General Yakov Ivanovich Rostovtsov.

Military Education. The Freeing of the Serfs.



(From Russkaya Starina, Vol. 130, 2/1907. Page 326. “Iz prezhnyago ostrosloviya.”  [“Trenchant Comments from the Past.”] Contributed by Mikhail Sokolovskii.)


Emperor Nicholas I loved parading the troops [lyubil front], and after a review he would express his satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a curt comment. Thus, after a poor performance by a composite battalion from the military educational institutions, he deemed the battalion “blanc mange.” 


Service as a government official varies. Sometimes it falls to an official to perform very difficult work. Referring to those engaged in educating military youths, in 1836 Ya. N. Rostovtsov justly wrote, “One official’s situation is not the same as another’s; there are departments where officials can make progress as easily as if on a railroad track, everything follows a groove. But then there are departments where everything is boiling and in turmoil, and for the officials it is like carrying loads uphill through mud and ruts.” 


Regarding the jackets [kurtki] formerly worn by cadets, Ya. I. Rostovtsov wrote that “the jacket for a cadet is the same as a corset for a girl.” 


How many times have we listened to orators, stutter in their inexperience and clumsiness, repeat words, and mumble pronunciations? “Bad diction,” wrote Ya. I. Rostovtsov, “is like the Vorovichi rapids.”


In regard to a query by the English government about the state of military educational institutions in Russia, Ya. I. Rostovtsov wrote, “The only thing that pains me is that foreigners know, or want to know, more about Russia than Russians themselves do. Who of our high aristocracy or ministers have even once visited the military educational institutions or had the curiosity to find out how things are going with them?”


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(From Russkii Biograficheskii Slovar’, c. 1910.)


Rostovtsov, Yakov Ivanovich, general-adjutant; born 28 December 1803, son of Ivan Ivanovich [director of St.-Petersburg schools] and his second wife nee Kusova, the daughter of a rich and influential merchant. On 4 September 1807, soon after the death of this father, he was enrolled as a page at the imperial court. In the Corps of Pages he was distinguished by his inclination for mischief and was sometimes the ringleader in escapades, but he studied well enough that on 29 March 1821 he received an award and was made a page of the bedchamber [kamer-pazh]. On 31 March 1822 he was graduated as an ensign in the Life-Guards Jäger Regiment, where on 13 December 1823 he was promoted to sublieutenant and appointed regimental treasurer [kaznachei] (this was because Rostovtsov stuttered badly and therefore could not serve in formation). On 21 April 1825 he became adjutant for all the Guards Corps infantry, the commander of which was General K. I. Bistrom. Rostovtsov spent his free time with Prince Ye. P. Obolenskii, Th. N. Glinka, and K. Th. Ryleev, and took part in their debates and discussions on political themes. When after the death of Emperor Alexander I the activities of the secret society increased and it became clear that its members were preparing to go from words to deeds, Rostovtsov saw that staying in the group any longer was a mortal danger. On 24 November 1825 he refused Prince Ye. P. Obolenskii’s invitation to become a member of the secret society. His fear that his friendship with Obolenskii could cause him to be suspected of taking part in the secret organization’s plots compelled him to inform Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich of the revolt’s preparations. On 12 December, at 8 o’clock in the evening, he went to the palace and turned over to the grand duke a letter in which the secret society’s intentions were laid out and included a request for Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich to come to St. Petersburg and in front of the troops publicly renounce the throne. On 14 December Rostovtsov was in the ranks of those troops who stayed loyal to Nicholas Pavlovich and put down the rebellion, and was wounded and carried to his home. On 18 December he was promoted to lieutenant, and on 19 January 1826, at the direction of General Bistrom, he was removed as adjutant and transferred to the troop units. During the investigations of the Decembrists, Rostovtsov was afraid of being implicated by them so he wrote to the emperor pointing out that he not only could not have been a member of the conspiracy, he could not even have been sure of its existence. On 28 January 1826, in response to a personal request to the emperor, Rostovtsov as assigned to the suite of Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, and on 1 January 1828 was confirmed as his adjutant.

