State trade management

Historically, Russian sovereigns have always treated the merchant class in exactly the same way as the serfs.

But there is no need to talk about some kind of special “genocide” of the merchants – the nobles in all epochs were treated in exactly the same way. All of them were only servants of the Grand Duke, Tsar or Sovereign Emperor.

Well, or the General Secretary.

It can even be said that merchants felt themselves the most free people in these unfree times.

But history, as you know, is not an even progressive upward movement, it is, rather, a spiral movement, and the trading class felt this on itself in full measure.
Meanwhile, up to the reforms of Alexander II, trade in Russia was always in a somewhat shrunken state: the pressure of politics on trade had a depressing effect.
Land and river routes passing through our territories could not saturate trade in goods (for example, the flow of goods along the route “from the Varangians to the Greeks” or along the “Silk Road” was extremely modest in volume), and when the leading European powers, starting from XV century, began to develop ocean trade, Russia found itself on the outskirts of the world economy.
Trade routes of Russia in the 17th century

Did Moscow understand that the country was getting richer in trade? Of course.
Did you know that the future of maritime trade is?
Of course.

History is full of situations when the state, of the most progressive aspirations, did a good deed for trade, directing it with all the might of state resources.

In 1523, at the Arsk fair, an unprecedented even before “beating of Russian merchants” took place (this chronicle phrase is now interpreted as mass murder), which aroused the fury of Grand Duke Vasily III: having gathered a large army in Nizhny Novgorod, he moved to Kazan in order to take revenge on the wicked enemies , but his commanders, having gone down to the confluence of the Volga River Sura, prudently decided that they did not have enough strength to take Kazan, but they set up a prison on this place (where the powerful Mari fortress Tsepel once stood). Prince Vasily issues a decree so that merchants would no longer go to the Arsk field (there was not enough strength to defend them at that time), and all the trades would be held in Vasilsursk (this was the name of the rebuilt town in his honor). The Tsar’s decree (and Moscow princes were then often called tsars) – of course, a serious matter, only the place was not chosen wisely, and the auction in Vasilsursk somehow did not work out. But since the 16th century, completely spontaneously, without royal orders, a marketplace has arisen at the walls of the Makaryevsky monastery, which is near Nizhny Novgorod.
Fair, XIX century

But Ivan IV demands from the clerk Vyrodkov “to put a city at the mouth of the sea for a ship haven” (below Ivangorod) and, in anticipation of the fact that there will be a “merchant class”, forbids Russian merchants to trade in Revel and Riga (later, especially modern court historians write about it with some even delight, citing this episode as the “concern” of the sovereign about the economy).

The merchants, by themselves, however, never start: foreign ships bypass the “havens” by the side, their own fleet has not been built, there are no roads to the “haven”, the Livonian War does not contribute to trade success in any way, a noticeable, but – working trade route into the path of smuggling, which, in turn, leads to an increase in the price of Russian goods and a noticeable decrease in demand for them.
In those days, Russia, one might say, was lucky – the expedition of the British, who, in search of other routes to India, decided to bypass Eurasia through the northern seas, which, it would seem, did not work out (2 ships of three perish along the way along with the crews), suddenly stumbled upon land of the Pomors. An Englishman, the only surviving ship owner, Chancellor, travels from Kholmogory to Moscow, falls at the feet of the formidable tsar … The tsar and Chancellor got along. They got along to such an extent that the British received the right to duty-free wholesale and retail trade, the right to build trading houses (not subject to duties) in Arkhangelsk and Vologda, and as a bonus, the British received the principle of extraterritoriality (that is, non-jurisdiction to Russian laws). Russian merchants are left with only internal trade.
Litovchenko’s painting “Ivan the Terrible Shows His Treasures to the British Ambassador Gorsey.” A rich king in a poor country

The English Moscow company lost its monopoly privileges only in 1698, under Peter I, the father of the Russian fleet, a man who had a much broader outlook than his predecessors.

Peter builds a huge military fleet, the first battle successes appear.
The tsar-innovator also wants to trade himself. In Solombala (now the region of Arkhangelsk), special merchant ships are being built according to European models, intended for cruises to Europe, merchants are commanded to use them, but the voyages cannot get better due to the lack of goods and the lack of ship crews.

