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Estates of Urban Residents in Russia Empire


In this Page the estates (social groups) of urban residents in the Russia Empire are discussed. It is expected you have reached this Page from the general overview of the estates.

The 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 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.


Honorary citizens.

This estate was introduced in 1832 as a new kind of privileged estate, the second one in the hierarchy after nobility. It came in the place of the eminent citizens (in Russian imeņityje graždane) that was also a kind of estate but not defined sufficiently in the Law.

There were hereditary and personal honorary citizens. The honorary citizens were neither recruited (up to 1874), nor punished corporally, nor they paid the personal tax. Actually their privileges were almost the same as for the merchants, but the estate of the honorary citizens was for ever, unlike the estate of merchants that could be easily lost, if the business was not successful more. This was the main reason why this estate was attractive for the merchants.

A lot of rules existed for awarding the estate /Svod vol.9/. I am informing here on the situation at 1910 and about those rules that seem relevant to the region of Latvia.

The persons belonging to the following groups (including Jews) were entitled the estate of hereditary honorary citizens:

  • children of personal noblemen;
  • children of the Orthodox clergy;
  • children of Lutheran Pastors excluding those who were born after the father left all positions in the Church;
  • persons who being personal honorary citizens continued any activities useful for the society for the period of ten years. These persons were to apply for the estate. Persons, who were not personal honorary citizens but whose activities were really useful for the whole society during 20 years, were also allowed to apply for the estate of hereditary honorary citizen. This usefulness was to be certified by a state institution;
  • persons who graduated from any university of the Empire with an academic grade of master or doctor. The Law stated that this was also accepted for doctors and masters of medicine, pharmacy and Orthodox theology (evidently these academic grades could be acquired not only in the universities). The graduates from some other educational institutions of the Empire were granted this estate by the application of the appropriate Ministry after ten years of successful work in the acquired specialty. Riga Polytechnic institute was among these institutions. It should be remembered that this institute was established in 1896 by granting appropriate rights to Riga Polytechnicum. The graduates of Riga Polytechnicum were not among these privileged persons except those who took additional examinations and acquired the rights of the graduates from Riga Polytechnic institute;
  • merchants who had honorary titles of Commercial councilor or Manufacture councilor (in Russian - Kommerciji Sovetnik, Manufaktur Sovetnik). The councilor was a honorary title that could be conferred on those merchants who had been in the 1st guild for at least 12 years at the beginning of the 19th century and later for 25 years.
  • merchants decorated with any order of Russia;
  • merchants or merchant families who belonged to the 1st guild for 25 years uninterruptedly. It follows, if a merchant of the 1st guild died before he was in this estate for 25 years, his heirs could continue his business until 25 years were reached and then apply for the estate of hereditary honorary citizen;
  • Jews who invested in Jewish agricultural settlements in the amount sufficient for creating of 50 farms. This was allowed by the rules adopted in 1848, but the practice of creating Jewish settlements soon was abandoned. The regulations concerning Jewish settlements strictly defined what a farm should have comprised, and so it was not possible to make some sort of "economy farms".

The personal estate of honorary citizens was conferred on persons belonging to the following groups (including Jews) according to the legislation at 1910:

  • persons who graduated from any university of the Empire with diploma. The graduates with diplomas from some other educational institutions of the Empire including Riga Polytechnic institute were also granted this estate;
  • civil servants beginning of the 14th rank of the Rank table since 1845;
  • principals and teachers of some vocational education institutions if they had worked there at least for 10 years;
  • ship navigators or ship mechanics if they had been working at least for 5 years;
  • Jewish Honorary supervisors (in Russian - početnyje bļustiteļi) of Jewish schools established by the State, if they had performed their duties with excellence for at least 15 years. They did not belong to the staff of these schools, they supervised the teaching process and raised necessary financial founds.
  • owners of Jewish private schools of the 2nd category if they had managed these schools with excellence for at least 15 years (the 1st category was higher);
  • Jews in the Pale who were nominated by a Governor for the special tasks that demanded good knowledge of Judaism laws and who performed these tasks with excellence for at least 15 years;
  • Jews who invested in Jewish agricultural settlements in the amount sufficient for creating of 25 farms could be awarded the estate of personal citizen according to the rules adopted in 1847, but the practice of creating the settlements soon was abandoned.

