Chapter XX - The Noblesse
Hitherto I have been compelling the reader to move about among what we should call the lower classes--peasants, burghers, traders, parish priests, Dissenters, heretics, Cossacks, and the like--and he feels perhaps inclined to complain that he has had no opportunity of mixing with what old-fashioned people call gentle- folk and persons of quality. By way of making amends to him for this reprehensible conduct on my part, I propose now to present him to the whole Noblesse* in a body, not only those at present living, but also their near and distant ancestors, right back to the foundation of the Russian Empire a thousand years ago. Thereafter I shall introduce him to some of the country families and invite him to make with me a few country-house visits.
* I use here a foreign, in preference to an English, term, because the word "Nobility" would convey a false impression. Etymologically the Russian word "Dvoryanin" means a Courtier (from Dvor=court); but this term is equally objectionable, because the great majority of the Dvoryanstvo have nothing to do with the Court.
In the old times, when Russia was merely a collection of some seventy independent principalities, each reigning prince was surrounded by a group of armed men, composed partly of Boyars, or large landed proprietors, and partly of knights, or soldiers of fortune. These men, who formed the Noblesse of the time, were to a certain extent under the authority of the Prince, but they were by no means mere obedient, silent executors of his will. The Boyars might refuse to take part in his military expeditions, and the "free-lances" might leave his service and seek employment elsewhere. If he wished to go to war without their consent, they could say to him, as they did on one occasion, "You have planned this yourself, Prince, so we will not go with you, for we knew nothing of it." Nor was this resistance to the princely will always merely passive. Once, in the principality of Galitch, the armed men seized their prince, killed his favourites, burned his mistress, and made him swear that he would in future live with his lawful wife. To his successor, who had married the wife of a priest, they spoke thus: "We have not risen against YOU, Prince, but we will not do reverence to a priest's wife: we will put her to death, and then you may marry whom you please." Even the energetic Bogolubski, one of the most remarkable of the old Princes, did not succeed in having his own way. When he attempted to force the Boyars he met with stubborn opposition, and was finally assassinated. From these incidents, which might be indefinitely multiplied from the old chronicles, we see that in the early period of Russian history the Boyars and knights were a body of free men, possessing a considerable amount of political power.
Under the Mongol domination this political equilibrium was destroyed. When the country had been conquered, the Princes became servile vassals of the Khan and arbitrary rulers towards their own subjects. The political significance of the nobles was thereby greatly diminished. It was not, however, by any means annihilated. Though the Prince no longer depended entirely on their support, he had an interest in retaining their services, to protect his territory in case of sudden attack, or to increase his possessions at the expense of his neighbours when a convenient opportunity presented itself. Theoretically, such conquests were impossible, for all removing of the ancient landmarks depended on the decision of the Khan; but in reality the Khan paid little attention to the affairs of his vassals so long as the tribute was regularly paid; and much took place in Russia without his permission. We find, therefore, in some of the principalities the old relations still subsisting under Mongol rule. The famous Dmitri of the Don, for instance, when on his death-bed, speaks thus to his Boyars: "You know my habits and my character; I was born among you, grew up among you, governed with you--fighting by your side, showing you honour and love, and placing you over towns and districts. I loved your children, and did evil to no one. I rejoiced with you in your joy, mourned with you in your grief, and called you the princes of my land." Then, turning to his children, he adds, as a parting advice: "Love your Boyars, my children; show them the honour which their services merit, and undertake nothing without their consent."
When the Grand Princes of Moscow brought the other principalities under their power, and formed them into the Tsardom of Muscovy, the nobles descended another step in the political scale. So long as there were many principalities they could quit the service of a Prince as soon as he gave them reason to be discontented, knowing that they would be well received by one of his rivals; but now they had no longer any choice. The only rival of Moscow was Lithuania, and precautions were taken to prevent the discontented from crossing the Lithuanian frontier. The nobles were no longer voluntary adherents of a Prince, but had become subjects of a Tsar; and the Tsars were not as the old Princes had been. By a violent legal fiction they conceived themselves to be the successors of the Byzantine Emperors, and created a new court ceremonial, borrowed partly from Constantinople and partly from the Mongol Horde. They no longer associated familiarly with the Boyars, and no longer asked their advice, but treated them rather as menials. When the nobles entered their august master's presence they prostrated themselves in Oriental fashion--occasionally as many as thirty times--and when they incurred his displeasure they were summarily flogged or executed, according to the Tsar's good pleasure. In succeeding to the power of the Khans, the Tsars had adopted, we see, a good deal of the Mongol system of government.