The formation of sea trade is going on with difficulty, the Arkhangelsk voivode writes (with pride) that the number of Russian merchant ships is almost doubled every year, and the lieutenant-transfiguration, who arrived with an audit, writes “sneak” to the voivode, reproaching him that he -de “the number of ships overestimated many times” and adding that the number of ships “guests” is still three times more than the number of Russian merchant ships.
The policy “all flags are visiting us” is being fulfilled: Petersburg, “a window to Europe,” in fact, is not quite a window to Europe – rather, it is a window to Russia for Europe.

In 1725, the year of Peter’s death, the customs records noted the visits of 117 foreign merchant ships (“others twice or many times”) and 19 Russian ones.
At the same time, Peter I does not abandon his dream to enter the open spaces of real ocean trade, Bering’s expedition is puzzled by the search for the path that Chancellor and his comrades did not give: the northern route to China and India.
Peter the Great and the creation of the Russian fleet

Under Peter II, the harbors of St. Petersburg should be closed at a time: the sovereign is not interested in the military fleet at all, and the merchant is not at all.

Subsequent rulers somehow rectify the situation with the military fleet, but there is still no trade in the Baltic, unless, of course, we do not count the delivery of expensive goods for the needs of the court and nobles – in total, all this is a very small tonnage (even when Italian marble is delivered) …

Low activity in the west is compensated by freedom of action in the east of the country. The royal eye and the royal hand do not reach the outskirts of the empire for a long time, the entrepreneur Shelikhov established a “triangular trade” between Siberia, the Aleutian Islands and the American coast exclusively by the forces of his own merchant flotilla.
Historians notice “some progress” in the state of the Russian merchant fleet only towards the end of the 18th century, when the share of Russian ships in international trade amounted to a whopping 9.2%.

In the 19th century, with all the problems described, sea trade accounted for 3/4 of the total flow of goods imported or exported from our territories.
Stuart Ross Thompston also notes that the weight imbalance was a serious obstacle to trade with Russia: exports were 3-4 times higher than imports.
Port of Arkhangelsk in the 17th century. According to some researchers, this port provided more than 70% of Russia’s entire international trade throughout the 17th century.

The exported raw material is weight and volume, the imported product weighs lighter and takes up less space.
Since the 80s. XIX century Russia began to actively copy the actions of foreign powers, allocating subsidies for the development of shipping and preferences for Russian shipowners.
The decisive factor for the extremely rapid growth was the abandonment of the leadership of the merchants (although this was not declared in any way): starting from the 60s. of the same century, the sovereign’s orders about who, what and where to carry, what and under what conditions to trade disappeared.
Perhaps, if this idea had occurred to one of the rulers earlier, then I would have nothing to write about now.

As a result, by 1913, the Russian merchant fleet almost doubled its tonnage, the share of Russian ships in Russian export-import increased to 23%.
However, further we awaited a monopoly on foreign trade for many years.
One of the shortest decrees that have come across. Indeed, there is nothing to talk about at length: the principle of the Roman jurist of the 4th century Florentini “everything that is not forbidden is permitted” is in action. It is clear that today this simple document is “overgrown” with multivolume additions, of which there are so many that the principles of free trade are very vague, but … it’s good that we still have it

And then, one fine day (January 29, 1992) a law on free trade appears, which legalizes entrepreneurial activity, and the country becomes rich in a rather short time from poverty – a private initiative, the very “invisible hand of the market” of Adam Smith, copes remarkably well with what they did not cope with by orders-decrees.
How to assess the state’s leadership in foreign trade now?
I would say that – much more liberal than under Soviet rule, like under Tsar Ivan IV with some elements of connivance and humanization – unwanted merchants are no longer impaled, but simply imprisoned. The share of the public sector in the economy is growing steadily.


  • Kostomarov N.I. Essay on the Trade of the Moscow State in the 16th and 17th Centuries
  • Bazilevich K.V., “A large trading enterprise in the Moscow state in the first half of the 17th century.”
  • Golikova N. B. “The number, composition and sources of replenishment of guests in the end. XVI – 1st Thursday XVIII century. “

Author: Alexander Ivanov

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