Illustrated Description Of Russia

the List of Illustrations


table of contents

POLITICALLY considered, the people of Russia are divided into four general classes—the nobility, the clergy, the merchants and burghers, and the peasants and serfs. Previously to the reign of Peter the Great, the Russian nobility consisted principally of the descendants of the ancient petty princes of the country, or of lords possessed of vast estates. They were in the exclusive possession of all situations of trust and emolument, to which they succeeded according to their rank. Peter, who early saw the disadvantage of this state of things, and the necessity of undermining the influence of the nobles, most of whom were violently opposed to his projects for the regeneration of the country, had recourse, in furtherance of his plans, to the scheme of creating a new order of nobility. With this view, he divided all the civil and military functionaries in the service of the state into fourteen classes: enacting, at the same time, that the six highest classes should confer on the individuals in them the distinction of hereditary nobility; that some of the other classes should confer the distinction of personal nobility, or of nobility for life; and that those enrolled in the others should be deemed gentlemen, or bien nees. Some modifications were made in this arrangement by the empress Catherine II.; but it is still maintained nearly as it was contrived by Peter the Great.

The creation of a new nobility founded on merit, or on services rendered to the state, was, no doubt, a material improvement at the time. By illustrating many new families, it has served to lessen the influence of the old nobility, and to liberalize the order, at the same time that it has opened a prospect to all enterprising individuals of rising to the highest dignities. On the whole, however, it would seem that the system, having served its purpose, might now be advantageously abandoned.

In Russia, properly so called, the nobles are not numerous; but they abound in Podolia, Volhynia, and other provinces acquired from Poland, and especially in Poland itself, which has about three hundred thousand nobles! Few, however, of the latter possess estates, and many of them are in a very destitute condition. In the Polish provinces, and in Courland, Livonia, and Esthonia, none but nobles can inherit landed property; but this is not the case in Russia proper, though, with the exception of the crown-estates, they are, in fact, almost the sole proprietors.

The titles of prince, count, and baron, have superseded those formerly in use. In the government of Toula, there are said to be more than one hundred families having the dignity of prince! All the members of noble families are noble, and have the same title as the head of the family. On the death of a noble parson, his estate is divided, according to a fixed scale, among his children of both sexes. Nobles are exempted from all personal charges, and from the obligation to serve in the army, but they are obliged to furnish recruits according to the number of their vassals. Nobles are also exempted from corporeal punishment; have leave to distil all the spirits required for the consumption of their establishments; may engage in manufactures or trade; have a right to all the minerals on their estates, &c. Precedence is determined, in Russia, by military rank ; and an ensign would take the pas of a nobleman not enrolled in the army, or occupying some situation giving military rank.

The property of a noble who has been condemned is not confiscated by the state, but goes to his family. The nobles likewise elect various local magistrates, assessors, &c., and deliberate at their meetings on different matters connected with the local administration. There is also in every government a committee of nobles to watch over the interests of the body, and to take care of the establishments that belong to it; and every circle has a committee of nobles who manage the estates and affairs of nobles who are under age. These privileges, which are obviously of considerable importance, were embodied and set forth in a ukase by Catherine II., in 1762; and another ukase of the emperor Alexander prohibits all government functionaries from interfering with the election of the assessors and other functionaries chosen by the nobles.

It is not easy to form a fair estimate of the character of the Russian nobles. Generally speaking, their education is more superficial than solid ; but many are, nevertheless highly accomplished. They are all well acquainted with French, and numbers with the English and German languages ; those who have travelled being distinguished by the superior polish and elegance of their manners. They are universally hospitable; and most of them affect, and many relish, the society of literary men and artists. That they are more sensual, more given to ostentatious display, and less distinguished by a gentlemanly bearing toward their inferiors, than the higher classes in England and France, is no doubt true. But it is affirmed that the representations of Clarke, Lyall, and other travellers, of their caste, are, notwithstanding, mere vulgar caricatures, which, though they may perhaps apply to a few individuals, are generally quite as wide of the truth as M. Pillet's accounts of the women of England, or those of Captain Basil Hall and Madame Trollope with respect to the Americans. Considering, indeed, that the Russian nobility have no exciting political occupation, that in most parts of the empire there is no middle Glass, and that the occupiers of their estates are not freemen but serfs, the wonder is, not that their tastes and habits should be in some respects barbarous, but that they should have made so great an advance as they have done since the reign of Peter the Great, and that they should be so intelligent and refined as they are found to be.


