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The Traveling Panopticon: Labor Institutions and Labor Practices in Russia and Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2009

Alessandro Stanziani
EHESS, Paris, and CNRS, Paris


Between 1780 and 1787 Samuel and Jeremy Bentham were asked to manage a large Russian estate owned by Prince Grigorii Potemkin, one of the closest advisors of Catherine II. They had to face two related but distinct problems: Russian peasants were unskilled, while British skilled workers and supervisors were hard to control. It was the problem of controlling skilled English workers in Russia (and not the Russian serfs) that led the Bentham brothers to reflect on the relation between free and forced labor, and then between labor and society. Before and after Foucault, the Panopticon has been seen as a response to social deviance, and in relation to prisons and the emergence of a global surveillance system in modern societies. According to Foucault, the Panopticon is not just a model for institutions, but something whose principles are those of power in society at large. I want to challenge this view by arguing that the Panopticon project actually was a system for controlling wage labor, which drew inspiration from a particular image of Russian serfdom and from the Bentham brothers' experiences in that country. Those experiences have been the subject of several papers and books. The first aim of this paper is not to recall these, but rather to integrate them into a broader intellectual debate. In particular, I will evoke the origins of the Benthams' experiences in Russian, British, and European debates of the period about the legal status of labor. The way that “western” thought conceived of labor in general and positioned itself vis-à-vis Russia necessitates a reexamination of the thesis that the principal schools of western thought were misunderstood in Russia. I will argue, instead, that Russian authors and reformers relied on ambiguities in western thinking about labor when they advanced their own images of serfdom and proposals for reform.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2009

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1 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Paris, 1975, and in English translation by Sheridan, A. for Harmondsworth, 1985)Google Scholar. Identification of Foucault's understanding of the Panopticon in terms of mere surveillance has recently been challenged by Anne Brunon-Ernst, “When Foucault Reads Bentham,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the the Law and Society Association, Berlin, 25 July 2007,

2 Let me provide just a few references from the huge bibliography about Foucault and his interpretation of the Panopticon: McKinlay, Alain and Starkey, Ken, eds., Foucault, Management and Organization Theory: From Panopticon to Technologies of Self (London: Sage Publications, 1998)Google Scholar; Semple, Janet, “Foucault and Bentham: A Defence of Panopticism,” Utilitas, 4, 1 (1992): 105–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Grenier, Jean-Yves and Orléan, André, “Michel Foucault, L'économie politique et le libéralisme,” Annales HSC 5 (2007): 1155–82Google Scholar; Abélès, Marc, Anthropologie de l'Etat (Paris: Payot, 1990)Google Scholar; Louise Warriar, Andrew Robert, and Jennifer Lewis, Surveillance: An Analysis of Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault and Their Present-Day Relevance,

3 Simon Werrett, “Potemkin and the Panopticon: Samuel Bentham and the Architecture of Absolutism in Eighteenth-Century Russia,” The Philosophic Age Almanac 9 (issue on “The Science of Morality: Jeremy Bentham and Russia”) (1999): 106–35. See also Christie, Ian R., The Benthams in Russia, 1780–1791 (Oxford: Berg, 1993)Google Scholar; Christie, Ian R., “Samuel Bentham and the Western Colony at Krichev, 1784–1787,” Slavonic and East European Review 48, 111 (1970): 232–47Google Scholar; Montefiore, Simon Sebag, “Prince Potemkin and the Benthams: The Project to Create an English Village with Modern Factories in Belorussia,” History Today 52, 8 (Aug. 2003): 3843Google Scholar; Montefiore, Simon Sebag, Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin (London: Phoenix Press, 2001)Google Scholar; Cross, Alexander G., By the Banks of the Neva: Chapters from the Lives and Careers of the British in Eighteenth-Century Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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5 I have developed these points elsewhere. On historical intellectual debates in Russia and the “West” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on slavery, serfdom, and labor constraints, see: Stanziani, Alessandro, “Free Labor-Forced Labor: An Uncertain Boundary? The Circulation of Economic Ideas between Russia and Europe from the 18th to the Mid-19th Century,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 9, 1 (2008): 2752CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the historical practices of slavery in Russia as compared to other forms of slavery and bondage, see: Stanziani, Alessandro, “Serfs, Slaves, or Wage Earners? The Legal Status of Labour in Russia from a Comparative Perspective, from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Global History 3, 2 (July 2008): 183202CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 For my sources, I have utilized contemporary works published in Britain, Russia, and other European countries, including legal sources such as laws, case-law, and jurisprudence, and Russian archival sources. The latter are mostly estate archives and local courts litigations available at the Russian State Archives of Ancient Acts (RGADA), and the Central State Historical Archive in Moscow (TsGIAM).

