Russia and the East Slavs

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Rex A. Wade

The East Slavs comprise three closely related peoples, who between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries emerged as distinguishable linguistic-cultural groups: the Great Russians (usually called Russians), the Ukrainians (in earlier times often called Little Russians), and the Belorussians (Byelorussians, Bielorussians, White Russians). The Great Russians (hereafter simply Russians) are numerically the largest and have been politically and culturally dominant. Occupying the area around Moscow, they are the people around whom the state of Russia (and the Soviet Union) was built, and most histories of the area focus on them and their political, social, and cultural patterns. The Ukrainians and Belorussians followed a separate historical course from the thirteenth to seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, during which time they were under the political domination of the Grand Principality of Lithuania or the Kingdom of Poland; these groups, western Ukrainians especially, drew some special cultural and social traits from that association. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Belorussian and most of the Ukrainian lands and peoples were incorporated into Russia as the latter defeated Poland in a series of wars.

As the Russian empire expanded beyond the ethnically Russian homeland over the course of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, it went from having a largely homogeneous population of Great Russians (who themselves probably resulted from the intermingling of early East Slavs and Finnic peoples) to being an enormous multiethnic empire comprising over twenty major ethnicities and about a hundred smaller ones. By the last census of Imperial Russia in 1897, when the state was perhaps at its most extensive and diverse, people who identified themselves as Russian (by native language) constituted only 44.3 percent, Ukrainians 17.8 percent, and Belorussians 4.3 percent of the population, so that East Slavs were 68.4 percent of the total. In the former Soviet Union, Russians were about half the population and East Slavs collectively nearly 70 percent. Although tsarist Russia generally tolerated the continuation of local customs, some minorities and especially their elites and educated population underwent full or partial cultural "Russification," a process that accelerated with the spread of education in the Soviet era. The following discussion focuses primarily on the social classes and traits of the Russians, the dominant group within a diverse social universe.

Russian and East Slavic society of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and to a significant degree even the nineteenth century, was based on agriculture and military activity. It is therefore easy to view its social structure as a simple dichotomy of peasant and noble landlord, with only insignificant other classes. While these certainly were the two most important classes, such a view obscures what was in fact a much more diverse society divided into a large number of recognized groups by social-economic functions, legal classifications, wealth, geography, gender, and ethnicity. In Russia all belonged to legally defined social estates (sosloviia): nobles, serfs, state peasants, clergy, various and changing urban classifications, slaves, Cossacks, and many others. At the same time almost all fit into one of two larger categories, the privileged and the tax-paying. The latter were subject to the head tax, to military and labor conscription, and to corporal punishment, whereas the former were exempted from the head tax and corporal punishment and, in return for personal military or civil service to the state, received various privileges, most notably land and the right to own serfs. Despite important divisions within these categories, the distinction between privileged and nonprivileged (tax-paying) divided society in a fundamental way and continued to influence social attitudes and realities into the twentieth century. At the same time, the state's military and economic needs shaped many social features and changes.


Nobility was defined by heredity and service to the ruler. The function of the nobility through the seventeenth century was to provide the cavalry army that was the mainstay of battle on the east European plain; in the eighteenth century military service still predominated as a defining function of the class, but nobles served as officers in a new type of army. The nobility also provided most of the officialdom of the state. It was a highly diverse group, ranging from extremely wealthy and powerful aristocrats to impoverished noblemen who held little or no land and struggled to keep from losing their status altogether.

At the top of Russian society (apart from the royal dynasty) stood the small number of elite noble families originally termed "boyars," who resided in or near Moscow and provided the tsars' major advisors and top government officeholders and army commanders. Below them were another group of families who held important, but lesser, state and military offices. Both of these descended mostly from either the old princely families or the personal military retinues of the early Moscow princes. Below them came the great majority of nobles, who made up the bulk of the army and who held modest estates. Originally the nobility held their land as votchina, or pure inheritance without service obligations, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Moscow rulers managed to convert landholding to pomestie or land held on condition of service, although it still tended to be hereditary in practice.

The Russian nobility had several special features. First, except for a few titles such as prince and, later, count and baron, individual nobles did not carry titles but were simply registered as noblemen. Second, all sons and daughters inherited noble status, including any titles. Third, the elaborate mestnichestvo system served to register and accord precedence to noble families according to the time of their entry into Moscow's service and their status at that time. This system allowed families and individuals to claim offices and military command by right of family precedence and to refuse service under a person of a lower place. The mestnichestvo practices were an important part of a complex social system, lasting until 1682, that stressed family honor and status. Yet another special feature of the nobility was the large number of Tatar, Ukrainian, Baltic German, Georgian, Polish, and other nobilities that were absorbed as the Muscovite-Russian state expanded territorially from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

