Znat / Illustrious
From the obscure background formed by this nobiliary plebs, naturally stand out a certain number of families, of which some shined with a lustre that pierces through the gloom of ages, back to the days of old Moscovia, while others have been more recently brought into prominence by brilliant services. Such families, such "houses" there were in Russia as in most countries that had a past. The Russian language had, to designate them, a word peculiar to itself; it called them collectively "the znat" - dignitaries or nobility (from the verb znati, "to know", that is, esteemed, acclaimed, notable, renowned, eminent, famed, illustrious). Some Russian noble princes held the style of Serenity; all others and Russian Counts held the style of Illustriousness, often translated as Illustrious Highness (HIH). This is an archaic meaning of "noble" in the sense of "belonging to the nobility" (pri, nadlezhashchy k znati).
These were, irrespective of titles or antiquity of race, the illustrious or renowned families who have held a high rank in the state or society. In this highest nobility, or, more correctly, in this topmost social layer, there were titled families of ancient pedigree or recent extraction, but there were also untitled families whose nobility and splendor can be traced to the times of the old tsars.
One thing about the Russian znat, that of St. Petersburgh especially, was the great number of families of foreign extraction. Probably one half of this court aristocracy comes from abroad ; the blood in their veins is Tatar, Gruzm (Georgian), Greek, Valachian, Lithuanian, Polish, Swedish, German, even French and English. All the tribes subject to the imperial sceptre, all the adjoining nations, contributed their contingent to the dvorianstvo. Thus the most exalted class was the least national of all, in origin as in manners and breeding. Here lies another source of weakness, another cause for its lack of influence and authority.
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