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Social Class in Late Imperial Russia

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Александр Павлович Шиманский
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Imperial Russia →
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188905279 / Жалобы? Ошибка? Выделите проблемный текст и нажмите CTRL+ENTER!

Were social-class divisions in late Imperial Russia insurmountable?

Viewpoint: Yes. The social imbalance between the peasantry and urban working class on the one side and the aristocracy and the nascent middle class on the other was too great to be overcome by anything but revolution.

Viewpoint: No. Class conflict was becoming moderated by economic growth and social change.

Table of Contents:

- Introduction
- Viewpoint 1
- Viewpoint 2
- Further Readings
- Source Citation

A traditional explanation for the success of the Bolshevik coup in November 1917 is the polarization of Russian society during the last decades of the empire. As Russia underwent rapid industrialization and urbanization--with the growth of a capital-controlling middle class and the proliferation of poor industrial workers--the traditional agrarian economy of Russia and the organization of its society into sosloviia (estates) was breaking down and becoming replaced with an unstable capitalist system. For some scholars, the classical Marxist paradigm of a radicalized proletariat seizing power from an oppressive bourgeoisie has best explained the Russian Revolution. According to this argument, no social conciliation was possible, and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was inevitable.
Much recent research, however, places this so-called inevitability in doubt. The rise of Russian civil society--a combination of private organizations, local government, professional groups, and commercial culture--accompanied the rapid economic growth in the empire. Concepts of citizenship and civic consciousness were in many cases transcending artificial divisions of class, while ideas of nation, consumerism, and individualism were developing widely in Russia, just as they were in other rapidly industrializing countries. Without the traumas of World War I, Russia might not have had a revolution.

Viewpoint: Yes. The social imbalance between the peasantry and urban working class on the one side and the aristocracy and the nascent middle class on the other was too great to be overcome by anything but revolution.

The social imbalances Russia faced developed over a long period of time, and the tsarist state, which jealously sought for itself the prerogative of initiating or discouraging social change, did not begin soon enough to help in building a social structure that could respond adequately to the challenges of modernization. By the early twentieth century Russia lacked social stability in its towns and cities, whose populations were rapidly growing and whose economies were undergoing widespread industrialization. In the countryside rising social unrest rooted in class-based anger was made clearly manifest in disturbances after 1900, especially during the Revolution of 1905. No resolution to these problems was forthcoming in the final years of tsarist government, making Russia ripe for revolution in 1917.

Throughout its history, the Russian population was overwhelmingly agrarian. Even in the late tsarist period, about 80 percent of the population consisted of peasants. Serfdom was abolished only in 1861 as part of the Great Reforms of the 1860s and early 1870s. Even after emancipation, the peasantry of European Russia remained tied by law, custom, and necessity to the village commune. Life for the poverty- stricken Russian peasants was brutal, and the marginal rises in income they experienced in the early twentieth century still left them far poorer than farmers in Western Europe. In addition, notions of social improvement and accumulating wealth through increased efficiency remained foreign to most peasants.

The connections between Russian peasantry and the growing urban working class were strong because of the migration of peasants to urban areas after emancipation. In 1897, 44 percent of the Russian urban population was made up of persons officially of the peasant soslovie (estate), particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the peasant portions of the population were 69 and 70 percent, respectively.

While many peasants were able to find a place in the urban workplace, these new workers were not fully assimilated into life in the city. Many worked in the city only for stretches of time, returning periodically to their villages, where they had family members, land, and responsibilities. Large numbers of urban workers lived in crowded, unsanitary barracks. In these conditions, social dislocation and various forms of asocial activity, such as alcoholism and criminality, were common. In 1914 fully two-thirds of industrial workers maintained ties to the countryside, a situation that impeded the development of a confident urban working class that prized stability as a condition for its success.