From 1 May 1828, in his capacity as the grand duke’s adjutant, Rostovtsov took part in the Russo-Turkish War and was at the sieges of Brailov, Shumla, and Varna. For this campaign he received the order of St. Vladimir 4th class, and on 26 October, upon returning to St. Petersburg, he was promoted to staff-captain. From 11 April 1831 Rostovtsov took part in the Polish war with the Guards Corps,and was at the battles of Jakacy (6 May) and Zoltki (9 May) and the storming of Warsaw on 25 and 26 August. For this war he promoted to captain (25 June) and received the order of St. Anne 2nd class. In November of this year he was sent to St. Petersburg with a report to the Sovereign on the course of events in Poland. He remained in the capital and on 23 December was appointed staff duty officer in the office of the commander of all the cadet corps (Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich). At the same time he continued as the grand duke’s adjutant. On 8 November 1832 Rostovtsov was promoted to colonel. On 7 April 1835 he was appointed acting chief of staff to the commander of the cadet corps, being confirmed in this position on 29 March 1836. In July of 1836 Rostovtsov oversaw the first publication of the Reading Journal for Students of the Senior and Middle Grades in Military Educational Institutions. The pedagogue V. P. Burnashev urged the publication of a journal for lower classes but was rebuffed, and Rostovtsov, who was sympathetic to the idea, attributed this to lack of funds in the main administration. In 1838 the grand duke’s staff drew up a project for “a systematic examination of the administration and organization of military educational institutions” and at the request of the British government a “detailed description of our military educational institutions—nobiliary, cantonist, and naval” was produced in the French language. For this work Ya. I. Rostovtsov received a monetary reward (22 April 1838) [the award was two year’s salary – M.C.]. On 16 April 1841 he was promoted to major general.

On 15 March 1843 the Sovereign confirmed an “Administrative Regulation for Cadet Corps” that had been drawn up by the Michael Pavlovich’s staff,  and in accordance with it that grand duke became “Chief Commander of Military Educational Institutions” with Rostovtsov as his chief of staff.  A “Council for Military Educational Institutions” was formed under the commander, and its members, along with the chief of staff, were charged with inspecting all military educational establishments, for which detailed instructions were drawn up. For the completion of this “Administrative Regulation” Rostovtsov was awarded the order of St. Stanislav 1st class on 28 March 1843. On 6 December of that same year he received the order of St. George 4th class for long service. In 1843 he traveled abroad. On 6 January 1845 he was named a member of the Main Council for Girls’ Educational Institutions, and on 10 April 1846—a member of the Commission for Reducing Paperwork in the Armed Forces, retaining all his other duties. Soon he was awarded the order of St. Vladimir 2nd class (20 December 1847). On 24 December 1848 confirmation was given to Rostovtsov’s “Instructions for Teaching Students at Military Educational Institutions,” in which teachers were told how and what to teach, and directors what to require of teachers and how to check their performance.

On 1 January 1849 Rostovtsov received the title of general-adjutant. On 19 September of that same year he was named Chief of Staff to the Heir and Tsesarevich, who after the death of Michael Pavlovich took up the position of commander of military educational institutions. This was after the events of 1848 and a period of reaction set in within Russia, and Rostovtsov had to furl his progressive banner and move backwards in the work of educating youth. Programs were cut to a minimum and the entire goal of teaching was to harmonize academics with the regime’s official requirements. In even the most senior educational institutions instructor-observers were established to watch the professors. Their duty was to control professors’ ideas and report to the administrative authorities the least hint of liberalism. On 24 September 1849 Rostovtsov was presented with a gold snuff box decorated with brilliants and a portrait of the Sovereign. On 11 October he was named a member of the Committee for Reviewing Establishments of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment, and on 6 December 1850 he was promoted to lieutenant general. In 1851 he received the order of the White Eagle and in 1853—the order of Alexander Nevsky. On 26 February of the same year he was made a member of the Council of the Imperial Military Academy. On 22 February 1855, after the death of Emperor Nicholas I, he took on the position of Chief of His Imperial Majesty’s Main Staff for Military Educational Institutions, with rights and duties as authorized the chief of military educational institutions by the 1843 Administrative Regulation. On 24 February Rostovtsov was placed on the honorary rolls of the 1st Cadet Corps.

