Russian Class System Before the Revolution

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  • 0:04 Russian Revolution of 1917
  • 0:45 Industrial Revolution
  • 1:42 Serfdom
  • 2:26 Pre-Revolutionary Class System
  • 2:57 Marxism
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the Russian class system before the Russian Revolution. We'll identify its main characteristics and learn how this hierarchical system set the stage for revolution.

Russian Revolution of 1917

If you've ever seen the animated movie Anastasia, you probably have some idea of what happened during the Russian Revolution of 1917. By the way, the movie is highly inaccurate! Anastasia was actually murdered along with her family by Bolshevik (communist) revolutionaries. The Russian Revolution of 1917 consisted of two left-wing revolutions (one in February, and one in October) that resulted in the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II and the ultimate establishment of the Soviet Union as the world's first communist state. In this lesson, we'll look at the class system prior to the uprisings, which can help us understand one critical reason why the Russian Revolution broke out.

Industrial Revolution

In order to understand the class system in Imperial Russia, or Russian under the rule of its Tsars, we need to look at the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain around the mid-18th century, and over the next hundred years it spread throughout Europe to the United States and eventually other parts of the world. It was characterized by rapid industrial and technological advances, in the areas of textile manufacturing, steam power, iron production, and machine tooling. The Industrial Revolution helped give rise to a middle class.

Russia, however, did not experience the Industrial Revolution to nearly the same extent as other European countries, like Great Britain or Germany. Basically, Russia was a technologically backward country. Because of this, the middle class in Russia was unable to develop like it did elsewhere. Without a significant middle class, all power and wealth were in the hands of a few, while the vast majority of people had almost nothing.


Maybe you've heard of medieval serfdom? Under the system of serfdom, peasants labored on a tract of land that belonged to someone else. Serfs didn't own the property, but were allowed to live on a tiny section of the land they worked. Their harvests belonged to the landowner, usually a wealthy noble or lord, but serfs were allowed to keep a small amount of the harvest in order to survive.

Russian serfs basically had no rights and were little more than slaves. In Russia, serfdom was practiced until 1861, when Tsar Alexander II abolished the practice. Even after serfdom was officially abolished, the peasant class had few opportunities to better themselves, toiling continually and suffering in horrifying living conditions.

Pre-Revolutionary Class System

Let's look at the socioeconomic composition of Russian in the years before the Bolshevik takeover. Estimates vary somewhat, but roughly 80 to 82% of the Russian population belonged to the peasant class. Approximately 12-13% of the population consisted of royalty, the nobility, and the clergy. The remaining 4-6% was composed of the middle and working class. So, you can see how power and wealth was concentrated in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.


The ideas of Karl Marx were extremely influential among the Russian lower class. Karl Marx is considered the 'father of communism'; at least theoretical communism. His Communist Manifesto, written with Friedrich Engels and published in 1848, laid out the intellectual framework for communism.

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