The small Russian middle class had received a boost from the Great Reforms, which created new forums for civic activity. These reforms included the creation of an independent judiciary and local assemblies in 1864, as well as elected city councils and city administrations in 1870. During the 1860s and 1870s voluntary activity spread in the form of associations and charities. Associational life continued to grow in Russia to the end of the tsarist era, and the small Russian merchant class experienced impressive cultural growth in the late nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, however, the tsarist state saw the civic activity of the middle class as a possible threat and took steps to limit it. In 1892 the government introduced a new Municipal Statute that raised the property-ownership threshold for participation in city elections. Through this counterreform the Russian state sought to decrease city councils' fields of activity and to increase government oversight of urban affairs. The middle class in the late tsarist period and the nascent Russian civil society needed more time and a less suspicious state for their efforts to bear fruit. Moreover, their activities did not adequately counterbalance the problems inherent in the isolated urban working class.

The tsarist state was aware of the revolutionary potential of Russian urban workers, who had no legal means for voicing grievances. Between 1901 and 1903, the head of the Moscow secret police, Sergei Zubatov, established police-supervised workers' organizations, whose purpose was to funnel worker dissatisfaction toward demands for strictly economic, not political, reform. The police soon lost control of these organizations, which engaged in strikes in 1903 and were then shut down by the state. On 22 January 1905 a procession of peaceful St. Petersburg workers led by the activist-priest Georgii Gapon sought to present Tsar Nicholas II with a petition requesting that he act to ease their onerous working conditions and allow mild political reform. Tsarist troops shot at these workers, causing many deaths and casualties. The event, soon known as Bloody Sunday, was the trigger for the Revolution of 1905.

The violence and unrest in the countryside and in urban areas of Russia in 1905 made evident the depth of the dissatisfaction felt by millions of peasants and townspeople, poor and better-off alike. Soviets (councils) of workers were formed in urban areas, and in October 1905 the workers' councils organized a general strike in St. Petersburg, which forced Nicholas to grant civil rights and a legislative assembly. Yet, the vast differences in outlook and lifestyle between Russian urbanized peasants and poor workers, on the one hand, and educated urbanites, on the other hand, remained. These deep social cleavages were laid bare by liberals' reaction to Nicholas II's October Manifesto. Politically engaged zemstvo members and professionals flocked to the newly formed party of Constitutional Democrats (Kadets). Satisfied with the government's concession of allowing an elected parliament, the State Duma, liberals abandoned the workers' movement. Thus, liberals did not support the workers of the Presnia district of Moscow, who, upset at the arrest of soviet leaders in St. Petersburg, took up arms and erected barricades in December 1905, as in the Paris Commune of 1871. The state responded with troops and artillery, killing more than one thousand people. Unrest in the countryside continued in some regions into 1907, with peasants destroying manor houses and property, directing their anger at the occupiers of land the peasants felt was rightfully theirs. As in Moscow, the state ended the violence not through addressing protestors' concerns but through the use of further violence and punitive expeditions.

In the wake of the events of 1905-1907, the state took steps it hoped would eventually result in modernization of the Russian agricultural sector. Premier Petr Stolypin's agrarian reform was aimed at destroying the peasant commune, the institution most closely associated with the backward peasant class. Peasants in the Russian heartland, however, were on the whole extremely reluctant to hold land on their own, separate from the commune. Most commonly, the commune was abandoned only by the few wealthiest peasants and the poorest, who sought to sell their holdings in hopes of establishing a better life elsewhere.

Other important reforms proposed by Stolypin were vigorously opposed at the other end of the Russian social-class spectrum. Stolypin had planned to democratize local government through the extension of zemstvo authority to all classes, not just the peasantry. But an important preliminary part of his reform--the extension of the zemstvo to the western provinces of Russia--was defeated in 1911 by conservative landholders in the Duma. Greatly suspicious of change within the Russian system of government, Nicholas II failed to support his own prime minister, though he did consent to the implementation of the bill after Stolypin threatened to resign. Without the support of the autocrats for reform, the Russian ruling class showed itself unable to take decisive action to avoid the explosion of fury from below that occurred in 1917.

