Social Class in the Russian Empire

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2014

Subjects of the Russian Empire were segregated into sosloviyes, or social estates (classes) such as nobility (dvoryanstvo), clergy, merchants, cossacks and peasants.
Native people of the Caucasus, non-ethnic Russian areas such as Tartarstan, Bashkirstan, Siberia and Central Asia were officially registered as a category called inorodtsy (non-Slavic, literally: "people of another origin").
A majority of the people, 81.6%, belonged to the peasant order, the others were: nobility, 0.6%; clergy, 0.1%; the burghers and merchants, 9.3%; and military, 6.1%. More than 88 million of the Russians were peasants.
A part of them were formerly serfs (10,447,149 males in 1858) – the remainder being " state peasants " (9,194,891 males in 1858, exclusive of the Archangel Governorate) and " domain peasants " (842,740 males the same year).


The serfdom which had developed in Russia in the 16th century, and became enshrined by law in 1649, was abolished in 1861.
The household servants or dependents attached to the personal service were merely set free, while the landed peasants received their houses and orchards, and allotments of arable land. These allotments were given over to the rural commune (mir), which was made responsible for the payment of taxes for the allotments.
For these allotments the peasants had to pay a fixed rent which could be fulfilled by personal labour. The allotments could be redeemed by peasants with the help of the Crown, and then they were freed from all obligations to the landlord.
The Crown paid the landlord and the peasants had to repay the Crown, for forty-nine years at 6% interest.
The financial redemption to the landlord was not calculated on the value of the allotments, but was considered as a compensation for the loss of the compulsory labour of the serfs.
Many proprietors contrived to curtail the allotments which the peasants had occupied under serfdom, and frequently deprived them of precisely the parts of which they were most in need: pasture lands around their houses.
The result was to compel the peasants to rent land from their former masters.


After the Emancipation reform one quarter of peasants have received allotments of only 2.9 acres (12,000 m2) per male, and one-half less than 8.5 to 11.4 acres – the normal size of the allotment necessary to the subsistence of a family under the three-fields system being estimated at 28 to 42 acres (170,000 m2).
Land must thus of necessity be rented from the landlords at fabulous prices. The aggregate value of the redemption and land taxes often reaches 185 to 275% of the normal rental value of the allotments, not to speak of taxes for recruiting purposes, the church, roads, local administration and so on, chiefly levied from the peasants.
The arrears increase every year; one-fifth of the inhabitants have left their houses; cattle are disappearing. Every year more than half the adult males (in some districts three-fourths of the men and one-third of the women) quit their homes and wander throughout Russia in search of labor. In the governments of the Black Earth Area the state of matters is hardly better.
Many peasants took the "gratuitous allotments," whose amount was about one-eighth of the normal allotments.
The average allotment in Kherson was only 0.90-acre (3,600 m2), and for allotments from 2.9 to 5.8 acres (23,000 m2) the peasants pay 5 to 10 rubles of redemption tax.
The state peasants were better off, but still they were emigrating in masses. It was only in the steppe governments that the situation was more hopeful.
In Little Russia, where the allotments were personal (the mir existing only among state peasants), the state of affairs does not differ for the better, on account of the high redemption taxes.
In the West provinces, where the land was valued cheaper and the allotments somewhat increased after the Polish insurrection, the general situation was better.
Finally, in the Baltic provinces nearly all the land belonged to the German landlords, who either farmed the land themselves, with hired laborers, or let it in small farms.
Only one quarter of the peasants were farmers, the remainder were mere laborers.


The situation of the former serf-proprietors was also unsatisfactory.
Accustomed to the use of compulsory labor, they have failed to adapt to the new conditions.
The millions of rubles of redemption money received from the crown have been spent without any real or lasting agricultural improvements having been effected.
The forests have been sold, and only those landlords are prospering who exact rack-rents for the land without which the peasants could not live upon their allotments.
During the years 1861 to 1892 the land owned by the nobles decreased 30%, or from 210,000,000 to 150,000,000 acres (610,000 km2); during the following four years an additional 2,119,500 acres (8,577 km2) were sold; and since then the sales have gone on at an accelerated rate, until in 1903 alone close upon 2,000,000 acres (8,000 km2) passed out of their hands. On the other hand, since 1861, and more especially since 1882, when the Peasant Land Bank was founded for making advances to peasants who were desirous of purchasing land, the former serfs, or rather their descendants, have between 1883 and 1904 bought about 19,500,000 acres (78,900 km2) from their former masters.
There has been an increase of wealth among the few, but along with this a general impoverishment of the mass of the people, and the peculiar institution of the mir, framed on the principle of community of ownership and occupation of the land, was not conducive to the growth of individual effort.
In November 1906, however, the emperor Nicholas II promulgated a provisional ukaz permitting the peasants to become freeholders of allotments made at the time of emancipation, all redemption dues being remitted.
This measure, which was endorsed by the third Duma in an act passed on the December 21, 1908, is calculated to have far-reaching and profound effects on the rural economy of Russia. Thirteen years previously the government had endeavored to secure greater fixity and permanence of tenure by providing that at least twelve years must elapse between every two redistributions of the land belonging to a mir amongst those entitled to share in it.
The ukaz of November 1906 had provided that the various strips of land held by each peasant should be merged into a single holding; the Duma, however, on the advice of the government, left this to the future, as an ideal that could only gradually be realized.