It may seem strange that a class of men which had formerly shown a proud spirit of independence should have submitted quietly to such humiliation and oppression without making a serious effort to curb the new power, which had no longer a Tartar Horde at its back to quell opposition. But we must remember that the nobles, as well as the Princes, had passed in the meantime through the school of the Mongol domination. In the course of two centuries they had gradually become accustomed to despotic rule in the Oriental sense. If they felt their position humiliating and irksome, they must have felt, too, how difficult it was to better it. Their only resource lay in combining against the common oppressor; and we have only to glance at the motley, disorganised group, as they cluster round the Tsar, to perceive that combination was extremely difficult. We can distinguish there the mediatised Princes, still harbouring designs for the recovery of their independence; the Moscow Boyars, jealous of their family honour and proud of Muscovite supremacy; Tartar Murzi, who have submitted to be baptised and have received land like the other nobles; the Novgorodian magnate, who cannot forget the ancient glory of his native city; Lithuanian nobles, who find it more profitable to serve the Tsar than their own sovereign; petty chiefs who have fled from the opposition of the Teutonic order; and soldiers of fortune from every part of Russia. Strong, permanent political factors are not easily formed out of such heterogeneous material.
At the end of the sixteenth century the old dynasty became extinct, and after a short period of political anarchy, commonly called "the troublous times" (smutnoe vremya), the Romanof family were raised to the throne by the will of the people, or at least by those who were assumed to be its representatives. By this change the Noblesse acquired a somewhat better position. They were no longer exposed to capricious tyranny and barbarous cruelty, such as they had experienced at the hands of Ivan the Terrible, but they did not, as a class, gain any political influence. There were still rival families and rival factions, but there were no political parties in the proper sense of the term, and the highest aim of families and factions was to gain the favour of the Tsar.
The frequent quarrels about precedence which took place among the rival families at this period form one of the most curious episodes of Russian history. The old patriarchal conception of the family as a unit, one and indivisible, was still so strong among these men that the elevation or degradation of one member of a family was considered to affect deeply the honour of all the other members. Each noble family had its rank in a recognised scale of dignity, according to the rank which it held, or had previously held, in the Tsar's service; and a whole family would have considered itself dishonoured if one of its members accepted a post lower than that to which he was entitled. Whenever a vacant place in the service was filled up, the subordinates of the successful candidate examined the official records and the genealogical trees of their families, in order to discover whether some ancestor of their new superior had not served under one of their own ancestors. If the subordinate found such a case, he complained to the Tsar that it was not becoming for him to serve under a man who had less family honour than himself.
Unfounded complaints of this kind often entailed imprisonment or corporal punishment, but in spite of this the quarrels for precedence were very frequent. At the commencement of a campaign many such disputes were sure to arise, and the Tsar's decision was not always accepted by the party who considered himself aggrieved. I have met at least with one example of a great dignitary voluntarily mutilating his hand in order to escape the necessity of serving under a man whom he considered his inferior in family dignity. Even at the Tsar's table these rivalries sometimes produced unseemly incidents, for it was almost impossible to arrange the places so as to satisfy all the guests. In one recorded instance a noble who received a place lower than that to which he considered himself entitled openly declared to the Tsar that he would rather be condemned to death than submit to such an indignity. In another instance of a similar kind the refractory guest was put on his chair by force, but saved his family honour by slipping under the table!
The next transformation of the Noblesse was effected by Peter the Great. Peter was by nature and position an autocrat, and could brook no opposition. Having set before himself a great aim, he sought everywhere obedient, intelligent, energetic instruments to carry out his designs. He himself served the State zealously--as a common artisan, when he considered it necessary--and he insisted on all his subjects doing likewise, under pain of merciless punishment. To noble birth and long pedigrees he habitually showed a most democratic, or rather autocratic, indifference. Intent on obtaining the service of living men, he paid no attention to the claims of dead ancestors, and gave to his servants the pay and honour which their services merited, irrespectively of birth or social position. Hence many of his chief coadjutors had no connection with the old Russian families. Count Yaguzhinski, who long held one of the most important posts in the State, was the son of a poor sacristan; Count Devier was a Portuguese by birth, and had been a cabin-boy; Baron Shafirof was a Jew; Hannibal, who died with the rank of Commander in Chief, was a negro who had been bought in Constantinople; and his Serene Highness Prince Menshikof had begun life, it was said, as a baker's apprentice! For the future, noble birth was to count for nothing. The service of the State was thrown open to men of all ranks, and personal merit was to be the only claim to promotion.