With little progress being made in relations among Russian social groups, the intense pressures caused by World War I further weakened the fabric of society, making it all too vulnerable to revolution. The outburst of patriotism across all Russian social classes that marked the outbreak of war in August 1914 faded fast. Riots broke out in late February 1917 among the working class of Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed in 1914), beginning as expressions of anger and frustration from people suffering under wartime deprivation. When the hundreds of thousands of workers on strike in March were joined by soldiers, who were also unhappy about the war, the autocracy was doomed.

Geoffrey Hosking has pointed out that the tsarist regime had two successors: the representatives of the urban, educated class in the Provisional Government and the representatives of the common folk, the narod, in the workers' soviets and in soldier and peasant committees. When the Petrograd soviet tried to achieve a working alliance with the Provisional Government, it weakened its ties with those it represented--the radicalized narod-- thus leaving the field open for Bolshevik appeals to the narod and for the Bolshevik seizure of power in October.

In his poem "The Twelve," Russian symbolist poet and prophet of the revolution, Aleksandr Blok, expressed the exultation felt by Petrograd's lower classes in the fall of 1917. Twelve Red Army soldiers march through the streets of the city, wreaking destruction as they go, as if destroying the world that was old Russia:

To the woe of all the bourgeois We'll set the world aflame and blow it high We'll set the world aflame in blood-- So help us God!

-- Bradley Woodworth, Yale University

Viewpoint: No. Class conflict was becoming moderated by economic growth and social change.

Until the end of the old regime in 1917, subjects of the Russian tsar were legally categorized according to a feudal system of estates, called sosloviia. Although some people may have held on with pride to their status as dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry), and while the category of krestianin (peasant) provided an adequate description of the majority of the provincial population, in practice much of the estate-based system had given way by the early twentieth century to a functioning system of classes, in the modern West European sense. The vocabulary used to characterize classes, borrowed directly from the West, however, was often misleading. The term worker had a Russian equivalent, rabochii, and referred to factory workers, many of whom developed a politicized identity connected with this designation. The term for the bourgeoisie, burzhui, arrived more as a pejorative reference to cultural taste and did not carry the weight of the Western "burgher" class or of the petit bourgeois substratum of shopkeepers and independent tradesmen. Instead, the old estate categories of kupechestvo (merchantry) and meshchanstvo (urban dwellers) held sway. Kapitalist (capitalist) became a term of opprobrium during the Russian social revolution, referring--not altogether inappropriately--to men of wealth and power, but not necessarily to all those who would have been considered bourgeois in the West. The Western terms appeared regularly in satires that Russians wrote about themselves, especially in vaudevilles and comic routines, but they were abstractions in daily life. Professionals--including intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, professors, agronomists, and other educated middle elements--gathered into the Russian self-styled soslovie, the "intelligentsia." Although they disdained class labels, they positioned themselves politically alongside middle- class moderates in the West: they wanted civil rights and rule of law, while they sometimes distrusted the lower classes and preferred to assume the right to speak in what they believed to be the best interests of their social inferiors.

It is necessary to move beyond the words and explore individual lives. For example, the two most successful Russian publishing magnates came from opposite ends of the soslovie spectrum: I. D. Sytin was born a peasant, while A. S. Suvorin was born into the nobility. Few Russians were as enterprising as this pair, who were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. The conservative Suvorin, however, editorialized consistently against deferring to someone on the basis of birth rather than work and accomplishments. Sytin, the wealthier of the two, did not care about social categories. What set both men apart from everyone else was their entrepreneurial spirit. They understood the logic that lay behind the Great Reforms, which emancipated the serfs within a network of legal and social changes that were fundamentally about transforming Russia into a modern industrial state. A perceptive eyewitness to the Industrial Revolution, the German communist philosopher Karl Marx had brought attention to the reality that changes made in economic structures have reciprocal impacts on social relations. If few other Russians shared the combined energies and ambitions of Sytin and Suvorin, millions nonetheless set about taking advantage of opportunities on a smaller scale to turn themselves into something new, into individuals whose livelihoods, ambitions, and ways of life were fundamentally different from the old regime's estate paradigm. This chance to develop a private life and partake in the burgeoning new public one determined social change, regardless of the applied terminology.