click to enlarge

The Russian nobles, like those of England and other countries in fendal times, are in the habit of keeping great numbers of vassals in their houses as servants. The number of such retainers in some great families exceeds all belief, amounting sometimes to above five hundred! They receive only a trifling pittance as wages, but that is quite enough for their wants, as they are fed and clothed by their masters. Several Russian noblemen have recently distinguished themselves by their attention to their estates, and by the efforts they have made to introduce the improved processes and implements in use in more advanced countries. In some instances they, have brought land-stewards and laborers from Great Britain and Germany. Latterly, also, many of the principal nobles have become extensive manufacturers, and some of the greatest manufacturing establishments in the empire are at present in their hands. They are driven, in fact, to adopt this course by the circumstances under which they are placed. All agricultural and most out-of-door employments being suspended during winter, the noblemen, who must provide for the subsistence of their serfs, whether the latter be employed or not, naturally endeavor to avail themselves of their services during the interruption of husbandry pursuits, by setting on foot some species of manufacture. The latter, indeed, is frequently carried on only during winter, the peasants being employed in agriculture during the rest of the year. When, however, a nobleman establishes a manufacture on a large scale, and keeps it constantly at work, the peasants are usually put on the footing of hired laborers, and instead of getting an allotment of land, are paid for their work, and left to supply themselves with necessaries. Some manufactures conducted in this way have been eminently successful: though it is hardly necessary to add that, if they be of the higher class, or require any peculiar skill, economy, or attention, they are not of a kind that can be successfully carried on by the agents of noblemen; and that the moment the protection afforded by oppressive customhouse duties, under which they have grown up, is withdrawn, tihey will at once fall to the ground.

Mr. Coxe and Dr. Pinkerton, who are regarded as among the best and most trustworthy of the English travellers who have visited Russia, speak very favorably of the Russian nobility. The former says that, although they have adopted the delicacies of French cookery, they neither affect to despise their native dishes, nor squeamishly reject the solid joints which characterize an English repast. The plainest as well as the choicest viands are collected from the most distant quarters. At the tables of opulent persons in St. Petersburg may be seen sterlet from the Volga, veal from Archangel, mutton from Astrakhan, beef from the steppes, and pheasants from Hungary and Bohemia. The common wines are claret, Burgundy, and champagne; and English beer and porter may be had in perfection and abundance. It is usual to take a "whet" before dinner; but the stories engrafted on this practice, of the prevalence of inebriety among the higher classes, are pronounced to be wholly without foundation. In this respect their habits have undergone a total change since the days of Peter the Great, and they are now remarkable for sobriety. The peasantry, however, often indulge to excess in their potations.

The lengthened stay of the Russian armies in the western and more civilized European states, after the defeat of Napoleon's invasion, made a large number of the nobles, and of the more intelligent classes (which in Russia consist of the military officers), familiarly acquainted with a more advanced state of society, and a better form of civil polity. This circumstance, also, gave an increased stimulus to the desire for travelling that previously prevailed among the nobility, many of whom withdrew to France, England, and Italy. It is not to be denied that the influence of these concurring circumstances has since, on various occasions, made itself sensibly felt in Russia; and that the government has sometimes had reason to believe that a considerable portion of the nobility, and even some of the most distinguished regiments of the army, would not be displeased to see some limit set to the powers of the czar.

Next to the nobility stand the clergy, which number over three hundred thousand, and, including their families, nearly a million. As they will be fully and more properly described in the chapter appropriated to an account of the church, we will pass them by here without further notice.

The merchants, burghers, &c., comprise a class between the nobles and the peasants, and is thus alluded to by the empress Catherine II., in her instructions for a new code of laws: " This class, composed of freemen, belong neither to the class of nobles nor to that of peasants. All those who, being neither gentlemen nor peasants, follow the arts and sciences, navigation, commerce, or exercise trades, are to be ranked in this class. In it should be placed all those who, born of plebeian parents, shall have been brought up in schools or places of education, religious or otherwise, founded by us or by our predecessors. Also the children of officers and of the secretaries to the chancery."

