Russia eText - Chapter XXIII - Social Classes

Chapter XXIII - Social Classes

In the preceding pages I have repeatedly used the expression "social classes," and probably more than once the reader has felt inclined to ask, What are social classes in the Russian sense of the term? It may be well, therefore, before going farther, to answer this question.

If the question were put to a Russian it is not at all unlikely that he would reply somewhat in this fashion: "In Russia there are no social classes, and there never have been any. That fact constitutes one of the most striking peculiarities of her historical development, and one of the surest foundations of her future greatness. We know nothing, and have never known anything, of those class distinctions and class enmities which in Western Europe have often rudely shaken society in past times, and imperil its existence in the future."

This statement will not be readily accepted by the traveller who visits Russia with no preconceived ideas and forms his opinions from his own observations. To him it seems that class distinctions form one of the most prominent characteristics of Russian society. In a few days he learns to distinguish the various classes by their outward appearance. He easily recognises the French-speaking nobles in West-European costume; the burly, bearded merchant in black cloth cap and long, shiny, double-breasted coat; the priest with his uncut hair and flowing robes; the peasant with his full, fair beard and unsavoury, greasy sheepskin. Meeting everywhere those well-marked types, he naturally assumes that Russian society is composed of exclusive castes; and this first impression will be fully confirmed by a glance at the Code. On examining that monumental work, he finds that an entire volume--and by no means the smallest--is devoted to the rights and obligations of the various classes. From this he concludes that the classes have a legal as well as an actual existence. To make assurance doubly sure he turns to official statistics, and there he finds the following table:

Hereditary nobles........652,887 Personal nobles..........374,367 Clerical classes.........695,905 Town classes...........7,196,005 Rural classes.........63,840,291 Military classes.......4,767,703 Foreigners...............153,185 ---------- 77,680,293*

* Livron: "Statistitcheskoe Obozrenie Rossiiskoi Imperii," St. Petersburg, 1875. The above figures include the whole Empire. The figures according to the latest census (1897) are not yet available.

Armed with these materials, the traveller goes to his Russian friends who have assured him that their country knows nothing of class distinctions. He is confident of being able to convince them that they have been labouring under a strange delusion, but he will be disappointed. They will tell him that these laws and statistics prove nothing, and that the categories therein mentioned are mere administrative fictions.

This apparent contradiction is to be explained by the equivocal meaning of the Russian terms Sosloviya and Sostoyaniya, which are commonly translated "social classes." If by these terms are meant "castes" in the Oriental sense, then it may be confidently asserted that such do not exist in Russia. Between the nobles, the clergy, the burghers, and the peasants there are no distinctions of race and no impassable barriers. The peasant often becomes a merchant, and there are many cases on record of peasants and sons of parish priests becoming nobles. Until very recently the parish clergy composed, as we have seen, a peculiar and exclusive class, with many of the characteristics of a caste; but this has been changed, and it may now be said that in Russia there are no castes in the Oriental sense.

If the word Sosloviya be taken to mean an organised political unit with an esprit de corps and a clearly conceived political aim, it may likewise be admitted that there are none in Russia. As there has been for centuries no political life among the subjects of the Tsars, there have been no political parties.

On the other hand, to say that social classes have never existed in Russia and that the categories which appear in the legislation and in the official statistics are mere administrative fictions, is a piece of gross exaggeration.

From the very beginning of Russian history we can detect unmistakably the existence of social classes, such as the Princes, the Boyars, the armed followers of the Princes, the peasantry, the slaves, and various others; and one of the oldest legal documents which we possess--the "Russian Right" (Russkaya Pravda) of the Grand Prince Yaroslaff (1019-1054)--contains irrefragable proof, in the penalties attached to various crimes, that these classes were formally recognised by the legislation. Since that time they have frequently changed their character, but they have never at any period ceased to exist.

In ancient times, when there was very little administrative regulation, the classes had perhaps no clearly defined boundaries, and the peculiarities which distinguished them from each other were actual rather than legal--lying in the mode of life and social position rather than in peculiar obligations and privileges. But as the autocratic power developed and strove to transform the nation into a State with a highly centralised administration, the legal element in the social distinctions became more and more prominent. For financial and other purposes the people had to be divided into various categories. The actual distinctions were of course taken as the basis of the legal classification, but the classifying had more than a merely formal significance. The necessity of clearly defining the different groups entailed the necessity of elevating and strengthening the barriers which already existed between them, and the difficulty of passing from one group to another was thereby increased.

In this work of classification Peter the Great especially distinguished himself. With his insatiable passion for regulation, he raised formidable barriers between the different categories, and defined the obligations of each with microscopic minuteness. After his death the work was carried on in the same spirit, and the tendency reached its climax in the reign of Nicholas, when the number of students to be received in the universities was determined by Imperial ukaz!

In the reign of Catherine a new element was introduced into the official conception of social classes. Down to her time the Government had thought merely of class obligations; under the influence of Western ideas she introduced the conception of class rights. She wished, as we have seen, to have in her Empire a Noblesse and tiers-etat like those which existed in France, and for this purpose she granted, first to the Dvoryanstvo and afterwards to the towns, an Imperial Charter, or Bill of Rights. Succeeding sovereigns have acted in the same spirit, and the Code now confers on each class numerous privileges as well as numerous obligations.

Thus, we see, the oft-repeated assertion that the Russian social classes are simply artificial categories created by the legislature is to a certain extent true, but is by no means accurate. The social groups, such as peasants, landed proprietors, and the like, came into existence in Russia, as in other countries, by the simple force of circumstances. The legislature merely recognised and developed the social distinctions which already existed. The legal status, obligations, and rights of each group were minutely defined and regulated, and legal barriers were added to the actual barriers which separated the groups from each other.

What is peculiar in the historical development of Russia is this: until lately she remained an almost exclusively agricultural Empire with abundance of unoccupied land. Her history presents, therefore, few of those conflicts which result from the variety of social conditions and the intensified struggle for existence. Certain social groups were, indeed, formed in the course of time, but they were never allowed to fight out their own battles. The irresistible autocratic power kept them always in check and fashioned them into whatever form it thought proper, defining minutely and carefully their obligations, their rights, their mutual relations, and their respective positions in the political organisation. Hence we find in the history of Russia almost no trace of those class hatreds which appear so conspicuously in the history of Western Europe.*

* This is, I believe, the true explanation of an important fact, which the Slavophils endeavoured to explain by an ill-authenticated legend (vide supra p.151).

The practical consequence of all this is that in Russia at the present day there is very little caste spirit or caste prejudice. Within half-a-dozen years after the emancipation of the serfs, proprietors and peasants, forgetting apparently their old relationship of master and serf, were working amicably together in the new local administration, and not a few similar curious facts might be cited. The confident anticipation of many Russians that their country will one day enjoy political life without political parties is, if not a contradiction in terms, at least a Utopian absurdity; but we may be sure that when political parties do appear they will be very different from those which exist in Germany, France, and England.

Meanwhile, let us see how the country is governed without political parties and without political life in the West-European sense of the term. This will form the subject of our next chapter.