Economic historians have thoroughly examined the explosive growth of the tsarist economy in the last three decades before World War I. The annual rate of economic growth averaged almost 6 percent; production of such fundamental industrial materials as coal and pig iron quadrupled; and the consumption of cotton tripled. A rising national-banking system was complemented with mutual-credit societies that made capital available for large and small investments. The length of the Russian national railways doubled. Urbanization grew rapidly along with industrialization, and the populations of St. Petersburg and Moscow doubled to more than two million each between 1900 and 1917. Literacy rates in both cities hovered around 70 percent, surpassing 80 percent among males. Literacy in the country at large doubled from 20 percent in 1897 to 40 percent in 1917.

Although Russia's economy still lagged far behind those of its Western neighbors, which had already undergone the Industrial Revolution, the Russian gross national product, like that of its neighbors, almost doubled between 1897 and 1913. Along with these developments came the evolution of different functions for participants in the Russian economy, from workers on factory floors to bankers assessing investments to shopkeepers keeping consumer goods in circulation.

While economic historians celebrate this growth, social historians, who assess the effects of industrialization on people's lives, have taken a less sanguine view. They have tended to stress the inequities between the haves and the have-nots, with population figures weighted heavily in favor of the have-nots. Few legal restraints kept factory owners from exploiting workers, and slums festered as a result of inefficient city governments and unregulated urban conditions. When unions were illegal, workers had no course of nonviolent redress for their grievances. After unions were legalized in 1906, those that were organized proved ineffective, and many others were denied recognition by the government. The growing number of strikes between the government's violent repression of nonviolent strikers at the Lena goldfields in April 1912 and the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 has been interpreted to mean that differences between workers and the middle classes had grown irreconcilable.

Economic and social historians could reconcile some of their differences by comparing early-twentieth-century Russia to other nations at the same stage of modernization. By its nature, industrialization creates social classes because it generates new resources, including jobs, and sparks competition over them. Conflict becomes inevitable but is not insurmountable. Many of the characters created by Charles Dickens illustrate the horrors experienced by the people most vulnerable to the inequities of the first stages of the Industrial Revolution. In the first years of the twentieth century, American workers averaged more than three thousand strikes per year. In industrialized Western countries the intrinsic conflict became integrated into the political structure, and the continuing competition over resources has been constantly renegotiated through the electoral process. As long as Russia remained an autocracy, the various groups had limited opportunities to negotiate political, as opposed to strictly economic, settlements.

Strong evidence, however, suggests that Tsar Nicholas II was going to be forced to continue relaxing the autocratic grip on Russian society that he had been made to lessen in 1905. The assault on the unarmed workers had repelled liberals and moderate conservatives. They criticized the prevailing state of governmental affairs and expressed the desire to assume a greater role in decision making about policies that affected the public at large. The increase in the strike movement just before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 seems likely to have been connected to the deftness with which local civic groups organized war-industries committees, thus participating directly in a political activity of overwhelming significance. The workers and the bourgeoisie might not have resolved their differences over industrialization, but they might have recognized the need for political settlements in which all interests would have to be represented. If professionals distrusted the instinct of the masses, they still believed in promoting basic equalities that would give them an entrance into the political system and a stake in its long-term stability: they argued for enfranchising all social strata as a means of giving everyone a fundamental interest in maintaining what would be a new government. The rapid expansion of credit unions in agricultural regions of the country made plain that the most durable holdovers from the estate system, the landowning nobility and the peasants, were making extensive use of the capitalist medium of credit to find a way to cross the most basic divide between them, the ownership of arable land. In the last decades of tsarism, noble landownership sharply declined in favor of the peasantry, not because the nobility was a decaying group with no other choice than to sell its estates but because many landowners realized that they could convert their rural real estate into profitable urban investment capital.