After the debacle of the Crimean War an era of governmental and social reform began and Rostovtsov was able to return again to the views on educating and bringing up youths that had prevailed before 1848. Many improvements in instruction and learning were effected within the military educational establishments, and military school were opened along with 22 schools for the children of lower ranks. On 27 March 1856 Rostovtsov was named a member of the Government Council and an attending member of the Committee of Ministers, and was awarded a ring of brilliants with a portrait of the Emperor. On 14 February 1856 he was named a member of the Committee for the Wounded, on 7 April—a member of the Committee for Deliberations Regarding Officers’ Marriages, and on 3 May—a member of the Special Committee for the Construction of Junker Schools. On 26 September he received diamond decorations to his order of Alexander Nevsky, and on 2 November he was appointed chief guardian of the Ovsyanikov Invalid Home. On 17 April 1858 he was awarded the order of St. Vladimir 1st class and on 8 November 1859 promoted to general-of-infantry. This same year saw the issue of the third and last volume of “Instructions for Military Educational Institutions.”

At this time Rostovtsov became occupied with the issue of freeing the serfs in his capacity as member of the “Secret Committee” formed on 3 January 1857 and renamed “Main Committee” on 8 January 1858. He tried to avoid this duty since he himself did not own any serfs and was not interested in their situation, and therefore had only a superficial knowledge of this issue. But Emperor Alexander II insisted and Rostovtsov had to acquiesce. In the words of Levshin, deputy to the minister of internal affairs, it was a time in which “everyone thought only of pleasing the tsar and did not consider their own opinions at all.” The Secret Committee’s first resolution of 18 August 1857, of which Rostovtsov was one of the signatories, aimed at dragging out the business of manumission for many years. With the appointment of Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich as a member of the Secret Committee work began to move forward quickly, and from that moment Rostovtsov became his closest coworker. He became more familiar with the peasant question and started reading relevant books and have discussions with those knowledgeable about peasant affairs. Thanks to this, by 15 July 1858 when he was chosen from four persons to be a member of the Special Committee he came with a bank of essential knowledge and was a passionate supporter of freeing the serfs and a zealous executor of the tsar’s will—not “just out of dread of displeasing the sovereign, but out of conscience.” There is evidence that in Dresden in May of 1858, before his death Rostovtsov’s son asked his father to wipe away the errors of his earlier years and dedicate his life to selfless service for the public’s good. When abroad, Rostovtsov came in contact with foreign literature on the peasant question and wrote letters to the emperor sharing what he learned, thus strengthening his energy and resolve to see the business of liberation to a successful conclusion regardless of obstacles. However, these letters are characterized by a certain muddled understanding of the issues and a desire to free the serfs in a way that did not harm the landowners’ interests. Still, in the letters there is the sense of true belief in the necessity of liberation, which Rostovtsov even began to call “a sacred undertaking.” He started work in September of 1858 and the result of his efforts was his own piece of writing: “The Course and End of the Peasant Question” along with an addendum, and a “General Regulation for the Freeing of Serfs” consisting of twelve points that served as the basis for further work by revision committees in 1859. After studying the recommendations sent in by provincial committees, Rostovtsov came to the conclusion that entrusting his “General Regulations” to these committees for revision would mean delaying a solution to the issue of liberation for an indefinite time, so on 1 January 1859 he presented to the emperor a plan to reorganize the government revision commissions, to which would be invited members of the provincial committees, and not only those from the reactionary majority, but also those from the liberal minority. On 17 February Rostovtsov’s plan was approved and he himself was named Chairman of Revision Commissions. Sessions of these commissions began on 4 March, and from that moment the business of freeing the serfs was entirely transferred from the Main Committee to the Revision Commissions. Meanwhile, Rostovtsov began to develop an illness, carbuncles, and his health worsened with every day so that by October he could not go out on the street and only attended commission sessions held in the building of the 1st Cadet Corps, where he resided. On 23 October he wrote a letter to the emperor laying out the progress made on the peasant issue and in which he made a curious comparison of the opinions of Revision Commission members with those of noble representatives and provincial committees: “The former base their conclusions on government rights and government necessity, while the latter base their decisions on citizens’ rights and private interests.” In all disputed issues Rostovtsov tried to persuade a majority of votes toward the peasants’ benefit, figuring that later there would be many volunteers and enough votes to reverse decisions and thus to the benefit of the landowners. On 14 November 1859 he attended a session in the Revision Commissions’ hall for the last time, and from that day on he limited himself to only short discussions with Commission members in his apartment before the start of a session. From 2 December, at the insistence of his doctors, Rostovtsov had to end even these discussions, and from that time up to the day he died, 6 February 1860, he no longer got out of bed. Lying down, he still wrote letters to the emperor and dictated a “note” to his secretary recording all that had already been accomplished on the peasant question and indicating the way ahead that he thought had to be followed in order to finish the “sacred undertaking” honorably. On 1 February 1860 Rostovtsov was already unconscious and could not sign his notes, but the sovereign, sitting by him until the end, took them with him and ordered that they be printed and distributed to all members of the Main Committee and Revision Commissions for familiarization and guidance. These notes were printed with the title “Most Respectful Notes of the Chairman of Revision Commissions, General Rostovtsov, Submitted to His Imperial Majesty on 6 February 1860.” (See Russkii Arkhiv, 1868, Nos. 7 and 8). Unfortunately, after Rostovtsov’s death the work of the Revision Commissions took another direction and almost all the plans in the “Notes” remained unfulfilled.

