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Estates in Russia Empire

The system of estates (social groups, social classes) in the Russia Empire was quite complicated. Each estate had various subestates, in some cases a person could choose one from several estates, various laws existed to regulate the moving either upside or downside or aside on the social ladder of estates and so on. It may be added that the system not only seems complicated for us now but could also create some difficulties for less experienced people in the olden times, though most of them thought the system quite natural, I think.

For basic information I used the Law on Estates (in Russian Zakon o Sostojanijach) in vol.9 of the Code of the Russia Empire Laws printed in 1910 /Svod/ i.e. this volume presented relatively new information about the matter and did not cover all history of changes in the system during the 19th century that is very important for family history research, so I also included in this Page some information from other sources. This Law did not deal with specific rules for the Baltic provinces, so it was applicable without restrictions only to Latgale, but the general ideas should be the same, and I have added some information concerning the Baltic provinces from other sources.

Additional discussion of the system of estates of the Empire you may find in the book of Donald Mackenzie Wallace available on the Internet. This author used the term - social classes, but for me the word classes always described the property level - rich or poor, so I stuck to estates. According to Merriam-Webster Online dictionary one of possible meaning of the word estate is: a social or political class; specifically: one of the great classes (as the nobility, the clergy, and the commons) formerly vested with distinct political powers.


Grouping of people by estate
General rules for estates
    Acquisition of the estate
    Loss of the estate
Persons who chose the way of life
Privileges of estates
    Registration of nobility
Urban residents
Rural residents


Grouping of people by estate

From the point of view of the estate system the Law on Estates divided all inhabitants of the Empire into 3 categories:

regular - or as it was said in the Law - natural inhabitants,
Inorodci and

The foreigners are not considered on this Site yet, though some of them became subjects of the Empire and/or took part in genealogical processes. The Passport regime for them is discussed a bit in a separate Page, however. The natural inhabitants practically were the subjects of the Empire belonging to a Christian religion. The Inorodci - literary the persons belonging to the tribes other than Russians - actually were non-Christians of different kind. The Law grouped the Inorodci in 8 groups, but only one of them was relevant to the region of Latvia - namely Jews. The Jews in the understanding of the Empire Laws were the people who practiced the Jewish religion. Those Jews who had converted to the Christianity became natural inhabitants of the Empire, at least formally.

The system of the estates was applied to the natural inhabitants in full extent, to the Inorodci (not only Jews) with a lot of exceptions and specific regulations, to the foreigners with restrictions as well.

In the legal system of estates /Svod/ the following 4 main estates or, better to say, 4 groups of estates were defined. The first ones of this list were considered as the higher estates and the last ones as the lower.

1. the nobility (in Russian - dvorjane)
2. the clergy (in Russian - duhovenstvo)
3. the urban residents (in Russian - gorodskije obyvateļi)
4. the rural residents (in Russian - seļskije obyvateļi)

At the beginning of the reference period the first 3 of them were free i.e. the people belonging to these groups were not possessed by anybody. There were also free rural residents, but most peasants were serfs and were owned by somebody. In the Baltic provinces the serfdom was abolished in 1816-1819, but in Russia proper and in Latgale the abolition took place only in 1861.

The statistics of the inhabitants of the region of Latvia by estate are available in the Statistics Page, some discussion of this statistics for Jews in another Page.


General rules for estates

The first important rule: In the Russia Empire everybody had an estate, at least they should have had it, and the right one. The individuals who stated they belonged to an estate, not being in this estate in reality, were criminally prosecuted. The Laws of the Empire were estate dependent - in many cases they treated each estate separately. Only in the second half of the 19th century the unifying of the Laws began.
The second important rule: People of the same estate living in a locality formed the estate community there with its own elective superiors who dealt with the problems of this community, for example, the care of poor, old or disabled people of this community etc. The main task of a community, however, was the collecting of the personal taxes of its members. It should be added that the elected superiors were to be approved by the officials of the Empire. An estate community could be considered as a legal entity, and it, for example, could possess real estate or other property. In practice only an estate community could issue documents certifying that a person belonged to the particular estate.

