The Social And Economic Structure Of Tsarist Russia

The Social and Economic Structure of Tsarist Russia


The 1897 census indicated: Ruling class (tsar, court, government) 0.5%; Upper class (nobility, clergy, military) 12.0%; Commercial class (merchants, entrepreneurs, financiers) 1.5%; Working class (factory workers, small traders) 4.0%; Peasants 82.0%. Over 80% of the population were peasants, and they were mainly illiterate. The ruling elite both feared and despised them, and denied them free expression. Russia was officially divided into estates (sosloviya), but it is now thought that a rigid caste system did not exist and some mobility between the estates was possible. The aristocracy stood at the pinnacle of Russian society. In 1900 there were 79 aristocratic families owning land of about 46,000 hectares each. Such families tended to concentrate of raising livestock and forestry. They often possessed large areas of timber land in the Urals. Such families would also own urban property and securities. The aristocrats were enormously wealthy. The provincial gentry were squeezed, and were the objects of envy of the peasants. For example, during the 1905-6 revolution peasants often destroyed the products of their enterprise, such as vineyards, livestock and machinery. This provoked a reaction from the gentry from 1907 onwards, and they politically were opposed to reforms. The lower commercial classes were made up of office staff, shopworkers and artisans. They were active in the period of 1905-6 in campaigning for higher wages and better conditions. The craft industry produced a large variety of goods. However, artisans were desperately poor. Thus Russian society had many horizontal divisions as well as vertical ones based on nationality. The horizontal divisions may be linked to the strong prevalence of class antagonism that existed even during periods of domestic peace. Life for workers and peasants was permeated with violence, such as fist-fights, gang warfare and lawless behaviour. This violent mood also found expression in the form of anti-Jewish pogroms. Nonetheless, class antagonism was countered to an extent to the existence of monarchist sentiment. The tsar was still respected, particularly among peasants, as a semi-divine being. Peasants were more likely to become politically agitated in those regions where there was the highest population density. Peasants who joined the army often acted as vehicles for disseminating revolutionary ideas into villages. The population of the Russian empire rose from 74 million in 1860/64 to 164 million in 1909/13. The birth-rate remained steady but the death-rate decreased from 37 per 1000 in the 1860 to 27 in 1000 by 1914. This was due to better nutrition than to better medical care. Russians tended to marry young and have, on average, nine children half of which died young. There was strong community pressure to maintain this traditional lifestyle. Those who migrated to town, or who rose in social status, tended to have fewer children. There were changes to the structure of the typical Russian family. For example, a study of a Voronezh province in 1887-96 showed that 42% of households comprised two generations and 46% three or more, but it seems that the proportion of families with three or more generations was declining. This was a patriarchal system, but women did have a well-defined economic and social role, and were valued. Nonetheless, women were often the recipients of violent beatings from their husbands, and many young country girls were not attracted to the prospect of marriage, and preferred to work in textile mills or take up domestic service. The bulk of the lower ranks of the army and navy were conscripts. Army life was brutal – discipline severe and conditions grim. Between 1825 and 1855 1 million Russians died whilst in the army during peace. The C19th peacetime strength was 1.5m. It cost the government 45% of its annual expenditure, whilst 4% went on education. Only aristocrats could occupy the higher ranks and there was widespread corruption. Except for the Crimean war, the army’s primary duty was the suppression of national risings. By the C19th the bureaucracy was corrupt and incompetent, but it had immense power over the lives of the people. It was regarded as a scandal.


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