As an individual, Ya. I. Rostovtsov was distinguished by his accessibility and just and fair relations with his subordinates. His order of 28 January 1857 is on record in which he apologied to a cadet corps director for an unjust reprimand. He considered education necessary not only for officials but for nobles and merchants. He idealized tsarist autocracy and called it a manifestation of Providence, and placed orders from this source above the directives of one’s own conscience. This partly explains the contradictions in his actions when he discharged teachers whom he knew to be talented because they expressed disagreement with the orders from the already deceased emperor, and at the same time arranged conferences for instructors in which issues regarding education and raising the youth were publicly discussed. He did not possess a great store of knowledge, but he applied himself to any activity which he took up and brought to it a youthful enthusiasm. If he began his life with an unconscious inclination to strictness and severity, in any event he ended it a champion for the people’s welfare and freedom. There is some evidence that Rostovtsov was doing this out of egoism and was afraid of posterity’s harsh judgment. He wanted to occupy an honored place in the pages of history—but in this he was simply paying tribute to his time and the society in which he was raised and lived. Rostovtsov never valued people merely by their rank or origins, and always surrounded himself with persons who shared his ideas. He was indefatigable in work. Finally, he possessed an outstanding literary talent, and if he did not leave a large body of work, it was only because he regarded his prose and literary efforts as an amusement. In the 1820s his short poems were published in various journals. Rostovtsov entered the literary scene in 1821 when he was still a page of the bedchamber and his poem Toska araba po miloi [An Arab’s Longing for His Dear] appeared in the February issue of the journal Nevskii Zritel’ [The Neva Observer]. In the May issue (in which Rostovtsov’s poem Osen’ [Autumn] was published) there was a entire enthusiastic article by a certain “I. B—v” in which words could not be found to properly praise the work of the young poet. In Syn Otechestva [Son of the Fatherland] in 1821 (part 68, No. 12, pages 232-233) there was Rostovtsov’s poem K zoilam poeta [To the Zoilean Critics of a Poet (Zhukovskii)]; In Moskovskii Vestnik in 1828 (part IX, No. 10, pages 117-119)—the poem Toska dushi [Longing of the Soul]; verses to “I. S. T—v” (1849) were published in Russkaya Starina, 1870, volume II, pages 90-92; a letter to A. N. Krenitsyn (1853) also appeared there on pages 91-92; the tragedy Perseus is ascribed to Rostovtsov (extracts were published in Syn Otechestva, 1822, part 78, pages 268-280; these were reprinted in Sobranie novykh russkikh stikhotvorenii, vyshedshikh v svete s 1821 po 1823 god [Collection of New Russian Verse Appearing from 1821 through 1823], St. Petersburg, 1825, part I, pages 114-129;  also separately published, St. Petersburg, 1823). Extracts from his other tragedy Prince Dmitrii Pozharskii were printed in Moskovskii Vestnik in 1827 (volume IV, No. 14, pages 129-135), and Otryvok iz Arnol’dovoi tragedii Oskar [Extract from Arnold’s Tragedy ‘Oscar’] appeared in the journal Blagonamerennyi [Well Intentioned], 1821 (book 15). Also well known are Rostovtsov’s humorous verses written for various persons on different occasions. We also note that he was acquainted with Grech, Bulgarin (for Rostovtsov’s letters to him see Russkaya Starina 1901, No. 2, pages 386-387), and N. V. Kukol’nik. He maintained friendly relations with Zhukovskii, and Krylov died in Rostovtsov’s arms after he carefully looked after him during his final illness and was named the executor of his will. It was through Rostovtsov’s initiative and efforts that a monument to Krylov was erected in the Summer Garden (see Rostovtsov’s letter to Zhukovskii in Russkii Arkhiv, 1875, book III, page 370). Otrykov iz moei zhizni [An Extract From My Life] was printed in Russkii Arkhiv, 1873, book I, pages 460-461 (also here is Rostovtsov’s correspondence with Prince Ye. P. Obolenskii and a refutation of an article about him in Kolokol). In 1849 Rostovtsov was a member of the committee investigating the Petrashevskii affair.