The nature, structure, and role of the nobility changed during the eighteenth century, the result of the state's changing military and service needs combined with Peter the Great's measures to make service more regular and to tie it more closely to status. Changing military practices made the traditional noble cavalry obsolete while requiring a new type of army and new government apparatus. To address these needs, Peter created a new army and in 1722 instituted the Table of Ranks, which created fourteen parallel ranks of military and civil officers. All nobles now had to serve in a regular, bureaucratized system of duties and ranks. The new system also provided a mechanism whereby men of non-noble status could enter state service and, by advancement in rank, acquire personal and even hereditary nobility, a practice that increased in importance and frequency over time. Moreover, social status came to be defined in significant part by acquired service rank, so that even when the requirement of noble service was abolished in 1762, it was so ingrained that entering service and acquiring a respectable rank remained an important part of noble life, identity, and social status through most of the nineteenth century. At the same time, the abolition of the requirement for state service by nobles severed the traditional link between service and rights on which the Muscovite social-political system had been based. Previously, all subjects served in various capacities, and some, especially nobility, received privileges in return for their service. After 1762 the nobles retained their privileges but no longer were required to serve in return. This created an elite distinguished primarily by its legally defined privileges rather than by functions or service. Moreover, as the constantly reiterated justification for serfdom was that the serf served the noble so that the noble could serve the state, serfdom itself was cast into question; the essential link between noble and serf was now broken.

The Ukrainian and Belorussian nobility under the Polish-Lithuanian state shared many of the general characteristics of the Russian nobility: in a hereditary system based on traditions of military service, the great noble families were of princely descent, with the wealth of the broader nobility varying widely. In the sixteenth century, however, the Polish nobility gained greater political authority at the expense of the monarchs—the opposite of the situation in Russia—and Ukrainian nobles shared in that gain. Among other things the Ukrainian nobles successfully reduced their military obligations while increasing their control over the land and peasantry earlier than did nobles within Muscovite territory. After the Russian acquisition of almost all of the Ukrainian and Belorussian territories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Russian service and social characteristics applied to almost all East Slavic nobles, who functioned within a largely homogeneous noble system, including the Table of Ranks. Indeed, the Ukrainian and Belorussian elites, primarily nobles, had been largely Russianized during the eighteenth century, so that to be Ukrainian or Belorussian came to be associated with being peasant. The Russianization of the elites also meant that Ukrainians and Belorussians were deprived of a natural national leadership, which presented problems in terms of nation-building in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Wealth remained a significant divider among the nobility. The truly rich, with more than a thousand male serfs, composed only about 1 percent of the hereditary nobility (and less of the total nobility), while 17 percent owned a hundred to a thousand serfs, four-fifths owned less than a hundred, and most of these had fewer than twenty, if any. By the nineteenth century many nobles did not own any serfs, either for economic reasons or because as "personal nobles" they did not have the right. State service and its salary were essential for the poorer nobles, who in each generation were continually threatened with impoverishment because the system of equal inheritance meant that property was constantly divided into smaller holdings and thus smaller income.


The peasantry collectively made up 85 to 90 percent of the population of the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries and was the core of the tax-paying population. Within the peasantry, the largest group of the population by the end of the sixteenth century was the serfs, peasants who lived in bondage to private landowners and whose personal freedoms were curtailed. Until the fifteenth century most of the agricultural population had been "black peasants," free men living in small villages, paying taxes to the rulers, but increasingly also paying dues—cash, crop shares, labor—to noble and church landowners. They were, however, legally free, with the right to change residences. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they were driven into bondage by economic factors and the state's military requirements. Economic need (resulting from bad harvests, wars, disease, or other factors) caused peasants to borrow from landlords; they were then prohibited from moving as long as the debt was unpaid. That debt often became hereditary and permanent, tying the peasant to the land and the master. The needs of the state formed an even more powerful force in establishing serfdom. Constant warfare meant that the state needed military servitors, whom it compensated by grants of land. That land was of value to nobles only if it had peasants to work it; because peasants could leave and seek other land, the nobles appealed to the state for help to curtail their movement. The Muscovite state responded by restricting the right of peasants to move, originally during a period around St. George's Day (November 25), then during certain years, and finally prohibited it entirely. The peasantry was permanently tied to the land and could not move. The final fixing of serfdom in Russia is usually dated to the law code of 1649, which abolished time limits on recapture of runaway serfs, imposed penalties on those who received runaway serfs, and generally considered as serfs all peasants living on private landholdings.

Serfdom among Ukrainian and Belorussian peasants, carried out under Polish and Lithuanian political authority, was similar to the Russian. Although they paid dues to noble landlords, the peasants originally controlled their own land. In the sixteenth century the nobles asserted their ownership of the land and the right to restrict peasant movement, reducing peasants to serfdom, especially in the western Ukranian and Belonissian regions nearer Poland. In the sparsely settled southern and eastern areas, especially the area east of the Dnieper River known as Left Bank Ukraine, peasants managed to evade serfdom longer and were fully subjugated to it only in the eighteenth century, when the area became more settled and came under Russian control. On a comparative note, serfdom developed in Russia and the East Slavic lands just as it was disappearing in western and central Europe.