7 Ekaterina non: Zakalinskaia, Evgeniia P., Votchinnye khoziaistva Mogiliovskoi gubernii vo vtoroi polovine XVIII veka (Noble estates in the province of Mogilyov during the second half of the eighteenth century) (Mogilyov: Mogilevskii oblast' Kraeved. muzei, 1958), 27Google Scholar, 34.

8 Montefiore “Prince Potemkin.”

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10 Bowring, Works of Jeremy Bentham, v. 10, 161.

11 Bentham, Correspondence, v. 3, 498.

12 Ibid., 503, 509–12.

13 Bowring, Works of Jeremy Bentham, v. 4, 41.

14 Bentham, J., The Panopticon Writings, Bozevic, Miran, ed. (London: Verso, 1995)Google Scholar, letter 1.

15 Bentham, Jeremy, “Panopticon”: or, the Inspection-House … in a Series of Letters, Written in the Year 1787, from Crechoff in White Russia, to a Friend in England, 1 vol. (Dublin: Thomas Byrne, 1791; and in 2 vols., London: T. Payne, 1791)Google Scholar.

16 Werrett, “Potemkin and the Panopticon.”

17 Blum, Lord and Peasant; Dennison, Tracy K., “Did Serfdom Matter? Russian Rural Society, 1750–1860,” Historical Research 79, 203 (2003): 7489CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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19 Confino, Domaines et seigneurs, 40.

20 Confino, Domaines et seigneurs; Melton, “Enlightened Seigniorialism”; Rubinshtein, Sel'skoe khoziaistvo; Sivkov “Istochniki po istorii.”

21 Aleksandrov, Viktor A., Sel'skaia obshchina v Rossii, XVIII–nachalo XIXe veka (The agrarian commune in Russia, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) (Moskva: Nauka, 1976)Google Scholar.

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24 Confino, Domaines et seigneurs; Melton, “Enlightened Seigniorialism.” As examples, see: Mikhail Golitsyn, “Polozhenie dlia krest'ian Efremovskoi votchiny sela Mikhailovskogo derevni Varvarovki 1839 g.” (The conditions of peasants of the estate Efremovskii, village of Varvarovki in 1839), in M. V. Dovnar-Zapol'skii, ed., Materialy dlia istorii votchonnogo upravleniia v Rossii (Kiev: Tipography Imperatorskogo Universiteta, n.d.), 276–80.

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26 Confino, Domaines et seigneurs, 44; Kliengstaedt, T. I., “Iz'iasnenie sposoba k pooshchreniiu zemledel'tsov k trudoliubiiu” (Encouraging attitudes to labor of rural populations), Trudy IVEO XVI (1770): 248Google Scholar.

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29 Police archives reproduced in Materialy dlia istorii krepostnogo prava v Rossii: Izvlecheniia iz sekretnykh otchetov ministerstva vnutrennykh del za 1836–1856 gg (Berlin: Behrs Buchnandlung, 1873). Also see: Zaĭonchkovskiĭ, Petr Andreevich, Otmena krepostnogo prava v Rossii, 3d ed (Moskva: Izd-vo Kniga, 1968)Google Scholar, and its English translation: The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, Susan Wobst, ed. and trans. (Gulf Breeze, Fl.: Academic International Press, 1978).

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31 Vorontsov, R., “O sposobakh k ispravleniiu sel'skogo domostroitel'estva,” Trudy IVEO 5 (1765): 113Google Scholar; Melton, “Enlightened Seigniorialism,” 692.

