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The 3% of the 2%

July 31, 2019

Russia is a vast country, but for the upper gentry (the ones who are typically featured in novels), as far as exogamy was concerned, it may actually have felt quite small. It is tempting to think that in novels authors exaggerated the degree to which all the characters in society were connected. When Count Bezukhov is dying at the start of War and Peace, even the most disparate characters suddenly turn out to be in some way his relations, from Pierre to Prince Vassily Kuragin, to Anna Mikhalovna Drubetskaia, to the Princess Catiche. Or in Anna Karenina almost every single one of the main characters is connected through being siblings-in-law (and even Anna and Vronsky have a family tie through cousins who are married). But in fact this may not have been such a stretch. In 1834 there were only 1,453 nobles who owned over 1,000 male serfs, and only 2,273 who had between 500–1,000 (the categories that qualify as well-to-do). Together, they made up just 3 percent of serf owners.

One quick thought about Anna Berman’s article from yesterday. I’ll believe that nobles who owned over 500 male serfs (the 3% of the 2%) were often related by blood or marriage in both life and fiction. But are they “the ones who are typically featured in novels”? That seems like a Tolstoi-centric view of the nineteenth-century canon. I know peasants, house serfs, merchants, “townspeople,” and the clergy were less common in literature than in the population—there’s a reason people make a big deal of Leskov or Nekrasov writing about these social estates—but what about all the middling-to-impoverished nobles and raznochintsy? It felt unusual to me when a Tolstoi character would know someone in the Senate or claim to have personal access to a minister or the Sovereign himself, and the particular slice of the nobility Berman is talking about must have been far above Chichikov, Devushkin, Goliadkin, Rudin, Kalinovich, or even Oblomov (who I think had 300 “souls”).

That said, I imagine Berman’s claim is also true if you look at the nobles of a given province rather than the nobles with the most property.

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