In fact, the serfs, though belonging to an estate, formed no local community, and the main content of the Acts of abolishing of serfdom (1817, 1819, 1861) was the building of the legal environment for the estate of free peasants and their communities.

The existence of Jewish self municipalities - kahals was not consistent with the principles of estate system, because the kahals embraced all Jews with no regard to estates. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the kahals were liquidated in 1844 (in Kurzeme [Kurland] in 1892), and the Jews went under the local estate communities, though formal and informal Jewish communities and committees still existed.

Newcomers to a locality could register themselves at the appropriate community but could remain registered in the locality (community) they came from. Those who were not registered in any community were considered as tramps and were put in jail. The Laws of the Empire specified the cases when the agreement of the community was needed for the registration of a newcomer and when not. For example, it was obligatory to have permission for the registration in Riga city, and beginning from 1840 the analogous rule was in force for all towns of the Baltic provinces. In regular cases the registration was charged.

It is of primary importance for a genealogical research that the communities of different estates were registered in physically different revision lists (oklads). The rule that everybody should have been registered in a community had to guarantee that everybody was registered in a revision list and paid taxes.


Acquisition of the estate

Everybody had to have an estate, but where they got it from? The simple answer is: from the father or the husband. To make it more complicated, I could say that a nobleman without sons could by the special permission of the Tzar transfer his estate, including his name and family crest, to one of his close male relatives (obligatory a nobleman), for example, to a son of his daughter, which could create a serious genealogical puzzle for a future researcher.

The estate got from the father was not always the same that the father had, because the estates could be hereditary i.e transferable to children and personal that were not transfered to children in full amount.

The husband always transferred his estate to the wife with the exception if the wife was deprived of any estate rights by an appropriate court decision. Another exception: when the wife had an estate of a higher level than the husband. There was also an exceptional case to this exception - a free Baltic peasant woman, if she married a serf of other provinces of the Empire while the serfdom there was not abolished yet (it happened in 1861), became a serf that should be considered as the lowest estate without doubt. I explained this rule following the Code of the Russia Empire Laws printed in 1910 /Svod/, when the serfdom did not exist at all. I seriously doubt that in the time of serfdom a free man could marry a serf possessed by another person and make her free in this way. I think that the appropriate financial compensation was needed in this case.

The estate that the wife got by marriage was for ever; if her husband died or the spouses got divorced, the estate of the former wife did not change, even if she afterwards married a man of lower estate. The estate of merchants was an exception - it depended on the capital of the woman.

A woman could transfer her estate neither to her husband nor to her children. By the way, the marriage legislation of the Empire declared that no limitations by estate for marriages existed, but this was a theoretical declaration - in practice marriages were contracted in the same estate.

The adopted children acquired the estate of their adoptive parents, except if the parents belonged to the nobility. In this case the decision of the Tzar was needed to transfer nobility to the adopted child(ren).

Loss of the estate

According to the Law, a court (and only a court) could deprive a person of all estate rights as a punishment for relatively many criminal deeds. This happened if a criminal was exiled. The property of those who lost their estate rights was transferred to their legal heirs according to the regular civil laws like it would be in the case of their death (this procedure was called civil death). Their spouses and the children born or conceived before the court decision retained their estate even if they decided to follow the exiled person in exile. The estate lost by a court decision could be regained only by a special decree of the Tzar.

The estate of merchant could be lost quite easily. If the business was not more successful and a merchant had no money to cover all necessary payments, he lost his estate and the rights of the merchant.


Persons who chose the way of life

There also existed a category of the Empire subjects, who were to choose the way of life (in Russian - izbiratj rod žizņi), that means the people who were obliged to choose an appropriate estate.

