The Legacy of Russia’s Bourgeoisie through the Lens of History and Political Science

In recent years there has been a welcome resurgence of research into the historical legacies shaping the economic and political trajectories of post-communist states. Not only do we have the conceptual vocabulary to grapple with the question of “what is a historical legacy?” but also emerging scholarship into the complex interactions among legacies associated with distinct regimes, eras, and epochs. While for certain legacies, we have volumes of secondary source material that we could rely on to shed light on causal mechanisms behind patterns revealed in data analysis, for others, there are hardly any historical studies.

As a political scientist writing about the legacy of Russia’s bourgeoisie and the role of the Imperial institution of estate (sosloviye) in its configuration, I found myself not only wading into the terrain of the historian in a methodological sense—by sourcing the archive—but also trespassing into the potentially fraught area of historiography on Imperial estates and Bolshevik class policy targeting them. Below I elaborate upon the utility of combining primary archival work with the tools of the social scientist based on my research into the legacies of Imperial social structure.

The middle class or bourgeoisie has featured prominently in theorizing on the developmental trajectories, and the democratic origins, pathways, and resilience of nations. Yet, the bourgeoisie as a legacy has not preoccupied recent social science scholarship on Russia as much as, say, the reproduction of pre-communist cultural-religious values, the legacies of violence, Gulag, or population displacement.

Why Russian Bourgeoisie Remains Understudied

One possible reason is paucity of works on the bourgeoisie in late Imperial Russia (unlike, say, peasantry, a subject of excellent studies by Hoch, Dennison, Burbank, among others); these works constitute solid secondary foundations upon which data-driven research could draw (see Dower et al.).

Another reason is widespread assumption of the obliteration of the bourgeoisie and creation of new social hierarchies after the Bolshevik Revolution. The “clean slate” assumption about Soviet society is not entirely unfounded. The Bolsheviks notoriously targeted industrialists, entrepreneurs, the aristocracy, and well-off peasants; they executed or sent to camps scores of individuals from formerly privileged backgrounds during the successive waves of Stalin’s witch-hunts.

The third obvious reason for neglect of the bourgeoisie is that scholars had no choice but to rely on official Soviet data. After Stalin proclaimed a classless society in the 1930s, the Soviet state stopped obsessively cataloguing the Imperial social origins of citizens.

Then there is the overall ideological and global geopolitical context of scholarship on the Soviet Union. Before the excesses of Stalinism became widely known, to many—famously, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, co-founders of LSE, my employer—Soviet Russia represented a progressive regime that lifted populations out of abject poverty. Subsequent scholarship on the USSR in the late 1960s-1970s, particularly studies of the highly regarded historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, were influenced by the demons back home, in the West—the protests overturning extant gender, economic, and social hierarchies, and challenging elite-led global Cold War adventurism. Again, to new social historians, Soviet Russia presented a model of egalitarianism and progressive causes. Meanwhile, the “bourgeoisie” did not appear to be of great interest to progressive historians—why would it be—a regressive social force in the Marxian visions of the march of history.

A related issue is reliance of social scientists on secondary source materials. There are of course important practical reasons for this pattern. Even for historians, adept at navigating their way through the archive, let alone for political scientists wading into the terrain of the historian, accessing Soviet archives has been a complex task.

Yet access to archives is not the only reason. Generally, as I discovered in reading landmark books in comparative historical sociology, it has been standard practice to rely on secondary monographs—almost exclusively, and self-consciously, in fact. To give a couple of prominent examples, in his study of Europe’s confessional parties Stathis N. Kalyvas comments on the fortuitous availability of “traditional historiographic monographs.” Albeit “purely descriptive and . . . clogged with an incredible amount of detail [and] . . . lacking grand theoretical pretentions,” for the author these secondary sources constitute “an invaluable empirical source on which to build and against which to check deductive models and theories.”[1] And in States and Social Revolutions, Theda Skocpol writes, “for the comparative sociologist this [availability of secondary books] is the ideal situation. [For]. . . The comparativist has neither the time nor (all of) the appropriate skills to do the primary research. . .”[2]

Beyond Secondary Sources:  Social Estates in Imperial Russia

Yet, reliance on secondary monographs in a project such as mine would not get us very far. To begin, we need to ask how to delineate the bourgeoisie in late Imperial Russian context. In my forthcoming book titled Estate Origins of Social Structure and Democracy in Russia: The Discreet Reproduction of Imperial Bourgeoisie (Through Communism and Beyond), I dissect the under-researched institution of estate (sosloviye) in structuring possibilities for the embourgeoisement, understood broadly, of Russian society. And, as Alexander Libman and I discuss in a forthcoming APSR article, the legacies of the bourgeois estate of meshchane, in particular, co-vary with democratic outcomes.

The relationship between the share of the bourgeois estate of meshchane in 1897 and Press Freedom Index in 1999 (as one indicator of regional democracy).

All the way up to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Imperial Russia in law and practice divided society into caste-like categories of aristocracy, clergy, urban estates of merchants, artisans and meshchane, and peasants. Peasants, particularly manorial serfs prior to the 1860s emancipation reforms, notoriously suffered from restrictions on property rights and legal freedoms. As Tracy Dennison demonstrates, even serfs, particularly on estates with less fertile land, were able to have one foot in either rural property markets and trades, or in urban pursuits of a “service” variety. Dennison’s insightful research focuses on the institution of serfdom and processes of social embourgeoisement in rural Russia. Where her work stops—at the gates of a town—new research of Russian historians like Zoya Kobozeva, L. V. Koshman, and Boris Mironov, and, in the West, the recent monograph by Alison Smith, picks up. We learn from this research more about the mysterious middling estate of meshchane.

