The noble families of Russia, for the most part descendants of the Scandinavian adventurers who had come in with Rurik, were as proud in their way as the descendants of the vikings who came to England under William of Normandy. Their books of pedigree were kept with the most scrupulous care, and in these were set down not only the genealogies of the families, but every office that had been held by any ancestor, at court, in the army, or in the administration.
With this there is no special fault to be found. It is as well, doubtless, to keep the pedigrees of men as it is to keep those of horses and dogs; though the animals, being ignorant of their records, are less likely to make them a matter of pride and presumption. In Russia the fact that certain men knew the names and standing of their ancestors led to the most absurd consequences. The books of ancestry were constantly appealed to for the support of foolish pretensions, and the nobles of Russia strutted like so many peacocks in their insensate pride of family.
In no other country has the question of precedence been carried to such ridiculous lengths as it was in Russia in the days of the early Romanofs. If a nobleman were appointed to a post at court or a position in the army, he at once examined the books of ancestry to learn if the officials under whom he would serve had fewer ancestors on record than he. If such proved to be the case the office was refused, or accepted under protest, the government being, metaphorically, forced to fall on its knees to the haughtiness of its offended lordling.
The folly of the nobles went even farther than this. The height of their genealogy counted for as much as its length. They would refuse to accept positions under persons whose ancestors were shown by the books to have been subordinate to theirs in the same positions. If it appeared that the John of five centuries before had been under the Peter of that period, the modern Peter was too proud to accept a similar position under the modern John. And so it went, until court life became a constant scene of bickering and discontent, and of murmurs at the most trifling slights and neglects. In short, it became necessary that an office of genealogy should be established at court, in which exact copies of the family trees and service registers of the noble families were kept, and the officers here employed found enough to keep them busy in settling the endless disputes of their lordly clients.
In the reign of Theodore, the third czar of the Romanof dynasty, this ridiculous sentiment reached its climax, and it became almost impossible to appoint a wise man to office over a fool, if the fool's ancestors had happened to hold the same office over those of the man of wisdom. The fancy seemed to be held that folly and wisdom are handed down from father to son, a conceit which is often the very reverse of the truth.
Theodore was a feeble youth, who reigned little more than five years, yet in that time he managed to bury this folly out of sight. Annoyed by the constant bickerings of courtiers and officials, he consulted with his able minister, Prince Vassili Galitzin, and hit on a means of ridding himself of the difficulty.
Proclamation was made that all the noble families of the kingdom should deliver their service rolls into court by a fixed date, that they might be cleared of certain errors which had unavoidably crept into them. The order was obeyed, and a multitude of these precious documents were brought into the palace halls of the czar. The heads of the noble families and the higher clergy were now sent for, composing a proud assembly, before whom the patriarch, who had received his instructions, made an eloquent address. He ended by speaking of the claims to precedence in the following words:
"They are a bitter source of every kind of evil; they render abortive the most useful enterprises, in like manner as the tares stifle the good grain; they have introduced, even into the hearts of families, dissension, confusion, and hatred. But the pontiff comprehends the grand design of his czar; God alone could have inspired it!"
Though utterly ignorant of what that design was, the grandees felt compelled to express a warm approval of these words. At this Theodore, who pretended to be enraptured by their applause, suddenly rose, and, simulating a burst of patriotic enthusiasm, proclaimed the abolition of all their hereditary claims.
"That the very recollection of them may be forever extinguished," he exclaimed, let all the papers relative to these titles be instantly consumed."
The fire was already prepared, and by his orders the precious papers were hurled into the flames before the anguished eyes of the nobles, who did not dare in that despotic court to express their true feelings, and strove to hide their dismay under hollow acclamations of assent.
As what they deemed their most valuable possessions were thus converted to ashes before their eyes, the patriarch again rose, and declared an anathema against any one who should dare to oppose this order of the czar. An "Amen" that was like a groan came from the lips of the horrified nobles, and precedence went up in flames.
The czar had no thought of effacing the noble families. New books were prepared, in which their ancestry was described. But the absurd claims which had caused such discord were forever abolished, and court life thereafter proved smoother and easier in consequence of the iconoclastic act of the czar Theodore.