This body is divided into various classifications, as follows: 1. The class of the corporation legally called merchants ; all of them must be inscribed in one of the three guilds. 2. Respectable citizens. 3. Citizen-burghers not inscribed in any of the guilds; and artisans and mechanics, belonging to special handicraft corporations. 4. Freemen, such as discharged soldiers, emancipated serfs, and all others of free condition not belonging to any special corporation, but registered in the general one of the city inhabited by them. 5. Workmen, and all other inhabitants owning houses in cities, but not registered in the general or in any of the special corporations, can, if they choose, be called citizen-burghers, without, however, losing their privileges, if from the order of the nobility, or acquiring those of burghers, if still belonging to rural communes.

Russian Merchant.

Russian Merchant.
click to enlarge

The three guilds into which the merchant class is divided are formed according to the amount of capital employed and declared by those wishing to get an inscription, on which an interest of about six per cent, is to be paid yearly into the treasury. The sum necessary for an inscription into the first guild is about twenty thousand dollars ; for the third, or lowest, about six thousand.

Aside from this order of merchants, all other burghers form a general body, whatever their trade or occupations. A corporation of handicraftsmen is formed of masters, foreman, and apprentices. The members of such a corporation are either for life, or temporary. To the first belong those born as citizen-burghers; to the second foreign artisans, free peasants, as well as serfs who have learned the special handicraft, or are received among the masters in the corporation, being thus inscribed for a certain time, without, however, belonging to the general class of citizen-burghers. The body of workmen is composed of all registered in the records of the town, and not belonging to any of the above-mentioned classes; of men unfit for the military service, or those having furnished it; of foreign immigrants, artisans, or apprentices ; but excluding those of bad character, and all those expelled for bad behavior, or for the non-payment of communal taxes, or the evading to fulfil personal duties.

Any one enjoying the right to make a selection of a corporation, trade, or occupation for life, can enter the class of citizen-burghers, abandoning thus his inferior position, and passing over to this superior one. For this he must be legally and officially accepted by the community which he wishes to join. Exceptions exist for some artisans where the legal assent of the community to the act of admission is not necessary. Thus, for example, cloth-weavers, dyers and dressers, and machinists, can join a general city corporation or community, without obtaining the formality of its consent.

Free or crown peasants can join the corporation of burghers individually or with their families, and so can rural communes, if they are traders, mechanics, artisans, or manufacturers, but not as agriculturists. Individuals passing thus from one state to another, must obtain the assent of the commune which they abandon, as well as the acceptance of that which they enter., When this is to be done by a whole rural community, the permission of the government is necessary. Widows and daughters of free peasants can, under certain conditions, become incorporated among citizen-burghers. Independent agriculturists (a kind of free yeomen), as well as emancipated serfs, cun join a city corporation with its assent.

Jews, as well as seceders from the national or orthodox Greco-Russian church, can only join corporations in Trans-Caucasian cities. Asiatic nomades, of all races and kinds, Kirghiz, &c., can, at their choice, enter any city corporation whatever, and no objection can be raised to this by the commune. The community of any city can erect a communal bank according to the prescriptions of special laws. No citizen-burgher can be deprived of his standing or special privileges otherwise than by the verdict of a criminal tribunal. In all civil as well as criminal matters, if both the parties are of the same class, the case comes first before the board of magistrates.

Merchants of the first guild, or their children, when the parents have belonged for twenty-five years uninterruptedly to the guild, have the right to enter the civil or military service under the same conditions as the children of personal nobles. Merchants of the second guild, or their children, can not enter the civil service at all, and the military only as volunteers, that is, with the right to leave it again at any time. All other merchants, citizen-burghers, or their children, are not admitted into the civil service on any condition whatever ; and when they enter the military, do not enjoy any kind of privilege, but are treated like all the common recruits. A citizen-burgher registered in one of the three guilds is free from the general recruiting to which all other burghers are subject. He also does not pay the state the capitation-tax, called poduschnoe ("from the soul"), as he already pays an interest on the capital for which he is inscribed in the guild. All other commercial taxes are paid by the burghers in common with the rest of the inhabitants. Any citizen-burgher can own houses or other real estate situated in cities or villages, or lots of naked land—that is, land without serfs. Citizen-burghers not inscribed in any guild, but owning houses in cities valued above five thousand dollars, are obliged to register their names at least in the third guild, and pay the interest on their capital. Such houses can be owned by widows or unmarried daughters of the class of merchants, but on condition of registration in a guild. Merchants can belong to and be registered in rural communities according to certain prescriptions of the law.