There were rather many categories of this people, but the most relevant to the region of Latvia could be:

  • exposed children (foundlings) when they reached the lawful age (21);
  • illegitimate children, if they were not registered to an estate;
  • persons who left orphanages; as far as I know, it happened at 21;
  • children of low rank civil servants, if they to the age 21 had not begun civil service;
  • converts to a Christian religion;
  • retired military persons, if not noblemen, including soldiers, and including the recruits who in reality were not recruited, because they paid the appropriate money;
  • etc.

These people were allowed to join the tax-paying estates, and practically all of them chose the estate of petty-bourgeois. They were registered in communities mainly free of charge and without special permission, except in capital cities of the provinces and in some other cities including all the towns of Baltic provinces, where they needed the agreement of the local community.


Privileges of estates

The rights and the privileges of various estates changed all of the 19th century. The Law on estates /Svod/ spoke about the privileges of estates but did not set them, they were scattered in other laws and regulations. Here the information about some of them follows.

At the beginning of the 19th century different courts existed for different estates with an exception of serfs who needed no court at all - their owner had the power to decide who was right and who was wrong. To some extent, however, because if the deed was a serious crime, the serfs were called to the courts that were more or less universal. The court reform began in the Baltic provinces in 1816-1819 after the serfdom was abolished. The main goal of the reform was to build courts for the peasant estate and to set legal space for them. The next new regulations of the court system for the whole Empire were adopted in 1864, but only in 1889 this reform started in the Baltic provinces, and the courts became universal for all estates, at least in theory.

In 1873 the Law on the compulsory military service was adopted, and the privileges of many estates of not recruiting in the Army were lost.

In general the dividing of all estates in two groups existed - the taxpayer estates and the non-payer estates. The non-payers were the nobility, the clergy and some of specially mentioned groups of the urban residents. For simplicity all these groups of the urban residents were called exempts. The privilege of many estates not to pay the personal tax was lost in 1887, when this tax was liquidated. It seems that at that time new estate independent taxes were introduced, for example, taxes on real estate, but I should study this problem in more details.

The rights to possess a real estate changed all over the 19th century. Some estates were allowed to have some kind of real estate, and then prohibited, and afterwards allowed again, so it is difficult to describe all the changes. But at the end of the century there were no serious differences in the property rights of different estates, at least in cities and towns. Jews had serious restrictions on property rights in rural areas, however. An interesting restriction was that the noblemen, who acquired nobility in civil service, were not allowed to buy those manors where their grandparents or parents had been serfs.

The higher estates were excluded of corporal punishments. During the 19th century more and more estates were granted the privilege to be free of corporal punishments. The corporal punishments of peasants and low rank militaries were finally abandoned by the Manifest of August 11, 1904, though this kind of punishment was still retained for exiled persons for misdeeds committed in exile.

As the result, to the end of the 19th century the formal privileges by estates were not very pronounced - much more important were the differences among people caused by their wealth. And, of course, the differences in social standing was very well expressed for different estates. It seems that the privileges in the civil service existed for longer time. The possibility of joining the service and obtaining the next rank depended on the estate.

One of the privileges was the titling - a person should have been addressed to in strict accordance with his or her estate or the title.

I do not know if you considered it as a privilege, but in reality of the 19th century people wore clothes of the fashion corresponding to their estate. No doubt, it was a privilege that the merchants of the 1st guild had right to wear the full-dress coat of the appropriate province with a rapier.



The nobility was the most privileged estate in the Russia Empire. They had their own inner justice and legal procedure, were not punished corporaly, could not be recruited (till 1874), paid no taxes (until the end of 1800s) and, of course, they were free. They also had right to have in their property serfs or manors with serfs. In the Baltic provinces they had the right to be elected in the province government and to set rules for all population, but, of course, His Majesty had much more power.

