The Charter of the (Russian) nobility

Catherine the Great (

Catherine the Great (

Catherine II, known as the Great, had few illusions about the Russian nobility, but, unlike other rulers supported or hated by the aristocracy, she chose to be chummy, rather than chop off their heads. This Charter (1785) was intended as an ensconcement of the nobles’ privileges, designed to cement their good relations with the monarchy in the future.

   Catherine had already divided the Empire into fifty provinces, each divided into districts. Now the nobles had the right to elect provincial and district ‘marshals’ (or comissars). They had to convene assemblies and present petitions, supposedly from the people in their district, to the Tsar. Aristocrats were already exempt from taxation and/or service (mainly military service), and the Charter now gave them new property rights. In other words they enjoyed immense privileges but were practically free of obligation. They were expected to keep serfs in their lowly place (serfs were taxed and had numerous obligations, q.v.), but above all never to question the authority of the Tsar. Not yet content, Catherine the Great also worsened the condition of serfdom and extended the system by which ‘her people’ became serfs in the first place. It was a perfectly prepared recipe for disaster. Serfs became items of movable property, like furniture. They were forced to support the Tsar and the nobles, with nothing in return, and in addition, to fight the Tsar’s wars for him. The Charter was not merely a recipe for disaster, it was a prelude to revolution, though the actual revolution which changed everything in Russia and this world, was still a little more than a century in the future.

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