Liberty of the Nobility

1

April 26, 2005 by AK

Interesting reading but not without a couple of odd statements.

However, Russia differed from both of these empires [Britain and France] in several important ways, which had an impact on the way de-colonization was carried out:
[…]
(6) All subjects of the tsars were equal in the sense that they enjoyed few rights, and ordinary Russians – as distinct from the generals and the government officials – were hardly regarded as a dominant race by the others…

From Peter I to Nicholas II (to Alexander II at any rate), Russia was an estate-based society, with every estate having a certain set of rights. The nobility’s set was the largest, and although it did not include the right to elect a supreme ruler or to agitate for a social revolution, it contained more than just a “few” rights. The Russian nobility, in a sense, enjoyed a golden age from 1762, when Peter III signed the Ukase on the Liberty of the Nobility, which freed the whole estate from compulsory government service, to 1861, when the serfs were emancipated at last, although the rule of Nicholas I (1825–1856) was more restrictive that many nobles preferred.

G.P. Fedotov notes in Russia and Freedom:

…A nobleman was free by law from corporal punishment; by an unwritten code of life, he was also free from personal insults. He could be exiled to Siberia but not punched or called a bad name. Noblemen developed an internal sense of personal honor, a sense that goes back to medieval knighthood, quite different from the Muscovite notion of clan honor.

The Ukase on “Liberty of the Nobility” freed the nobleman from mandatory state service. Now he can devote his leisure to literature, arts, science. His participation in these professions frees them, too; they truly become free [i.e. liberal] arts — then and later, when they are replenished with plebeans, raznochintsy, mostly from the clerical estate. From the gentry-core, the Russian intelligentsia arises, linked by its virtues and vices to that estate — to the very end. Russia (besides China) was the only country where nobility was achievable through education. Having completed a secondary — even a half-secondary — education turned a person from a peasant into a lord, that is, into a free person; it protected him, to a degree, from excesses of the authorities, guaranteeing him polite treatment both in a police precinct and in prison. A gorodovoy [constable] would salute a student, whom he was allowed to beat up only on very rare days — those of [student] riots. This everyday freedom was, of course, a privilege in Russia, as everywhere during freedom’s early period. It was an island of Petersburg Russia in a Muscovite sea. But that island was widening constantly, especially after the emancipation of peasants. Thousands populated it in the 18th century, millions, in the beginning of the 20th. In essence, that everyday liberty was the most real and significant cultural gain of the Empire, and that gain was an obvious fruit of Europeanization. It was being made against constant, obstinate resistance of the “Dark Czardom,” i.e., the old Muscovite Rus’.

Far more grievous was the condition of political freedom…


1 comment »

  1. […] In July 2004, I linked to an article by historian Richard Pipes in Foreign Affairs, What Russians Think and Want (accessible with free registration). The old man overstated his case, perhaps, but as time goes by, I’m starting to think more along the lines he drew, wondering if they can be seen as extensions of Georgy Fedotov’s thought. […]

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