Unlike in Western European countries, in Russia it was possible to become a nobleman just by working in state institutions. Tzar Peter I introduced the so called Rank Table. (1722). A civil servant started his service from the 14th rank and step by step climbed up (to say more precisely - down) the ranks. When he reached the 9th rank, he was awarded personal nobility i.e. he himself was regarded as a nobleman, but his children were not. If he was diligent, talented and lucky, he reached the 4th rank and was awarded hereditary nobility. This was the system that was introduced beginning from 1856. Prior to 1856 it was easier to become a nobleman, to the end of the century it became more difficult. The system for these periods is discussed in the Page about the Rank Table.

Hereditary nobility acquired in the state service was not transferred to those children who were born before the father became a nobleman with exception of one son by the choice of the father. This rule was changed in 1874, and then all children were considered as belonging to the nobility regardless of their birth date.

The rank system was applied only to men. Women could join civil service since 1860s, but the Rank Table had nothing to do with them. They were considered as contract workers.

At the beginning of the 19th century any Russian Order gave rights of hereditary nobility, but from 1856 only a person who was decorated with any Russian Order of the first degree or St. Wladimir's Order of any degree (since 1900 of the higher 3 degrees) became hereditary nobleman. Other degrees of Orders granted only rights of personal nobility. By the way, usually the Orders had 3-4 degrees.

As an example, I can tell you about the career of Ilja Uljanov, who was the father of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Uljanov-Lenin. I.Uljanov worked in Simbirsk (now Uljanovsk) as a school inspector and, when he reached the 9th rank of the Table, he became a personal nobleman. When later he was awarded St. Wladimir's Order of the 4th degree, he became hereditary nobleman. The people who worked in the State service with diligence for at least 35 years could be decorated with this Order. His widow after his death made all necessary paperwork to legitimate the nobility of her and their children. As far as I know, she herself had noblemen among her German ancestors who quite possibly also had some connections with the Baltic provinces. Other her ancestors were Swedish and Jewish (Her grandfather was Moshe Blank) by ethnicity. I described the situation according to the information of a recent Moscow TV broadcast; there are also sources that claim that I.Uljanov reached the rank of actual state councilor which was sufficient for hereditary nobility.

The nobility in the Baltic provinces were mainly ethnic Germans, less of them of Polish or Polish/German origin and some belonged to Russian or Swedish families. The numerous nobility of Latgale region were of Polish or Polish/German origin. Theoretically a Latvian could also become nobleman, if he worked in civil service or joined military service. As the result there were 224 hereditary noble persons whose mother tongue was Latvian according to the results of Census of 1897. This Census registered the mother tongue of a person, not the ethnicity.

To tell the truth, for me the number of Latvian noble people seems very great. I can hardly imagine who were those nobles. I know that a Latvian David Hieronymus Grindel (1776-1836), who was the Rector of the University in Tartu [Dorpat], had the 6th rank of Collegiate advisor that brought him hereditary nobility at that time. His descendants were germanized and to 1897 did not speak Latvian, and did not even live in the region of Latvia. In /Svarāne 2/ the author writes about free Latvians, who at the end of 18th century joined Russia Army and became officers. At that time any officer rank brought hereditary nobility. I think that these families did not also speak Latvian to 1897, but I have no detailed information. I do not know any successful Latvian civil servant who reached the rank of collegiate assessor before 1856, when this rank provided nobility. Not many of Latvian civil servants reached the rank of an actual state councilor after 1856, but it happened, - for example, Ludvigs Kundziņš was an actual state councilor as a professor (and the Rector) of Veterinary Institute in Tartu [Dorpat]. Another possibility how Latvians could get hereditary nobility was by being awarded a sufficiently great Order of the Empire, but there were not so many Orders that brought nobility to the end of the 19th century.

Registration of nobility

One may think that there should be no problems with the genealogy of hereditary noblemen because their registration was well organized in the Empire. Special commissions existed in each province to keep the registers of the nobility. Nevertheless, in the genealogy groups of Internet rather many descendants of the former nobility ask for information about their family trees especially if the researchers had female noble ancestors to whom nobility was not transferred, if they married a non-noble husband.