This must have seemed to the Conservatives of the time a most revolutionary and reprehensible proceeding, but it did not satisfy the reforming tendencies of the great autocrat. He went a step further, and entirely changed the legal status of the Noblesse. Down to his time the nobles were free to serve or not as they chose, and those who chose to serve enjoyed land on what we should call a feudal tenure. Some served permanently in the military or civil administration, but by far the greater number lived on their estates, and entered the active service merely when the militia was called out in view of war. This system was completely changed when Peter created a large standing army and a great centralised bureaucracy. By one of those "fell swoops" which periodically occur in Russian history, he changed the feudal into freehold tenures, and laid down the principle that all nobles, whatever their landed possessions might be, should serve the State in the army, the fleet, or the civil administration, from boyhood to old age. In accordance with this principle, any noble who refused to serve was not only deprived of his estate, as in the old times, but was declared to be a traitor and might be condemned to capital punishment.
The nobles were thus transformed into servants of the State, and the State in the time of Peter was a hard taskmaster. They complained bitterly, and with reason, that they had been deprived of their ancient rights, and were compelled to accept quietly and uncomplainingly whatever burdens their master chose to place upon them. "Though our country," they said, "is in no danger of invasion, no sooner is peace concluded than plans are laid for a new war, which has generally no other foundation than the ambition of the Sovereign, or perhaps merely the ambition of one of his Ministers. To please him our peasants are utterly exhausted, and we ourselves are forced to leave our homes and families, not as formerly for a single campaign, but for long years. We are compelled to contract debts and to entrust our estates to thieving overseers, who commonly reduce them to such a condition that when we are allowed to retire from the service, in consequence of old age or illness, we cannot to the end of our lives retrieve our prosperity. In a word, we are so exhausted and ruined by the keeping up of a standing army, and by the consequences flowing therefrom, that the most cruel enemy, though he should devastate the whole Empire, could not cause us one-half of the injury."*
* These complaints have been preserved by Vockerodt, a Prussian diplomatic agent of the time.
This Spartan regime, which ruthlessly sacrificed private interests to considerations of State policy, could not long be maintained in its pristine severity. It undermined its own foundations by demanding too much. Draconian laws threatening confiscation and capital punishment were of little avail. Nobles became monks, inscribed themselves as merchants, or engaged themselves as domestic servants, in order to escape their obligations. "Some," says a contemporary, "grow old in disobedience and have never once appeared in active service. . . . There is, for instance, Theodore Mokeyef. . . . In spite of the strict orders sent regarding him no one could ever catch him. Some of those sent to take him he belaboured with blows, and when he could not beat the messengers, he pretended to be dangerously ill, or feigned idiocy, and, running into the pond, stood in the water up to his neck; but as soon as the messengers were out of sight he returned home and roared like a lion." *
* Pososhkof, "O skudosti i bogatstve."
After Peter's death the system was gradually relaxed, but the Noblesse could not be satisfied by partial concessions. Russia had in the meantime moved, as it were, out of Asia into Europe, and had become one of the great European Powers. The upper classes had been gradually learning something of the fashions, the literature, the institutions, and the moral conceptions of Western Europe, and the nobles naturally compared the class to which they belonged with the aristocracies of Germany and France. For those who were influenced by the new foreign ideas the comparison was humiliating. In the West the Noblesse was a free and privileged class, proud of its liberty, its rights, and its culture; whereas in Russia the nobles were servants of the State, without privileges, without dignity, subject to corporal punishment, and burdened with onerous duties from which there was no escape. Thus arose in that section of the Noblesse which had some acquaintance with Western civilisation a feeling of discontent, and a desire to gain a social position similar to that of the nobles in France and Germany. These aspirations were in part realised by Peter III., who in 1762 abolished the principle of obligatory service. His consort, Catherine II., went much farther in the same direction, and inaugurated a new epoch in the history of the Dvoryanstvo, a period in which its duties and obligations fell into the background, and its rights and privileges came to the front.