A special case of granting the estate of honorary citizen could be learned from the inscription on a photograph of Bergmanis from Liepāja [Libau] that I have seen in a shop but could not afford to buy. It was written on the picture that he was decorated with the soldier variant (cross) of St. George order 8 (eight!) times; in fact the order had only 4 degrees and normally the soldiers were awarded up to these 4 degrees. Presumably he was a sailor on one of the first submarines that took part in Russia-Japan war (1904) and got an order for each submerged cruise. This soldier variant of the order did not bring the nobility like other orders, and Bergmanis signed the photograph as a hereditary honorary citizen.



The merchants was an estate which depended on the well-being of the holder. It was lost quite easy, if the business was unsuccessful and it was easy to get, if the business brought enough money. The estate was hereditary as far as the successful business was hereditary. To become a merchant at the beginning of the 19th century, it was necessary to declare the capital the person owned.

  • a merchant of the 1st guild should have had at least 16 000 Roubles, in 1807 this limit was increased to 50 000 Roubles;
  • a merchant of the 2nd guild had at least 8000 Roubles, since 1807 the limit was 20 000 Roubles;
  • a merchant of the 3rd guild had at least 2000 Roubles (8000 Roubles).

Here the Roubles in assignations are meant. The Patent with the rules set forth in 1807 is also available on this site.

Quite clear that there were no problems to declare the capital a merchant had. The most difficult thing was to pay taxes in amount 5.225% of declared capital per year. And it was not obligatory to be busy with commerce in the reality, if the taxes were paid regularly. The officials did not check what was the real capital a merchant had, and they even were not allowed to investigate denunciations about capitals eventuallly hidden.

Initially Jewish merchants were to pay twice as much taxes, and the declared capital they should have had to become a merchant was also two times greater, but this rule was abandoned rather soon - in 1807, and later Jewish merchants were charged in the same amount as the Christians. It was really important to a Jew to become a merchant by estate, because the merchants and especially the merchants of the 1st guild had some privileges and much better business possibilities compared with other Jews especially to the end of the 19th century.

In 1863 the new system of two merchant guilds was introduced. The rules were the following:

1. The persons who have had taken out the certificate for at least one of the following enterprises::

  • a commercial enterprise of the 1st class (wholesale);
  • an industrial enterprise of the first 3 classes;
  • a shipping company;

and were paying basic taxes for these enterprises more than 500 Roubles yearly, could become merchants of the 1st guild.

2. The persons who have had taken out the certificate for at least one of the following enterprises:

  • a commercial enterprise of the 2nd class (retail trade) or
  • an industrial enterprise of the 4th or 5th classes (more than 16 employees)
  • a shipping company;

and were paying basic taxes for these enterprises 50 - 500 Roubles yearly, could become merchants of the 2nd guild.

Here the Roubles in silver were meant (at the moment of the introducing of the new system in 1863 the difference between silver Roubles and assignations did not exist more, however). The Law contained no rules about the special income or the tax level for Jews.

To become a legally accepted merchant by estate, one had to take out the estate certificate. In the certificate there were listed the holder and his/her family members, whom the holder might and wished to include in the certificate. All the persons included in the certificate acquired the estate of merchant.

The holder of the certificate was allowed to write in this certificate his wife, but if the wife applied for or held the certificate, she could not include in it her husband. Other family members, who might be included in the certificate:

  • the sons (including adopted ones) of the merchant,
  • the daughters (including adopted ones) only till their marriage,
  • the children of a son (not of a daughter), if their father had not his own business,
  • the children of merchant's wife whom she had born in her previous marriage,
  • the unmarried sisters of the holder,
  • the brothers of the holder, which was possible up to 1863.

