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Estate System

Preindustrial European societies were typically divided into hereditary estates, consisting of social groups distinguished by occupation, legal status, and customs. Nobility, clergy, and peasantry are classic examples from the early modern period. Subgroups existed within these categories (including nobles related by blood to the ruling dynasty; monastic clergy; and peasants who worked on lands owned by the monarch) and there were additional estates outside them (town dwellers, merchants, serfs, and so on).

Beginning in Western Europe in the late eighteenth century, a combination of industrialization and political reform gradually (or, in cases of revolution, suddenly) eroded this system, dismantling the hierarchy of estates and putting in its place a single legal code uniformly applicable, in theory, to a population composed of individual citizens. Hierarchies of estate yielded to the more fluid hierarchies of class, within which mobility was not constrained by law.

This epochal historical shift carried profound significance for European Jews, including those in the eastern half of the continent. A society composed of separate estates was in many ways well suited to allow Jews to sustain their own legal system based on halakhah. It allowed them to maintain their distinctive occupational profile (overwhelmingly urban and commercial rather than agrarian) as well as their separate languages and customs. Historians, in fact, have long debated the extent to which the structure of early modern Jewish society was an elaboration of indigenous Jewish norms or an adaptation to the corporative structure of the surrounding European world. Whatever the case, in most early modern European countries Jews functioned as a de facto estate analogous to other estates. The dismantling of this system therefore posed an unprecedented challenge to Jews’ collective existence.

Nowhere was Jewish corporative autonomy stronger than in early modern Poland, a highly decentralized as well as ethnically and religiously diverse state. While intimately involved in urban economies and countrywide networks of exchange, Polish Jews in the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries typically benefited from numerous exemptions from general laws and sustained a system of self-government (allowing them internal taxation and administration of justice) more elaborate than that of Jewish communities elsewhere. True, by the middle of the eighteenth century a series of Polish reforms had begun to chip away at Jewish corporate autonomy. But for the majority of Polish Jews, the decisive attack on their corporate autonomy came not from Warsaw but from Saint Petersburg, following the series of annexations of eastern Poland by the tsarist empire between 1772 and 1795.

The imperial Russian system of sosloviia (estates; sg., soslovie) differed in several important respects from its counterparts elsewhere in Europe. It was more recently founded: corporate bodies with hereditary privileges and obligations became legally coherent in Russia only toward the end of the eighteenth century. Such groups, moreover, owed their coherence less to an internal drive for collective autonomy than to the government’s desire to fashion a European-style social order from the top down. It was relatively weak: neither in the exercise of authority within their own ranks nor in their dealings with other social groups could Russian estates resist the power of the monarchy. It was more complex: not only occupational groups but also the many ethnic and religious communities that populated the empire were considered hereditary sosloviia. To make matters even more complicated, the tsarist regime also divided its population according to a third legal (and hereditary) hierarchy, consisting of prirodnye (natives), inorodtsy (aliens), and inostrannye (foreigners). Jews were usually but not always classified as aliens.

Paradoxically, this combination of weakness and complexity allowed Russia’s estate system, in contrast to the pattern elsewhere in Europe, to serve not as an obstacle but as a conduit for Jewish integration. For as tsarist authorities attempted to adapt European-style emancipation to Russian realities, the estates became essential tools of social engineering. This process began fitfully under Catherine the Great (r. 1762–1796). As she annexed greater portions of Poland, Catherine classified her newly acquired Jewish subjects simultaneously as Jews and as members of the main urban estates—the meshchanstvo (artisans and petty traders) or the kupechestvo (merchants). The stakes involved in such classifications were considerable: they determined, among other things, the taxes one paid, whether one was subject to corporal punishment and military service, and one’s freedom to travel. As Jews, Catherine’s newly acquired subjects were subject to one set of restrictions and privileges; as artisans or merchants, they were subject to another. The resulting legal contradictions, added to the fact that many Jews lived in rural areas rather than in towns or cities, gave ample room for local officials and Jews’ occupational rivals to interpret (or ignore) the law in their own favor. Nonetheless the groundwork was laid for “merging” (as contemporaries put it) significant portions of the Jewish population into the relevant Russian social estates.

Under Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855), the estate-oriented approach shifted to the army. In 1827, Jews became subject for the first time to the military draft, and during the subsequent three decades some 50,000 Jews served as soldiers. Although they were judged to have contributed little to the army’s strength—certainly less than the value of the taxes Jews had previously paid for the privilege of exemption from military service—Jewish soldiers nonetheless became the first significant social group to experience a coercive form of state-sponsored “merging.” The merger had its limits, however: Jewish soldiers were barred from advancing to the rank of officer, and those who survived the grueling 25 years of service were required to return to the Pale of Settlement, where they were subject to all the standard legal disabilities affecting Jews.

Other, less coercive, attempts at “merging” were even less successful. In the 1840s, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment established a network of state-sponsored primary schools specifically for Jews. However, facing severe communal suspicion in gentile educational institutions, only a few hundred Jewish boys enrolled annually. Similarly, when special agricultural colonies were set up in an effort to fashion a Jewish peasantry, only several hundred Jewish families took part, and many subsequently returned to their home communities. As was the case with military service, both secular schools and agricultural labor failed to provide “merged” Jews with rights equal to those of their Christian counterparts. Graduates of state-sponsored Jewish schools still needed a gymnasium diploma if they were to be admitted to institutions of higher education. Jewish agricultural colonists were kept carefully segregated from Christian peasants for fear that the former would revert to “old habits” and “exploit” the labor of the latter. Even the relatively modest number of Jews who gained formal membership in gentile estates thus remained subject to the vast corpus of anti-Jewish legislation, and were confined to Russian Poland and the Pale of Settlement.