Characterizing the Bolshevik Revolution as a "workers' and peasants' revolution" exposes the paradoxes inherent in the hybrid Russian system of class and sosloviia. At first, this designation seems entirely appropriate, as the Bolsheviks took power in the name of workers and peasants and made both groups the initial beneficiaries of political and economic policies. But during the revolution the term worker lost its functional, economic, and Marxist bearing, assuming in its place an estate-based understanding of inherited privilege and becoming the name of something like a caste. Workers and their offspring benefited from official policies of favoritism and frequently rose to elite positions that usually carried material rewards and other privileges associated with the burzhui of the old regime. The peasants, after their initial land grab, found themselves for all practical purposes re-enserfed by a Soviet regime that forcibly collectivized their land and limited their mobility out of agriculture. The remaining members of the noble and merchant estates, as well as those belonging to the Church, were actively discriminated against by the new regime on the basis of their or their families' prerevolutionary estate membership. The Bolshevik Revolution thus returned most Russians to the feudal past, when estate membership defined social station. It destroyed a functioning class system that--characterized as it is everywhere by competition over resources and influence--had allowed Russians mobility and greater opportunities for self-expression and diversity, befitting an identifiably modern state.

-- Louise McReynolds, University of Hawai'i, Manoa


The Revolution of 1905 forced Tsar Nicholas II to make concessions allowing Russian society some voice in their government. On 17 October 1905 he issued a manifesto titled "On the Improvement of Order in the State":

The disturbances and unrest in St Petersburg, Moscow and in many other parts of our Empire have filled Our heart with great and profound sorrow. The welfare of the Russian Sovereign and His people is inseparable and national sorrow is His too. The present disturbances could give rise to national instability and present a threat to the unity of Our State. The oath which We took as Tsar compels Us to use all Our strength, intelligence, and power to put a speedy end to this unrest which is so dangerous for the State. The relevant authorities have been ordered to take measures to deal with direct outbreaks of disorder and violence and to protect people who only want to go about their daily business in peace. However, in view of the need to speedily implement earlier measures to pacify the country, we have decided that the work of the government must be unified. We have therefore ordered the government to take the following measures in fulfilment of our unbending will:

Fundamental civil freedoms will be granted to the population, including real personal inviolability, freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association.

Participation in the Duma will be granted to those classes of the population which are at present deprived of voting powers, insofar as is possible in the short period before the convocation of the Duma, and this will lead to the development of a universal franchise. There will be no delay to the Duma elect already being organized.

It is established as an unshakeable rule that no law can come into force without its approval by the State Duma and representatives of the people will be given the opportunity to take real part in the supervision of the legality of government bodies.

We call on all true sons of Russia to remember the homeland, to help put a stop to this unprecedented unrest and, together with this, to devote all their strength to the restoration of peace to their native land.

Source: Russian History Homepage, Department of Slavonic Studies, University of Durham http://www.dur.ac.uk/~dml0www/Russhist.HTML.



Seymour Becker, Nobility and Privilege in Late Imperial Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985).

Edith W. Clowes, Samuel D. Kassow, and James L. West, eds., Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

Olga Crisp, Studies in the Russian Economy Before 1914 (London: Macmillan, 1976).

Gregory Freeze, "The Soslovie (Estate) Paradigm and Russian Social History," American Historical Review, 91 (February 1986): 11-36.

Leopold Haimson, "'The Problem of Political and Social Stability in Urban Russia on the Eve of the War and Revolution' Revisited," Slavic Review, 59 (Winter 2000): 848-875.

Haimson, "The Problem of Social Stability in Urban Russia, 1905-1917," Slavic Review, 23 (December 1964): 619-642; 24 (March 1965): 1-22.

Geoffrey A. Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).

Boris Mironov with Ben Eklof, A Social History of Imperial Russia, 1700-1917, 2 volumes (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000).

Hans Rogger, Russia in the Age of Modernisation and Revolution, 1881-1917 (London & New York: Longman, 1983).

Source Citation: "Social Class in Late Imperial Russia." History in Dispute, Vol. 21. St. James Press, 2005. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/History/

Опубликовано 04 сентября 2007 года

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