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Catherine the Great’s Promotion Charter

I. The Charter

Preserved in the Rare Book Collections is a very curious document — a beautiful two-hundred-and twenty year-old charter endorsed by the Russian Empress Catherine the Great that promotes Aleksandr Mukhanov, a young Russian nobleman, from regimental baggage-train driver to Lieutenant-Captain (Secund-Rotmistr) in the Horse-Mounted Guards.

image of Catherine's charter

Provenance of this document is unknown.  On the verso there is an inscription: “При запечатанiи въ коллегiи иностранныхъ д ѣлъ но. 424” (When as applying a seal at the Office of Foreign Affairs. No.424

This unique document–likely acquired “somewhere in the 1920s” within a large and important collection of books and documents purchased for the University Library–is printed on parchment with a hand-painted border of cobalt-blue. There is a monogram of Catherine the Great at the center of the top border, surrounded by double-headed crowned birds, banners, fire arms and cold steel, armor, and bows and quivers.

view of a military camp and a vagon driven by horses

In each corner there is a helmet with a plume decorated with oriental ornaments and an allegorical figure of Minerva on the left hand side and one of Mars on the right. At the bottom of the border, in a medallion, one can see a military camp and transport with two pairs of horses, surrounded by banners, cannons, cartridge pouches and drums.

The text itself starts with a six-line ornamental initial. The document carries traces of the Russian Imperial wax seal.

Literal Translation of the Charter:

By the Grace of God, We, Catherine the Second, Empress and Autocratrix of All the Russians, &c, &c, &c.

Let it be known and recognized by all that as of the first day of the month of January, in the year of Our Lord one thousand-seven hundred-and-ninetieth, We have Most Graciously bestowed and conferred upon Aleksandr Mukhanov who had served Us as regiment baggage-train driver in the Horse-Mounted regiment of Our Guards, and in acknowledgement of the zeal and diligence with which he disposed of his duty in Our service, — the rank of Lieutenant-Captain in the self-same regiment; and whereas We bestow and confer this upon him, commanding all Our men to pay the said Mukhanov the honors and respect befitting the rank of Our Lieutenant-Captain in the Guards, are accordingly trustful that in this rank, most Graciously granted him by Us, he will deport himself in a manner that behooves a loyal Officer of the Guards. In testimony thereof We have signed this with Our own Hand and commanded that it be confirmed by Our State Seal.

Given in Saint Petersburg, in the year 1790, {on the 24th Day of December}

Signed    Catherine and Saltykov's signatures

Catherine.

On the lower line there is a signature, by a different hand: Lieutenant-Colonel {Saltykov} of the Guards Horse Mounted Regiment.

Almost everything in this document raises questions: Who was Mukhanov, and why was he so abruptly promoted from the lowest ranks to a position of high prestige? If the promotion was effective as of January 1st 1790, why was the order signed almost a year later, on Christmas Eve of 1790? What happened to Mukhanov later? How did the original document find its way to mid-Missouri? These are among the many baffling questions to which we may never have a definite answer, but a bit of detective work can cast some light upon the mysteries of the past.

II. Our hero – Mukhanov

Aleksandr Il’ich Mukhanov was born on January 8, 1766 into a noble family. He had six brothers and one sister. His father, Il’ia Mukhanov, was a Colonel in the Horse-Mounted Regiment, from which he retired in 1764, and he was personally known to the Empress. On the day of her ascension to the throne in a coup — July 28th 1762 — Il’ia Mukhanov was among the officers in her convoy on the way to St. Petersburg.

When the future Empress felt cold, Il’ia Mukhanov gave her his officer’s overcoat.  She always remembered this gesture with gratitude.

According to the memoirs of Aleksandr Mukhanov’s niece, five older brothers were educated at home, and the youngest one, Michael, at the Military School. All of them served at the same Life-Guards regiment. And as a contemporary anecdote has it, some pupils of the convent school for young noble ladies thought that all Life-Guards were named Mukhanov. Honesty, piety and brotherly love for each other and to the family, according to Mukhanov’s niece, were their most characteristic virtues.

Aleksandr Mukhanov joined the regiment in 1775, at the age of 9. It was customary in 18th century Russia to enlist a boy of noble birth in a regiment as a soldier, so that when he came of age he would be ready to receive his first officer’s commission and to begin his real service in a regiment as an officer.

If we look at the list of his promotions, we can see that he was first promoted in 1784, when he was 18 to a cornet.  He was promoted again in 1792 to a captain (rotmistr), and on November 15, 1796, only nine days after Catherine’s death, he became colonel and was decorated with the Order of St. Anne.

After Catherine’s son Paul ascended to the throne, Mukhanov’s career took a sharp upswing.  In March of 1798, two month after his first son Paul was born, Mukhanov retired from the Guards and was given a civil rank of State Councilor (slightly higher than colonel), became a Knight Commander of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and on September 5th, was appointed Vice Governor of the city of Novgorod. He was advanced to an Actual State Councilor (corresponds to a Major General) and then appointed Governor of Kazan, the capital of an important province, on April 4, 1799. After Emperor Paul’s assassination in 1801, Aleksandr Mukhanov was relieved of his governorship and brought before the Senate for trial on charges of cruelties committed while governor of Kazan. He was 35 years old then.

But it was not the end of his career. On May 6, 1805, he was sent to the south of Russia to be a civil governor of Poltava, and in the following year he became a civil governor of Riazan. Later he returned to St. Petersburg, and received a rank of Stalmeister at the Imperial Court (Master of the Horse), which, according to the Russian Table of Ranks, corresponded to the rank of Lieutenant General. He spent the last years of his life in Moscow, where he died, and was buried in the cemetery of Novodevichii Convent on 22, October 1815.

III. Christmas Gift

It can only be conjectured that at the end of 1789 Mukhanov was ready for the promotion to the rank of second-lieutenant, when something happened that impeded his rising through the ranks of the regiment.

Catherine-mounted-on-a-horse-

V. Ericksen. Equestrian portrait of Catherine the Great, 1762.

These and other considerations lead to the supposition that the whole matter of the demotion and promotion of Aleksandr Mukhanov could be to a certain extent a domestic affair for Catherine, who could be moralistic but was more-or-less good-natured.

In case of Aleksandr Mukhanov it looks as if he was punished by a firm but benevolent, almost motherly hand, and when he showed (perhaps?) genuine regret, or maybe demonstrated extraordinary courage on the battlefield, he was generously rewarded: promoted not to the next higher rank, but over two ranks, and evidently receiving the yearly salary of a Lieutenant-Captain in back pay to boot!  Above all it was a nice Christmas gift.

Selected bibliography:

  • Iz zapisok M.S. Mukhanovoi. Russkii Arkhiv, 1878, kn. 1
  • Rodoslovnaia  Mukhanovykh, Russkii Arkhiv, 1878, kn.1
  • Zapiski N.A. Sablukova o vremenakh Imperatora Pavla, i konchine etogo gosudaria. 1911.

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