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Social Organization


The social structure of the pre-Petrine Russia was based on a hierarchy of social estates. In Russia, in contrast to the countries of western Europe, the system of  social estates played a much greater role in determining the nature of the State. Social estates (such as, the landed nobility, the clergy, the merchants, the peasantry, the townsmen) were large social classes whose position in society was fixed in law and whose obligations or privileges were hereditary. Similar to the countries of western Europe, the social estate structure in Russia had emerged mainly under the influence of economic relations. However, as in most pre-modern societies, the Russian government used social estate labels to describe legal, rather than socio-economic classes of the population in order to fix peoples place within a rigid, hierarchical social structure. Each person, depending on the social estate that he belonged to, had a precise legal status carrying with it particular rights and duties.

Russian armed peasants from an engraving made in 1719

Compared with western Europe, the role of the Russian State in molding  the social structure was very significant. In order to understand how Russian society worked as a whole, it is important to see the State and the social estates as parts of one integrated system, in which various classes performed specific social functions and shared obligations in respect to one another and in respect to the State.

In the period of the formation and growth of the Russian centralized state certain factors encouraged the emergence and legal codification of a specific system of social organization. Chief  among these factors was the vital need for a speedy mobilization of economic and human resources in extremely difficult conditions, when the population was scattered over a huge territory, Russian regions were isolated from one another,  market relations were at a primitive level, and there was a constant  threat of foreign invasion.

In the West, the lack of spare territories and a high density of population sharpened social contradictions and led to the consolidation of social estates, speeding up the process of the legislative codification of the rights  and obligations of social estates and of their individual members.

Pugachev, the leader of 18th-century peasant revolt. Painting by V. Belykh

By contrast, during the formation of the Russian centralized state, social tensions were somewhat defused thanks to the safety-valve of the migration of population to the fringes of the Russian lands. The opposition elements traditionally used the fringe territories as their power bases. The outlying regions often turned into dangerous centers of antigovernment revolts,  peasant and Cossack movements.


In Western Europe, the organized migration of population was one of the measures that helped ease social conflicts. It was sponsored by the Church or by the government and took the form of religious crusades, sea expeditions to discover and colonize new lands, or an enforced exile of the discontented and socially undesirable elements to colonies. By contrast, the main concern of the Russian ruling circles was exactly the opposite: to check the migration of the population to the outskirts of the empire. The need for maximum mobilization of economic and human resources conditioned the active role of the State in the process of the formation and legislative regulation of social estates. The State in Russia played a vital role in ensuring the consensus and rational functioning of the entire social structure.

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Pre-Petrine Russia

Origins of Kievan Rus
Emergence of Muscovy
Imperial Expansion
Key Historical Factors
Environment and Climate
Geopolitical Factor
Religious Factor
Social Organization
"Service State"
Consolidation of Serfdom
Vast Powers of the State
Traditional Society
Political Regime


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
Catherine the Great
Alexander I
Nicholas I
Alexander II
The Revolutionary Movement
Appearance of Marxism
The Last Romanovs
The Birth of Bolshevism
The Revolution of 1905-7
Between Revolutions
The Revolutions of 1917
Interpretations of 1917
The End of an Empire
Tables and Statistics

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Russia from A to Z

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