Catherine had good reason to favour the Noblesse. As a foreigner and a usurper, raised to the throne by a Court conspiracy, she could not awaken in the masses that semi-religious veneration which the legitimate Tsars have always enjoyed, and consequently she had to seek support in the upper classes, who were less rigid and uncompromising in their conceptions of legitimacy. She confirmed, therefore, the ukaz which abolished obligatory service of the nobles, and sought to gain their voluntary service by honours and rewards. In her manifestoes she always spoke of them in the most flattering terms; and tried to convince them that the welfare of the country depended on their loyalty and devotion. Though she had no intention of ceding any of her political power, she formed the nobles of each province into a corporation, with periodical assemblies, which were supposed to resemble the French Provincial Parliaments, and entrusted to each of these corporations a large part of the local administration. By these and similar means, aided by her masculine energy and feminine tact, she made herself very popular, and completely changed the old conceptions about the public service. Formerly service had been looked on as a burden; now it came to be looked on as a privilege. Thousands who had retired to their estates after the publication of the liberation edict now flocked back and sought appointments, and this tendency was greatly increased by the brilliant campaigns against the Turks, which excited the patriotic feelings and gave plentiful opportunities of promotion. "Not only landed proprietors," it is said in a comedy of the time,* "but all men, even shopkeepers and cobblers, aim at becoming officers, and the man who has passed his whole life without official rank seems to be not a human being."
* Knyazhnina, "Khvastun."
And Catherine did more than this. She shared the idea--generally accepted throughout Europe since the brilliant reign of Louis XIV.-- that a refined, pomp-loving, pleasure-seeking Court Noblesse was not only the best bulwark of Monarchy, but also a necessary ornament of every highly civilised State; and as she ardently desired that her country should have the reputation of being highly civilised, she strove to create this national ornament. The love of French civilisation, which already existed among the upper classes of her subjects, here came to her aid, and her efforts in this direction were singularly successful. The Court of St. Petersburg became almost as brilliant, as galant, and as frivolous as the Court of Versailles. All who aimed at high honours adopted French fashions, spoke the French language, and affected an unqualified admiration for French classical literature. The Courtiers talked of the point d'honneur, discussed the question as to what was consistent with the dignity of a noble, sought to display "that chivalrous spirit which constitutes the pride and ornament of France"; and looked back with horror on the humiliating position of their fathers and grandfathers. "Peter the Great," writes one of them, "beat all who surrounded him, without distinction of family or rank; but now, many of us would certainly prefer capital punishment to being beaten or flogged, even though the castigation were applied by the sacred hands of the Lord's Anointed."
The tone which reigned in the Court circle of St. Petersburg spread gradually towards the lower ranks of the Dvoryanstvo, and it seemed to superficial observers that a very fair imitation of the French Noblesse had been produced; but in reality the copy was very unlike the model. The Russian Dvoryanin easily learned the language and assumed the manners of the French gentilhomme, and succeeded in changing his physical and intellectual exterior; but all those deeper and more delicate parts of human nature which are formed by the accumulated experience of past generations could not be so easily and rapidly changed. The French gentilhomme of the eighteenth century was the direct descendant of the feudal baron, with the fundamental conceptions of his ancestors deeply embedded in his nature. He had not, indeed, the old haughty bearing towards the Sovereign, and his language was tinged with the fashionable democratic philosophy of the time; but he possessed a large intellectual and moral inheritance that had come down to him directly from the palmy days of feudalism--an inheritance which even the Great Revolution, which was then preparing, could not annihilate. The Russian noble, on the contrary, had received from his ancestors entirely different traditions. His father and grandfather had been conscious of the burdens rather than the privileges of the class to which they belonged. They had considered it no disgrace to receive corporal punishment, and had been jealous of their honour, not as gentlemen or descendants of Boyars, but as Brigadiers, College Assessors, or Privy Counsellors. Their dignity had rested not on the grace of God, but on the will of the Tsar. Under these circumstances even the proudest magnate of Catherine's Court, though he might speak French as fluently as his mother tongue, could not be very deeply penetrated with the conception of noble blood, the sacred character of nobility, and the numerous feudal ideas interwoven with these conceptions. And in adopting the outward forms of a foreign culture the nobles did not, it seems, gain much in true dignity. "The old pride of the nobles has fallen!" exclaims one who had more genuine aristocratic feeling than his fellows.* "There are no longer any honourable families; but merely official rank and personal merits. All seek official rank, and as all cannot render direct services, distinctions are sought by every possible means--by flattering the Monarch and toadying the important personages." There was considerable truth in this complaint, but the voice of this solitary aristocrat was as of one crying in the wilderness. The whole of the educated classes--men of old family and parvenus alike--were, with few exceptions, too much engrossed with place- hunting to attend to such sentimental wailing.
