Hereditary vs Personal Nobility
Russian legislature distinguished two sorts of nobility : transmissible or "hereditary," and "personal," i. e., not descending from the father to his children. This exactly renders the peculiar character of the Russian hierarchy. The dvorianstvo being only the servants of the state, it became necessary, when the complicated bureaucracy of the West was introduced in Russia, to draw a distinction between high offices and inferior ones. Hence the creation of two nobilities for the use of men in public service. To the subaltern this title of "personal dvoriaritn" insured the rights of the freeman, in a country where only the noble or functionary had any recognized rights. In point of fact he had nothing that the privileged town classes did not have. His children entered the rubric of "honorary citizens," i.e., hereditary town notables, and really enjoyed the same rights as their father, whose nobility they had not inherited. The title therefore was an empty one and its suppression would have made no change in the social hierarchy.
Only hereditary nobility deserved attention as possessing real value. Like personal nobility, it had for centuries been open to all. For over a hundred years, all through the eighteenth century and the first portion of the nineteenth, from Peter the Great to the close of the reign of Alexander I, hereditary nobility belonged by right to every army officer and every civilian of corresponding grade; it was won with the first epaulet, with the grade of ensign, which was inferior to that of sub-lieutenant. It is easy to see what a nobility must have been to which the door was so wide and the threshold so low.
In order to raise its level somewhat, Alexander I in 1822, his brother Nicolas in 1845, and Alexander II. in 1854, successively heightened by several degrees the threshold of the entrance to hereditary nobility. Under Alexander II it was open only to colonels or civilians bearing the title of "Actual State Councillor" (Fourth class).
Under Alexander III the nobility has at last succeeded in doing away with ennoblement by grade and service. Besides the great gate of the tchin, there were sundry side entrances into hereditary nobility; certain imperial orders used to ennoble ex officio. The monarch still had the faculty, which he seldom uses, of conferring nobility by his sovereign pleasure.
The first result of such a system was naturally the great number of nobles, accompanied by generally straitened circumstances, lack of education, and the not very high standing of a great many among them. In European Russia alone, statistics gave about 600,000 souls as the figure for hereditary, and not less than 350,000 for personal dvorianstvo. There was enough to raise an army composed entirely of nobles. The consequence was that nobles were found everywhere, on all steps of the social ladder, the top of which should alone be reserved to them. It was there, rather than in official city burgherdom, that the equivalent of the European bourgeoisie might be looked for. The nobles were all that are not peasant, priest, or merchant-tradesman or shopkeeper. In this respect one might even still almost say : "In Russia, the nobility is everybody."
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