The Prince belongs to the highest rank of the Russian Noblesse. If we wish to get an idea of the lowest rank, we can find in the neighbourhood a number of poor, uneducated men, who live in small, squalid houses, and are not easily to be distinguished from peasants. They are nobles, like his Highness; but, unlike him, they enjoy no social consideration, and their landed property consists of a few acres of land which barely supply them with the first necessaries of life. If we went to other parts of the country we might find men in this condition bearing the title of Prince! This is the natural result of the Russian law of inheritance, which does not recognise the principle of primogeniture with regard to titles and estates. All the sons of a Prince are Princes, and at his death his property, movable and immovable, is divided amongst them.
Do Social Classes or Castes Exist in Russia?—Well-marked Social Types—Classes Recognised by the Legislation and the Official Statistics—Origin and Gradual Formation of these Classes—Peculiarity in the Historical Development of Russia—Political Life and Political Parties.
In the preceding pages I have repeatedly used the expression “social classes,” and probably more than once the reader has felt inclined to ask, What are social classes in the Russian sense of the term? It may be well, therefore, before going farther, to answer this question.
If the question were put to a Russian it is not at all unlikely that he would reply somewhat in this fashion: “In Russia there are no social classes, and there never have been any. That fact constitutes one of the most striking peculiarities of her historical development, and one of the surest foundations of her future greatness. We know nothing, and have never known anything, of those class distinctions and class enmities which in Western Europe have often rudely shaken society in past times, and imperil its existence in the future.”
This statement will not be readily accepted by the traveller who visits Russia with no preconceived ideas and forms his opinions from his own observations. To him it seems that class distinctions form one of the most prominent characteristics of Russian society. In a few days he learns to distinguish the various classes by their outward appearance. He easily recognises the French-speaking nobles in West-European costume; the burly, bearded merchant in black cloth cap and long, shiny, double-breasted coat; the priest with his uncut hair and flowing robes; the peasant with his full, fair beard and unsavoury, greasy sheepskin. Meeting everywhere those well-marked types, he naturally assumes that Russian society is composed of exclusive castes; and this first impression will be fully confirmed by a glance at the Code. On examining that monumental work, he finds that an entire volume—and by no means the smallest—is devoted to the rights and obligations of the various classes. From this he concludes that the classes have a legal as well as an actual existence. To make assurance doubly sure he turns to official statistics, and there he finds the following table: