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Aristocracy in Late Nineteenth-century Russian Society

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Научная цифровая библиотека ПОРТАЛУС
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Imperial Russia
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188912035 / Жалобы? Ошибка? Выделите проблемный текст и нажмите CTRL+ENTER!

Was the nobility a dominant force in Russian society at the end of the nineteenth century?

Viewpoint: Yes. The Russian nobility was an adaptive elite that remained a pillar of the state until the Revolution of 1917.

Viewpoint: No. The traditional role of the nobility eroded in the last half of the nineteenth century because of changes in social composition, legal status, and cultural attitudes.


Aristocracy has many meanings in modern contexts. Traditional views of Imperial Russia contextualize its aristocracy as a study in decline during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The class of hereditary landowners that had long held sway over Russian political, social, and economic life seemed to be on the wane. Over time it owned less land, held fewer positions, and enjoyed less prominence than at any other time in its history. Together with the rise of new social groups that controlled more of Russia's wealth and civic prominence, the old-fashioned estate system seemed out of touch, and its pinnacle, the aristocracy, appeared to be in decline.
Yet, as Imperial Russia is understood with greater acuity as a modernizing society, it appears that the aristocracy was no exception in this process. Even as it lost rural landholdings, it was gaining power by buying urban property, investing in commercial ventures, and commodifying its remaining lands. In politics, military affairs, and social institutions, it largely retained its dominance at a time when other European aristocracies were losing theirs. Indeed, a sizable percentage of aristocrats entered government service. In addition, the social ideals of the nobility attracted the rest of society to its culture and conventions. Nonnobles who followed noble career paths often reached middle age or retirement as nobles, a status they coveted and craved, and which conferred many advantages.

Viewpoint: Yes. The Russian nobility was an adaptive elite that remained a pillar of the state until the Revolution of 1917.

Imperial Russia's aristocracy remained an important pillar of the state until 1917. Although new space was becoming available to the country's growing middle groups, educated population, and even members of its urban and rural lower classes, the nobility continued to exercise great influence over Russia's political, social, economic, and cultural life. For most Russians, noble status remained a coveted mark of distinction, identified with success and opportunities for social advancement for one's self and one's family.

Misconceptions about the Russian nobility and the general role of "class" in modern societies have led to the portrayal of national aristocracies as exclusive and virtually impenetrable strata sitting atop highly regimented societies. But in fact, the Russian aristocracy, like that of most other nations in modern times, formed a porous and open elite. Noble status in Russia was not exclusively tied to birth. From Peter the Great's establishment of the Table of Ranks in 1722 until the end of the Empire in 1917, it formally depended on merit demonstrated in state service. Peter's system allowed servitors in the military, bureaucracy, and imperial court to rise according to their abilities. His command that the old Muscovite nobility spend their lives in state service incorporated them into this system as well. The attainment of noble status, which offered social distinction, the prospect of high-level appointments, financial and other material rewards from the state, and further otherwise unattainable advantages, became a major incentive for those of nonnoble birth. In Peter's original system, anyone who reached the eighth rank (chin) of the Table's total of fourteen became a hereditary nobleman with all the rights and privileges of any other hereditary nobleman, no matter how ancient or dignified his lineage. In practice this system opened hereditary nobility to anyone who attained the rank of captain in the army, lieutenant commander in the navy, or the equivalent ranks at court and in the state bureaucracy. Lower levels of the Table of Ranks conferred personal nobility, or noble status only for one's lifetime, though bearers of that distinction in effect enjoyed most of the social privileges of hereditary nobles (a notable exception being the right to own serfs). Even as early as the first half of the nineteenth century, an estimated one-third to one-half of the Russian nobility fell into the personal category. Together with first-generation hereditary noblemen, whom some personal nobles subsequently became, they formed a large portion of the elite who had acquired noble status through achievement rather than birth. In cities, moreover, state recognition for distinguished people created the nonnoble but nevertheless privileged category of "honored citizens," a designation also divided into hereditary and nonhereditary subgroups. Open to merchants, philanthropists, city officials, professionals, and other noted urban dwellers, it reinforced the values of a sociopolitical system that traded privilege and ascriptive status for state and public service.

Rather than becoming more rigid over time, as many scholars have alleged, the Russian elite offered more opportunities for inclusion and advancement in the late-imperial era than at any other time. Russia's surging urban population, partly facilitated by the abolition of serfdom in 1861, met a corresponding increase in educational, professional, business, and other status- altering opportunities. The complexities of modern state administration and warfare translated into greater need and more open positions for bureaucrats and officers, the two principal areas that allowed ordinary Russians to achieve noble status. In a practical sense, therefore, a wider road to social promotion--and thus ennoblement--had to develop, for the existing stock of noblemen was numerically insufficient to fill the expanding administrative and officer corps. Many studies frame the declining proportions of officers and bureaucrats of noble birth as evidence of the elite's decline, but stating the case in these terms is misleading. In absolute terms at least as many, if not more, noblemen were entering state service as at any previous time. The changes merely indicated that more opportunities came into being for Russians of nonnoble birth, and that they were taking advantage of them. As the huge number of personal and first-generation hereditary nobles demonstrates, the most talented among them acquired noble status by advancing in their careers. Notwithstanding their nonnoble birth, inclusion in the elite conferred on them its privileges and inculcated them with its values.

Even raising the standards of ennoblement did not stem this rising tide. Reforms in the 1840s and 1850s did increase Peter's original threshold for acquiring noble status. Reaching the rank of colonel in the army, captain in the navy, and an equivalent rank in the bureaucracy became necessary for acquiring hereditary nobility in the later era. Tellingly, these reforms were enacted precisely because elite Russians feared that their order faced major and debasing changes as a result of military and bureaucratic expansion. At the same time, the increasing need for officers of flag rank and upper-level administrators meant that more promotions were available. Colonels and captains are not altogether rare in modern armies and navies, and every officer who became one in late-imperial Russia, regardless of his origins, became a hereditary nobleman. The frequently cited statistic that officers of noble birth accounted for just above 50 percent of the total in 1900, compared with about 90 percent a few decades earlier, is thus not terribly dramatic. By identifying nobility solely with birth, it fails to reveal either the acquisition of hereditary noble status by every nonnoble who got promoted to the requisite rank or the fluid and meritocratic nature of the social system that allowed for it. Nor does this figure tell the whole story: among generals, admirals, cavalry commanders, elite guards regiment officers, and other prestigious categories, the percentage of birth nobles remained high almost until the end. Although the mass mobilization of World War I required an exponentially greater number of officers than even the much enlarged prewar army, the fundamental character of Russia's social system did not change before the collapse of the monarchy. Some 70 percent of officers were of peasant origin by 1917, but it bears repeating that those promoted to or above colonel, a category that included a number of World War I generals and several leading figures of the anti-Bolshevik White armies (which fought largely to preserve the social status quo of which they were a high-ranking part), legally became hereditary nobles with all the rights and privileges.

The evolution of the state bureaucracy followed largely on the same lines. What appeared to be declining noble presence within it and attempts to deny nobility to occupants of its lower levels in fact acknowledged the power of social mobility through service. Relatively commonplace administrators were qualifying for nobility in greater numbers than ever before. The revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin's father, Ilia Ulianov, achieved hereditary noble status when he became a regional secondary-school inspector. Even if an official did not rise high on the career ladder, exceptional accomplishment in a lower chin or 25 years of unblemished service entitled him to meritorious chivalric decorations that conferred noble status. Over time the second category, simply holding on in a bureaucratic job long enough and without receiving a reprimand, became a common route to nobility. Philanthropists, businessmen, and others who rendered less-traditional service to government and society were also recognized and ennobled by membership in these orders, or rewarded through membership in the privileged honored citizen category. Urban dwellers who qualified for such distinctions also became more diverse over time. Beginning in 1894, for example, music students graduated from the Conservatories of St. Petersburg and Moscow qualified for personal honored citizenship, a status previously extended to graduates of the Academy of Fine Arts. After 1902 male Conservatory graduates were formally taken into state service at the lowest chin of the Table of Ranks.

As Russia's officer corps, bureaucracy, and active civil society expanded in size, so did the ranks of its nobility. Seymour Becker has estimated that as many as 1,500 people a year were becoming nobles in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a figure that doubtlessly increased as the service organs that conferred ennoblement grew further still in the early years of the twentieth century. Statistically that worked out to an average of more than four individuals acquiring noble status each and every day. Acquiring the advantages and distinction of nobility was a remarkably serious aspiration for many Russians. In that sense aristocracy remained a pillar not only of the state but of the society that drew recognition, identity, and status from it.

Declining landownership has long been taken as another and perhaps more obvious sign of the Russian nobility's decay. Raw data that show increasing numbers of landless nobles and greater sales of noble land belie two important facts, however. First, in contrast to earlier times, the large number of newly created service nobles were generally not given land grants by the government in the late-imperial period. Achieving noble status brought many other advantages, but the swelling ranks of the Russian nobility received privileges divorced from rural landownership. If a majority of nobles did not own property after 1900, it was because many of them and many of their families owed their status to service in the military or in urban administrative centers and had possessed no rural land to begin with. Second, in an industrializing society, wealth and landownership generally lose their traditional connections and, in some cases, become mutually exclusive. In any modernizing nation, which Russia was fast becoming, it became more profitable to own urban real estate, shares and stock options in corporations, and other liquid investments than agricultural property. This shift was especially popular when the agrarian land in question was of the relatively unproductive quality that dominated most of the Russian countryside. Selling noble property became particularly irresistible in the late nineteenth century, when the rural peasant population experienced massive growth, creating a scarcity of farmland, higher demand, and huge rural real estate price inflation. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 uniquely facilitated this process, for the peasants not only became eligible to purchase land for the first time, but created an eager market for it. Noble landowners sold off their estates not because they were forced to but because the monetary value of their land was much more productively invested in Russia's surging industrial sector, foreign commercial ventures, or government bonds. Unlike most Western old regimes, moreover, Russia's had no legal prohibitions or cultural taboos preventing nobles from becoming involved in business and industry. Many noblemen owned factories, invested in the stock market, traded goods and services, and engaged in other activities that proved the modern economy a legitimate option and simply made good financial sense. This dynamism also helped stimulate Russia's modernization and industrialization, a fact that partly explains why the government adopted few practical measures to prevent further sales of noble land.

Commodifying agricultural property was thus no hard task, and several social factors helped it along. Many noble landowners, first of all, had little personal or family attachment to the lands they were selling. Estates granted as rewards for service in earlier times had typically been held for only two or three generations, and then more as a source of revenue than an ideal home. For political reasons, Russian rulers had the habit of distributing estates and their resident serf populations to noble families who had no roots in the given region and thus no particular sympathy with its people or their concerns: no ties, in other words, that could decouple their loyalty from the state. Whether or not they became attached to their lands, nobles assiduously pursuing careers in the military or bureaucracy were forced to spend large parts of their adult lives away from them. Although sentimentality for the countryside and its pursuits undeniably existed and found expression in the works of Anton Chekhov and other writers, landowners who rarely or never visited their estates or found life on them remote, boring, and pointless were quite common. Indeed, banishment to one's estate in the distant provinces remained a common and unpleasant punishment for troublesome aristocrats living in urban areas right up until 1917. In another expression of Russia's modernization, much of its noble elite, if it had a choice, simply preferred to live in urban areas, especially St. Petersburg or Moscow, because they offered sophisticated cultural life, more excitement, and greater stimulation, in addition to opportunities for career advancement and social prestige. The concentration of nobles in St. Petersburg around 1900 was at least five times higher than in the country at large, probably not as the result of accident or desperation. Chekhov's three sisters may never have gotten to Moscow, but a huge number of real people in their class did.

Russia's nobility is therefore best seen as an adaptive and modernizing elite rather than a decaying order ripe for destruction. Its status, never defined by birth alone, extended to newcomers who, regardless of whatever snobbery they may have encountered in high society, enjoyed all the privileges and distinctions of nobility. As a social group defined by state service and promoted according to that service's hierarchy, nobility remained a pillar of the state.

-- Paul du Quenoy, American University in Cairo

Viewpoint: No. The traditional role of the nobility eroded in the last half of the nineteenth century because of changes in social composition, legal status, and cultural attitudes.

In the last half century of tsarist rule, the Russian aristocracy (dvorianstvo) lost its position of dominance in Russian society, the apex of which it had reached during the rule of Catherine the Great (1762-1796). The traditional privileges of the nobility over the peasantry were eliminated, and Russia began moving away from being a society of "estates" (sosloviia) and toward one defined by legal equality for individuals. The role that nobles once played as the partners of the autocracy was dismantled in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of World War I.

The traditional power and primacy of the nobility came by providing the state with servitors and controlling the peasantry through the institution of serfdom. Before the immense changes that all of Russian society began experiencing in the second half of the nineteenth century, these two roles of the nobility were filled in tandem. Yet, in the last third of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century, the nobility underwent huge changes in social composition, legal status, and perhaps most important, in mindset and culture. Indeed, several new groups emerged from within the nobility, including landless state servitors and a largely urbanized, professional intelligentsia. Consequently, the coherence of the nobility itself as a group was weakening.

In the course of the Great Reforms of the 1860s, the nobility lost the exclusive right to be the state's representatives in the countryside, and by 1917 the nobility had few legal rights that others within the Russian population lacked. After 1862, noblemen no longer controlled the rural police, and with the 1864 introduction of the institution of local self-government known as the zemstvo (plural, zemstva), nonnobles were able to participate in the administration of local affairs. As a result of legal reform, also introduced in 1864, nobles no longer had special courts to hear cases but instead were subject to newly created all-estate courts. Finally, the reform of Russia's tax system between the 1860s and the 1880s moved Russia away from its traditional poll-tax system to one based on individual landownership and inheritance, consequently raising the nobility's tax burden.

Russia's quickening modernization and strengthening civil society, particularly in the last two decades of the tsarist era, also contributed to the decline of importance of the nobility as a group. Indicative of the nobility's role in society overall was its flagging influence in the zemstva. The state made efforts to buttress the position of the nobility in these bodies with the 1890 revision of the zemstvo statutes, but this intervention was resented among educated liberal nobles active in the zemstva for imposing increased state oversight. The critical stance of the zemstva toward the state was solidified in 1904 and 1905, when zemstva activists took a leading role in calling for civil rights and constitutional reform. Many of these people were nobles, motivated not by estate interests but rather by a desire for social and political reform that was shared by many nonnoble Russians with higher education or employment in the liberal professions.

Arguably, the vitality of the aristocracy as a rural elite was also greatly weakened in the postreform period. First of all, fewer nobles held landed estates. In 1858 at least 80 percent of hereditary nobles (nobles whose children inherited noble status, as opposed to "personal" nobles, whose children did not inherit the status of their noble parents) received their income from landed estates; by 1905 this portion had fallen to 30 percent. There is disagreement among historians concerning the economic status of the landed nobility who remained in the countryside in the late-tsarist period. The Chekhovian image of these nobles as feckless and irresponsible in their use of their wealth has been called into question. Indeed, some nobles who sold their lands in turn purchased other agricultural properties or engaged in business enterprises that brought financial success. Yet, even revisionist accounts disputing the "decline of the nobility" agree that the Russian aristocracy in the last decade of tsarist rule was far from what it had been before the era of the Great Reforms. The central fact is that by the early twentieth century, Russian nobles as a corporate group were not as dominant either socially or economically in Russian society as they had been a half century earlier.

