Peter the Great, 1689-1725

Russia's Society under Catherine the Great (1762-1796)

The NOBILITY : Peter III. had freed the noblemen from the obligation to serve the state; Catherine II. reintroduced it, only to scrap it shortly afterward. Russian nobles continued to serve the state (i.e. many did); Catherine used a different method to punish them for non-compliance - exclusion from her court at St. Petersburg. Service at the court could result in generous donations in land and serfs; exclusion from the court thus meant the loss of opportunity.
The nobles experienced favourable treatment, they were exempt from direct taxation. In 1785 Catherine signed the CHARTER OF THE NOBILITY which summarized the privileges of the nobles. As Russia expanded, new noble estates were established in the conquered territories, new offices in provincial administration, in the judiciary or the army to be filled, predominantly with nobles.
Russia's nobles sent their children to the west for their education; many nobles spoke both German and French.
At a time when absolutist monarchs (or, as in Poland, reformist parliaments) attempted to cut down on the privileges of noblemen, nobility in Russia saw an improvement in their rights and wealth. No wonder, factions of nobles from Finland (ANJALA CONSPIRACY) and Poland (CONFEDERATION OF TARGOVICE) invited Czarina Catherine to take over their countries (knowing that the nobles of Livonia and Estonia, Russian since 1721, ran the administration of their respective countries, with little Russian interference).

The CITIES : Russia was dominated by her agriculture. When Catherine assumed the throne, there were relatively few cities, the function of which was mostly that of administrative centers and markets. Catherine promoted mining (which caused new cities to emerge) and the industry; the number of factories rose, the population of the cities increased. Schools and hospitals were build, theatres in the larger cities. Cities were founded in the territories acquired from the Ottoman Empire (Sevastopol, Odessa), in territory hitherto mainly used for pastoral herding.

The PEASANTS : The privileges granted to the nobility meant a worsening of the situation of the peasants, most of whom were SERFS. These serfs were treated like property, mostly lived under deplorable conditions, without education, mostly living in shaggy one-room huts. With the church regulated by the state, it did not function as an instrument connecting the Czarina with the plight of the people. Many peasants turned their back on the official church and were OLD BELIEVERS.
In her NAGAZ (law code), Catherine the Great proposed a number of changes to improve the status of the serfs; yet, the noble advisors rejected these. Then the PUGACHEV REBELLION occurred (1773-1774) and afterward all reforms aiming at the improvement of the status of the serfs were abandoned, although the topic continued to be discussed.
In order to settle the vast, sparsely populated lands gained in the south, SETTLERS were called in from abroad, mainly from Germany and from the christian communities on the Balkans. These communities were permitted to live according to their respective traditions - the Germans as FREE PEASANTS; these communities stuck to their native languages and religions until into the 20th century.
The nomadic peoples conquered to the south and east were treated as Russian peasants (serfs); much of their land was confiscated, taxation imposed. Yet many of these ethnic minorities stuck to their tradition, language and religion; some, such as the Crimean Tatars, experienced the emigration of a considerable segment of their population.

The INTELLIGENTSIA : Russia had few universities and an Academy of Sciences in its infancy. Russians preferred to go abroad for their university education, studying at the universities in Germany, France, England. The French philosophers were widely read. Few universities in Russia meant few jobs for intellectuals; yet the situation was improving as Catherine ordered a census and survey of the country to be undertaken; expeditions into the various regions of the country were undertaken to study its fauna, flora, geology, geography, ethnography.

Crimea under Russian Rule, by H.B. Paksoy, on Crimean Tatar Home Page, scroll down (on Catherine)
DOCUMENTS Documents on Catherine the Great, from Modern History Sourcebook
Manisfesto of the Empress Catherine II issued July 22, 1763, from Jake's Home Page
REFERENCE Simon Dixon, The Modernisation of Russia 1676-1825, Cambridge : UP 1999
Melvin K. Wren, The Course of Russian History, Prospect Heights 1994, Chapter 11 : Catherine the Great, pp.181-206

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on August 24th 2006

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