* Prince Shtcherbatof.
If the Russian Noblesse was thus in its new form but a very imperfect imitation of its French model, it was still more unlike the English aristocracy. Notwithstanding the liberal phrases in which Catherine habitually indulged, she never had the least intention of ceding one jot or tittle of her autocratic power, and the Noblesse as a class never obtained even a shadow of political influence. There was no real independence under the new airs of dignity and hauteur. In all their acts and openly expressed opinions the courtiers were guided by the real or supposed wishes of the Sovereign, and much of their political sagacity was employed in endeavouring to discover what would please her. "People never talk politics in the salons," says a contemporary witness,* not even to praise the Government. Fear has produced habits of prudence, and the Frondeurs of the Capital express their opinions only in the confidence of intimate friendship or in a relationship still more confidential. Those who cannot bear this constraint retire to Moscow, which cannot be called the centre of opposition, for there is no such thing as opposition in a country with an autocratic Government, but which is the capital of the discontented." And even there the discontent did not venture to show itself in the Imperial presence. "In Moscow," says another witness, accustomed to the obsequiousness of Versailles, "you might believe yourself to be among republicans who have just thrown off the yoke of a tyrant, but as soon as the Court arrives you see nothing but abject slaves."**
* Segur, long Ambassador of France at the Court of Catherine.
** Sabathier de Cabres, "Catherine II. et la Cour de Russie en 1772."
Though thus excluded from direct influence in political affairs the Noblesse might still have acquired a certain political significance in the State, by means of the Provincial Assemblies, and by the part they took in local administration; but in reality they had neither the requisite political experience nor the requisite patience, nor even the desire to pursue such a policy. The majority of the proprietors preferred the chances of promotion in the Imperial service to the tranquil life of a country gentleman; and those who resided permanently on their estates showed indifference or positive antipathy to everything connected with the local administration. What was officially described as "a privilege conferred on the nobles for their fidelity, and for the generous sacrifice of their lives in their country's cause," was regarded by those who enjoyed it as a new kind of obligatory service--an obligation to supply judges and officers of rural police.
If we require any additional proof that the nobles amidst all these changes were still as dependent as ever on the arbitrary will or caprice of the Monarch, we have only to glance at their position in the time of Paul I., the capricious, eccentric, violent son and successor of Catherine. The autobiographical memoirs of the time depict in vivid colours the humiliating position of even the leading men in the State, in constant fear of exciting by act, word, or look the wrath of the Sovereign. As we read these contemporary records we seem to have before us a picture of ancient Rome under the most despotic and capricious of her Emperors. Irritated and embittered before his accession to the throne by the haughty demeanour of his mother's favourites, Paul lost no opportunity of showing his contempt for aristocratic pretensions, and of humiliating those who were supposed to harbour them. "Apprenez, Monsieur," he said angrily on one occasion to Dumouriez, who had accidentally referred to one of the "considerable" personages of the Court, "Apprenez qu'il n'y a pas de considerable ici, que la personne a laquelle je parle et pendant le temps que je lui parle!"*
* This saying is often falsely attributed to Nicholas. The anecdote is related by Segur.
From the time of Catherine down to the accession of Alexander II. in 1855 no important change was made in the legal status of the Noblesse, but a gradual change took place in its social character by the continual influx of Western ideas and Western culture. The exclusively French culture in vogue at the Court of Catherine assumed a more cosmopolitan colouring, and permeated downwards till all who had any pretensions to being civilises spoke French with tolerable fluency and possessed at least a superficial acquaintance with the literature of Western Europe. What chiefly distinguished them in the eye of the law from the other classes was the privilege of possessing "inhabited estates"--that is to say, estates with serfs. By the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 this valuable privilege was abolished, and about one-half of their landed property passed into the hands of the peasantry. By the administrative reforms which have since taken place, any little significance which the provincial corporations may have possessed has been annihilated. Thus at the present day the nobles are on a level with the other classes with regard to the right of possessing landed property and the administration of local affairs.
