The Freedom to Choose.

A couple of years ago an unknown LH reader gave me Alison K. Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia for my birthday (thank you, unknown reader!), and I’m finally getting around to reading it. Smith spent years digging through archives, both central and provincial, finding as many documents as she could relating to the difficult concept of сословие [soslovie], or “social estate,” in the Russian Empire; she used them to create this groundbreaking study, which is of necessity sometimes dry (she describes a lot of decisions about local cases) but winds up giving you as clear a picture as is possible. I thought I’d quote a passage from chapter 3 (pp. 86, 88) that explains that what on the face of it seems a good thing, the freedom to choose your estate, was in practice something very different:

In 1783, Catherine released a ukase in which she “presented to free people the freedom to choose a way of life.” The idea was a simple one: the recent census had shown that there were unregistered, “free” (vol’nye) people: former churchmen, freed serfs, and various others. Now, Catherine was telling them they could not remain free, that they should instead choose a way of life (izbrat’ rod zhizni)— whichever one “they themselves decide is best for the common good and their own well-being.” She also distinguished between different kinds of “unfreedom.” Drawing on the 1775 Manifesto, in which she had stated that freed serfs could not re-enserf themselves, all “free” people were now to choose any way of life “other than serfdom.”

The phrase “choose a way of life” became shorthand for the demand that individuals register in a (usually taxpaying) society. Laws over the next several years and decades used the phrase in relation to different social categories and with increasing insistence that making this choice was mandatory. […]

As the idea of mandatory registration developed, it led to growing tensions between local authorities and the central imperial state, and eventually to a confirmation of the idea that local societies had a certain, but limited, right to choose their own members. The basic problem was that, put bluntly, some of the people with the “right to choose a way of life” were far from the upstanding citizens a community might hope to attract. They were, for the most part, the unregistered—but in an increasingly registered society, that meant they had some peculiar, if not actively illegal, reason for being so. Furthermore, this problem affected towns, and particularly townsperson societies, most of all. Because anyone registering as a state peasant had to be guaranteed an allotment of land, even those in need of a new place could not automatically join such a society. As a result, the “choice” of a new way of life usually meant joining a townsperson society. Village societies might not have enough land, merchants had to have a certain amount of capital, and craftsmen needed a certain trade. Societies of townspeople got the leftovers.

It takes a lot of research, thought, and understanding of how the world works to produce such a summary. The word сословие itself is from Church Slavic съсловие, a calque of Greek σύλλογος (съ ‘with’ = συν-, слово ‘word’ = λόγος).


  1. In other words, Russian estates were syllogisms.

  2. “Catherine released a ukase…”
    How are we pronouncing ‘ukase’ in that quote? like [‘ju kæs]? If I were reading it aloud I’d say ‘an ukase’ [‘u kæs]…

  3. Rawley Grau says

    Jim, according to the Oxford Dict. of Eng., “ukase” is pronounced (in English of course) [juːˈkeɪz]; the Oxford American Dict. proposes [juːˈkeɪs]. In either case (or kaz), the word would require “a” not “an”.

  4. Yes, when speaking English I pronounce it “yoo-case.” If one pronounced it à la russe, of course one would use “an” (and one would have every right to do so).

  5. It’s weird that they didn’t use a more transparent word “edict” more often…

    I’m sure I wrote about a byzantine array of Russia’s “estates” or hereditary classes before on these pages. The idea that the townsmen classes were the dregs of the society went unchanged even into the XX century, when millions of city dwellers were retaining their ancestral peasant class membership despite, sometimes, being in the city for generations.

  6. We discussed estates here, but you didn’t comment.

  7. Also in this thread, which has excellent, detailed comments by X (I don’t suppose X was you?).

  8. Since you like the weirdest of the words, LH, maybe you can write about the names of peasant subclasses. The colorful roster of белопашцы (tax-exempt free peasants). In the Left Bank Ukraine, there were military peasant classes (officers, cossacks, and land-less military peasants) and посполитные peasants (an underclass not forming a standing militia, but still standing above the serfs).

    The list of official estates, or classes, in Bessarabia went as follows: духовенство, дворянство, бояринаши, мазылы, рупташи, купцы, мещане, царане, поселяне земледельцы, цыгане, принадлежащие казне и помещикамъ, евреи, and a few more lesser categories

  9. мазылы, рупташи, …, царане

    What great words!

  10. AJP Crown says

    In England it’s pronounced you-cars (I learnt it aged sixteen in European History).

    Catherine really was great, imo, and enlightened, yet she just gets scorned (not by Language, I should add). If the past fifty years of US domestic & foreign policy tell us anything it’s that it’s not easy to introduce reforms to an extreme & backward looking society.

  11. Yes, I don’t think Russia was ever better ruled than under her; if only she’d had better relations with her son Paul, who hated her so much he not only reversed many of her reforms when he became tsar, he issued an edict that no woman could ever again rule the country. She also wrote one of the first Russian children’s stories (“Skazka o tsareviche Khlore” [The tale of Prince Khlor], pub. 1781) and one of the first plays (O vremya! [Oh, These Times!], pub. 1772).

  12. AJP Crown says

    Not many children’s stories about a prince are written by experts with insider knowledge. Take that, Antoine de St Exupéry.

  13. John Cowan says

    Well, he certainly had expert knowledge of aviation, and he does learn quite a bit from the prince

  14. “The tale of Prince Khlor” – I am guessing Khlor is some kind of Greek derived name and not the gas Chlorine?

  15. Yes, presumably from Greek χλωρός; here‘s the story in Russian for those who are curious.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    According to the internet, “chlorine” also comes (via coinage by a British chemist with some reasonable amount of classical education) from χλωρός, but the name was not given to the element until several decades after the Empress had published her story.

  17. Looking it up – χλωρός can mean “green”, and also “young” (I guess similar to English). My guess is the name of the Prince is the latter meaning?

  18. January First-of-May says

    he issued an edict that no woman could ever again rule the country

    Not literally true; what he did was to change the laws of succession to Semi-Salic (apparently considering it to be his own invention), and indeed it is under those very laws (if in a mildly fanciful interpretation) that Maria Vladimirovna claims the theoretical Russian throne today.

    The Russian laws of succession prior to Paul could probably be best described as “what laws?”, and indeed Catherine II had no claim on the Russian throne in her own right, only as widow of Peter III and mother of Paul.
    As such, he had to come up with some succession laws to avoid any more coups (it didn’t help that much, incidentally – there was another coup in 1801, and arguably also in 1825), and while I’m not sure if Semi-Salic was the best option, it was hardly the worst one.
    (As it happened, between 1825 and 1917, the throne was transmitted in the direct male line.)

    IMHO, the actual 18th century ruler who truly wrecked Russia was Peter III (of “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg” fame), though I kind of see how it could also apply to Anna Ioannovna. Still can’t see why Paul, though.

  19. John Cowan says

    Looking it up – χλωρός can mean “green”, and also “young”

    Hence chlorosis, vulgo dicitur greensickness, ‘virginity in young women considered as a disease’. Nowadays chlorosis is generally applied to leaves that yellow prematurely.

  20. January First-of-May says

    Looking it up – χλωρός can mean “green”, and also “young” (I guess similar to English). My guess is the name of the Prince is the latter meaning?

    IMHO, without any obvious reason in favor of any other meaning, I would just assume that he was named for Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great.

    That said, given that all the other names in the story are very obviously meaningful, this one probably is as well – at least in some way.

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