Ennobling Russia: The Resurgence of the Post-Cold War Nobility

Article excerpt

After 70 years of exile and persecution, descendants of Tsarist Russia's "leading class" strive to revive their status, traditions, and even the monarchy.

If, according to plan, the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family are officially laid to rest in St. Petersburg on February 25, it will end a 79-year chapter in modern Russian history: one typified by murder, persecution and exile of the former Russian gentry. The Assembly of the Descendants of Russian Nobility, on the other hand, may choose to mark the event as the beginning of a new chapter: the resurgence of a noble class in Russia which, one day they hope, will lead to the revival of the monarchy.

In central Moscow, just yards from the construction site of the Church of Christ the Savior, is the headquarters of the 'Nobles' Assembly' [Dvoryanskoe Sobranie].

The mansion, built in 18th century classical style, reflects the history of the nobility that has occupied it. A history that is hardly auspicious. The house belonged to some highly distinguished noble families: the Vyazemskys and Dolgorukys - names synonymous with the golden age of their class. However, both families fell afoul of imperial power - the Vyazemskys through the scheming jealousy of a political rival at the time of Ivan the Terrible, the Dolgorukys through an unsuccessful grab for power when Tsar Paul II died on the day he was to be wed to Ivan Dolgoruky's daughter, Ekaterina.

Between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the house became a stronghold of the conservative Constitutional Democratic Party, the Cadets, subsequently branded counterrevolutionaries by the Bolsheviks. After the 1917 revolution, the estate of the Dolgorukys, including the house, weis confiscated.

Ironically, in 1962, the mansion was turned into a museum dedicated to Marx and Engels, though the buildings never had any connection with Marx or Engels, and were filled entirely with fake exhibits.

In the early 1990s, the newly-formed Assembly obtained a 49-year lease on the building. But the Ministry of Justice blocked the group from registering under its old name, explaining "We have no classes in Russia, therefore no nobles." The group therefore temporarily used the pragmatic name, 'Assembly of Descendants of the Russian Nobility.'

The word dvoryanye, or 'people of the court,' the general name for Russian nobility from the 18th century on, first entered into broad use in the latter half of the 17th century, in reference to petty court officials. In contrast to the old estate of nobility, the boyars, which traced back to Kieran Rus and claimed land through inheritance, the dvoryanye received land only on condition of their service to the State.

Under Peter the Great, however, the privileges of the boyars began to be challenged, as Peter bolstered the dvoryanye through a series of decrees. His 1714 decree 'On Single Inheritance' sought to dissolve differences in status between boyars and dvoryanye (and reduce the number of boyars), and gained Peter powerful allies in the dvoryanye, against the conservative boyars, who resisted his progressive reforms.

Further, in 1722 Peter established the famous 'Table of Ranks,' which divided all military and civil officials into 14 categories, opening the way for non-titled persons to rise through the ranks to attain hereditary peerages. Also, a series of prestigious medals and orders were created which conveyed hereditary noble status upon their recipients.

In the latter part of the 18th and early 19th century, beginning with the reign of Catherine the Great, the noble class enjoyed its Golden Era. The gentry's superior property and legal rights were codified and their corporate power expanded: in every region or city in the Russian Empire, a Nobles' Assembly was established, with a 'Marshal of the Nobility' selected every two years. As a body, each Assembly had the right to petition the Tsar on issues of concern - a right not extended to any other class. …