The Russian state did not exert itself in support of the economic interests of the landed aristocracy in the late nineteenth century, instead encouraging industrial over agrarian development. As Russia's economy gradually became more modernized, economic opportunities increased for nonnobles, such as merchants and other members of the growing, and increasingly wealthy, bourgeoisie. Individual nobles entered the expanding industrial economy as entrepreneurs and businessmen, but they did so embracing not semifeudal orders of lords and peasants, but rather a capitalist economy with laws protecting the individual's drive for achievement. In Russia's new urbanized society, influence and social prominence were also open to nonnoble professionals, as well as to publishers, journalists, entertainers, and others who found niches in an increasingly commercial culture.

With Nicholas II's granting of broad civil rights and the creation of the State Duma, or parliament, in October 1905, aristocrats could openly participate in politics within legal parties, not merely through positions of state service. Nobles, however, were not unified politically. They were prominent in the leadership of two key parties competing in the first two Duma elections: the pro-reform, liberal Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) and the more conservative Union of October 17, or Octobrists. The new electoral law imposed illegally by Prime Minister P. A. Stolypin in June 1907 gave landowners and wealthy citizens (and consequently, noblemen) greater representation than other groups had; as a result, Octobrists, most of them landowning nobles, dominated in the Third Duma. Yet, the electoral majority Stolypin had gone to such lengths to achieve was internally weak and divided. Conservative nobles opposed Stolypin's aim to reform local government by widening electoral representation in the zemstva and increasing state oversight at the expense of local nobility. A conservative group known as the United Nobility, formed in 1906, together with other nobles within provincial and other local-level noble organizations, wielded pressure on the State Council and even Nicholas II himself in a successful effort in 1911 to scuttle key elements of Stolypin's reform agenda.

Stolypin had seen in the zemstva a partner with the state rather than a competitor, and beginning with his tenure as prime minister the numbers of nonnoble educated professionals and specialists hired to work in the zemstva (the so-called Third Element), whose political views were generally radically democratic, expanded greatly. With further intensive growth of zemstvo initiatives during World War I, the role of the conservative nobility within most zemstva was completely eclipsed.

Russia's increasingly professional bureaucracy also posed a threat to the traditional position of the aristocracy. At the turn of the twentieth century, the majority of those in the highest levels of the bureaucracy were still of noble background, but the portion of noblemen in the middle and lower ranks of the bureaucracy was falling. Moreover, even bureaucrats who officially were of the noble estate identified more as state servitors than as aristocrats. Already by 1897 the link between landownership and state service was all but completely severed. The fall in the number of army and naval officers who were noblemen was more dramatic. While in 1864 nearly nine out of ten officers were nobles, in 1900 only about 50 percent were nobles.

The Russian aristocracy, politically diverse and inconstant in the last decade and a half of the tsarist era, could not act as a unified group to help bring about the changes needed to strengthen the social fabric of Russian society. If there was a dominant trend among nobles active in politics qua nobles, it was a steady move ever further to the Right. Opposed, on the one hand, to liberals (both nobles and nonnobles) demanding a democratic political order and deep-cutting land reform, and on the other, to a state bureaucracy composed of professional administrators committed to rationalizing and modernizing government, Russia's conservative nobles turned into a dead end as they sought allies among the most reactionary circles at the tsar's court. In the last half century of tsarist rule, Russia's nobles had failed to parlay their institutional advantages--especially the corporate provincial noble organizations inherited from the past and their original dominance in the zemstva--into the power to play a strong, stabilizing role in Russia's nascent political system. They were thus unable to help Russia avoid the social and political chaos that enveloped the country in 1917.

-- Bradley Woodworth, Yale University

Опубликовано 04 сентября 2007 года

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