‘Serfing’ Metropolitanism in Fin-De-Siècle Russia: Village Structures for Global Infrastructures

By Botakoz Kassymbekova, Technical University of Berlin

In fin-de-siècle Russia, just as in many other parts of the world, rapid industrialization and the development of transportation and communication systems led to the growth of modern metropolises. Mass luxury hotels became one of their symbols and key infrastructures. As a 1907 advertisement of the new Palace Hotel in St. Petersburg announced:

“A massive development of international relations in the fields of politics, trade, industry, science and arts, due to the latest great achievements in transport communication […] brings humanity towards the ultimate victory over space and gives the possibility for further advancement in global rapprochement… The newest hotels of central Europe such as the Ritz in Paris, the Ritz and Carlton in London, the Adlon in Berlin […] became places of sociability and encounter between the best cosmopolitan and local societies.”

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Restaurant “Iar” in Moscow around 1900. Source: pastvu.com/68015

Hotels advertised and promoted themselves as modern global nodes of flows of people, ideas, and fashion. They boasted to employ the latest technological advancements, such as telephones, heating systems, and anti-fire technology. As cities within cities, hotels not only provided all the urban necessities of everyday life for visitors (exchange booths, interpreters, local and international newspapers, restaurants, barbers and cleaning shops, conference amenities and entertainment), but also promised to connect them to important people in the city. In other words, hotels promised not only to create structures of convenience, but also to offer valuable local know-how for potential business contacts.

But it wasn’t only the visitors of hotels who used these spaces to connect to each other. Hotel employees in Russia, too, observed the working conditions of their colleagues in other metropolises, such as Berlin and London. Russian hotel employees, just like their western colleagues, organized societies for mutual help and raised issues with employers (and sometimes the government) about working conditions and low pay. These attempts of organized civic engagement took place in frequent reference and comparison to work conditions of employees in western Europe. Globalization, then, fostered not only new institutions such as modern mass luxury hotels but also ideas of global labor standards among its employees.

While attempts and discourses of self-organization clearly used the language of a global struggle for workers’ rights, I am interested in learning how hotels employed and managed their employees and whether they strived for (or, at least, claimed to) use novel global labor standards and techniques of management. What role did international discourses on labor issues and local conditions play for constructing global modernity? Concerned with the micro dynamics of the industrial globalization, I ask: If institutions do not exist in a social vacuum, by which means of social and material processes and “cultural commitments” were metropolitan spaces, i.e. spaces that connected international cities and groups to each other, formed in turn-of-the-century Moscow and St. Petersburg?

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Restaurant “Iar” in Moscow around 1900. Source: pastvu.com/77904

My research reveals a paradox: While the construction and development of Russian modern luxury hotels and restaurants aimed to modernize and open Russia to the “world,” the process of economic modernization was partially based upon traditional mechanisms from the era of serfdom. Familial and patronage structures usually considered traditional, or even archaic, were adapted in the modern urban context. This glimpse into the servant world of metropolitan enterprises does not only add to our understanding of the processes of globalization, urbanization, and modernization, but also raises the question of whose globalization and modernization we investigate.

Employment and labor mechanisms in grand hotels are an example for the use of serfdom mechanisms. Waiters, maids, kitchen personnel, and cleaners in Moscow hotels were sometimes employed as members of a single village from the Moscow region. The traditional peasant community of the “mir” (world), which shared collective work, income, and financial responsibility was reconstructed in the context of the modern luxury hotel. A village elder – even the serfdom term “starosta” was maintained in one of the grand hotels’ restaurants – was employed by a hotel and he was responsible for his co-villagers. The elder paid a security deposit – usually several annual waiter’s salaries – to the hotel administration. In case a piece of silverware was stolen, the waiter’s village community deposit would cover the loss. The serfdom-era system of joint responsibility (krugovaia poruka) served as a mechanism to protect managers from financial losses in case of assumed thefts by servants, or damages of glass or porcelain. Members of a village were financially responsible for each other. The system aimed to simplify the work of managers, police, and employers: In situations in which the price of a silver fork was higher than the annual salary of a waiter, employing strangers from “the street” was too risky. Since there were neither schools that offered certified training to waiters, nor a reliable mechanism to track employees once they left, village structures offered a sense of reliability. While hotels and restaurants advertised welcoming strangers as consumers, they could not afford strangers as employees.

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Waiters in the Krynkina restaurant in Moscow.

Unskilled labor was more prone to modern “enslavement.” Yet, my research material shows that skilled personnel, such as maîtres d’hôtel, chefs, and hotel managers, were also subject to “neo-traditional” employment practices. Skilled hotel managers, usually recruited among Germans, and chefs, usually among French, despite (or perhaps due to) their international profile and foreign status, also paid a security deposit (often higher than their yearly salary) to cover losses due to possible mismanagement or other costs. Since managers and chefs were responsible for servants, they used traditional community mechanisms to protect themselves. As a result, the system of deposits and collective responsibility was used further down the ladder: From the hotel board to managers to chefs and to unskilled servants. Familial networks and the system of patronage were key to the functioning of an institution that combined different social, professional, and national groups in one enterprise. Traditional affiliations were used as security mechanisms in the context of absence of other institutional regulations.

Although international labor movements influenced Russian hotel employees’ mobilization, it is important not to overlook less visible mechanisms of employment and employee management. My preliminary research suggests that Russian metropolitanism, i.e. cities’ interconnectedness across nations and empires, was partially based on structures of Russian village communities. New modern global spaces of luxury hotels that aimed to host the world in the city and connect the city to the world had to rely upon traditional village structures. This is not because village structures were more reliable or efficient. Rather, in the absence of a developed system of institutional trust, human relations had to substitute abstract mechanisms of control and reliability.


Botakoz Kassymbekova is a Research Associate (Habilitandin) at the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Technical University of Berlin. Her Ph.D. dissertation on early Soviet rule in Central Asia was published in 2016 at the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her second book analyses industrial urbanization and globalization in late imperial Moscow and St. Petersburg through the prism of grand hotels and luxury restaurants.



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