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Nobility of Russia

The people of Russia were divided into four classes, viz., 1. nobles, 2. clergy, 3 burghers, merchants, and other farmers, and 4. the peasants, or slaves. 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 pos eased of vast estates. They were in the exclusive possession of all situations of trust and emolument, to which they succeeded according to their rank.

It's always difficult to define vague social notions like that of "elite", since it is necessary to find more or less exact criteria that enable to classify a person as a part of the elite. In 19th century Russia there were, however, official criteria to this effect. They were the so called ranks. Nobility was Russian privileged class and before the time of Peter the Great the main role was played by the nobility and the ancientness of its background, but since 1722 a new system of classification was introduced by the emperor that created a new hierarchy among the nobility. That was "The table of ranks" a formal list of positions and ranks in the military, the government, and the court of Imperial Russia. The term 'boyar' or 'boiar' was no longer in use after Peter the Great abolished the Boyar Council and instituted the Table of Ranks.

The population, which amounted to nearly sixty millions by 1840 - that is, including the extinct kingdom of Poland - was divided into four classes, each perfectly distinct from the other. First, there was the nobility, consisting of about a hundred and fifty thousand families, or seven hundred and fifty thousand individuals; the second order was composed nf the clergy ; the third of the freemen, or persons who carry on trade and commerce, capitalists, foreign settlers, and others ; and the fourth, which consisted entirely of slaves, or bondsmen, of whom there were not fewer than thirty-five millions, or fully more than the half of the population.

In no country was rank so carefully noted. The four great classes were divided into fourteen gradations, and all who can claim any of the eight highest were considered to be noble. Not to be noble is to be nobody. Every private gentleman, man of letters, or philnsopher, who wishes to be noticed, must show that he possesses a qualifying distinction. In many instances distinction was obtained by a certain military rank, which, for convenience, was assumed by numerous civilians. This distinction of classes is perhaps most noticed at dinner parties, iu which each person takes his seat near the top of the table according to his degree of rank, leaving those at the bottom to inferior fare, and no manner of attention from the host.

According to the official accounts, the order of the nobility comprised, in 1836, a total of 691,355 individuals, of whom 539,160 enjoyed hereditary and the others personal dignities. In Russia, properly so called, the nobles were not numerous; but they abound in Podolia, Volhynin, and other provinces acquired from Poland, and especially in Poland itself, which, in 1837, had 263,420 nobles. Few, however, of the latter possessed estates, and many of them were in a very destitute condition.

Hereditary nobility had six divisions (rozriad). 1st. Those descending from a line of illustrious ancestors, without possessing written documents, and those ennobled long ago by the sovereigns. 2d. Military nobility, or those who acquired their title in military service. 3d. Those deriving their rights from the eighth class or tschin in the public service. 4th. Foreign families whose nobiliar rights are recognized in Russia. 5th. Titles, as princes, counts and barons, bestowed by various sovereigns, without reference to the antiquity or recent origin of the family. 6th. Old well-born noble families who can prove their rights by documents.

If any one be raised to the eighth class of the tschin, and continued to serve, he acquired the rights belonging to hereditary nobility ; if he gets this tschin, however, when leaving the service, he then enjoys the rights of personal nobility, which is not transmittible to his children. With equal classes, the holders of a military tschin take precedence of civilian.

The five lower classes (Nos. 14 to 10, inclusive) were open to those who were nobles, or the sons of personal nobles, of higher burghers, physicians, professors, or priests. The principal privileges of these classes consist in being exempt from corporeal punishment during the period of service. The next superior, or ninth class, gives the rights of personal nobility-as for example, that of owning serfs, without, however, transmitting them to successors ; and of the admission of children into public establishments. The eighth class bestows hereditary nobility, with all its general privileges. Thus, the daily extension of all the branches of public service, backed by favoritism and the protection of powerful and influential men, fills the empire with swarms of nobles-espousing all the stupid prejudices of the class into which they come, and shunning no immorality and venality that can procure means to maintain the newly acquired position; and masterly teachers enough they find among the older occupants of the privilege.




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