Social estates in the Russian Empire

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Social estates in the Russian Empire were denoted by the term soslovie (sosloviye), which approximately corresponds to the notion of the estate of the realm. The system of sosloviyes was a peculiar system of social groups in the history of the Russian Empire. In Russian language the terms "сословие" and "состояние" (in the meaning of the civil/legal estate) were used interchangeably.

The Code of the Law of the Russian Empire of 1832, vol. 9, "Laws about Estates" (Законы о состояниях) defined four major estates: dvoryans (nobility), clergy, urban dwellers and rural dwellers (peasants). Within these, more detailed categories were recognized. See "Russian nobility: Categories" for dvoryans. Clergy was subdivided into "white" (priests) and "black" (monks). Urban dwellers (Городские обыватели) were categorized into потомственные почетные граждане (hereditary distinguished citizens), личные почетные граждане(personal distinguished citizens), merchantry (ru:купечество), urban commoners (ru:мещанство), and guilded craftspeople (цеховые ремесленники). There also existed the military estate, which included lower military ranks (higher ranks were associated with the estate of dvoryans), and discharged and indefinite-leave. Dependent families were usually included into the estate of the head of the household.

Urban commoners included people who had some real estate in a town, were engaged in some trade, craft, or service, and paid taxes. Subject to these conditions, a person could assign himself into this category, which was hereditary, and one may be excluded from it in the court of law or by the urban commoner's self-government (мещанская управа).

The category of rural dwellers (сельские обыватели) had permanent residence in towns, and they were correspondingly classified as "urban peasants" (городовые крестьяне). The rural dwellers category also included the inorodtsy (инородцы) estate, that included non-Russian and non-Orthodox native peoples of Siberia, Central Asia or Caucasus. An inorodets who converted into Orthodox Christianity was excluded from this estate and included into one of the other ones, most often peasantry.

A separate category, not assigned to any of the above estates were raznochintsy (literally "persons of miscellaneous ranks", but in fact having no rank at all).

A separate stratification existed for governmental bureaucracy, who were classified according to the Table of Ranks. The higher ranks belonged to the sosloviye of dvoryanstvo, while the indication of a lower rank of a person was comparable to that of the indication of a soslovie for various formal purposes (e.g., for the Russian Empire Census).

Finally, in Siberia, the estate of "exiled" was officially recognized, with the subcategory of "exiled nobility".

The institution of distinguished citizenship (or two categories) was introduced by the manifesto of Nicholas I of Russia of April 10, 1832. The distinguished citizens ranked above merchantry and below nobility. They were freed of personal taxes, military service obligation (рекрутская повинность), corporal punishments, etc. Distinguished citizenship was available for persons with a scientific or scholar degree, graduates of certain schools, people of arts and destinguished merchants and industrialists subject to certain conditions.

The estates were classified into two major groups: taxable estates (податные сословия), i.e., which had to pay the personal tax, and non-taxable ones.

With the development of capitalism and the abolishment of the serfdom in Russia in the second half of the 19th century the estate paradigm no longer corresponded to the actual socio-economical stratification of the population, but the terminology was in use until the Russian Revolution of 1917. At the same time the legal and governmental system gradually became estate-independent, with the property grade (имущественный ценз) of a person playing the decisive role.