If a merchant, or in general any citizen-burgher, inherits any landed estates with serfs on them, the serfs are to be sold immediately to the crown-domains at the average price of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars for each individual — the right of owning serfs being reserved exclusively to the nobility. The citizen-burghers can be deprived of their property only by the judgment of a civil tribunal.

The Bourgeoisie — a Russian Pic-nic*

The Bourgeoisie — a Russian Pic-nic*

* The scene illustrated by this engraving is incidentally mentioned near the close of page 470. It represents a party of burghers, who, with their families, are enjoying a "Russian pic-nic," on a holyday, on one of the islands of the Neva. The "favorite somovar," it will be seen, characteristically occupies a prominent place in this picture of Russian social festivity.

No citizen-burgher registered in the general, or in any of the special corporations, can step out of it, and abandon the city where he is incorporated, by settling in another, without the assent of the community or the permission of the government. Any citizen-burgher can pass into the close corporation of the merchants, on declaring the amount of capital requited to be inscribed in one of the three guilds, and paying into the treasury the interest thereon.

Each community can exclude any member under criminal condemnation, or of notoriously bad character. The city of Moscow has alone the privilege of giving up such individuals to the government, either as recruits to be reckoned as furnished in any future levy, or for the colonization of Siberia. Children of such convicts, above fourteen years of age, have the option either to follow the father or to remain in the community. Minors, not having a mother, never follow the parent when sent to Siberia.

Above all the subdivisions of the bourgeoisie, and thus above the close corporation of the merchants — even those of the first guild—rises the legal privilege of the respectable citizen (postchotnoi grazdanin). This is a privilege either hereditary or enjoyed for life. Children of personal nobles become hereditary respectable citizens.

One who, in -virtue of the social position of his father as a merchant of the first guild, or as a savant, a physician, &c, has acquired the right to complete a course of studies in one of the universities of the empire, can petition the government to be included in the class of respectable citizens, on producing testimonials of having finished the higher studies, and of good conduct during his stay at the university. The same is conceded to artists when they produce testimonials from the national academies of art; to children of merchants of the first and second guilds, who have passed with special distinction through the studies of the universities, to pupils of special commercial schools, to artists who are foreigners by birth, &c.

At first sight it would seem laudable that laborious and well-accomplished studies, as well as artistical distinction, should open the door to a higher grade in the social scale. But, on more close consideration, this apparent liberality loses greatly in its character. It is deprived of the lofty spirit of universality which alone makes such distinction praiseworthy ; it has the narrowness inherent in exceptions and superpositions; it is a privilege conceded to one already privileged ; it excludes here, as it does everywhere, the man of genius who by accident is not born in a certain privileged cradle; it reduces to some few what ought to be accessible to all: it is thus restricted, narrow, and exclusive. Vainly is it represented as being a stimulus to the acquisition of social distinction by intellectual labor, by mental accomplishments. It is so but partially, in a very limited way; it possesses the odor of caste, instead of having the elevated character of being for the benefit of the whole people; it shuts out the poor, the unprotected by purse or patronage; it is stale and musty in its nature, rather than bright and serene as ought to be a genuine incitement of true civilization, securing well-deserved social superiority and consideration to intellectual proficiency.

