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Color photograph taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii of a Russian noblewoman in 1905.

The Russian nobility (Russian: Дворянство Dvoryanstvo) arose in the 14th century and essentially governed Russia until the October Revolution of 1917.

The Russian word for nobility, Dvoryanstvo (дворянство), derives from the Russian word dvor (двор), meaning the Court of a prince or duke (kniaz) and later, of the tsar. A noble was called dvoryanin (pl. dvoryane). As in other countries, nobility was a status, a social category, but not a title.



Countess Maria Beck, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. 1859.

Nobility was transferred by inheritance or was bestowed by a fount of honour.

Unlike the ancient nobility, which was exclusively hereditary, the remaining classes of nobility could be acquired. A newly designated noble was usually entitled to landownership. A loss of land did not automatically mean loss of nobility. In later Imperial Russia, higher ranks of state service (see Table of Ranks) were automatically granted nobility, not necessarily associated with landownership.

Titled nobility (титулованное дворянство) was the highest category: those who had titles such as prince, count and baron. The latter two titles were introduced by Peter the Great. A baron or count could be either proprietary (actual) ( владетельный (действительный))—i.e., who owned land in the Russian Empire—or titular (титулярный), i.e., only endowed with the title.

Hereditary nobility (потомственное дворянство) was transferred to wife, children, and further direct legal descendants along the male line. In exceptional cases, the emperor could transfer nobility along indirect or female lines, e.g., to preserve a notable family name.

Personal nobility (личное дворянство) was transferable only to the wife and was of much lower prestige.

Unpropertied nobility (беспоместное дворянство) was nobility gained by state service, but which was not entitled to land ownership.

In addition, the ancient nobility (Древнее дворянство) was recognized, descendants of historical boyars and knyazes.

Russian did not employ a nobiliary particule (as von in German or de in French) before a surname, but Russian noblemen were accorded an official salutation that varied by their ranks: your nobility (ваше благородие), your high nobility (ваше высокоблагородие), your high ancestry (ваше высокородие), etc. However, commonly when "anglicized" instead of the common ending "-v" nobleman used "-ff". For example, Romanoffs, rather than Romanovs, the practice was later adopted by white emigre during Russian Revolution.


Muscovite aristocratic cavalryman 16th century

The nobility arose in the 12th and 13th centuries as the lowest part of the feudal military class, which composed the court of a prince or an important boyar. From the 14th century land ownership by nobles increased, and by the 17th century it composed the bulk of feudal lords and constituted the majority of landowners. They made Landed army (Russian: поместное войско) - the basic military force of Muscovy. Peter the Great finalized the status of the nobility, while abolishing the boyar title.

From 1782, a kind of uniform was introduced for civilian nobles called uniform of civilian service or simply civilian uniform. The uniform prescribed colors that depended on the territory. The uniform was required at the places of service, at the Court, and at other important public places. The privileges of the nobility were fixed and were legally codified in 1785 in the Charter to the Gentry. The Charter introduced an organization of the nobility: every province (guberniya) and district (uyezd) had an Assembly of Nobility. The chair of an Assembly was called Province/District Marshal of Nobility.

By 1805, the various ranks of the nobility had become confused, as is apparent in War and Peace. Here, we see counts who are wealthier and more important than princes. We see many noble families whose wealth has been dissipated, partly through lack of primogeniture and partly through extravagance and poor estate management. We see young noblemen serving in the Army, but we see none who acquire new landed estates that way. (This refers to the era of the Napoleonic Wars. Tolstoy reported some improvement afterwards: some nobles paid more attention to estate management, and some, like Andrey Bolkonsky, freed their serfs even before the tsar did so in 1861.[1].

After the peasant reform of 1861 the economic position of the nobility was weakened. The influence of nobility was further reduced by the new law statutes of 1864, under which their right of electing law officers was repealed. The reform of the police in 1862 limited the landowners authority locally, and creation of all-estate Zemstvo local government did away with exclusive influence of nobility in local self-government.

After the October Revolution of 1917 all classes of nobility were legally abolished. Many members of the Russian nobility who fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution played a significant role in the White Emigre communities that settled in Europe, in North America, and in other parts of the world. In the 1920s and 1930s, several Russian nobility associations were established outside Russia, including groups in France, Belgium, and the United States. In New York, the Russian Nobility Association in America was founded in 1938. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a growing interest among Russians in the role that the Russian nobility has played in the historical and cultural development of Russia.

Acquisition of nobility

There were several methods by which nobility might be acquired. One of them was the acquisition of nobility by military service.

Between 1722 and 1845 hereditary nobility was given for long military service at officer rank, for civil service at the rank of Collegiate Assessor and with any order of the Russian Empire.

Between 1845 and 1856 nobility was bestowed for long service at the rank of Major and State Counsellor, to all holders of the Order of Saint George and the Order of Saint Vladimir, and with the first degrees of other orders. Between 1856 and 1900, nobility was given to those rising to the rank of Colonel, captain of the first rank, and Actual State Counsellor. The qualification of nobility was further restricted between 1900 and 1917 - only someone rewarded with the order of Saint Vladimir of the third class (or higher) could become a hereditary noble.

Privileges of the nobility

Russian nobility possessed the following privileges:

  • The right of possession of populated estates (until 1861), including virtual ownership of the serfs who worked on the estates.
  • Freedom from required military service (1762-1874; later an all-estate compulsory military service was introduced)
  • Freedom from zemstvo duties (until the second half of 19th century)
  • The right to enter privileged educational institutions (Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, School of Jurisprudence and Page Corps)
  • Freedom from corporal punishment.
  • The right to have a coat of arms, introduced by the end of the 17th century.

See also


  1. ^ Tolstoy, Leo.War and Peace. (Translated by Richard Pavear and Larissa Volokonsky, 2007)

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