggering amount of data for a polity numbering from 9 to 15 million people. Using prices as his tool, he set himself two seemingly overwhelming tasks in his work. The first was figuring out what in fact happened economically in Russia during Muscovy’s final century and Peter’s reign. The second was determining what did the world of purchasable things and income transfers, that significantly determined Muscovites’ standard of living, look like? Prior to Hellie’s work, no published work clearly showed these phenomena, for no one clearly knew.

Even the monumental works of pre-Revolutionary historians P.N. Milyukov (“Gosudarstvennoe khozyaystvo v pervoy chetverti xviii stoletiya i reforma Petra Velikogo” [The State Economy in the First Quarter of the Eighteenth Century and the Reform of Peter the Great]) and S.B. Veselovskiy (“Soshnoe pis’mo. Issledovanie po istorii kadastra i pososhnogo oblozheniya moskovskogo gosudarstva” [The Land Registry. An Investigation on the History of the Cadaster and Land Taxation of the Muscovite State]) and the smaller volumes of Soviet historian S.N. Troitskiy (e.g., “Finansovaya politika russkogo absolyutizma v xviii veke” [The Financial Policy of Russian Absolutism in the Eighteenth Century]) failed to tackle economic issues on the scale that Hellie did for his time period, although the omnivorous research and level of discussion by B.N. Mironov in his works (e.g., “A Social History of Imperial Russia, 17001917” and “Vnutrenniy rynok Rossii vo vtoroy polovine xviii pervoy polovine xix v.” [Russia’s Internal Market in the Second Half of the Eighteenth and First Half of the Nineteenth Centuries]) certainly places this widely respected scholar in Hellie’s company.

To be sure, Imperial Russian and, above all, Soviet historians had published a plethora of studies dealing with economic forces and sectors, both regional and national; economic players, both members of different social strata (the service classes, the church, the merchantry and townspeople, the peasantry) and institutions (e.g., the army, monasteries, the governmental chancelleries [prikazy]); investment and risk-taking; materials; implements; cost of production; and output. But collectively, previous scholarship had been loosely aggregated, and Hellie’s feat was to put an end to this “apanage period” of scholarship.

As was true in his “Slavery in Russia, 14501725” and in his compiling, editing, and formatting of “The Plow, the Hammer, and the Knout. An Economic History of Eighteenth-Century Russia, Economy and Material Culture” presents a very large amount of graphs and tables that illustrate the phenomena he discusses. Published oversize on 6½” by 9 ¼” pages, “Economy and Material Culture” has 675 pages, 25 chapters, 2 appendices, 136 tables, and 112 graphs. All of this emanates from a data set of 107,000 prices that encompasses approximately 1,850 locations (urban areas, rural settings, monasteries, churches, government buildings, and secular archives) and the names of 33,300 people and institutions.

Hellie’s chapters bear mentioning, for they elucidate his topics: (1) “Russia 16001725: Background,” (2) “Agricultural Products,” (3) “Domesticated Animals and Fowl,” (4) “Wild Animals and Furs,” (5) “Fish and Fish/Sea Products,” (6) “Processed and Imported Food, Beverages, and Tobacco,” (7) “Forest Products,” (8) “Construction Materials,” (9) “Metals and Minerals, Chemicals, Gunpowder, and Currencies,” (10) “Paints, Ink, Dyes, and Oils,” (11) “Gems, Perfumes, Spices, Drugs, and Jewelry,” (12) “Manufactured Goods, 1: Metal and Glass Objects,” (13) “Manufactured Goods, 2: Wood, Including Furniture,” (14) “Manufactured Goods, 3: Books, Candles, Paper, Rope, Rugs, Tapestries, and Tents,” (15) “Hides, Leather, Horn, Feathers, and Bristles,” (16) “Textiles,” (17) “Notions and Linens,” (18) “Clothing and Accessories,” (19) “Real Estate,” (20) “Wages,” (21) “Vehicles and Transportation Costs,” (22) “Services and Income Transfers,” (23) “Taxes. Fees. Fines,” (24) “Great Wealth in Muscovy: the Cases of M.I. Tatishchev (1608) and V.V. Golitsyn (168990),” and (25) “Conclusion.” One appendix lists 158 Muscovite units of measure and the other a detailed description of primary sources and a categorization of transactions, buyers, and sellers. The index lists 1,479 different categories of goods and income transfers.

Hellie’s chapters encompass every kind of good or service that was bought, sold, transferred, or provided. Mere perusal of his table of contents and his tables will reveal the array of things available to seventeenth-century Russians and the capacity of their economy to produce or import them.

The major accomplishments and conclusions of “Economy and Material Culture” are many and they reveal: the government’s minimal involvement in production and in pricing; the domestic and foreign origins of commodities and goods; the purchasing power of Russians through comparisons to workmen in several European countries; a well-developed wage economy facilitating the expansion of large numbers of occupations and ranks and intensifying Muscovy’s caste system; an inverse relationship between price and population movements; the overall stability of prices and general absence of inflation throughout this period (with the prominent exception of the 166263 copper currency inflationary spike); a government policy to make measurements and standards uniform and the salubrious effect this had upon commercial activity; the frequent non-parallelism between seventeenth-century Russian and European economic development; and the development of a chasm in material culture, separating the elite from the masses, and one no less profound than the splits in Muscovite society created by serfdom and the Church Schism. Hellie points out that his findings oblige substantial revision of the commonly accepted notion of Petrine economic barbarism.

Economy and Material Culture”, valuable as it is for seventeenth-century Muscovy and Petrine Russia, is also highly useful for scholars of Kievan and Apanage Rus’ and of earlier Muscovy.

The tables in “Economy and Material Culture” are arranged alphabetically by the English name of the article, with the articles vertically positioned. Horizontally, following the English name, come the Russian name, the number of sales, inclusive dates of sales, and the minimum, median, and maximum prices. Hellie’s graphs have the inclusive years of purchase for a particular article arranged along the x-axis, the different Ruble costs for the same articles arranged in ascending value along the y-axis, and include straightlines, coordinate plot lines, and regression lines (summarizing the relationship between variables). His penchant for presenting information in different ways is yet another attractive feature of the book.

Hellie’s price data and commodity descriptions are essential to social and economic historians of early modern Russia and Eurasia interested in constructing, for example, urban household budgets, social strata profiles for the utilization of goods and commodities, consumers’ purchasing patterns, the operation of markets, spending and saving propensities, substitution effects during ‘boom and bust’ periods, wartime demand, regional and local history, and everyday life history.

Likewise, “Economy and Material Culture” is important reading for Russian cultural and literary historians, who well might wish to tap this work to learn more about cultural taste and mentalité and to supply broader context to themes, characters, and incidents presented in seventeenth-century and Petrine-era literature. Historians of religion, including those of iconography, will find Hellie’s depictions and analyses of candles, ink, paper, paints, vestments, jewelry, other precious objects, and wages most helpful in establishing the range, cost, and demand for religious objects and accoutrements and in calculating the capital required to maintain the personnel and institutions of Muscovy’s and Peter’s ecclesiastical apparatus.

The findings in “Economy and Material Culture” have been significant for my own research into Muscovite central administration, Muscovite military evolution, and Russian and Finno-Ugric economic vocabulary. Surely, his scholarship and example will remain an enduring influence for generations to come.

Peter B. Brown, Providence / USA

Zitierweise: Peter Brown: Richard Hellie, 1937–2009: Monument to Early Russian Studies, in: Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. Neue Folge, 58 (2010) H. 1, S. 145-149: (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)