Rostovtsov died in St. Petersburg on 6 February 1860. He was buried in the Church of the Holy Spirit at the St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery. At Alexander II’s orders, a gold medal “for work in freeing the serfs” was placed on his grave. A brass plate was also affixed, inscribed with Emperor Alexander II’s decree of 23 April 1861 that elevated Rostovtsov’s widow and descendents to Grafs and Grafins of the Russian Empire. He was married to Vera Nikolaevna Emina (born 21 May 1807, died 2 February 1888), daughter of the governor of Viborg and niece of the famous dramatist N. I. Khmel’nitskii. He had two sons—Grafs Nikolai and Mikhail Yakovlevich. Rostovtsov was a member of the Society for Supporting the Arts, an active member of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society, an honorary member of the universities of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev, the Academy of Arts, the Imperial Public Library, the Commission for the Publication of Ancient Acts in Kiev, and of the Kiev Antiquities Society. In the building of the 1st Cadet Corps there is a hall dedicated to Rostovtsov, containing his portrait and bust.


Sources: Russkii Arkhiv, 1873, No. 1 (“Two documents from the papers of Ya. I. Rostovtsov”); 1886, No. 7 (“First Steps in the Freeing of Landowners’ Peasants in Russia”); 1868, pages 1214-1246 (“General Rostovtsov’s Last Notes”); 1906, No.1 page 160, No. 4 page 610; 1902, No. 5 pages 161 and 162 and No. 7 page 476; 1886, volume II, pages 200, 220, 3853-404 and volume III, pages 180 and 185. M. Lazarev Istoricheskii ocherk voenno-uchebnykh zavedenii, Part II. A. Skrebitskii, Krest’yanskoe delo v tsarstvovanie Imperatora Aleksandra II, 1862-1868, Bonn am Rhein. N. P. Semenov, Osvobozhdenie krest’yan v tsarstvovanie Imperatora Aleksandra II, 3 volumes, St. Petersburg, 1889-1893. Russkii Vestnik: 1866, No2 (“Illness and Death of General Rostovtsov”); 1862, No. 8, pages 821-840, 1864, Nos. 10, 11, and 12 (N. P. Semenov’s article on Rostovtsov’s work). Russkaya Starina: 1880 Volume 27, 1881 Volume XXX, 1882 Volume XXXIII, and 1884 Nos. 2 and 3 (“Senator Solov’ev’s Notes”). Prazdnovanie po sluchayu 25-letiya sluzhby general-ad”yutanta Rostovtsova po upravleniya voenno-uchebnymi zavedeniyami, St.