Nineteenth-century Russian society was rigidly hierarchical, with an established class system that provided the outlines for the social and economic order. The Russian czar presided over a society in which the labor of the lower classes supported a landed aristocracy. This feudal system encouraged class antagonism, which culminated in the rise of the Bolsheviks and overthrow of the monarchy. For the span of the 19th century, however, Russian society had four distinct divisions.
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The Russian czar presided over an upper class that included members of the nobility and higher clergymen. Individuals acquired hereditary nobility through long-term and distinguished military or civil service, or through the czar’s special dispensation. Russian nobles could own estates and, until the liberation of 1861, the serfs who worked the land. Nobles had the privilege of attendance in exclusive universities and were exempt from military service. The Russian nobility differed from European nobility in that Russian nobles considered themselves servants of the czar, rather than a separate social entity. High clergymen within the Russian Orthodox Church qualified as upper class thanks to their status as property owners.
The Middle Class
The Russian middle class grew in influence from the mid- to late 19th century, and supplanted the nobility after the Russian Revolution. The rise of industrialism allowed individuals to enter the middle class through factory ownership or management. The middle class included trained professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, and civil servants who achieved high ranks in the state bureaucracy. The middle class leaned toward liberalism, and largely opposed the conservative social order of the upper classes. The Russian middle class developed in cities, which grew in population and importance as factory jobs enticed peasants to leave the countryside.
The Working Class
The Russian working class accounted for a small percentage of the population, at least until the turn of the 20th century. Nineteenth-century working class Russians were factory workers, sailors and certified artisans. Common soldiers also were working class. Military service, open to all male Russians, represented one of the only ways for lower class men to rise above their station. The term of service for military recruits, even those conscripted to meet estate quotas, was 25 years, and the children of soldiers attended special schools to prepare for their own entrance into the ranks.
Nineteenth-century Russia had a predominantly agrarian economy, and the peasants who worked the land formed the largest portion of the population. Prior to 1861, Russian peasants acted as virtual slaves, or serfs, upon the estates of landed nobility. Russian serfs had no explicit legal rights, and depended on their estate lords for justice, shelter and subsistence. After the serfdom reforms of Czar Alexander II, Russian peasants gained legal recognition and the right to own property. Unfortunately, the Russian nobility still owned most of the land, which forced peasants to hire themselves out as tenant farmers.