Tchaikovsky’s civil service career: an early advantage

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November 26, 2017 by AK

I’ve spotted this little detail in Wikipedia’s article on Tchaikovsky;

On 10 June 1859, the 19-year-old Tchaikovsky graduated as a titular counselor, a low rung on the civil service ladder. Appointed to the Ministry of Justice, he became a junior assistant within six months and a senior assistant two months after that.

The rank of titular counselor was hardly “low” for a young man entering civil service – it was probably the highest possible for a 19-year-old. In the Table of Ranks, the titular counselor belonged to Class 9 – five rungs above the lowest rank (14), and five below Class 4, which conferred hereditary nobility.

The entry rank for a civil servant depended on his parentage and education. An uneducated member of an unprivileged class would be required to spend years in the civil service before being allowed to take an exam for the lowest rank, Class 14. A graduate of a classical gymnasium would be accepted without an exam but only with a Class 14 rank (“collegiate registrar”). University graduates with a high enough grade average received a Class 10 rank automatically (“collegiate secretary”).

Moreover, honors graduates of select colleges – including the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, from which Tchaikovsky graduated with mostly “excellent” and “very good” grades – were eligible for Class 9 as their entry rank.

Thirteen years earlier, Konstantin Pobedonostsev had likewise graduated to enter civil service as a titular counselor. One year before Pobedonostsev, Dmitry Nabokov (the writer’s grandfather) had finished the School and started service as only a Class 10 chinovnik but went on to become minister of justice and the father of the great legal reform. Nabokov and Pobedonostsev didn’t like each other much; the latter engineered the former’s resignation in 1885. In terms of the Table of Ranks, both reached the highest available to a mortal, the full (“actual”) privy counselor, Class 2.

As a graduate of an elite school with a mission to produce highly educated and motivated civil servants, Tchaikovsky had a good shot at a successful career at the Justice Ministry, so the opportunity cost of resigning and switching (in 1863) to studying and, later, teaching music was considerable.

On the other hand, the Russian Wiki says that, despite effectively leaving state service in 1863, Tchaikovsky only resigned formally in 1867, by which time he had finished his studies at the St. Petersburg conservatory and accepted a professorship at the Moscow conservatory. Moreover, seven years after joining the Justice Ministry, in 1866, Tchaikovsky was promoted to “court counselor,” a Class 7 rank, corresponding to lieutenant-colonel in the army. He was only 26.

There was, of course, a world of a difference between a 19-year-old and a 50-year-old titular counselor – a promising graduate and a… Let’s say two of the saddest losers in Russian literature – Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin from The Overcoat and Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov from Crime and Punishment – were both titular counselors. I’m not sure of Akaky Akakievich’s age but Marmeladov was past 50. There’s a hint somewhere in the novel that Marmeladov came from a modest background so his civil service rank is not so pathetic considering this as well as his likely inadequate education.


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