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The Golden Age of Nobility

The Revolutionary Masses

Though the Commission failed to produce immediate results, it did present the basic grievances of the population to Catherine The quarrels that were surfacing among the delegates reflected the main tensions and contradictions of Russian society. Arguably, the most important of them was the conflict between the nobility and the peasantry. 

The eighteenth century, and particularly its second half, was the ‘golden age’ of the nobility. It sought three main objectives: the ending of compulsory service, full rights of ownership of landed property, and the final enserfment of the peasantry.  All were achieved, but the resulting dislocation of the Russian social system would spell dire consequences for the country’s future.

1785 Charter of the Nobility title page

The exclusive rights were won by the nobility over a period of about 50 years. In 1731 the pomeschik (the owner of a pomestie, or manor granted for state service) became full proprietor of his estate.  In 1736 the compulsory life-long service of the nobility was cut down to a term of  25 years.  The right to hold serfs became the exclusive privilege of the hereditary noblemen. In 1762 compulsory service for the nobility was abolished  and  ‘every member of the Russian well-born nobility’ was granted ‘his freedom and liberty’. In other words, one of the two main classes of Russian society had been officially emancipated.

The  exclusive privileges of the landowning nobility were finally codified and reinforced by Catherine’s Charter of the Nobility in 1785. It confirmed a hereditary status of the nobility and its exemptions from compulsory service, taxation, loss of rank or estates, and from corporal punishment. It also formally invested it with corporate organizations, namely, provincial and district assemblies of nobility.

1785 Charter of the Nobility

The official emancipation of nobility from compulsory service to the state was one of the great turning-points of  Russian history. As has been explained by Tibor Szamuely: ‘Hardly anyone realized at the time that by triumphantly asserting their independence of the State the nobility were encompassing their own eventual  and inexorable downfall.  They sought to emulate the privileged position of the Western European aristocracy - but their title to land and serfs was based not on ancient feudal rights secured in law, but solely on their unremitting military service to the State’. The point is that nobility’s lifelong state service had been the original justification for the introduction of serfdom. Having wriggled out of its state obligations, the traditional serving class of nobility thus emancipated itself from the very condition of its original status of privilege. 

As a result, the generally accepted basis for its authority was gone, and in the eyes of the peasantry the nobility’s privileges and property rights (such as the right to land and serfs) became illegal.  The peasant masses felt that the next logical step to reciprocate the change in nobility’s status should be their own emancipation and endowment with the land tilled by them since time immemorial.  In reality the landed proprietors, far from alleviating the condition of the peasants, established a despotic and extortionate rule over their peasantry in which serfdom was indeed indistinguishable from slavery.

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