Serf owners held extensive power over serfs. Through their judicial and other state-granted authority they could beat and punish serfs, banish them to Siberia, order them into the army (a twenty-five year obligation), pressure them through increased dues and fees, force arranged marriages, use women serfs sexually, and in other ways abuse them. Serfs could leave the village area only with the lord's permission. Their condition generally worsened in the eighteenth century, as nobles for a time acquired the right to move them about and to sell them. Serfs came close to being slaves, which probably facilitated the melting of the slave category into the peasantry in the eighteenth century. Nobles, however, had a vested interest in not abusing their serfs, for they required their cooperation for tilling the land, but many did nonetheless, and the threat of maltreatment always hung over the heads of peasants (as the threat of peasant rebellion hung over the nobility). On the other hand, the serfs retained traditional practices of communal self-government and action and a sense that they had "rights," often defined in economic terms (what rents they owed, use of woodlands, and so on), that the landowner could not rightfully or morally infringe. They also retained three characteristics of "free" men but not of slaves: they paid taxes, were subject to military conscription, and could go to court (sue and besued). Serfs differed from slaves also in that, through the communal system, serfs organized their own labor rather than working under an overseer.

The second largest part of the population, making up most of the rest of rural society, were the state peasants, agriculturalists on land owned or administered by the government. This category grew dramatically as miscellaneous groups of peasants and other rural elements were so classified, and especially with the addition of most of what had been church and monastic peasants after those lands were secularized in the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they collectively made up about half of the peasantry. State peasants were bonded to the land and their position but in the service of the state rather than a private landlord. Their condition generally was slightly better than that of serfs, but they otherwise shared the same general characteristics. They could be transformed into serfs when the ruler gave the land on which they lived to a noble as reward for his service. Other small categories included the crown peasants, those on land belonging to the royal family.

Russian peasant society was characterized by its communal structure and periodic land repartition, important features that many historians have deemed peculiarly Russian developments. By the communal system, the peasants as a group (village, several small villages, part of a large village) were organized for certain administrative functions, with elders elected by household heads. The commune's collective responsibility was to make tax payments, provide military conscripts, deal with state officials and landlords, exercise limited self-government functions, organize cooperative labor, and oversee land repartition. Repartition, the system by which the land available to a peasant community was periodically redivided among its members for use, was strongest in central Russian areas around Moscow and along the Volga and weakest in Ukraine and Belorussia.

Peasant society and families were patriarchal and hierarchical—that is, all members had a right to share in the common resources (of the village or family), but not equally. Senior males dominated in both, while "stronger" families, measured in wealth or manpower, dominated "weaker" ones. The authority of the senior males was reinforced by the role of the heads of households in electing the communal officials and participating in the key communal decisions. While agriculture was the main activity of most peasants, especially serfs, many engaged in other work. During the winter handicraft activity was common. Many hired themselves out as seasonal labor, rural or urban, and some engaged in seasonal trade, while others took to trading activity or urban labor on a fulltime basis. They remained, however, bonded to the noble landowner or the state and paid cash dues on their labor accordingly. Some were household servants. A special category of possessionary serfs applied to serfs attached to factories as a permanent, hereditary workforce. In the central and northern regions, population density on poor land induced increasing numbeers of peasants to work away from the land. In the more fertile lands of the south and Ukraine, peasants remained more fully engaged in agriculture and were less inclined to seek seasonal or other employment outside of the village.


In the East Slavic, especially Russian, lands of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, urban dwellers constituted only about 4 to 6 percent of the population and, excepting the ruler and his chief officials, were relatively unimportant. Russian towns were characterized primarily by their administrative-military functions, with commercial activity playing a lesser role than in Western towns and cities. Among Russian cities only Moscow was truly a large city: in 1689 the population of Moscow was 150,000 to 200,000, a significantly smaller number than that of such cities as Paris, London, or Rome at the time.

In the towns, as elsewhere, the population was divided into legally defined estates. The law code of 1649 defined townsmen as those employed in trade and artisan activities within the town. At the top were the elite merchants (gosti), important personages who received some privileges and thus were in some ways part of the privileged element. Below them were categories of lesser merchants, artisans, and the lower class of miscellaneous laborers. During the early eighteenth century the townsmen were redefined into three groups according to capital resources: a higher "guild" of important merchants and other upper-economic urban dwellers; artisans, minor merchants, and others of middling property; and the urban poor. In the late eighteenth century the state redefined urban estates again, this time into six categories. These urban classes, especially the merchants and artisans, were often organized as communes with collective responsibility for payment of taxes and management of city services. In return the town estates received the right to engage in certain trades and, at the upper levels, some privileges such as exemption from corporal punishment and the right to ride in carriages. In addition to the legally defined townsmen estates, there resided in the cities and towns various numbers of people of other social estates, including nobles, government employees, clergy, peasants, and slaves, who in fact made up the majority of town dwellers.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, towns grew in number and size, and the new capital, St. Petersburg, joined Moscow as a genuinely large city (the capital was moved to St. Petersburg in 1712–1713 and was returned to Moscow in 1918). In the Ukrainian and Belorussian lands the towns were influenced by Germanic and Polish traditions, especially in the western regions, and had more corporate autonomy from Polish and Lithuanian rulers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was lost after incorporation into Russia. A notable feature of Ukrainian and Belorussian towns was that they were populated primarily by non-Ukrainians and non-Belorussians (Jews, Poles, Russians, others); this was true into the twentieth century, as Ukrainians and Belonissians remained even more rural than the Russians.