32 The archive of this estate is in RGADA, fond 1287 Sheremetevy, opis' 3, chast' 2. On this, see: Wirtschafter, Social Identity; Hartley, Janet, “Catherine's Conscience Court—An English Equity Court?” in Cross, A. G., ed, Russia and the West in the Eighteenth Century (Newtonville, Mass.: Oriental Research Partners, 1983), 306–18Google Scholar; Kamenskii, A. B., “Soslovnaia politika Ekateriny II,” Voprosy Istorii 3 (1995): 4142Google Scholar.

33 R. Vorontsov, “O sposobakh”; Indova, E. I., “Instrukciia kniazia M. Shcherbatova prikazchikam ego iaroslavskikh votchin” (Instructions of Prince Shcherbatov for his domain in Iaroslav), Materialy po istorii sel'skogo khoziaistva SSSR 6 (1965)Google Scholar, article 44: 460. Rubinshtein, Sel'skoe khoziaistvo.

34 Confino, Domaines et seigneurs; Melton, “Enlightened Seigniorialism.”

35 Christie, “Samuel Bentham and the Western Colony.”

36 Among estate archives, see: Lievens' Estates, Province of Kostroma, British Library, additional manuscripts 47422-8, exploited by Melton, “Enlightened Seigniorialism.” The notarial and patrimonial funds (votchinnye fondy) include documents such as the podvornye opisi collected by the votchinnaia administratsiia. These opisi were made by representatives of the zemskii sud (rural law court) with the help of dvoriany representatives, as scheduled in Svod zakonov (1842, t. X, st 3823, 9253). Juridical and administrative concerns linked to these sources were objects of dispute among administrations, in particular between the ministries of interior and finance. They were solved by the eighth section of the Senate, whose archives are in RGIA (Russian Imperial Archives), fond 1584. In Moscow, archives (TsGIAM) are available for the funds of the Moskovskii gubernsk. Pravelenie, concerning transactions on estates and including details on capital, buildings, population, and so forth. Detailed estate archives in RGADA include: f. 1252, opis' 1: Abamelek-Lazarevy (Tula province); f. 1282, Tolstye-kristi (Riazan province); f. 1262, opis' 1 (Gagarin estates in the provinces of Saratov and Tambov); opis'4, Gagarin's estate at Oetrovskoe; f. 1273, opis' 1, Orlov-Davydov's estate in staraia gat', province of Tula; f. 1290, opis' 3, Iusupovs' estates in provinces of Orlov, Kursk, and Voronezh; f. 1281, opis' 1, Talyzins' estate at Samara; RGIA, f. 1584, Chebyshevs' estate, Tula. On these sources, see Indova, E. I., Krepostnoe khoziaistvo v nachale XIXe veka (Serfdom economics in the early nineteenth century) (Moskva: Izdatel'stvo AN SSSR, 1951), 154Google Scholar, and appendix III; Koval'chenko, I. D., Russkoe krepostnoe krest'ianstvo v pervoi polovine XIXe v (Russian serfdom economy during the first half of the nineteenth century) (Moskva: Nauka, 1967)Google Scholar.

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80 A. Cross, By the Banks of the Neva.

81 Ibid.

82 Bentham, Correspondence, v. 4, 40.

83 The Panopticon Writings (see note 12 for full citation) were systematized and partly abridged in five editions of Bentham's works. The cited edition contains letters from Russia, as well as the final published version of the Panopticon. On this subject, see Schofield, Philip, Pease-Watkins, Catherine, and Blamires, Cyprian, Rights, Representation, and Reform: Nonsense Upon Stilts and other Writings on the French Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002)Google Scholar; and Catherine Pease-Watkins, “Bentham's Panopticon and Dumont's Panopticon,” University College London, Bentham project,

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90 See Kingston-Mann, Esther, In Search of the True West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 69Google Scholar; and, in particular, the 1815 issues of Dukh zhurnalov.

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92 Bentham, Correspondence, v. 10, 542.

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