Noblesse oblige

“Were all of us, the top layer of Russian society, were we so completely insensitive, so terribly estranged, that we had not noticed that the wonderful life we were leading in itself was unjust and that it was impossible to continue in that manner?”

-Nicolas Nabokov
Bagázh: Memoirs of a Russian Cosmopolitan

A group of Russian nobles (boyares) 17th century - Kremlin in the background

A group of Russian nobles (boyares) in the 17th century – note the Kremlin in the background


(translated some parts from “Verloren Adel“, the Dutch translation of “Former People. The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy” by Douglas Smith 2012, Dutch translation by Gerrit Jan Zwier 2012. I highly recommend everyone who takes an interest in Russian history to buy this unique document on the fate of Russian aristocracy at the advent of the Revolution.)

The rise and ultimate fall of the Russian aristocracy

For almost one thousand years the nobility (белая, bélaya or “white bones” in Russian – compare to “blue blood”) was the ruling class of Russia providing political, military, cultural and artistic leadership. The nobles had served the Tsar as counselors and governors, as generals and officers ; the aristocracy had  brought forth generations of writers, artists, philosophers, scholars and scientists, reformers and revolutionaries. In a society where slowly  but surely a middle-class was emerging, the nobility played a leading part in the political, social and artistic life of the country, a role which was disproportionate to its size.

The end of the Russian aristocracy marked the end of a long and proud (and rightly so) tradition that created a great part of what we consider today of being essentially Russian, whether it be the grandiose palaces in Saint-Petersburg or the estates surrounding Moscow, the poetry of Pushkin, the novels of Tolstoy or the music of Rachmaninoff.

The tale of the Russian nobility is also one that deserves to be told, since as its destiny is a prefiguration of what was in store for other groups in the near future.

The decision of the bolshevists to make the aristocracy the target of political persecution, to expropriate all her possessions, to imprison her, to execute and to mark her as “washed-up people“, betrayed a brutal, Manichaean mentality, which led whole population groups to be condemned to cruel repression and even to death.

There is also the fact that the tactics used against the nobility would also be applied against every so-called class-enemy of the regime.

Propaganda directed against "class enemies"

Propaganda directed against “class enemies”

Lenin saw them everywhere, these types of enemies, whether it were moderate socialists who refused to support his radical views or Russian peasants who were somewhat better off than their neighbours. He insisted that such enemies would be crushed and this was exactly what happened. And yet, as a result of the strange dynamics of the revolution, their defeat did not provide any guarantee for security, because as soon as the old enemies were defeated new enemies had to be found to continue the never-ending battle for the bright future of communism.

Just like Stalin would later destroy the old bolshevists during the Great Purge (Большая чистка, Bolshaya tchistka) and subject the peasant population in a cruel manner.

Partial view of a plaque with photos of victims of the Great Purge who were shot in the Butovo firing range near Moscow. The photos were taken after the arrest of each victim.


In name of the proletarians…

And so the revolution in name of the poor began, a revolution that would even make a much greater number of victims amongst the peasant population than under the rich, the original targets of the revolution.

Towards the end of the 19th century the Russian nobility consisted of about 1.9 million people, corresponding to 1.5% of the total population of the Russian Empire. The aristocracy formed a very diverse group, divided by nationality (Russians, Poles, Georgians, Baltic Germans), religion (Russian-Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran), education and wealth (well educated and rich, or neither of both), and politics (reactionary to revolutionary). There were noblemen with hereditary tites and noblemen with personal titles.

The diversity amongst the nobles in the Empire was so pronounced that historians still debate whether they truly can be assigned to  one separate social class.

If there was one thing that characterized the nobleman in those days, it was the capacity of “belonging to the chosen few, the priviliged, and not being like other people” as someone noted in 1895 in Dvorianstvo (“The Tasks of the Nobility”) [1] .

The Russian nobility however never consisted of a class of rich freeloaders. He was always much more a service-providing class who first earned his priviliges by serving the Grand Dukes of Muscovy, from where he increasingly derived his identity, and later by providing service to the Tsars of Imperial Russia, at court as well as in the military and in government.



[1] Avenir Pavlovich Korelin, “The Tasks of the Nobility” Dvorianstvo v poreformennoi Rossii (1861–1904 gg.), p. 22

About Olivier Corveleyn

I'm a 35 years old biochemist from Belgium with a particular interest in Russian culture, history and politics, and general slavic culture and history. This blog is intended to put the Russian Godless Movement and its main media outlet, the journal безбожник, bezbozhnik (godless) and several others in its wake which existed during the interbellum period, in an objective historical perspective. Currently I must use mostly secondary sources as the journals are difficult to locate. The blog is a work-in-progress which I mostly put together during the little free time I have. I'll try to make it not too chaotic and keep it more or less structured. Also, English is not my first language, so forgive me any grammar and spelling mistakes in advance.
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1 Response to Noblesse oblige

  1. ayla says:

    Veel verder dan de titel heb ik niet gelezen in mijn enthousiasme eindelijk contact te kunnen maken 🙂 Was naar koentekraafs aan het luisteren omdat ik nog eens Brugs wou horen haha.. toen moest ik opeens aan u denken en afvragen hoe hhet daar nog mee zou zijn. Ik zou echt zo graag is ne lange avond bijkletsen.
    🙂 xx

    key = public


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