Russian Peasantry

The relationship between the Tsar and the peasantry of Russia was a complicated one, which hearkened back to medieval Europe yet survived until late in Romanov history.  The overwhelming majority of Russians were peasants – between 80-90% – and were still peasants into the midst of the 20th century.[1]  One of the biggest challenges faced by the Romanov dynasty in their 300-year reign was pushing Russia towards modernization in an effort to catch up with much of the rest of the world while still maintaining the traditions and culture that helped make Russia Russia.[2]  Although serfdom was not codified into law until 1649, in the middle of the 17th century roughly half of the peasants in Russia would be considered slaves to the modern eye – they were property that could be sold and purchased and their offspring inherited their slave-like status.[3]  The other half were simply the property of either the royal family or the church whose taxes were tendered directly to them rather than their noble lords.[4]  Although some peasants believed that they had the right to the land they worked primarily because they worked it, but they also viewed the Tsar as divinely appointed and the people’s ‘little father’ who could be appealed to for help.[5]

The role of the peasantry and it’s push towards modernization was a topic faced by many of the Tsars throughout the Romanov period.  Catherine recognized that the existence of serfs that made up 90% of the population of her country was at odds with her desire to civilize Russia and make it a more modern state.[6]  For Catherine, however, the initial problem was the noble’s abuse of the serf system rather than the existence of serfs themselves.[7]  This thinking began to shift as Catherine acknowledged the necessary end of serfdom in Russia, but the people were simply not ready for liberation and to do so would cause an economic catastrophe.[8]   Despite the inherent unfairness of serfdom in the Russian system, it was producing the food and agriculture was necessary for Russia’s success.[9]

Alexander II was to end serfdom only at the end of the 19th century out of a recognition that firstly it was a system that was incompatible with Russia’s existence as a modern state as well as a fear of peasant revolt that could topple not only the economy but the state’s stability overall.[10]

[1] Lindsey Hughes, The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1917, (London: Bloomsbury, 2008) 4.

[2] Hughes, The Romanovs, 4.

[3] Hughes, The Romanovs, 21.

[4] Hughes, The Romanovs, 21.

[5] Hughes, The Romanovs, 21.

[6] Hughes, The Romanovs, 119.

[7] Hughes, The Romanovs, 119.

[8] Hughes, The Romanovs, 119.

[9] Hughes, The Romanovs, 120.

[10] Hughes, The Romanovs, 181.


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.

Russian Aristocracy

According to tradition since the establishment of the Russian state, harmony between the tsar and his people was of utmost importance.[1]  The tsar was expected to be a strong and central leader while consulting and heeding the advice of his powerful, elite subjects – the boyars.[2]  In turn, the boyars were expected to serve and council the tsar and be loyal to his leadership.[3]  Under the rule of Peter the Great, however, this system did not function according to plan, which led to Peter’s mistrust of the long-standing boyar families and his desire to operate outside of their council.  The boyars, in turn, opposed many of Peter’s desired reforms and fought amongst themselves.  This conflict remained a consistent part of Peter’s reign, but led to increased mistrust and reforms on the part of the tsar in regards to rank, government structure and the construction of the Russian state.

From almost the beginning of his rule, Peter viewed the boyars of the Russian elite as an impediment to his grander plans, rather than in the traditional role of advisers.[4]  As early as 1697, members of the boyar elite conspired to remove and replace Peter due to his break with Russian tradition.[5]  The elite further did not hesitate to oppose Peter’s wishes, both in terms of his divorce and his nomination of the Patriarch Adrian.[6]  A further musketeer revolt led to executions for open result against the tsar.[7]  The investigation into the rebellion encouraged Peter’s mistrust – not only of the boyars – but of the clergy as well.[8]  Peter hated rivalries between boyar families in their endless struggle for power, and that combined with the musketeer’s rebellion contributed to Peter’s first attempt at drastically changing the structure of Russian government.[9]  He began by removing the taxation system from under the control of the boyars and he began personally handling foreign policy in order to further avoid their input.[10]  While Peter could avoid soliciting the boyar recommendations in the duma, they still held the majority of the highest military commands.[11]  While many aristocrats still held powerful positions, new state structures allowed Peter to go around them in order to enact the changes he desired.[12]  Peter stopped consulting the duma entirely and began making all state decisions himself with the help of a handful of his favorites.[13]  Peter’s suspicion of the boyars was not unfounded, and he believed their complaints over his policies to be the beginning of covert opposition to his will.[14]

The trial of the tsarevich Aleksei directly contributed to new changes and reforms under Peter’s rule.  Given its lack of central government, Peter already desired another sweeping change and the trial gave him the opportunity to enact it.[15]  Nine colleges or administrative boards were formed to take control of different aspects of daily governance.[16]  These colleges lasted through the 18th century.[17]  The majority of the presidents of these colleges were not from the aristocratic families.[18]  An additional check was placed on the college’s presidents by requiring a majority vote of the board in order to enact changes.[19]  A new taxation system was put into place which created a further distinction between serfs and the gentry.[20]  In addition, the table of ranks allowed a visual understanding of rank and the promotional ladder for both members of the military and civil service.[21]

Under Peter’s rule was the ‘first appearance of a conservative, aristocratic ideology that persisted in Russia throughout the 18th century’.[22]  These nobles did not oppose the introduction of Western ideology or culture as much as they desired the power and stability of old noble families within government and in close collaboration with the tsar.  As Bushkovitch mentions in his introduction, Peter’s time on the throne was a continual struggle for power between the tsar and his elite – a struggle that Peter ultimately won.[23]  While the boyars had no problem resisting Peter, the tsar saw it and the continuation of boyar rivalries as disloyalty which further cemented his commitment to Russian reform.[24]

[1] Paul Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) 54.

[2] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 54.

[3] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 54.

[4] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 68.

[5] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 79.

[6] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 81.

[7] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 81.

[8] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 82.

[9] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 83.

[10] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 84.

[11] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 88.

[12] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 89.

[13] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 89.

[14] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 89.

[15] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[16] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[17] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[18] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[19] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[20] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 131.

[21] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 131.

[22] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 140.

[23] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 1.

[24] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 7.