Nobility and Privilege in Late Imperial Russia

In Seymour Becker’s study Nobility and Privilege in Late Imperial Russia, the author examines the Russia nobility between 1861 and 1914.  The standard argument suggests that following the emancipation of the serfs the nobles were incapable of adapting to the new social and economic situation due to anachronistic attitudes, spendthrift behaviors, high price of land, unsympathetic government policies, and falling price of grain all of which resulted in the divorce between the nobles and the land.  Challenging this interpretation, Becker argues that, through an examination of land purchases, rents, and mortgages, the nobles’ divestiture of their land reveals the ability to adjust to the changing social and economic environment; they viewed their land as an asset to be exploited.  Furthermore, Becker contends that those who stayed on the land were not succumbing to mounting debts but actually formed an economically powerful group while those nobles bored with country life benefitted from the opening up of professions in commerce and industry.  This change, according to Becker, demonstrates that the nobility adapted to the modern social class groups that displaced traditional estates and learned to live in a society where legal equality replaced hereditary privilege.  However, not all nobles were enthusiastic modernizers and these individuals, labeled traditionalist by Becker, attempted to slow and even reverse the nobles’ divestiture of the land, but their legal schemes lacked support from the majority of nobles.  Becker also challenges the assertions that the nobility was an unyielding group that prevented reform after 1905 and instead places this blame on autocracy’s refusal to change.

As the title suggests, Becker’s narrative is based on the nobles’ relationship with the land and argues against the standard interpretation of noble decline.  In the first two chapters, Becker examines the interpretations that suggest there was a “return to the land” and a “decline of the nobility” specifically engaging with the arguments of Roberta Manning which is followed by an examination of the nobles’ relationship with the land from Peter the Great through 1914 contending that the nobles never had a strong relationship with the land; moreover both chapter 1 and 5 contain an examination of noble estate itself and the individuals and levels of nobility that fit within Becker’s definition of nobility.  Chapter 3-7 explore the methods developed by traditionalist to halt the nobles departure from the land and chapter 8 looks at Nicholas II and his bureaucrats rejection of reform and constitutionalism which leads Becker to blame the autocracy for the failure of reform.  To support this interpretation, Becker’s narrative is almost entirely based on statistical data, derived from “official estimates,”  which shows a decline in the number of nobles belonging to landowning families, a decline in the acreage of land owned by nobles, and a decline the acreage purchased by nobles.  Becker attests that the decline in landownership resulted from nobles desire to live more urbane lives and to take advantage of the increasing value of property showing that the price of land increased a hundred fold from the mid nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.  The rising prices are attributed to peasant land hunger in which many nobles capitalized on by selling and renting their land as a source of income in rational economic behavior.

Though Becker’s statistical data appears persuasive, statistics are often a fickle source as numbers can be manipulated to serve one’s purpose and Becker would have benefitted from including textual sources as well.  The inclusion of textual sources such as letters, diaries, and other written sources from the nobles demonstrating their enthusiasm for selling or renting their estates in order to enter industry and commerce would have further emphasized his argument that the nobility actively participated in its own demise because they desired other opportunities.  It would seem that if the nobles were as eager to leave their land as Becker suggests that they would have been discussing these issues with one another or their families leaving behind some textual evidence to support Becker statistical data which appears persuasive. Becker should also address how these statistics vary throughout the different regions of Russia.  As a vast nation with varying geography and numerous subcultures, Becker needs to show whether nobles in one region were more interested in renting and selling their estates rather than treating the entirety of the Russian nobility as a single entity.  While Becker’s study convincingly stands as written, incorporating these suggestions would enhance an already provocative and well written study.

The data and tables presented by Becker support the thesis put forward by the author and he clearly demonstrates through his statistics that nobles were not declining or returning to the land.  They were in fact profiting from the land and talking advantage of the economic and social developments in Russia; however, not all nobles were selling their land moving into industry and commerce and surly some nobles continued to run their estates in the traditional manner but these nobles receive no mention from Becker.  Unfortunately, these facts are hidden behind Becker’s numbers which fail to show how individuals acted and how nobles from different regions behaved during this period.

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