The term dvorianstvo is sometimes translated as "gentry," but often historically such a translation is simply incorrect. At other times, such as between the years 1667 and 1700, and again after 1762 (or 1785) until 1917, "gentry" is misleading but not totally wrong.
The term has its origins in the later Middle Ages in the word dvor, "princely court." In that historical context, the dvorianstvo were those who worked at the court of a prince. Originally such people might be free men, or they might be slaves of the prince or someone else. Moreover, these men, most of whom were cavalrymen and a few of whom were administrators, were wholly dependent on the grand prince for their positions, status, and livelihoods. They did not have lands, but lived off booty, funds collected in the line of governmental duty, and funds collected by others for the sovereign's treasury. Their social origins were most diverse. A handful were princes (descendants of one of the princely houses circulating in Rus': the Rus' Riurikids, the Lithuanian Gedemids, or Turkic/Mongol nobility), some were slaves, others were of diverse origins. A prince or nobleman had no right to be a member of the dvorianstvo, for such men got their positions because they were selected by the grand prince and served at his pleasure. Promotion within the dvorianstvo was meritocratic, however service might be defined. Membership in the dvorianstvo conferred no special status, and in law such men could be punished like everyone else, including flogging.
The origins of the early dvorianstvo are obscure, but around 1480, the Moscow government began to formalize the situation when it initiated the first service class revolution after the annexation of Novgorod. Moscow initiated the service land system (pomestie ) on the lands annexed from Novgorod, and then gradually extended it to the entire Muscovite state. By 1556 most of the inhabited land (which did not belong to the church) in central Muscovy was included in the fund that had to support cavalrymen. The cavalrymen based in Moscow were the upper service class; those in the provinces were the middle service class. (Members of the lower service class did not have lands for their support and lived off government cash salaries, and their own extra-military employment; they were arquebusiers—later in the seventeenth century musketeers, fortress gatekeepers, artillerymen, some cossacks, and others.) Members of both the upper and middle service classes comprised the dvorianstvo and were the core of the army. They had to render military service almost every year, typically on the southern frontier against the Tatars, Nogais, Kalmyks, Kazakhs, and others who raided Muscovy in search of slaves and other booty. The dvorianstvo had to render military service on the western frontier whenever called against the Poles, Lithuanians, and Swedes, where the prizes for the victors were landed territory and booty (including slaves) of every sort.
Between 1480 and 1667 the life of the dvorianstvo was very hard. Military service was basically for life, from about age fifteen until immobility compelled retirement from service. Those who could no longer serve as cavalrymen still could be called upon to render "siege service," which meant standing up in castles and shooting arrows out at besieging enemies. In the seventeenth century gunpowder arms replaced the arrows. Only when the member of the dvorianstvo was dead or could only be carried around in a litter was he allowed to retire from service. Members of the provincial dvorianstvo had the ranks of provincial dvorianin and syn boyarsky and were supported primarily by a handful of peasant households (government cash stipends were meant to purchase military goods in the market, such as cavalry horses, sabers, and guns in the seventeenth century and later). In the provinces they lived little better than most of their peasants and until the post–1649 period were as illiterate as their peasants also. The capital dvorianstvo, living in Moscow, had the ranks of boyarin, okol'nichii, stol'nik, striapchii, and Moscow dvorianin, lived the same rigorous lives as did their country cousins, although with higher incomes. Both rose in the dvorianstvo on the basis of perceived meritocratic service by petitioning for promotion. Because of their precarious economic positions, the provincial dvorianstvo were highly conscious of how many rent-paying peasants they had. Should their peasants depart, they were in straits. They were the ones who forced the enserfment of the peasantry between the 1580s and 1649.
The Ulozhenie of 1649, which completed the enserfment by binding the peasants to the land, was a triumph for the provincial dvorianstvo, and a defeat for the capital dvorianstvo, who profited from peasant mobility. The Thirteen Years' War (1654–1667) delivered the coup de grace to the middle service class provincial dvorianstvo by illustrating definitively the obsolescence of bow-and-arrow warfare. Moreover, much of the dvorianstvo fell into Turkish captivity, where many of them remained for a quarter century. From then until 1700, the dvorianstvo occasionally fought the Turks, but otherwise did little to merit their near-monopoly over serf labor. Reflecting the fact that Russia was a very poor country with a very unproductive agriculture, the dvorianstvo comprised less than 1 percent of the population, a much smaller fraction than in other countries. After the annexation of Poland, the dvorianstvo of the Russian Empire rose by 1795 to 2.2 percent of the population.
At the battle of Narva in 1700 Charles XII defeated Peter the Great, who responded by launching the second service class revolution. This meant putting the dvorianstvo back in harness. In 1722 he introduced the Table of Ranks, which formalized the Muscovite system of promotion based on merit. Rigorous lifetime military or governmental service was compulsory until 1736, when the service requirement for the dvorianstvo was reduced to twenty-five years. In 1740 they could choose between military or civil service. Then in 1762 Peter III freed the dvorianstvo from all service require ments. His wife Catherine II in 1785 promulgated the Charter of the Nobility, whose infamous Article 10 freed the dvorianstvo from corporal punishment and thus made them a privileged caste. The measures of 1762 and 1785 created the conditions for the Russian dvorianstvo to begin to look like gentry living elsewhere in Europe west of Russia.
The years 1762 to 1861 were the "Golden Age" of the dvorianstvo. Its members were the potentially leisured, privileged members of society. Many differed little from peasants; a few were extraordinarily rich. They were the bearers and creators of culture. The Achilles heel of the dvorianstvo was its penchant for debt to finance excessive consumption, including imported goods that were equated with modernization and Westernization. The emancipation of the peasantry in 1861 initiated the decline of the dvorianstvo, whose members lost their slave-owner-like control over their peasants. The dvorianstvo was compensated (excessively) for the land granted to the peasants, but debts were deducted from the compensation. Other reforms gradually cost the dvorianstvo their control over the countryside. Their inability to manage their funds and estates and in general to cope with a modernizing world is metonymically portrayed in Anton. P. Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard, which came to be the name of the era for the dvorianstvo. By the Revolution of 1917 the dvorianstvo lost control over their initial bastion, the army, and nearly all other sectors of life as well. In the summer of 1917 the peasantry seized much of the dvorianstvo land, which was all confiscated when the Bolsheviks took power. Some members of the dvorianstvo joined the Whites and died in opposition to the Bolsheviks, while others emigrated. Those who remained in the USSR were deprived of their civil rights until 1936.
See also: boyar; charter of the nobility; law code of 1649; military, imperial era; syn boyarsky; table of ranks
Blum, Jerome. (1961). Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press.
Hellie, Richard. (1982). Slavery in Russia 1425–1725. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.