From this rapid sketch the reader will easily perceive that the Russian Noblesse has had a peculiar historical development. In Germany, France, and England the nobles were early formed into a homogeneous organised body by the political conditions in which they were placed. They had to repel the encroaching tendencies of the Monarchy on the one hand, and of the bourgeoisie on the other; and in this long struggle with powerful rivals they instinctively held together and developed a vigorous esprit de corps. New members penetrated into their ranks, but these intruders were so few in number that they were rapidly assimilated without modifying the general character or recognised ideals of the class, and without rudely disturbing the fiction of purity of blood. The class thus assumed more and more the nature of a caste with a peculiar intellectual and moral culture, and stoutly defended its position and privileges till the ever-increasing power of the middle classes undermined its influence. Its fate in different countries has been different. In Germany it clung to its feudal traditions, and still preserves its social exclusiveness. In France it was deprived of its political influence by the Monarchy and crushed by the Revolution. In England it moderated its pretensions, allied itself with the middle classes, created under the disguise of constitutional monarchy an aristocratic republic, and conceded inch by inch, as necessity demanded, a share of its political influence to the ally that had helped it to curb the Royal power. Thus the German baron, the French gentilhomme, and the English nobleman represent three distinct, well-marked types; but amidst all their diversities they have much in common. They have all preserved to a greater or less extent a haughty consciousness of innate inextinguishable superiority over the lower orders, together with a more or less carefully disguised dislike for the class which has been, and still is, an aggressive rival.
The Russian Noblesse has not these characteristics. It was formed out of more heterogeneous materials, and these materials did not spontaneously combine to form an organic whole, but were crushed into a conglomerate mass by the weight of the autocratic power. It never became a semi-independent factor in the State. What rights and privileges it possesses it received from the Monarchy, and consequently it has no deep-rooted jealousy or hatred of the Imperial prerogative. On the other hand, it has never had to struggle with the other social classes, and therefore it harbours towards them no feelings of rivalry or hostility. If we hear a Russian noble speak with indignation of autocracy or with acrimony of the bourgeoisie, we may be sure that these feelings have their source, not in traditional conceptions, but in principles learned from the modern schools of social and political philosophy. The class to which he belongs has undergone so many transformations that it has no hoary traditions or deep-rooted prejudices, and always willingly adapts itself to existing conditions. Indeed, it may be said in general that it looks more to the future than the past, and is ever ready to accept any new ideas that wear the badge of progress. Its freedom from traditions and prejudices makes it singularly susceptible of generous enthusiasm and capable of vigorous spasmodic action, but calm moral courage and tenacity of purpose are not among its prominent attributes. In a word, we find in it neither the peculiar virtues nor the peculiar vices which are engendered and fostered by an atmosphere of political liberty.
However we may explain the fact, there is no doubt that the Russian Noblesse has little or nothing of what we call aristocratic feeling--little or nothing of that haughty, domineering, exclusive spirit which we are accustomed to associate with the word aristocracy. We find plenty of Russians who are proud of their wealth, of their culture, or of their official position, but we rarely find a Russian who is proud of his birth or imagines that the fact of his having a long pedigree gives him any right to political privileges or social consideration. Hence there is a certain amount of truth in the oft-repeated saying that there is in reality no aristocracy in Russia.
Certainly the Noblesse as a whole cannot be called an aristocracy. If the term is to be used at all, it must be applied to a group of families which cluster around the Court and form the highest ranks of the Noblesse. This social aristocracy contains many old families, but its real basis is official rank and general culture rather than pedigree or blood. The feudal conceptions of noble birth, good family, and the like have been adopted by some of its members, but do not form one of its conspicuous features. Though habitually practising a certain exclusiveness, it has none of those characteristics of a caste which we find in the German Adel, and is utterly unable to understand such institutions as Tafelfähigkeit, by which a man who has not a pedigree of a certain length is considered unworthy to sit down at a royal table. It takes rather the English aristocracy as its model, and harbours the secret hope of one day obtaining a social and political position similar to that of the nobility and gentry of England. Though it has no peculiar legal privileges, its actual position in the Administration and at Court gives its members great facilities for advancement in the public service. On the other hand, its semi- bureaucratic character, together with the law and custom of dividing landed property among the children at the death of their parents, deprives it of stability. New men force their way into it by official distinction, whilst many of the old families are compelled by poverty to retire from its ranks. The son of a small proprietor, or even of a parish priest, may rise to the highest offices of State, whilst the descendants of the half-mythical Rurik may descend to the position of peasants. It is said that not very long ago a certain Prince Krapotkin gained his living as a cabman in St. Petersburg!