Although the noble-peasant dichotomy was predominant, Russian society was diverse. The clergy was a special category. The white (parish) clergy was required to marry before taking up posts, and in practice they became a mostly hereditary estate, with sons following in their fathers' steps. The village clergy was quite poor, living at about the same level as their peasant parishioners. Higher church officials came almost entirely from the black (monastic) clergy, including nobles who had entered monastic life. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because of their access to seminary education (however limited), members of the clerical estate became an important source of the new professional, bureaucratic and middle-class population.

Until the eighteenth century slaves were a significant social category (perhaps 10 percent of the population as late as 1649). Slavery in the East Slavic lands reached far back into antiquity. Slaves derived from a variety of sources, primarily war prisoners, descendants of slaves, and people who, faced with economic or other catastrophe, sold themselves (and their families) into slavery in return for food, shelter, and protection. Slaves performed a variety of functions as agricultural labor, household servants, artisans, merchants, estate managers, and even as soldiers. The state's constant search for tax revenues eventually led it to forbid people to sell themselves into slavery, a practice that represented a loss of taxpayers. Thus over the course of the eighteenth century slaves as a category disappeared into the serf population.

A few other examples illustrate the social diversity. Two rural social categories occupied a space between peasants and nobles. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Cossacks, people of primarily Russian and Ukrainian origins who had fled from serfdom and other troubles into the wild frontiers between the Muscovite, Polish, and Tatar states, emerged as self-governing military communities. They were incorporated into Russia as a special military caste that, although tax-paying, retained limited privileges of landownership, self-government, and exemption from some taxes in return for military service. Another special group was the odnodvortsy, literally "one-householders" but perhaps better called "homesteaders," who were descendants of minor service people who claimed noble status because they had provided personal military service. The state sometimes subjected them to the head tax, like state peasants, into which most eventually were folded. In the towns, the term raznochintsy, "people of diverse ranks," emerged in the eighteenth century to refer to a variety of low-ranking government officials of non-noble and nonmerchant estate origins, retired soldiers, soldiers' children, and others. This category acquired importance in the nineteenth century as a pool from which the new, non-noble educated elements were drawn. There also were wandering minstrels (skomorokhi), against whom the church railed, vagrants, fishermen, and others, both inside and outside the estate (soslovie) system. The expanding Russian state also contained an ever-growing number of minority ethnic groups with their own unique social patterns, such as Lutheran Latvian peasants, Armenian merchants, nomadic herdsmen of both the frozen north and desert south, large Muslim populations, and tribal groups of the Caucasus and Siberia, to name only a few examples of the increasingly diverse ethnic population.


In the East Slavic world, and Russia in particular, the state had a powerful impact on shaping and reshaping the social structure, more so than in western Europe. It created and abolished social categories, redefining people's legal identities, functions, status, obligations to the state, privileges, property, economic activity, and lives in general. Decrees affected who could live in towns and what they could do there. It turned peasants into serfs and later emancipated them, defined and then ended slavery, and redefined groups of minor servicemen in or out of the nobility. Through its decrees and tax demands the state affected such diverse social features as the size and generational shape of households (a response to tax policies), the communal system (which it enforced in some areas), and alcoholism; vodka being a state monopoly, the state encouraged alcohol consumption to boost receipts, a practice that continued into the Soviet era. Rulers, especially after Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, held that they had the right and ability to reshape society by decree. The most conspicuous of many examples of government's consciously altering social behavior and structures were the Table of Ranks and the decrees calling for Western styles of dress. Moreover, the system of legally defined estates profoundly affected people's self-identity; indeed, one's estate was one of the identification entries on the internal passports used in Imperial Russia.


Western influences also shaped Russian society in fundamental ways, beginning haphazardly in the seventeenth century and accelerating in the eighteenth, when Westernization became government policy under Peter the Great as part of his attempt to restructure society so that it could better serve the state, especially militarily. The new military methods required education and new values and attitudes as well as new weapons and organization. Such external actions as forcing nobles to shave their beards and wear Westernstyle clothing and ending the seclusion of elite women were part of a campaign to change social behavior and mentalities. The new capital in St. Petersburg was consciously built to resemble a western European city, as were the palaces that soon surrounded it. Despite some resistance, Westernization of the nobility and most of the urban classes was remarkably successful within only a generation or two. Before the end of the eighteenth century, the elites were speaking French or other Western languages and as a result of formal schooling were beginning to absorb Western intellectual and cultural values as well, including the new rationalist attitudes of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The peasantry, however, was left alone, thus creating a growing cultural division between a Westernized upper stratum and the mass of traditional peasantry.


Dramatic social and economic changes took place during the last half-century of Imperial Russia, from 1861 to 1917. Emancipation of the serfs in 1861 shook the social system to its roots. Emancipation made serfs "free rural inhabitants," although much of the landlord's control over property rights, economic activities, movement, and so on was simply transferred to the commune rather than to individual peasants, who were still subject to restrictions on movement, special taxes, and corporal punishment. Peasants collectively, through the commune, now jointly owned the land and were responsible for taxes and many obligations and self-government activities. The Stolypin reforms of 1906–1914, initiated by Pyotr Stolypin, premier of Russia, attempted to break down the communal system in favor of individual, consolidated farmsteads held in full title by individual peasant families; but these reforms were short-lived, and after 1917 the peasant villages reverted to their traditional communal structures and practices.