The certificate was not free of charge. I do not know how much a merchant paid for it before 1863. The Law of 1863 stated that a merchant of the 1st guild should pay 50 Roubles and one of the 2nd guild 25 Roubles for the certificate yearly. In 1906 the payment was increased to 75 and 30 Roubles accordingly.

All the persons included in the certificate could be involved in the family business without special permissions and without labor contracts.

The persons who wished to be engaged in commerce but could not satisfy the requirements for the estate of merchants had to take out a producers certificate (in Russian - promyslovoe svidetelstvo). This certificate gave no estate rights.

The merchants of the 1st and 2nd guild were not punished corporally, the merchants of the 3rd guild, when they existed, could.

The merchants in Riga were united in their community called The Great Guild. It was necessary to have permission of the Guild in order to join it, however.



The literates were the city inhabitants of a high education level who were busy in so called free professions - physicians, lawyers etc. The literats had the right to be registered in the Great Guild, if it agreed to. I am not quite sure but may be it is possible to suppose that a Literat was an educated person who, not being a merchant, was registered in the merchant community - the Great Guild. Each educated person acquired the estate of honorary citizen since 1832 (see above) that was high enough, but a member of the great Guild had additional privileges to take part in the decision making at the city level and to take a position in the city government.


Artisans, members of Zunfts;

Artisan is a word used here for a person, who has acquired skills in a handicraft, has proved these skills to the community of that handicraft called Zunft and was accepted as a new member of the Zunft. The Zunft members had exclusive rights to offer appropriate services until 1866, when this privilege was liquidated and everybody could offer the services they wanted to. Prior to 1866 a person with appropriate skills, but not a member of the Zunft, paid Zunft for permission to do the job. He could also not be registered as having the estate of artisans - he was only a petty bourgeois (see below).

The way to become an artisan was not short. Firstly, the candidate was to study the skills for at least 3 years as an aprentice at a Zunft member. If he had acquired the profession well enough, he could become a journeyman (in Latvian - zellis, in German - Geselle, in Russian - podmasterje) and receive a special certificate of apprentice. Now he was to work and to study the handicraft for at least another 3 years at the same artisan or at other ones. The Zunft included him in its lists of journeymen, handed to him a journeyman booklet, and in this booklet each artisan he worked at wrote how long was the period of employment, how good was his work and his behavior. A journeyman was allowed to do only the job that was proposed by his master - any work by initiative of the journeyman himself was prohibited. After 3 years of journeymanship, if he was of lawful age (21), he could present his handmade items to the Zunft and ask it a) to evaluate the items whether they correspond to the standards of the Zunft and b) to examine him in the skills of the handicraft.

From migration point of view it is rather important that journeymen and newly certified artisans followed a custom to wander around from one master to another and even from one country to another (see, for example, the way of life of millers in the memories of A.Stubendorff, (in German)). By the way, journeymen could not be married - this was an important rule.

All this was the theory, but in practice the Zunfts decided if a journeyman should be evaluated or not, and they freely rejected any candidate they did not want; sometimes it was even obligatory, because the rules insisted that only a limited number of the artisans of some handicrafts could be allowed. This politics caused that the Zunfts and handicrafts were divided by ethnicity. It was really difficult for a Latvian to be certified in a German handicraft and vice versa. The certification in Riga was impossible for Jewish craftsmen, therefore there they usually offered services that were not covered by Zunfts. It may be added that if a journeyman married a widow of a Zunft member, he got the business and the Zunft membership of the deceased artisan.

A Zunft was an estate community with its own organization. It was responsible for the quality of the work, it introduced the prices for services, the salaries for employees etc. A Zunft also supported the members in a case of illness and in old age, it was busy with organization of some social life for the members and their families. In Riga the Zunfts were united in the so called Small Guild.

The artisans, who were not members of a Zunft, could work with permission of the Zunft or without permission - illegally. They could also belong to a handicraft that had no Zunft. Some documents concerning the people of various estates speak about artisans of Zunfts and artisans out of Zunfts as different estates.

