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Entail Without Primogeniture

From the day when they began to associate with the nobilities of Western Europe, the Russian dvorianstvo understood that, with the succession laws as they stood, there could be no real aristocracy. Then some of the descendants of kniazes and boyars attempted to implant in their country the foreign custom of entail. Singularly enough it was one of the least aristocratically minded of sovereigns, Peter the Great, who was the first to start this innovation. Was it done merely to imitate the West and better to assimilate Moscovia to Europe? Was the object really to place between the people and the throne an exalted and influential nobility? Such views fit ill with the conduct of the monarch who made all rank in the state dependent on the grade in the state service.

The most likely explanation is that he wished, by the help of this new loan from Europe, to secure to his own country, then just thrown open to civilization, a rich and well informed, consequently a European and civilized class. As instituted by Peter, nothing could be more manifestly overdone and so manifestly opposed to the national customs. In order to give the new institution some chance of life, the first thing to do was to abolish and then transform it. By an ukaze (decree) of 1714 all the landed estates belonging to the nobility were made subject to entail, or, more correctly, were to pass to one single heir. Personal property, at that time amounting to very little in Russia, alone remained at the free disposal of the dvorianln during his lifetime, and alone was to be divided among his children at his death.

This system differed from that in force in Western Europe in one essential point. Instead of ensuring the paternal estate to the eldest son, Peter the Great gave the father the faculty to appoint his heir. This entail without primogeniture introduced into the family an autocratic element: the private succession law seemed copied from the law on succession to the throne, which Peter, in memory-or in defiance-of his son Alexis, left to the choice of the sovereign. Such a system could hardly produce better consequences in private than in public life. This sort of artificial primogeniture did not work well, as it made the succession to depend on the paternal arbitrary pleasure and not on the chance of birth.

Peter's ukaze was revoked as early as 1730, having been, during its brief existence, an occasion of endless trouble in families. The old national custom of equal division was restored, and entails, when they were once more authorized, had to be made in favor of the eldest sons, all the way down the line, as in England and Germany. Under these new conditions, entails had not become popular with the Russian nobility. Notwithstanding the favor with which they were apparently regarded in some high social regions, their number was very small.

It was of little use that an ukaz of the Emperor Nicolas, dated 1845, granted to all nobles the right of establishing one or more entails: the nobility never availed themselves to any extent of the prerogative. The high value of such entailed estates demanded by the law only in part accounted for the abstention. According to the terms of the ukctz of 1845, the land thus set apart must be entirely free from mortgage, peopled with at least 2,000 peasants, and bring an unencumbered yearly income of not less than 12,000 roubles. Thus regulated, the institution was within the reach of only the very wealthy ; but then, to be of some political efficiency, an entail should always represent something big; else it would be to society only a useless and cumbersome sort of mortmain.

The chief obstacle lay in the national custom and tradition and in the democratic instincts of the nation. The Russian spirit showed itself in this respect very different from the Polish as well as the German spirit, which latter, in the Baltic provinces subject to Russia, has hitherto succeeded in affording predominance to its aristocratic propensities. In the succession law as it stood in the 1890s, there was a provision which, if not exactly equivalent to entail, nearly approximated it in spirit. A landholder could not dispose by will of landed property that had come to him or her by inheritance, but only of such as he or she may have acquired by purchase. As, however, there was no law preventing landholders to dispose of their patrimony in their lifetime, they had the resource of selling them or alienating them by deed of gift in favor of any chosen heir.

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