This did not mean that peasant life remained entirely unchanged. Expanding industry, coupled with rural overcrowding, led growing numbers of peasants to take up seasonal, temporary, or permanent work in the cities, while retaining their ties to the villages in most cases (most urban workers were still legally classified as peasants). This introduced a new awareness of the outside world into the village, as did the army reform of 1874, which subjected peasants to universal military service and thus exposed most males to life outside the village and its traditional values. Schooling began to produce a growing literacy rate in the village, especially among younger males. At the same time growing trade affected the villages, introducing factory made textiles and other goods, including books. Slowly the village was changing.

The nobility was also undergoing change. Landowners lost about half of the land during emancipation and had to deal differently with the peasants to obtain labor for the land they retained (while the peasants resented having to rent land or do sharecropping labor on it). Although some noble landlords sought to introduce machinery and other modern agricultural practices on their remaining land, most were forced, by habit or circumstance, to continue with traditional peasant agricultural practices. The nobility remained highly diverse in wealth, education, and function, even as its importance slipped. Some remained landowners in terms of self-identity and ethos, others became professional bureaucrats (the government bureaucracy increased fourfold after mid-century), and some entered the newly flourishing professions. At the same time sons of the nobility found themselves in competition for both state and private positions with the offspring of the new, educated middle classes. State efforts to aid the nobility and preserve them as a viable class had mixed results, although the extent of that before 1917 is much disputed.

The beginnings of an industrial revolution and urbanization in the nineteenth century started a fundamental social transformation that continued to the turn of the twenty-first century. This industrialization grew in part out of government policy—the imperial regime confronted the need to industrialize to ensure that Russia would maintain its great-power ambitions in a world where military power and industrialization were ever more closely linked—and in part out of the steady movement eastward across Europe of the industrial revolution. Russia averaged an annual industrial growth rate of over 5 percent between 1885 and 1914, with even faster growth rates in the 1890s. Trade, both domestic and foreign, grew significantly. The new economy changed Russian society fundamentally and permanently, creating two largely new urban classes while reducing the significance of some old ones. The old legally defined estate classifications, still used by the government and still an important part of self-identity, became increasingly irrelevant to the actual social-economic class structure.

Industrialization produced, for the first time, a significant urban and industrial working class. This was a deeply discontented class. The factories demanded long hours at low pay amid unsafe conditions, a harsh and degrading system of industrial discipline, and a total absence of employment security or care if a worker became ill or injured. Housing was overcrowded, unsanitary, and lacked privacy. Families often shared single rooms with other families or single workers. The conditions of industry not only left workers poor but robbed them of personal dignity. Labor unions, strikes, and similar ways of banding together for mutual improvement were prohibited or strictly limited by the government, which usually supported employers in labor disputes. Government-sponsored improvements in the decade before 1914 only slightly mitigated conditions. All this made the industrial workers a fertile ground for revolutionary agitation, which grew with the new century. Moreover, although industrial workers were not more than 2.5 percent of the population in 1913, their concentration in large cities—especially the "two capitals," St. Petersburg and Moscow—and their organization by the factory process put them in a position to play a role in any revolutionary upheaval far out of proportion to their numbers (as they in fact did in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917). Moreover, once revolutionary disturbances began, they usually could draw support from the much larger laboring class of railwaymen, longshoremen and boatmen, construction workers, day laborers, and others, who together made up about 10 percent of the total population and a much larger percent of the urban population.

The industrial revolution accelerated the growth and increased the importance of the new educated "middle classes" of professionals and commercial-industrial white-collar employees—doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, managers, office workers, accountants, and others—that had arisen after the Great Reforms of the 1860s and 1870s. They initially found employment in the growing government bureaucracy and in the new organs of limited local self-government, the zemstva, which employed large numbers of doctors, teachers, agronomists, and other professionals. The judicial reforms of the 1860s created a new demand for lawyers, and the expanding educational infrastructure opened opportunities for teachers. These and other professions flourished in the growing commercial and industrial sectors, as did the increasing urban population of merchants, shopkeepers, salaried employees, and artisans. Although by the early twentieth century they made up only a small part of the total population, the new middle classes were a large part of the major cities. Moreover, their education and concentration in the major cities, especially the capitals, gave them an importance beyond their numbers. They had for the first time become a significant element in society.

Along with some of the old nobility, the new middle classes made up an "educated society" that provided the basis for a liberal political movement focused on changing the political system through reform. This educated society produced the important, and at the time specifically Russian, phenomenon of the intelligentsia. This primarily intellectual element had evolved out of small circles of mid-nineteenth-century nobles discussing public issues to encompass the most politically involved portion of educated society. The intelligentsia was generally characterized by opposition to the existing order in Russia and a strong desire to change it; out of its radical wing emerged the revolutionary parties, and out of its more moderate wing came the political reformers and liberal parties.