Members of the merchant-class, on whom the government has conferred the honorary title of commercial or manufacturing councillors, if they have never suffered any criminal indictment, and never failed in business, can themselves, as can their widows, rise into the class of hereditary respectable citizens. So can merchants, who have belonged uninterruptedly for ten years to the first, and for twenty to the second guild. And any one who has obtained the diploma of doctor or of master from any of the Russian universities, can petition the government to be included in the class of hereditary respectable citizens. Artists and special pupils of the Academy of Art have also this right on presenting their diploma of membership. Foreigners living in Russia, if they are savans, artists, merchants, or owners of extensive manufacturing-establishments, if they become Russian subjects, and have already belonged for ten years to the class of personal respectable citizens, have the right to petition for admission into the hereditary class of the same title. The rights and privileges of respectable citizens consist in liberating them from the poduschnoe, or capitation-tax; from the recruitment; from corporeal punishment, by either civil or military judgment; and from having their heads shaved during arrest and pending trial. All the rest of the bourgeoisie, in criminal as well as in police affairs, are subject to personal punishment, inflicted by rods (palki), or the " cat-o'-nine-tails " (pletnia).

Below the bourgeoisie—with all the above-enumerated subdivisions and various special corporations, from that of the merchants down to that of the workmen—there exists a still inferior class, called that of the suburban inhabitants, not separately incorporated, but administered by the boards of magistrates of the city to which they belong. It is composed principally of agriculturists or day-laborers, who thus form the last link between the bourgeoisie and the peasants. All other persons living in any city by special permission, and devoted to trade, or artisans, are called simply inhabitants or citizens (zytel, obywatel, from bywat, u to frequent").

The fourth and lowest class of the people of Russia, the peasants and serfs, are by far the most numerous. This class forms, in about equal numbers, legally and socially, two great principal divisions—that of the so-called free or crown peasants, and the serfs. The former are cut up into several subdivisions, according to the rights by which they hold property or soil, and according to the kind and the nature of the servitudes which they have to fulfil.

The code of laws (Swod Zakonoff) calls the peasantry rural inhabitants, and divides them as follows : 1. Those inhabiting or settled on lands belonging to the treasury, or kazna (a word of Tartar origin). 2. Those on special crown-domains. 3. Those on lands forming the personal property of the emperor. 4. Those settled on lands belonging to the imperial habitations or palaces, dwortsowyie (from dworets, a palace). 5. Those settled on private lands—that is, on lands belonging to the nobility—or the class of serfs. Finally, a small number of freedmen, or freeholders, having lands of their own.

With the exception of the serfs, all the others have certain special personal rights, as well as special duties or services to perform—owing dues, most of them, however, rather communal than personal. Among these communal services, the principal are those pertaining to military colonies, already spoken of in the chapter immediately preceding; others, such as are attached to the imperial or governmental studs; others, to the mines of Siberia ; others, again, who keep posthorses for public and governmental use. Villages of the latter tenure are called iama, and the peasants, iamschtschik* There are several others of a similar kind.

To the class of free peasants belong likewise foreign (mostly German) agricultural colonists —a kind of yeomen called adnodwortsy, from nobles having forfeited their privilege—and free agriculturists, all of whom possess the soil as personal property.

"Foreigners," says Gurowski, "may be struck at the often-repeated occurrence of so many consonants, as in the word iamschtschik; but in Russian, the sound composed out of schtsch is given by a single sign, or letter."

These last two, adnodwortsy and free agriculturists, live scattered in single habitations and on farms; all the other peasantry form rural communes, and enjoy the communal franchise. Thus the commune is the cradle of the social organism. The basis of the commune is the land on which the population is settled, and thus is incorporated with it. Every peasant not a serf must belong to such a commune, which may be large or small according to the quantity of land owned and the density of population. There are communes amounting to nearly twenty thousand souls. Such a commune is called wolost; it is composed of dereivnia, or hamlets, and selo, or villages: just as an American township may embrace several villages. Several such communes form a rural district or canton. A village generally counts between six and eight hundred families.

The internal police, the correction of small offences by short imprisonment, or by no more than fifteen blows; the settling of contests among the members ; the superintendence of a primary school, whose maintenance is obligatory; the administration of the recently-founded communal rural banks ; the equal distribution of the military recruits from among families ; in one word, everything concerning the internal administration and working of the commune, is done by the commune itself. The commune is responsible to the treasury for the rent levied from each family having a separate communal household; this rent, called obrok, generally, through the whole of Russia, even on the estates of serfs, amounts to ten roubles. The commune also maintains the highways and roads on its own territory.


Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855