The Reform Era

In the middle of the nineteenth century, two developments decisively altered the significance of Russia’s estate system for the empire’s Jews. First, as Jewish communal authorities progressively lost their monopoly on access to state officials, new Jewish groups stepped into the fray with proposals to divide the Jewish population into estate-type categories in order to promote what were called “useful” labor and internal reform. Foremost among the groups were Jewish merchants and tax farmers whose wealth derived from non-Jewish sources and who therefore were relatively independent of communal authorities. They were joined by Jewish army veterans, students, and others who wished to gain the rights of their Russian counterparts—without these rights being extended to the Jewish population as a whole.

Second, with the accession of Alexander II (r. 1855–1881), the Russian government embarked on an ambitious program of social engineering that brought an end to serfdom and reformed the army, higher education, local government, and financial systems. While the Great Reforms preserved and reinforced much of the hereditary estate system, especially at the top (nobility) and bottom (peasantry) with the middling ranks they tended to mute the hereditary (though not the legal) basis of estate membership, thereby allowing for greater mobility according to wealth, education, and other forms of “usefulness.”

New Jewish elites took advantage of the relative political fluidity of the era to bring their agenda to the attention of the tsarist regime. The result was a series of laws that granted “useful” groups within the Jewish population the specific rights and obligations of their Russian counterparts according to estate, including, in each case, the right to live and work outside the Pale of Settlement. Jewish merchants of the first guild (the wealthiest of three merchant guilds) received such rights in 1859; Jewish graduates of Russian universities, in 1861; certain categories of Jewish artisans (those in short supply outside the Pale), in 1865; Jewish army veterans who had served under Nicholas I, in 1867; and Jewish graduates of all Russian institutions of higher education, in 1879. Jewish women shared the estate categories of their fathers or husbands; children took the estates of their fathers until adulthood.

The Jews who proposed the policy of selective integration according to estate shared several basic goals with the tsarist officials who sponsored it: to create tangible incentives for Jews to engage in “useful” and “upright” forms of labor, to reward such Jews (and only them) with expanded rights, and to break down the barriers separating Jews and Christians of the same estate. Both sides shared the conviction that positive incentives would bring better results than the coercive measures favored by Nicholas I. The government had the additional long-term goal, however, of not simply integrating but also of dispersing Jews into the larger gentile estate system, and thereby dissolving Jewish communal solidarity and internal structures of authority.

The results of this experiment, as was true of projects for Jewish emancipation elsewhere in Europe, were highly complex and rather different from the intentions that lay behind it. By the end of the nineteenth century, selective integration made it possible for several hundred thousand Jews to move into the empire’s vast interior. For relatively elite social groups (merchants and students, for example), selective integration worked far better and far more quickly than anyone had anticipated. By the final quarter of the century, Jews distinguished by either wealth or secular education, or both, were an unmistakable presence not only in the Pale but also across urban Russia.

Artisans, on the other hand, were surprisingly underrepresented among Jews who chose to take advantage of the policy of selective integration. By contrast, artisans were overrepresented among Jews who did precisely the opposite, exiting the Pale not toward the east (Russia) but to the west (Europe and North America). Efforts to extend selective integration to Jews who joined the peasant estate foundered in the face of the government’s abiding fear of mingling the two groups; Jews also resisted what was plainly a form of downward social mobility. Furthermore, selective integration applied only to army veterans who had served under Nicholas I; by contrast, Jewish soldiers in the reformed military of Alexander II and his successors were denied the right to live and work outside the Pale following their military service. Selective integration was thus far more successful at the upper end of the social hierarchy than at the lower.

Legacies of Estate-based Integration

By the late 1870s, the unwelcome consequences of the Great Reforms had led to a marked cooling of the tsarist government’s zeal for social engineering. Alexander II’s assassination in 1881 at the hands of terrorist revolutionaries returned the regime to a state of inertia, a situation that allowed, however, for the continuation of forces that had been unleashed during the Reform era.

The process of selective integration was reduced as well, with the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1881–1883 providing additional ammunition for those officials who argued against the change. Like the Great Reforms, estate-based integration became a half-finished experiment. Jewish merchants, graduates of Russian institutions of higher education, and certain categories of artisans continued to enjoy legal rights virtually equal to those of their Christian counterparts until the collapse of the Old Regime (and with it the estate system) in 1917. For this slender but highly visible minority, selective integration produced effects similar to those of European-style emancipation, including accelerated mobility and acculturation. For many others, integration helped shape ambition as well as resentment. Russian Jewry thus experienced forms of internal inequality with an intensity (dividing the “free” from the “unfree,” as one contemporary put it) and duration (three generations) that was without parallel among other Jewish communities in Europe. The ongoing internal stratification inevitably became a point of departure for Jewish politics and culture in the Russian Empire.

Suggested Reading

Henning Bauer, Andreas Kappeler, and Brigitte Roth, eds., Die Nationalitäten des russischen Reiches in der Volkszählung von 1897 (Stuttgart, 1991), vol. 1, pp. 377–429; Gregory Freeze, “The Soslovie (Estate) Paradigm and Russian Social History,” American Historical Review 91.1 (1986):11–36; Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley and London, 2002); Christoph Schmidt, Standerecht und Standeswechsel in Russland, 1851–1897 (Wiesbaden, 1994).