What of the status of women within this society? Traditional Russian and East Slavic society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had a complex, even contradictory attitude toward women, seeing in them the image of both Mary (Mother of God) and Eve (temptress), of good and sin. The Orthodox Church looked upon the sexuality of women with suspicion and regarded sexual activity, even within marriage, as impure. Both descriptive literature and folk sayings denigrated women and emphasized male domination, suggesting that a woman be regularly beaten for her own and the family's good, while she was enjoined to obey her husband silently and in all matters. At the same time, however, especially among the upper classes, women did have legal rights, including the ability to sue in court to defend their property rights and honor and to divorce their husbands for adultery or other sins. By the sixteenth century upper-class women in Moscow were largely secluded, living in the women's quarters (terem), for reasons debated by scholars but most probably having to do with maintaining family honor and prospects for desirable marriage alliances. Seclusion was impractical among the provincial nobility, as wives managed estates while their husbands were away on military campaigns, and among peasants, as women labored in the fields. Seclusion was not practiced in Ukrainian and Belorussian areas. Marriages were arranged by the families among all classes. Pregnancy and child-rearing consumed much of the energy of women of all classes.

The situation of upper-class women changed dramatically in the eighteenth century because of Western influences. Peter the Great abolished seclusion as part of his overall Westernizing policies and ordered women of the elite to participate in mixed social gatherings and to wear Western-style gowns to match the Western clothing styles imposed on men. Elite and then noble and urban women generally became much more Westernized, at least in fashion, a process facilitated by the series of women rulers who dominated the eighteenth-century throne after 1725. Nonetheless, Russia remained a highly patriarchal society. Both folk sayings and law emphasized the husband or father's authority, including the right to inflict corporal punishment, and commanded the woman to "unlimited obedience." Although during the nineteenth century Western ideas about the wife as companion and cultured person changed gender relations and softened patriarchy among the upper classes, among the lower classes, the great bulk of the population, gender relations changed little.

Among the peasantry it remained common for two and three generational households to live together in a single small hut. In such situations younger women, daughters and daughters-in-law, were subject to the authority of the patriarch of the family and to senior women as well as husbands, and often were seen primarily as a source of labor. Peasant women's low status was reflected in numerous folk sayings, such as, "a hen is not a bird and a woman is not a person." Nonetheless, peasant women wielded significant authority. They not only managed the house and performed essential economic activities such as animal care, crafts, and some fieldwork but collectively maintained the essential social rituals of the village: matchmaking, birth and upbringing, community morals and behavior.

During the nineteenth century the situation of upper-class women continued to diverge from that of their lower-class sisters. Increasing numbers gained an education and some began to enter certain professions, such as teaching and medicine, although they were still excluded from most professions and from state service. Educated women also became more involved in civic affairs, including the revolutionary movement. In turn, equal rights for women was a central part of the programs of all revolutionary movements and parties, although socialist parties generally emphasized that "women's issues" could be resolved only after the overthrow of autocracy and a sweeping social revolution. A feminist movement patterned on Western feminism appeared among educated women late in the century and pressed for a variety of legal rights and educational opportunities. The All-Russia Union for Women's Equality added the franchise to feminist demands after men received the vote following the Revolution of 1905. Still, only a minority of women worked outside the home, the management of which was their responsibility, and often a taxing one.

Among lower-class women a different evolution took place. As industrialization took men off to the factories, women took more responsibility in the village. Some joined the migrations to the cities to work as domestics, shop clerks, menials, and factory labor. For most this led only to miserable conditions and a degraded life, but a minority managed to use their newfound economic independence to expand their horizons and forge a new identity. For most women, however, whether peasant or urban working class, life remained harsh, traditional, and patriarchal.


Russia at the opening of the twentieth century was a rapidly changing society. In addition to industrialization, urbanization, and the growth of new social classes, the era saw a rapid expansion of education and literacy, new directions in art and literature, the appearance of social, economic, and professional clubs and associations, the emergence of a feminist movement, nationalist stirrings among some of the non-Russian half of the population, a broader contact with the Western world, and many other changes. The percentage of nonhereditary nobles and commoners increased at all levels of both the army officer corps and the government bureaucracy except the very highest. Children of the clergy, the merchant class, and the new professional classes increasingly held these government and military positions, which formerly had been the preserve of the nobility. At the same time there was a dramatic population growth, from about 73 million in 1855 to around 168 million in 1913, the result of improved medical care, food, and other factors that produced a longer life expectancy, especially fewer deaths in infancy and childbirth. During the same period urban population grew from 10 to 18 percent of the population, and the largest cities grew extremely fast, tripling or quadrupling their size. Political and social-economic discontent was also growing, producing a potentially revolutionary situation that erupted first in 1905 and then, more profoundly and successfully, in 1917.

The February Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the Russian monarchy also initiated a far-reaching social upheaval. In the new political freedom all classes of society were able to assert themselves as never before and to organize to fulfill their varied aspirations. Thousands of public organizations, reflecting class, occupation, gender, ethnicity, residence, beliefs, and other human characteristics, emerged and competed in the marketplace of ideas and in the political arena. Swiftly, those representing the interests of industrial workers (and urban lower classes generally) and peasants asserted their dominance, displacing the old middle and upper classes in control of effective power. The October Revolution was, in an important sense, only a confirmation of this successful social inversion, with the Bolshevik Party providing its political articulation and leadership.

