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By the mid-nineteenth century, the term soslovie (pl. sosloviya ) had come to designate hereditary groups such as the nobility, clergy, townspeople, and peasantry. Although soslovie is often regarded as the Russian equivalent to West European terms (the English estate, the French état, and the German Stand ), it differed from these in several important respects.

Above all, the term appeared quite belatedlyin its modern sense only in the early nineteenth century. In contrast to medieval Europe, where estates had long been the basis of the social hierarchy, medieval Muscovy knew nothing similarin language or social realityto the corporate estates of Western Europe. Instead, just as the Muscovite state had "gathered in" principalities and lands, so too had it accumulated but not amalgamated disparate status groups based on occupation, residence, and ethnicity. Indeed, one lexicon of Muscovite language recorded nearly five hundred status groups. Although Muscovy sometimes used generic terms like chin (rank) to designate elite groups and bifurcated society into "service" (sluzhilye ) and tax-bearing (tiaglye ) categories, it recognized the distinct status of individual groups. Characteristically, even the nobility lacked a collective name; the service people (sluzhilye liudi ) remained kaleidoscopic: elite princely clans and aristocratic boyars at the apex, with marginal, interstitial groups such as single-homesteaders (odnodvortsy ) and musketeers (streltsy ) at the bottom. The peasantry, similarly, consisted of various groups, from serfs and indentured slaves to crown and state peasants.

Desperate to mobilize human resources, the eighteenth-century state sought to simplify this social order. One key impulse came from Peter the Great's new poll tax, which forced the state to identify the specific subgroups of the privileged and to merge the numerous categories of the disprivileged. Amalgamation was first apparent in collective terms for the privileged nobility, initially as shlyakhetstvo (a Polish loanword) and by mid-century as dvoryanstvo, the modern term. From the 1760s, chiefly in an effort to transplant West European models of an urban third estate, some officials groped for a new terminology, but did not settle upon a generic term to describe and aggregate the smaller social units.

Only in the first decades of the nineteenth century did the term soslovie finally emerge in its modern sense. The word had earlier denoted "gathering" or "assembly," but nothing so abstract as corporate estate. In the early nineteenth century, however, the term soslovie came to signify not only formal institutions (such as the Senate), but also corporate social groups. Although other, competing terms still existed (such as zvanie and sostoianie to designate occupation and status groups), the term soslovie becamein law, state policy, and educated parlancethe fundamental category to describe huge social aggregates such as the nobility. The new terminology gained formal recognition in a new edition (1847) of the Academy dictionary of the Russian language, which defined soslovie as "a category of people with a special occupation, distinguished from others by their special rights and obligations."

The term not only persisted, but conveyed extraordinary intensity and complexity. Soslovie was more than a mere juridical category; it signified a group so hermetically sealed, so united by kinship and culture that some lexicographers invoked the word caste (kasta ) as a synonym. The estate system, moreover, proved highly adaptable: New status groupsprivileged subgroups (i.e., merchants), ethnic groups (i.e., Jews), and new professions (i.e., doctors)became distinct sosloviya. The proliferation of estates reflected the regime's desire to fit other groups into the existing soslovie order, as well as the ambition of these groups to gain formal legal status. Hence the complex of Russian sosloviya was far more differentiated and protean than a simplistic four-estate paradigm would suggest.

The soslovie system reached its apogee, in legal recognition, lexical clarity, and social reality, in the mid-nineteenth century, but it was increasingly subject to erosion and challenge. In part, the regime itselfwhich had celebrated the soslovie as a bulwark of social stability against the revolutionary forces sweeping Western Europeconcluded that some social mobility and change was essential for the country's development and power. To be sure, the Great Reforms of the 1860s made the inclusion of all estates (vsesoslovnost ) a fundamental principle; the reforms sought not to abolish estates but to mobilize them all, whether for supporting new institutions (e.g., the organs of local self-government) or for supplying soldiers and officers for the army. But the emergence of revolutionary movements increased the regime's concern about social stability and, especially from the 1880s, inspired much rhetoric and some measures to reaffirm the soslovie order.

At the same time, modernizing processes like urbanization and industrialization were steadily eroding the soslovie boundaries. Rapid economic growth, in particular, had a critical, corrosive impact: the plethora of new professions and semi-professions, together with the rapid growth of the industrial labor force, undermined the significance of the estate marker. Not that the soslovie was irrelevant; it was still the only category in passports, it was often correlated with opportunity and occupation, and it bore connotations of prestige or stigma. Nevertheless, social identities became blurred and confused; profession and property, not estate origin, became increasingly important in defining status and identity.

As a result, by the early twentieth century, the distinctive feature of Russian society was the amorphousness and fluidity of social identities. In contrast to the traditional Western paradigm ("estates into classes"), Russian society exhibited a complex of "estates and classes," with mixed and overlapping identities. The government itself, with its franchise laws and policies in the wake of the 1905 Revolution, came increasingly to count upon property, not hereditary status, in allocating electoral power and defining its social base. The privileged, such as conservative nobles, fought to preserve the soslovie order; the propertied and progressive deemed abolition of sosloviya a precondition for the creation of a modern civil society. Although the Bolshevik regime on October 28, 1917, dissolved all estate distinctions (one of its first acts), it did not in fact dispense with this category as it endeavored to identify adversaries. Hence personnel documents, from university applications to judicial records, regularly required information about the prerevolutionary soslovie statusan unwitting testimony to the enduring significance ascribed to soslovie in the formation of social identities.

See also: alexander ii; alexander iii; class system; great reforms


Freeze, Gregory L. (1986). "The Soslovie (Estate) Paradigm and Russian Social History." American Historical Review 91:1136.

Wirtschafter, Elise K. (1997). Social Identity in Imperial Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Gregory L. Freeze