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Russian Hierarchy

Modern History (Year 12) - Overview of Russia

Ben Whitten

As with all societies, there is a hierarchy of groups. Russian society in the early 20th century was no different, being divided into a few notable groups. Four predominant groups in the Russian hierarchy were:

  • Peasants

  • Workers

  • Middle Class

  • Nobility

1. Peasants


  • At the beginning of the 20th century, 4/5 people in Russia were peasants.

  • Their main source of food was grain made into rye bread or porridge, and cabbage soup – fish was common, but meat was rare.

  • 400,000 people died in 1891 when crop failure coupled with cholera hit the countryside.

  • The average life expectancy was <40 years.

  • Regular epidemics of typhus and diphtheria, and syphilis were widespread.

  • Until 1861, most peasants had been serfs, owned by their masters.

  • Many peasants got into crushing debt as they didn’t have enough land to produce a sufficient crop yield.

  • The population increased by 50% between 1860 and 1897 and was still growing fast – competition for land increased and became more intense.


2. Nobility


  • Although the nobles made up just over 1% of the population, they owned almost a quarter of all the land.

  • Some were extremely rich, with large country estates, which they employed people to run.

  • They would often have another home in St Petersburg or Moscow, or both, and would spend a good part of the year enjoying the ballet, the theatre and a round of social events in ‘society’.


3. Middle Classes


  • Around 1900, with the development of industry, a new class of people was growing in Russia; bankers, merchants and rich capitalists who owned the industrial works

  • St Petersburg and Moscow were the main centres of commerce and of the textile industry

  • The link between the rich businessmen and the government in Russia was very strong; the government in Russia gave them big contracts and loans


4. Workers


  • Life in the back streets of St Petersburg, Moscow and other Russian cities was very different for the men and women who worked in the new industries

  • They lived in cheap wooden lodging houses or large tenement buildings, ate cheap black bread, cabbage soup and black wheat porridge

  • Workers often lived-in barracks in industrial centres away from the cities, in factories – long, dark corridors led to dormitories for up to 30 workers, or minute rooms sleeping several families

  • Illness, smells, arguments, sex – nothing could be hidden


Primary Source: Russian Hierarchy


1. Identify three details that criticise the traditional order of the hierarchy.


  • The author of the source which shows Russian society is critical of the order.

  • At the bottom of the hierarchy, we can see peasants holding the rest of the people up, which provides the idea that they support everyone else and don’t receive any benefits of it, accompanied by the text “We work for you. We feed you.”

  • On the tier for the military, the text says, “We shoot you.” Which provides the connotation that the military doesn’t spend their time fighting wars but fighting their own people.

  • On the tier for the Orthodox Church, the text says, “We fool you.”, rather than ‘educate you’ which provides the connotation that the Church doesn’t provide any benefits


2. Discuss the strengths and limitations of this cartoon.


  • The strengths of the cartoon include how it accurately represents the groups that are found within Russian hierarchy, and provides a somewhat accurate rendition of their role in society

  • The limitations of the cartoon include how it is biased as the author seems to be anti-autocracy, creating the image that the peasants held everyone up and everyone else relied on them for their seemingly normal ways of life

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