Russian society

One representation of the ‘Russian wedding cake’, showing social divisions.

Russian society at the end of the late 19th century was strongly hierarchical. Tsarist political structures, religious and social values, rules governing land ownership and Russia’s legal code all reinforced the nation’s social hierarchy, defining position and status and restricting social mobility (movement between the classes). Russia’s social structure was often depicted and lampooned in visual propaganda, such as several versions of the ‘Russian wedding cake’ (see picture, left). In these depictions, Russian society is shown as a feudal pyramid, the upper classes propped up by the labour of the working masses – who are usually kept in check with work, religion and the threat of violence. In reality the ‘cake’s’ base was broader than these images suggest. The poor peasantry and the industrial working-class made up more than four-fifths of the population; while Russia’s educated and professional middle classes were tiny when compared to societies in Britain or France.

According to historian Michael Lynch, the 1897 census categorised the population of Russia in these broad class groups:

Upper classes: Royalty, nobility, higher clergy: 12.5 per cent.
Middle classes: Merchants, bureaucrats, professionals: 1.5 per cent.
Working classes: Factory workers, artisans, soldiers, sailors: 4 per cent.
Peasants: Landed and landless farmers: 82 per cent.

Nestled atop this metaphorical pyramid was Russia’s royalty and aristocracy, who for the most part lived lives of comfort, isolated from the dissatisfactions of the lower classes. Noble titles and land ownership were the main determinants of privilege in tsarist Russia. The tsar himself was a significant land owner, holding the title of as much as ten per cent of arable land in western Russia. The Russian Orthodox church and its higher clergy also owned large tracts of land. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 allowed many land-owners to increase their holdings, largely at the expense of the state and emancipated serfs. Protective of their wealth and privilege, Russia’s landed aristocracy were arguably the most conservative force in the empire. Many of the tsar’s ministerial advisors were drawn directly from their ranks and worked to block or shout down suggested reforms. Sergei Witte – himself an aristocrat, though one without large land holdings – claimed that “many of the aristocracy are unbelievably avaricious [greedy] hypocrites, scoundrels and good-for-nothings”.

“The attitude of the [tsarist] regime to the nobility depended on the circumstances of each individual reign. All tsars, however, considered the nobility to be the key class in terms of wealth and social leadership. They underpinned the social hierarchy that was an integral part of the whole concept of political autocracy. Without this, the political system would be unable to operate effectively. Some of the nobility were involved in the governing process – but this was not their key importance. As in Prussia, the tacit understanding was that the nobility’s social powers were enhanced in return for an acceptance of autocracy that did not essentially involve a contribution towards its exercise.”
Stephen J. Lee, historian

Russia’s middle-classes worked both for the state (usually in the higher ranks of the bureaucracy) or the private sector, either as small business owners or trained professionals (such as doctors, lawyers and managers). Industrial growth in the 1890s helped to expand the middle-classes by increasing the ranks of factory owners, businessmen and entrepreneurs. The middle-classes tended to be educated, worldly and receptive to liberal, democratic and reformist ideas. Members of the middle-class were prominent in political groups like the Kadets (Constitutional Democrats) and, later, in the Duma.

By far the largest social class in Russia was the peasantry. Most Russian peasants worked small plots of land using antiquated farming methods. Farming in Russia was a difficult business, dictated by the soil, the weather and sometimes pure luck. It tended to be easier in Russia’s ‘breadbasket’ southern regions, where the soil was dark and rich and the climate more temperate. Grain crops like barley, rye and oats flourished in these areas. Further north and east, across the Urals and toward Siberia, the soil was harder and less fertile, so grain production was more difficult. Peasants here relied more on tuber crops like potatoes, turnips and beets. In much of Siberia the soil was hard, frozen and unsuitable for farming. Russian farming was further hindered by its reliance on methods and techniques that were not far removed from the Middle Ages. Most peasants cleared, ploughed and sowed the land by hand, without the benefit of machinery or chemical fertilisers. A few of the more prosperous peasants had beasts of burden.

A group of Russian peasants shortly before World War I.

Before 1861 most peasants had been serfs, with no legal status or rights as free men. Alexander II’s emancipation edict gave them legal freedom – but the land redistribution that followed often thousands of peasants worse off than before. The best tracts of farmland were usually allocated to land-owning nobles, who kept it for themselves or leased it for high rents. The former serfs were left with whatever remained – but they were obliged to make 49 annual redemption payments to the government – in effect, a 49-year state mortgage. These redemption payments were often higher than the rent or land taxes they paid before emancipation. Some common land was also controlled and allocated by the obshchina or mir (or village commune). The mir was also responsible for other administrative duties, such as the collection of taxes and the supply of conscript quotas to the Imperial Army.

The small size of these peasant communes (most villages contained between 200-500 people), as well as their scattered distribution, affected the worldview of Russian peasants. There was little or no formal education so the majority of peasants were illiterate; few peasants travelled and returned, so not much was known about the world beyond their village. Peasant communities were insular and defensive: they relied on each other for information and became suspicious, even paranoid about outsiders and strangers. Few peasants had any understanding about government, politics or economics. Many were intensely religious and superstition to the point of medievalism; they believed in magic, witchcraft and devilry and carried symbols and icons to ward off bad luck. A sizeable proportion of the peasantry was loyal to the tsar; a similar number knew little of him and cared even less. They hated the bureaucracy for its taxes, regulations and impositions; they feared the army for taking away their sons; they trusted few other than their own.

But for all their political apathy, the peasantry was occasionally roused to action – particularly by changes that affected them directly, such as food shortages or new taxes. There were significant peasant protests in 1894 when the government introduced a state monopoly on vodka production (previously the peasants could distil their own, provided they paid a small excise to the state). Peasants were also receptive to anti-Semitic hatred and ready to blame Russia’s Jews for everything from harvest failures to missing children. Whipped up by rumours and agitators, Russia’s peasants carried out dozens of pogroms in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Peasant unrest and violence would later erupt during the 1905 Revolution, though it was directed at land-owners more than the government. Though peasant uprisings were never widespread or coordinated, they were nevertheless a worrying sign for the tsarist regime.

A meeting of mirskoi skhod (village elders) in a Russian peasant mir.

Regardless of class or status, Russian society was deeply patriarchal. Men were dominant in the community, the workplace and the government. This was not just a product of social values, it was codified in law. The Russian legal code gave husbands almost unlimited power to make decisions within the family. Wives were expected to concede to and obey their husbands. Married women needed their husband’s express permission to take a job, apply for most government permits, obtain a passport or commence higher education. Russian women could not initiate divorce proceedings (though a husband’s legal authority over his family could be removed in cases of incompetence, such as alcoholism or mental illness). If a man died then his male children inherited most of his property; his wife and daughters received only a small share. The average age of marriage for Russia’s peasant women was 20; for the aristocracy and middle-classes it was a few years older. Russia had one of the highest child mortality rates of the Western world. By the late 1800s, around 47 per cent of children in rural areas did not survive to their fifth birthday.

russian society

1. Russia was a population of more than 130 million people with great diversity of ethnicity, language and culture.
2. The dominant classes were royalty, aristocracy and land-owners, who wielded significant political influence.
3. Russia’s middle class was small in comparison to other nations but was growing by the early 1900s.
4. The peasantry made up by far the largest section, most living in small communities scattered across the empire.
5. Russian society was intensely patriarchal, with men dominant in most spheres of decision-making and women denied many legal and civil rights.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Russian society” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].