Country estates, some dating back to the fifteenth century, originated as land grants from the crown to trusted servitors. The Russian empire expanded rapidly, particularly in the eighteenth century, and along with it the estate network, which ultimately stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Crimean Peninsula, and from the Duchy of Warsaw to the Ural Mountains. During the estate's golden age from the reign of Catherine II to the War of 1812, wealthy nobles who had retired from state service built thousands of magnificent houses, most in neoclassical style, surrounded by elegant formal gardens and expansive landscape parks.
Until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, estates were private princedoms (owned exclusively by nobles) supported by involuntary labor. Thus in some respects the pre-emancipation estate was comparable to the plantation of the American south. Its uniqueness lay in its scores of highly trained serf craftsmen and artists, some of whom founded dynasties of acclaimed artists. Very wealthy landowners took pride in having at hand accomplished architects and painters, musicians, actors, and dancers for entertainment, and cabinetmakers, gilders, embroiderers, lace-makers and other skilled craftsmen who produced all the luxury items they needed. Hence the greatest estates, in addition to being economic centers, were also culturally self-contained worlds that facilitated the rapid development of Russian culture.
Estates also served as important places of inspiration and creativity for Russia's most renowned authors, painters, and composers. For the intellectual and artistic elite, country estates were Arcadian retreats, places of refuge from the constraints of city life. Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Ivan Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches and Fathers and Sons, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture are among the many Russian masterpieces composed on a country estate.
After 1861 many small estate owners, unable to survive the loss of their unpaid labor, sold their holdings (a situation memorialized in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard ). On larger estates a system similar to sharecropping was devised; these estates retained their economic strength until the revolution. Up to World War I Russia exported tons of grains and other agricultural products produced on thousands of country estates. In nonblack-earth (non-chernozem) regions, enterprises on estates such as Khmelita (Smolensk guberniya ), exporting prize-winning cheeses, Glubokoye (Pskov guberniya ), producing wooden lanterns sold in England, and Polotnyany Zavod (Kaluga guberniya ), which manufactured the linen paper used for Russian currency, also contributed to the economy.
The Bolshevik revolution destroyed the country estate, and with it much of the provincial economic and cultural infrastructure. Some estate houses have survived as orphanages, sanitariums, institutes, or spas. In the 1970s certain demolished estates associated with famous cultural figures (such as Pushkin's Mikhailovskoye and Turgenev's Spasskoye-Lutovinovo) were rebuilt. A few museum estates such as Kuskovo and Ostankino in Moscow and the battered manor houses of the Crimea still offer tourists a glimpse of Russia's pre-Revolutionary estate splendor.
See also: peasantry; serfdom; slavery
Blum, Jerome. (1961). Lord and Peasant in Russia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.