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Charter of the Nobility


The Charter of the Nobility (often referred to as The Charter to the Nobility) was issued by Catherine the Great in 1785. The Charter should not be seen as an isolated document. Rather it is the product of a broad legislative and administrative agenda. Related documents that link the Charter are those that formed the Legislative Commission of 1767, the actual Statute of Local Administration of 1775, and the Charter to the Towns (also called Charter of the Cities) of 1785.

The eighteenth century in Russia, as in Europe, saw substantial advancement in the power, wealth, and prestige of the nobility. In Russia, this impetus came after 1725, the year of Peter the Great's death. Through various means, including personal dictate and the Table of Ranks (1722), Peter was able to enforce considerable adherence to the practice of two things he deemed necessary: compulsory state service and advancement by merit, not lineage. His death signified that the nobility would immediately begin to reclaim its privileges.

This process united the Russian nobility despite its disparate makeup. By 1762, when Peter III was on the throne, just prior to Catherine the Great's accession, a law was passed emancipating the nobles from compulsory service to the state. Catherine's rule (17621796) was decidedly pro-aristocracy. Whether the measures she undertook were seen in the context of modernizing Russian administration or in advancing reform, they were not detrimental to the nobility's agenda. The aristocrats were in the ascendancy, Catherine was a supreme pragmatist, and the state was satisfied with being able to partially regularize the affairs of its principal class. Specialists often point out that this regularization led to a semblance of the rule of law in an autocratic state. Specific rights and duties were clearly defined. When one looks at the actual Charter of the Nobility, one sees what appears to be an extension of rights.

Isabel de Madariaga (1990) accurately breaks down the rights by category. In terms of personal rights, the Charter guaranteed the nobles trial by their peers, no corporal punishment, freedom from the poll tax, freedom from compulsory army duty, the right to travel abroad, and the right to enter foreign service. (This is a partial list.) Property rights were enhanced by allowing the nobles to exploit their mineral and forest resources. Manufacturing on their own land was permitted and the right to purchase serfs was reinforced. As for corporate rights, the nobility's rights of assembly were solidified and they were given the privilege of directly petitioning the empress. Historically, the upper nobility exercised this right anyway, whether it was written or not.

The Charter clearly was not a new concession to the nobility. But it consolidated numerous conditions and prerogatives. It is important to observe that serious advancement in power and prestige was still linked to government service.

The principal effects of the Charter are not always precisely traceable since so many varied elements intersected. Yet, it is safe to say that the aristocracy's role in local and regional affairs was magnified. The central government's apparatus for these political functions could thus be partially trimmed. Some authors indicate a potential distancing between the central and provincial governments. It is not clear how much administrative unification or cohesion resulted at either level of government because of the Charter's promulgation.

See also: catherine ii; charter of the cities; peter i


Jones, R. E. (1973). The Emancipation of the Russian Nobility. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Madariaga, Isabel de. (1990). Catherine the Great: A Short History. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.

Raeff, Marc (1966). The Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth Century Nobility. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Nickolas Lupinin

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