After the Bolsheviks took over in the October Revolution, the civil war of 1918–1921 extended the social upheaval even further. The peasants by mid-1918 successfully expropriated noble and other non-peasant lands in the countryside. The nobility as a class disappeared in the maelstrom of 1918–1921, a remarkable social transformation, far exceeding what had happened in the French and English revolutions. The rest of the educated and propertied classes were not so extensively destroyed as identifiable social elements, but they lost their status in society and much of their property (such as houses or apartments). Even the civil war's "victors" were profoundly affected. In 1921, with the devastated industrial economy at only about 13 percent of prewar levels, factories were largely closed, major cities half emptied, and industrial workers scattered. The peasants achieved their main aspiration, possession of all the land, but the famine of 1921–1923 claimed about five million of them and left millions more permanently impaired in health; even their control of the land proved short-lived. Overall, nine years (1914–1923) of war, revolution, civil war, and famine had killed about 25–30 million people and uprooted millions more, who roamed the countryside or squatted in towns and villages. An estimated seven million children were homeless. Two to three million people, mostly of the best educated classes, fled the country permanently. The social upheaval, and its impact, beggars the imagination.

This was, however, only the beginning. The new political rulers were not content to take the society they found but were determined to transform it even further according to their own socialist vision. Central to this was the so-called Stalin revolution. Begun about 1929, it was a dual program to industrialize the Soviet Union at an extraordinary speed while also creating a socialist society, all under the direction and control of the Communist Party. In this process society was to be reshaped on a scale matching or exceeding Peter the Great's Westernizing effort two centuries earlier.

The new industrialization drive accelerated the social revolution that had begun with the earlier industrialization of the 1890s. Cities grew at a tremendous rate as millions of peasants poured off the land and into the new industrial world. The Soviet Union shifted from being less than 20 percent urban in 1914 to about half urban at Stalin's death in 1953 to about two-thirds by 1989 (higher in the Russian areas). By the 1980s the Soviet Union had twenty-three cities with populations exceeding 1 million (mostly in the Russian and Ukrainian areas), and Moscow exceeded 8 million. Along with urbanization came horrendous problems, as had accompanied such changes in other societies, of overcrowded housing, inadequate sanitation, and the psychological and social traumas accompanying the shift from rural to urban, agricultural to industrial. The family changed from extended to nuclear, and the number of children per family dropped among the newly urban. Industrial workers became the symbol of the new society, as the Communist government declared itself based on a "proletarian revolution" and to be building a "workers' state." At the same time, the traditional tie of industrial workers to the village was broken, not only because of generational change but because the traditional village, and with it the old peasant culture and safety net, was simultaneously being destroyed.

The peasants, who had appeared to be the most successful of all social groups in achieving their aspirations (land and control of their lives) out of the revolution, became the great losers in the new Stalinist social upheaval. Beginning in 1929, collectivization of agriculture took the land and destroyed the ancient patterns of village relationships and life. The peasants resisted—about ten million lost their lives in collectivization and in the famine that followed—but by the mid-1930s they had become collective farmers. Peasants saw the collective farms as the new serfdom, and indeed heavy taxation, restrictions on movement, and subordination to party and state officials (the new "lords"), gave it that essence. The peasants' condition declined by almost every social and economic measurement, even more so than for other parts of the population, and recovered slowest when things got better after the death of Stalin in 1953. At the same time their numbers dropped: by the 1980s only about a fifth of the population made a living in agriculture, although that figure was still high by Western standards.

The new Soviet class system evolved in unexpected ways. Stalin declared in 1936 that the "exploiting classes" had been liquidated and that there now existed only three classes in society: workers, peasants (collective farm members), and intelligentsia. This obscured a more complex social reality. Although the old upper and middle classes were gone, a new class of factory and other managers assumed many of the functions and status of the old commercial and managerial class. The professions also quickly reassembled, in altered form, within the new society. Assorted white-collar elements grew in number and diversity. At the same time the Soviet Union abandoned its early egalitarian theories, introducing significant wage differentials as well as differential access to the scarce food and consumer goods. It allowed de facto class stratification to evolve based on education, occupation, income, and access to goods, as well as the new factor of Communist Party membership.

A new elite quickly developed, made up of Communist Party officials and high-ranking government, military, economic, and even artistic and cultural figures. This elite was marked both by power and by access to material goods. The latter was the special feature of the new political-social system in that many goods and services were not available for money but only by regime allocation: large private apartments, dachas (summer houses in the countryside), access to special food and other merchandise stores, use of special medical clinics, choice vacation spots, differential access to news and information, use (and later ownership) of automobiles, and other privileges. This new elite was able to ensure preferential admission to the best schools (and then jobs) for their children, thus handing down its advantages. A new, partially inherited class system of privileged and unprivileged evolved. The Soviet regime initially made an effort to conceal social stratification and the elite's privileges, but during the era Leonid Brezhnev's rule (1964–1982) it was much more open about them. The social hierarchy took on more formal characteristics, some reminiscent of the old legally defined estates of tsarist Russia. Probably the most significant of these was placement on the nomenklatura list, the list of important positions the filling of which was controlled by a party official, central or local; assignment to these positions made one by definition a part of the elite and participant in its own graduated schedules of privileges and access rights. Other signs of regime-designated hierarchy appeared, such as enterprises (usually defense-related) authorized to give their workers special benefits and the residency permits required to live in certain cities (such as Moscow), which carried with them better access to goods and other opportunities.

