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The Decline of the Nobility


The rise of the State bureaucracy went hand in hand with the decline of the nobility. A number of factors combined to undermine the position of this old privileged social estate. Ever since they had obtained the exemption from compulsory service, nobles had become less necessary to the autocracy as they had lost their vital political status as the serving military class of Russian society. The nobility’s economic position had gravely deteriorated as well, as a result of several causes, chief among which were inefficient farming methods, a lack of capital with which to modernize, and the consequent inability to compete in the world market for grain exports. To make matters worse, most nobles despised mercantile habits of mind, and few had the inclination or entrepreneurial skills to run their estates like businesses. By the end of Nicholas’ reign two-thirds of landowners’ serfs were mortgaged. Increasingly the nobility came to depend on income from state employment, either as military officers or government officials. 

Nicholas I

The decline of the nobility meant that the bureaucratic state now directly confronted the multi-million enslaved peasantry. The peasant problem had now become central to every aspect of Russian life. Although over the first half of the nineteenth century Russia had become a more urbanized society, it kept its basically rural character, with the peasantry still making up 84 percent of the population. There was no middle class to speak of, and the intelligentsia was only just emerging. Russia was now the only major country of Europe which had preserved an extensive system of serfdom. The pressing need for peasant emancipation was borne in upon everyone with ever-growing clarity. 

From a legal point of view there was nothing to prevent the government from emancipating the peasants by a stroke of the pen.  But it would have meant a complete transformation of Russian society, a perilous leap into the unknown wrought with unfathomable consequences. What would be the effect of emancipation on the peasant and his productivity, the backbone of the state economy? Could it not provoke revolutionary outbreaks if the peasants were led to expect too much? What would be the possible effect upon the landowning nobility, the class whose services had chiefly sustained autocracy? Could the nobility be persuaded to give some of its land to the emancipated peasants?

Russia’s rulers must also have been aware that the emancipation of the peasants without land would create huge problems as it had done in the Baltic region at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The emancipation of the Baltic serfs, enacted by Alexander I between 1811 and 1819, may have been an experiment in preparation for a larger emancipation. The effect of that experiment on the peasants was largely negative: freed but with no land, they soon sank into poverty. The reform in the Baltic provinces had made it clear that a larger emancipation would have to tackle the difficult problem of provision of adequate land for newly freed peasants. Obviously, Nicholas’ elder brother was not ready to come to grips with this problem and abandoned plans of a larger emancipation.      

These and similar concerns may help explain why every monarch from Catherine the Great to Nicholas I, although personally favoring the abolition of serfdom, hesitated and retreated from taking the fateful step.

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Nicholas I


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
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