The Meshchane and Human Capital Accumulation

The meshchane’s social standing, pursuits, and values strongly indicate the status of proto-bourgeoisie of an “industrious society” variety. Scores were property owners, rentier, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and owned small family-run businesses. Derided in Soviet historiography and official propaganda as synonymous with bad taste, kitsch, and lowly status, they were far more privileged than the majority of serfs since Catherine the Great granted the urban estates a special charter on self-governance in 1785. The institution of estate is important here, for it provided the kinds of property rights, legal status, and limited self-rule that peasants lacked or obtained with a time lag after the free estates. Crucially, the urban estates enjoyed preferential rights to trading, ownership of property, and access to services in towns. While emancipation accelerated the movement of peasants into towns, I caution against discussing these processes in generic terms of “urbanization” or “development” without scrutiny of the rights and entitlements associated with ascription to a particular estate.

Similar insights apply to merchants—the wealthiest category of the urban estate. Merchants were often latter-day meshchane. In fact, they often fell back into meshchanstvo during one lifetime. But again, estate is relevant here for if a meshchanin had the capital to pay the guild fee, he or she could enjoy expansive and lucrative rights to trade and industry within town boundaries and beyond.

In other words, estates shaped the accumulation and security of capital as well as possibilities for investment. At the end of the 19th century, securing the welfare of the future generations meant investing in education. Human capital became especially salient after the Revolution, as the Bolsheviks obliterated the material foundations of social distinction but needed the “old experts” to help build communism. In perusing Imperial statistics, what struck me is the massive over-representation of merchants in Imperial gymnasia and higher institutions of learning. The wealthier segments of meshchane were also rapidly colonizing schools supplying an entry ticket into the university and professional specialisms. This is at odds with portrayals of meshchanstvo in prominent Soviet-era historiography, which characterised this stratum as subsisting on sale of rural produce, peddling, or manual contract work.

Combining the tools of the historian and political scientist, “large” and “small” data

In my book, I draw on a vast personal archive of the merchant-meshchane Old Believer family of Constantine Neklutin in the region of Samara. We can trace the progression of the merchant entrepreneur, married to a meshchanka, into the status of a modern 20th century professional. While Neklutin emigrated to America in the early 1920s where he pursued a successful engineering career, dozens of members of his extended family remained in Russia. Most were eager to obtain professional education and white-collar jobs in the Soviet labour market. They were also keen to resume entrepreneurship during the New Economic Policy when the regime temporarily loosened restrictions on private trade in the 1920s.

The wealthy merchants and meshchane were not the only ones with a voracious appetite for modern education. They joined the aristocracy and clergy, which had enjoyed special privileges in access to schools.

On the eve of the Revolution, meshchane and merchants, as indeed, clergy and lesser aristocrats—whom I conceptualise as the “educated estates”—colonised white-collar occupations and were prominent in civic life and the public sphere of Russia’s provincial towns. The peasant estate also contributed to the growing stratum of educated professionals. Yet the “peasants” paraded by the Bolsheviks as an embodiment of their egalitarian policies, had been on their way out of rural occupations already before 1917. Archival materials allow us to trace how merchants and meshchane, but also the lesser provincial aristocracy and clergy, enjoyed greater labor-market advantages than illiterate peasants in the 1920s-1930s. In addition, the merchant-meshchane trading estates transmitted not just superior human capital, but also market values and acumen to their children and grandchildren.

Because one region may not be representative of the entire country, I complement detailed archival work on Samara with large-N analysis of data from the 1897 Imperial census and Soviet and post-Soviet statistics for all of Russia’s districts and regions. The analysis reveals significant co-variance between the legacy of the proto-bourgeoisie and developmental and democratic outcomes in Russia’s regions. In territories with a more developed bourgeoisie, not only were there more high-skilled professionals in the Soviet period, but citizens now are more likely to embrace entrepreneurship or start a business. Territories with a smaller proportion of Imperial-period bourgeoisie not only lag when it comes to development, but are more likely to feature what Bryn Rosenfeld aptly characterises as the state-dependent “autocratic middle class.”

Co-variance between Imperial “educated estates” (nobles, clergy, merchants, meshchane) in 1897 and high-skilled professions in the Soviet period.

Statistical analysis cannot substitute for the rich contextual evidence contained in the archive. Primary records lend texture to faceless data and also challenge assumptions we derive from secondary works of history and political science on the Soviet period. The  archival papers I assembled reveal the Bolshevik commissar’s agony over failing to erase the vestiges of the past, as well as the resilience of the aristocrat, the clergyman, the merchant, and the meshchanin in imposing old-regime rules on the Bolshevik order.

Trespassing into the “territory of the historian,” I am vulnerable to claims of amateurism. A historian could scoff at the many statistical tables, while a political scientist may not see the value in rich historical detail. Even so, I am happy to take the risk, so that interdisciplinary dialogue can further enrich scholarship on how history shapes the present.


[1] Kalyvas, Stathis N. 1996. The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, p.17.

[2] Skocpol, Theda. 1991. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. xiv.


  • Tomila Lankina

    Tomila Lankina is Professor of International Relations at the LSE’s International Relations Department. Her research focuses on comparative democracy and authoritarianism, protests and historical patterns of human capital and democratic reproduction in Russia and other states. She is the author of two books and has published articles in the American Political Science Review (forthcoming), American Journal of Political Science, British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, The Journal of Politics, Comparative Politics, World Politics, Demokratizatsiya, Europe-Asia Studies, Post-Soviet Affairs, Problems of Post-Communism, and other journals. Her latest book is on the historical drivers of inequalities and democracy in Russia. It is titled Estate Origins of Social Structure and Democracy in Russia: The Discreet Reproduction of Imperial Bourgeoisie (Through Communism and Beyond). Cambridge University Press, 2021 (in production).

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