The Zunfts lost their importance in 1866 when in the Russia Empire a Law was adopted which allowed anybody to offer any services, if appropriate permission was made in the state institutions, of course, on payment. The Zunfts continued to exist, however, and to certify persons in their skills, but now this certification could be useful only for the marketing of goods and services.


Petty bourgeois

May be it would be convenient to begin with some linguistic information. Petty bourgeois is the term used here to translate: - meščane from Russian, sīkpilsoņi, mazpilsoņi from Latvian, Kleinbürger from German. May be the most important is the German term. Its history is the following:

Until the end of the 18th century the community of plenipotentiary city inhabitants in Rīga consisted of the members of the Great Guild, who were the merchants, and of the members of the Small Guild, who were the artisans. These inhabitants were called in German - Bürger and as a rule they owned a real estate in the city. Many other people lived in there, quite frequently without any hope to become a Bürger. They were the journeymen of the artisans from Zunfts, the artisans not accepted by the Zunfts, the day-laborers and so on. This people were called Kleinbürger what means a small bürger, or a petty bürger, if you like better. In 1785 a new Law of the Cities was adopted in the empire, and now all the city inhabitants, who were registered in the city, were included in the city community, with different rights, however. The additional city inhabitants were called Kleinbürger and now the word became the name of the estate.

The situation in the Western Europe was similar, and there the French term bourgeois was used for bürger and petit bourgeois for petty bürger what finally became an English word in the form petty bourgeois. Sorry, I was so lengthy about these words, but I needed to explain their meaning in the 19th century at least for myself, because in the Soviet time the word bourgeois was one of the worst words for the exploiters of human beings, and the petty bourgeois were not much better, though they exploited nobody; but it was never explained what these words actually meant.

The situation in the city communities just described allows to generalize /Belovinskis/ that at the beginning of the 19th century the petty bourgeois were all city inhabitants excluding the nobility, the clergy, the merchants, the members of Zunfts and the civil servants. This definition seems rather eroded, but the formal Law is not much more specific.

To 1910 the following groups of the population were allowed to join the estate of petty bourgeois /Svod/:

  • All kinds of rural inhabitants. Then in 1910 the peasants were allowed to migrate freely to cities. Some of them remained registered in their former localities, but those who wanted could become urban inhabitants and the petty bourgeois.
  • The children of the personal nobility. They had rights to be honorary citizens, but they were also allowed to join the community of the petty bourgeois. In case they really joined this community, they lost all the privileges except they were not corporally punished. In 1910 only exiled persons were subjects of corporal punishment, however.
  • Inorodci. This permission deals more with other Inorodci than with Jews, because it is clear that Jews, being allowed to live only in urban regions, mainly joined the estate of petty bourgeois there.
  • All the persons that were to choose the way of life (in Russian - izbiratj rod žizņi)

In general the registration in a community of the petty bourgeois was by permission of the community. Some categories of candidates, mainly the persons choosing the way of life, could register without permission, except in the capitals of provinces and in some other cities including all the towns of the Baltic provinces. In Riga city a candidate for petty bourgeois paid good money - 70 Silver Roubles /Brambe/ according to the rules of 1840.

The petty bourgeois were not considered as a privileged estate. They paid taxes, could be recruited and punished corporally, but evidently these privileges changed in time, because different sources inform about a bit different privileges in different time periods. For example, at the beginning they could be recruited, later they were not, but paid a special tax instead of recruitment. The Law on Estates does not specify the privileges of particular estates.

I have in my document collection the text of permission to petty bourgeois to register themselves in the estate of peasants that was issued in 1811 by Tzar Alexander I. It was allowed, if they could not earn their living in cities and had some agricultural skills. As you see, the changing of an estate was considered very seriously in the Empire.


Workers, home servants

I think this estate should be clear. They were free persons who lived in cities, had no certified profession and worked as home-servants. Later, when factories began to arise, this people could become workers there.

The first factories of Riga city had some shortage in labor force, and they frequently hired serfs from Russia proper where the serfdom existed up to 1861. Of course, this was done in agreement with the owners of the serfs. When the serfdom was abolished, many of these workers remained in Riga and joined the community of free workers.



© Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002