Russian Nobility

Russian nobility, from before the foundation of the traditional “Russia” known today through the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II had a peculiar yet somewhat familiar relationship not only with the peasant class under them but to the Tsars above them.  Initially, Russian elite saw themselves in much the same way that peasants saw the ruling class – they were little more than slaves whose purpose was to serve the Tsar who was divinely appointed over them.[1]  Yet much was to change in their relationship with the royal family in the next three centuries, through periods of court intrigue, upheaval, violence and ultimately revolution.

Initially, the elite class in Russia found competition amongst themselves far more useful than challenging the Tsar for power directly.[2]  The Romanovs themselves commanded not only respect from their elite class but loyalty to the throne and the royal family as well, which was pivotal to the family’s success for three hundred years, despite bumps along the way.[3]

Gradually, however, under the reigns of Peter the Great, the nobility began to realize that their position in the fatherland was not what others in similar positions enjoyed throughout Europe, and began to act as though they had the right to be granted certain freedoms and concessions by the ruling family.[4]  Peter’s focus on education and the sciences, for example, paved the way for the future intelligentsia and the nobles had to contend with others who were educated and searching for their own paths of social mobility and threatening at least in some measure the status-quo.  Even more radical, Peter’s table of ranks altered the inheritable nature of the nobility, and ranks could not be purchased or inherited from one’s relatives and had to be earned through merit rather than birthright.[5]  This made the noble families even more competitive with each other as well as from those of non-noble birth.[6]

Catherine took Peter’s model for the nobility and pushed it still further, beginning with her Statute of Provincial Reform in 1775 which the belief that nobles owed a duty to the state, and not just a management of their own affairs by taking positions like judges in a growingly decentralized government.[7]  To follow the statue, Catherine implemented the Charter of Nobility which granted freedom to the Russian nobility forever – what could be argued as a step towards civil rights – at least for the Russian elite.[8] Despite her progress, however, and the progress of her descendants, Autocracy remained a constant in Russia and a growing number of nobles sought a form of representative government and a sense of shared power with the monarch long before revolution was to break out in the reign of Nicholas II.  This discontent would rise in the rank of the elite and become a force that would ultimately overturn the autocracy and plunge Russia into its communist era.

[1] Lindsey Hughes, The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1917, (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), 19.

[2] Hughes, The Romanovs, 19.

[3] Hughes, The Romanovs, 19.

[4] Hughes, The Romanovs, 69.

[5] Hughes, The Romanovs, 78.

[6] Hughes, The Romanovs, 79.

[7] Hughes, The Romanovs, 117.

[8] Hughes, The Romanovs, 118.


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