The Soviet system introduced other changes in the life of the population as well. One of the more important was the broad range of social welfare and public services—free universal medical care, guaranteed employment, old-age pensions, cheap public transportation—which softened the impact of the new social stratification on citizens. Education expanded dramatically, producing a generally well-educated population. On the other hand, state-sponsored terror and lawlessness, reaching its height in the Great Terror of the 1930s but continuing at varying levels of intensity throughout the entire Soviet era, had an enormous and traumatic impact on society. Even at its mildest, in the 1960s to 1980s, it fostered a distrust in interpersonal relations and artificial public behavior that affected all social relationships. Organized religion, which formerly played a central role in both public and private life, was mercilessly attacked and largely disappeared from the East Slavic scene until the 1990s. Adding to the complex social picture was a new problem, the immense environmental damage done by decades of industrial policies indifferent to ecological concerns, and an old one, heavy drinking and alcoholism, which became ever more of a major social problem.

Overall the standard of living declined after 1928 and then began to improve again in the late 1950s, with increases in available food, clothing, consumer goods, and appliances. Even the traditionally wretched housing situation improved, although in the 1980s a fifth of the population still resided in communal lodgings (dormitories or apartments with multifamily shared kitchen and bath). Because of the regime's control over allocation of the scarce consumer goods, the quality of life tended to be much better in the cities than in the countryside and to differ significantly among cities (Moscow had more of everything than other cities, Leningrad, formerly St. Petersburg, and republic capitals more than other cities). There is no doubt but that the standard of living improved in Russia, especially from the late 1950s to the 1980s; but whether that offset the terrible losses and traumas inflicted by the regime, or even if living standards were higher than would have occurred under a different kind of regime (they went up, after all, everywhere in Europe during the period from 1918 to the 1980s), remains debatable. The standard of living, in any case, still lagged well behind Western countries (the measurement used by both government and people) and even behind Eastern European bloc countries. Moreover, by the late 1970s there was a growing popular belief that conditions were getting no better, as well as an increasing sense of relative poverty.

Elements both of continuity and of change affected the condition of women in the Soviet era. In 1917, before the Bolshevik Revolution, women received the vote and also entered public life in unprecedented numbers. The Bolsheviks, however, came to power with a vision of a transformed society in which women would become fully equal by becoming fully employed wage earners. Indeed, despite sometimes utopian debates about transformed social and familial relationships, and some social legislation, perhaps the most important impact on women's condition was the massive industrialization and urbanization. The need for workers drew millions of women into factories and other employment, and the need for technical and professional skills opened up educational opportunities. Women entered the professions and managerial ranks in unprecedented numbers. At the same time, however, traditional Russian patriarchal values continued to apply. Women generally held lower-paying jobs, continued to carry the burden of household work and family care alongside full-time employment, had few modern conveniences with which to ease that burden, and suffered especially from the housing and other shortages. Men held most supervisory and higher-ranking positions, even in professions (such as medicine and teaching) and factories that were numerically predominantly female. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the Soviet regime emphasized the "proletarian" and public aspects of life, areas traditionally considered "masculine," whereas the traditional "female" spheres of life—family, private life, housing, food and consumer goods—were downgraded and under funded.


After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia struggled with the problems of simultaneously creating new states, new market economies, new political systems, and new pluralistic and open societies. The result was renewed social upheaval for all three East Slavic peoples. Privatization on top of an already collapsing economy led to massive unemployment, declining real income, and hardship for large parts of the society, even as a minority thrived in the new conditions. Conspicuous and extravagant wealth contrasted harshly with new depths of poverty and hardship, creating sharp social tensions. Salaried people (most of the population), went for long periods without being paid. The elderly, women, and children suffered especially, while the younger urban population and those already part of the old elite prospered the most. Health and public services declined precipitously. The death rate exceeded the birthrate, while life expectancy dropped sharply, falling from a high of about 67 to 58 years for men in 1995 (women's expectancy was higher but also fell). Crime rose dramatically, creating insecurity in a population unaccustomed to it. Education opened up intellectually but suffered loss of economic support. Personal freedoms, including literary, artistic, political, religious, and others, expanded dramatically. Creating new national identities has proved more difficult than expected for all three peoples and states. Clearly, the East Slavic peoples have embarked on yet another period of social turmoil and dramatic change, the outcome of which remains uncertain.

See alsoCollectivization; Communism; The Industrial Revolutions; Military Service; Serfdom: Eastern Europe; The Welfare State (volume 2);Aristocracy and Gentry; Peasants and Rural Laborers; Revolutions; Slaves; Working Classes (volume 3);Patriarchy (volume 4);Eastern Orthodoxy (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


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