Class divisions in Russia

Tsarist Russia was divided into separate social classes which had changed little since feudal systems.

The ruling class

The ruling class was made up of the Tsar and the royal family. They made up less than 1% (0.5%) of the population but owned a significant amount of land.

The wider upper class was made up of landowning nobles, wealthy merchants and high ranking members of the Orthodox Church, civil service and military. They made up approximately 12% of the population.

The nobility

The upper class owned all the land and was dependent on the Tsar. They dominated the positions of influence in army command and civil service.

Many landowners had benefitted from the end of serfdom in 1861. When the government had to pay for land to give to some of the freed peasants, some landowners used the payments to buy up more land. Many kept the best land to themselves, giving what was left to the peasants. Landless peasants had to lease poor land for high rents.

Landowners were conservative and protective of their wealth. High ranking officials drawn from this class also tended to be conservative and opposed to reform. Many of the landowners served as Land Captains, known as “little Tsars” by the peasants. They kept order in the countryside. They punished peasants by public floggings.

Middle class

Middle class - A small middle class of civil servants, professionals such as doctors or lawyers, merchants and businessmen made up around 1.5% of the population.

The middle class grew through industrialisation in the 1890s, both in number and in wealth. The middle classes were often educated with a wider view of the world and more openness to new ideas and reform than many other Russians.

Working class

Working class - Around 4% of the population were the working class - this was made up of workers in factories in the developing cities and towns, artisans and craftspeople, soldiers and sailors.

The working classes suffered from poor wages, insecure employment, poor working conditions. There was insufficient housing and overcrowding. A 1904 survey showed that on average, 16 people lived in each flat, with six people per room.


Peasants - Around 82% of the population were peasants who lived in the countryside. Landed and landless farmers, kulaks (wealthier landowning peasants).

Until 1861 most of the peasants were serfs. This meant that they were effectively the property of the landowner. In 1861 Alexander II abolished serfdom. However, many of the peasants became worse off. They had to make high taxes to the government to pay for the redistribution of land. Many were charged high rents from landowners.