The First Modern Experiment in Social Engineering

In 1810 Tsar Alexander I of Russia visited an estate called Gruzino, 75 miles east of St Petersburg. It was owned by an artillery general called Alexis Alexandrovich Arakcheev, victor of the campaign against Sweden which had given Finland to Russia. Arakcheev had been born in 1769 into a family of minor nobles. His mother was known as 'The Dutchwoman' because of her passion for well scrubbed floors, a trait her son inherited. His regard for cleanliness was reinforced when he was taken into the military household of Alexander's father Tsar Paul. When he bought an estate at Gruzino he placed all his serfs under military discipline, assembled from them a small private army run on the ferocious lines of guard regiments and turned the whole place into a smart-looking barracks. This, however was only the beginning.

View of Gruzino Country Estate
Indeed Arakcheev's Gruzino has a strong claim to be considered the first modern experiment in social engineering, an attempt to create the New Man who, Rousseau had argued, could be born in the right conditions. The estate was 35 square kilometres and contained 2,000 'souls'. Arakcheev went on to destroy all the old wooden buildings and construct new model villages of brick  and stone. He drained the muddy roads and paved them. He dug a lake, with an island in it, on which was a temple. He built belvederes and towers, each of which was equipped with a clock. The clocks dictated their work, meal and bedtimes, something unheard of in Russia. Woods and thickets, in which idle peasants could sulk, were rooted out. Pig keeping was banned, outhouses pulled down, private plots forbidden. Drinking bouts were severely punished; indeed the general tried to stamp out liquor altogether, a constant aim of Russian reformers then and now.

The idea was to get all the peasants to work, ten hours every day of the year except Sundays. Orders, dictated by Arakcheev personally, were issued regularly, numbered and dated, as in the army. Some reflected the growing totalitarian flavour of the experiment: "every mother must feed her baby at least three times a day". In  theory Gruzino had some of the characteristics of a miniature welfare state. There was a hospital and a school. Vaccination against smallpox was compulsory. But the inhabitants had even less control over their lives than ordinary serfs. In an effort to raise the birth-rate, lists were compiled of unmarried females and widows capable of childbearing, and pressure was put on them to find partners. But Arakcheev had to approve such unions. A note from him on one young woman reads: "I agree to her marriage. But if she does not know her prayers by Lent, I shall have her soundly whipped".

Therein lay the catch of Arakcheev's utopia. He found himself unwilling to abandon the most characteristic and persistent aspect of Russian backwardness -the universal reliance on savage physical punishment. Colonel Gribble who served under Arakcheev wrote: "Nearly the whole of Russia groaned under blows. People were flogged in the army, in schools, in towns and market-places, in the stables, in their homes." Arakcheev was quite capable of such atrocities, he is said to have executed two junior officers by having them buried up to their necks and leaving them to die of starvation and thirst. On another occasion he is said to have personally cut off another officer's head with his sword after a perceived infraction. But on the whole he strove to make his punishment system on his estate as orderly as everything else. A first offence was punished by a 'stable whipping', for the second, men of the Preobrazhensky Regiment were used, wielding their thick rods known as 'Arakcheev sticks'. All floggings were recorded in a state punishment ledger and Arakcheev personally inspected backs to make sure the punishment had been thorough. 

Whether Tsar Alexander, on his visit, was made aware of these aspects of Gruzino is not clear. Probably not, Arakcheev's own parson, Father Feodor Malinovsky, wrote a guidebook to the place, comparing it to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Tsar was overwhelmed by what he saw. He, like his father Paul, had a craze for order and now he had seen how it could be imposed. "The order which prevails here is unique" he wrote enthusiastically to his sister, "the streets of the villages here have precisely that kind of cleanliness which I have been trying so hard to see established in the cities. He said he wanted her husband to visit too and to note its particular features: "1. The order which prevails everywhere. 2. The neatness. 3. The construction of roads and plantations. 4. A kind of symmetry and elegance which pervades the place."

The Island Temple 1822
Gruzino did not merely impress Alexander; it launched him on a large-scale utopia of his own. He decided to found a whole series of military colonies all over Russia, modelled on Gruzino. They would constitute islands of neatness and order among the great Russian sea of squalor. Using Arakcheev's methods, he would gradually reform the entire Russian countryside, taking soldiers from the barracks and transforming them into skilled soldier-peasants. If the system was set up on a sufficiently large scale, the colonies would provide all the soldiers Russia needed to defend its borders, so conscription could be abolished. At the same time the colonies would produce everything the soldiers needed, so the peace-time army would be self-supporting. The Tsar explained his ideas to Arakcheev, put him in charge of the scheme and told him to get to work immediately.

Over the next five years 90 battalions were settled in colonies in Novgorod Province, 12 in Mogilev, 36 in Ukraine and 240 squadrons of cavalry in three settlements in the south. The colonies included 750,000 men, women and children, completely cut off from the rest of the country -towns, roads, ministries, taxes, police, courts everything. This huge exercise in social engineering had two crippling characteristics: fraudulence and cruelty. In theory, after receiving initial large scale state subsidies, the system was self-supporting and even profitable. By 1826 Arakcheev boasted he had a 'capital' of 32 million roubles and construction gangs numbering some 30,000 men. But these were slave labourers, and the investment funds themselves were raised by heavy taxation within the colonies, supplemented by heavy fines for 'offences', the sale of liquor licences and other privileges. Moreover, the state funds were poured into the system in a variety of concealed ways and it is likely that the entire scheme was run at an immense loss, not unlike the state farm collectives and industries set up in Russia a century later.

Alexander's utopia was, therefore, built on lies and fraud, and a growing element of violence. As the concealed losses mounted and it became more difficult to hide them, fines increased, rules were tightened, production quotas were raised, punishments made more severe and from 1819 mutinies began. The first occurred in June at a new colony in the Ukraine, where Russian notions were hated anyway. The peasants went on strike and Arakcheev travelled to the Ukraine to suppress it. He sentenced 275 men to death, then commuted the sentences to spitzuten. This was a Prussian army penalty in which offenders were forced to pass a dozen times through files of 1,000 men, each armed with a stick.

Image of an unknown military colony
There were other large scale mutinies, most notably among the Tsar's own Semyonovsky Regiment in October 1820. In September 1825, after the murder of his mistress by her own maids, Arakcheev began to lose his grip over the military colonies. He lost most of his state authority when his protector Alexander died later the same year, the final blow to the system came in 1830-31, then the cholera epidemic which was slowly harrowing the world hit Russia and was attributed by suspicious peasants in the colonies to the new health measures and hospitals. In the northern colonies, the peasants rose, murdered the officers and set fire to the hospitals and other public buildings. The new Tsar, Nicholas I, who had never liked the system anyway, introduced changes which destroyed it. Thus the first modern experiment in social engineering ended. Its significance was the ease with which it could be introduced on a scale to determine the lives of a million people, on the mere whim of a solitary autocrat who consulted no one and sought the approval of nothing. It pointed to fundamental weaknesses in Russian law and attitudes which were ominous for the future, when social engineering could be conducted on a much larger scale.