The nobility was registered in 6 books depending on the way the estate was gained. I do not think it is important to speak about all these books here, though it may be mentioned that the books reflected the inner stratification of the nobility. The ancient nobility, who got their nobility several hundred years ago, thought themselves much more superior over the noblemen who gained their nobility in civil service. By the way, the ancient nobility was also richer, because they owned manors. The younger nobility had rights to buy a manor but had no money and if they had, they could not do, because the market of manors was not very intensive, I think. By the way, there also existed manors that were not allowed to alienate.

Among the just mentioned books a special book existed that contained the registry of the titled nobility i.e. princes of various kind, counts and barons. The titles could be granted by a special decree of the Tzar to a nobleman, except the title of baron that could also be granted to merchants. It is asserted in /Belovinskis/ that this title could also be granted to Jewish merchants, but I think that it never happened. The only Jewish Barons in the Russia Empire, I have heard of - Gintsburgs (Ginzburg, Günzburg) were entitled by the Grand Duke of Hessen (a German state). Tzar Alexander II, whose wife was a sister of the Grand Duke, acknowledged the title in the Russia Empire.

The best information source on the Baltic ancient German nobility is Zentralstelle für Deutsche Genealogie in Leipzig. The list of names they contain information about is available here. To my knowledge, the information on these families is microfilmed and available in FHCs of the LDS Church.



Clergy was also a privileged estate, however it was not hereditary; the children of clergymen became personal honorary citizens (see the Page about Urban residents). It is known that the sons of clergymen quite frequently chose the profession of their fathers and in some periods even were obliged to. The clergymen were considered as personal noblemen - were not punished corporaly, were not recruited, paid no taxes and, of course, were free in the sense they were not in possession of anybody.

Thus to become a clergyman was a very good way to step forward in the social standing. In Russia proper it really happened that a serf was taken to study religion (Greek Orthodox) in a seminary, where he acquired a name and freedom. It could not happen in the Baltic provinces, because the Lutheran clergy graduated from universities that was not possible for serfs. Only a good time after the serfdom was abolished, ethnic Latvians started to attend these educational institutions.

The estate of clergy was applicable to the clergy of the following religions /Svod/: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Armenian Gregorian and Armenian Catholic. Two Protestant religions in the understanding of the Law on estates existed - Evangelic Lutherans and Evangelic Reformats.

Rabbis did not belong to the clergy, which does not conflict with the Judaism principles that did not attribute more religious grace to a Rabbi than to other male Jews. The Rabbis had the rights of merchants of the 1st guild. To be exact, the Protestant clergy also possess no special religious grace and theoretically everybody could be elected as a Pastor of a Lutheran parish, but the Laws of the Empire disregarded this difference between Protestant religions from the one hand and Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics from the other hand, and considered Pastors as belonging to the estate of clergy.


Urban residents

Urban residents were those city inhabitants who were free persons except nobles or clergymen.

According to /Brambe/ there were in Rīga 6 estates or subestates of the urban residents in the first half of the 19th century:

1. honorary citizens;
2. merchants, members of guilds;
3. literats;
4. artisans, members of Zunfts;
5. petty bourgeois;
6. free persons - workers, house servants.

All these estates kept their own lists (oklady) where their members were registered. These lists were revised during revisions and the revision lists were created.

The full text of the discussion on the Urban residents was moved to another Page to make this Page shorter. Please, connect to it.


Rural residents

In practice the rural residents were peasants. The Law /Svod/ also discusses other categories of rural residents, but they were relevant to other parts of the Empire e.g. in Caucasus or in Central Asia.

The peasants in the region of Latvia as a rule were Latvians by ethnicity. In Latgale, that did not belong to the Baltic provinces, rather many peasants were Russian Old-Believers.

The community of Latvian peasants was not homogenous at all. Significant differences in both the well-being and the social standing of them existed, and the structure of peasantry was really complicated. I have a lot of information about the matter, but I postponed the presentation of it for some time.


© Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002