It is evident, then, that this social aristocracy must not be confounded with the titled families. Titles do not possess the same value in Russia as in Western Europe. They are very common-- because the titled families are numerous, and all the children bear the titles of the parents even while the parents are still alive-- and they are by no means always associated with official rank, wealth, social position, or distinction of any kind. There are hundreds of princes and princesses who have not the right to appear at Court, and who would not be admitted into what is called in St. Petersburg la societe, or indeed into refined society in any country.
The only genuine Russian title is Knyaz, commonly translated "Prince." It is borne by the descendants of Rurik, of the Lithuanian Prince Ghedimin, and of the Tartar Khans and Murzi officially recognised by the Tsars. Besides these, there are fourteen families who have adopted it by Imperial command during the last two centuries. The titles of count and baron are modern importations, beginning with the time of Peter the Great. From Peter and his successors about seventy families have received the title of count and ten that of baron. The latter are all, with two exceptions, of foreign extraction, and are mostly descended from Court bankers.*
* Besides these, there are of course the German counts and barons of the Baltic Provinces, who are Russian subjects.
There is a very common idea that Russian nobles are as a rule enormously rich. This is a mistake. The majority of them are poor. At the time of the Emancipation, in 1861, there were 100,247 landed proprietors, and of these, more than 41,000 were possessors of less than twenty-one male serfs--that is to say, were in a condition of poverty. A proprietor who was owner of 500 serfs was not considered as by any means very rich, and yet there were only 3,803 proprietors belonging in that category. There were a few, indeed, whose possessions were enormous. Count Sheremetief, for instance, possessed more than 150,000 male serfs, or in other words more than 300,000 souls; and thirty years ago Count Orloff-Davydof owned considerably more than half a million of acres. The Demidof family derive colossal revenues from their mines, and the Strogonofs have estates which, if put together, would be sufficient in extent to form a good-sized independent State in Western Europe. The very rich families, however, are not numerous. The lavish expenditure in which Russian nobles often indulge indicates too frequently not large fortune, but simply foolish ostentation and reckless improvidence.
Perhaps, after having spoken so much about the past history of the Noblesse, I ought to endeavour to cast its horoscope, or at least to say something of its probable future. Though predictions are always hazardous, it is sometimes possible, by tracing the great lines of history in the past, to follow them for a little distance into the future. If it be allowable to apply this method of prediction in the present matter, I should say that the Russian Dvoryanstvo will assimilate with the other classes, rather than form itself into an exclusive corporation. Hereditary aristocracies may be preserved--or at least their decomposition may be retarded--where they happen to exist, but it seems that they can no longer be created. In Western Europe there is a large amount of aristocratic sentiment, both in the nobles and in the people; but it exists in spite of, rather than in consequence of, actual social conditions. It is not a product of modern society, but an heirloom that has come down to us from feudal times, when power, wealth, and culture were in the hands of a privileged few. If there ever was in Russia a period corresponding to the feudal times in Western Europe, it has long since been forgotten. There is very little aristocratic sentiment either in the people or in the nobles, and it is difficult to imagine any source from which it could now be derived. More than this, the nobles do not desire to make such an acquisition. In so far as they have any political aspirations, they aim at securing the political liberty of the people as a whole, and not at acquiring exclusive rights and privileges for their own class.
In that section which I have called a social aristocracy there are a few individuals who desire to gain exclusive political influence for the class to which they belong, but there is very little chance of their succeeding. If their desires were ever by chance realised, we should probably have a repetition of the scene which occurred in 1730. When in that year some of the great families raised the Duchess of Courland to the throne on condition of her ceding part of her power to a supreme council, the lower ranks of the Noblesse compelled her to tear up the constitution which she had signed! Those who dislike the autocratic power dislike the idea of an aristocratic oligarchy infinitely more. Nobles and people alike seem to hold instinctively the creed of the French philosopher, who thought it better to be governed by a lion of good family than by a hundred rats of his own species.
Of the present condition of the Noblesse I shall again have occasion to speak when I come to consider the consequences of the Emancipation.