-Petersburg, 1857, 24 pages. Schnitzler, La mission de l’Empereur Alexandre II et le général Rostoftsof, Paris, 1860, viii+158 pages. Russkaya Starina: 1903, September, page 537; 1905, No. 3, page 548; 1906, June, pages 555, 568, 572-575, 587, and 592; 1904, May, pages 386, 388, and 610; 1879, Volume XXIV, pages 317-381; 1892, No. 3, page 812; 1889, Nos. 2, 3, 4, 6, and 9 (Diary of Nikitenko); 1890, Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, and 11 (Diary of Nikitenko; Memoirs of a Guards Officer; Markov’s Memoirs); 1870, Volume II, page 90. Glavnye deyateli osvobozhdeniya krest’yan, edited by S. A. Vengerov, St. Petersburg, 1903, pages 30-34. O. fon-Freiman, Pazhi za 185 let, Fridriksgamn, 1897, pages 230-233. Strannik, 1860, Volume III, No. 7, Section V, pages 1-4. Mesyatseslov, 1861, appendix, pages 110-113. Otechestvennyya Zapiski, 1865, Book 16, pages 293-294; ibid 1860, No. 2, pages 41-42. Golos, 1868, No. 260. Nashe Vremya, 1860, No. 5. Drevnaya i Novaya Rossiya, 1876, No. 1, pages 93-98. Schnitzler, Histoire intime de la Russie, Paris, 1847, Volme I, pages 201 and 216. A. Starchevskii, Spravochnyi Entsiklopedicheskii Slovar’, St. Petersburg, 1855, Volume IX, part II, pages 211-218. N. Barsukov, Zhizn’ i trudy M. Pogodina, Book XVI et al. Brokauz and Yefrom, Entsikolpedicheskii Slovar’, Voluem XXVII, pages 132-133. Sovremennaya Letopis’, 1864, No. 7 (article by P. Semenov on Rostovtsov). Russkie voennye deyateli, Volume I, published by V. Berezovskii. Graf Miloradovich, Materialy dlya istorii Pazheskago Korpusa. 1711-1875 godov, Kiev, 1876. Ya. I. Rostovtsov i ego deyatel’nost’ v krest’yanskom voprose. Nekrolog. (Yelenev), St. Petersburg, 1860, 24 pages. Ivanyukov, Padenie krepostnogo prava. G. Dzhanshiev, Epokha velikikh reform, Moscow, 1898, 7th ed. Materialy dlya istorii uprazdneniya krepostnogo prava, Berlin, 1860. Bumagi po krest’yanskomu delu M. Pozena, Dresden, 1864, pages 265 and 329. Istoricheskii Vestnik, 1901, No. 11, pages 518-522, and 1904, pages 122, 126, and 227. A. Myunster, Portretnaya gallereya, Volume I, St. Petersburg, 1865, page 75. G. Gennadi, Slovar’ russkikh pisatelei, Volume II, Moscow, 1903, pages 269-270. S. A. Pereselenkov, “Literaturnaya deyatel’nost’ Ya. I. Rostovtsova,” in Pedagogicheskii Sbornik, 1913, No. 8, and separate printings, St. Petersburg, 1913. Russk. Ved., 1899, end of February (article by K. N. Boborykin on Rostovtsov).


                                                                                                                                                A. Losskii


Translated by Mark Conrad, 2005.