The division of society into two classes dates back to the earliest period in Russian history: the free population and the free population. At first only in fact but then, increasingly also of law, the free population differs: the boyars (nobles), citizens (goro ž ri) and farmers (commonly called smerdy or is ern ‘and, from the sec. XIV, to distinguish them from the Tatar, krestjane, Christian ones). The class of boyars is divided, in turn, into two groups, not always clearly distinct: a part of the boyars is part of the company, dru ž ina, of the prince, the other part is made up of the rural nobility (lu è š ije ljudi “viri meliores”, every š è ane from every š è e, hearth). The prince ‘s dru ž ina constituted the military caste; it was, until the century. XI, of predominantly foreign origin (Normans, Polovcy, Chazari, etc.) and was often recruited, especially in its lower strata, even among the non-free. The progressive slavization of the dru ž ina, the need for the princes to attract even the most powerful of the rural nobles into their circle and finally the tendency of the princes to make their seats fixed, which led to the purchase of land by the knja ž i and mu ž i- all this resulted in a less clear-cut distinction between the two classes of boyars. The service which the boyars rendered to the princes was free; they could abandon their prince, nevertheless retaining their property rights and their subjection to the abandoned prince. Most of the citizens were traders. Since trade in ancient Russia was flourishing, there were not a few merchants who, having become rich, bought lands, thus obtaining the passage into the class of boyars. In large commercial centers, such as Novgorod, the merchant-citizens had their own organization and courts. Far lower in the social hierarchy were the smerdy, with whom, with the name of danskije ljudi(tributaries), the poorest citizens were usually united. Only a part of this predominantly rural population, and in any case subject to taxation, had its own lands and the figure of the sharecropper (polovnik) was among them. But all the others, more and more numerous due to the centralization of land ownership in the hands of landowners, worked on other people’s lands. A large part of the population of ancient Russia was made up of slaves (cholopy, è eljad’, etc.). Their number increased due to the fact that to those who were deprived of personal freedom because they were descendants of slaves, there were added prisoners of war, certain categories of indebted and delinquents, the husbands of slaves, etc. In the relations between masters and slaves, the laws had no interference; the only right of the slaves, protected by the church, was given by the good will of the masters.
Important changes in Russian society took place during the Muscovite period. First of all, the service provided by the boyars became compulsory as a volunteer. The obligation, initially imposed on the dvorjane (as the courtiers were designated from the end of the twelfth century), extended during the course of the century. XVI also to the boyars. The one and the other together thus came to form the class of slu ž ilye ljudi. Given the large number of these “servants” that the prince had at his disposal, not all of them could serve at court. Many had to stay or return to the countryside, where pomestja (countryside) were distributed to those who had no land of their own. Thus it arose next to the bojarinvotis innik (executioner with heritage) the type of the dvorjanin – pome š č ik.
The Grand Dukes had every reason to favor the latter, so that the difference between the two noble classes quickly disappeared, and all the nobility, now divided according to the services they were required to provide and according to their wealth, was subjected to a rigorous dependence on principles. The rest of the free population, with the exception of the clergy, formed the mass of tjaglye ljudi (burdened, taxed men), divided in turn into posadskie ljudi (suburban people, merchants and tradesmen) and uezdnye (peasants, peasants) or krestjane. The latter, settled on their own lands, ducals, monasteries or landowners, enjoyed until the middle of the century. XV of freedom of movement, which however from then on was increasingly hindered, mainly for fiscal interests, until they came, more by custom than by law, to their complete enslavement to the gleba. The juridical-social situation of the already free peasants therefore went ever closer to that of the ancient slaves (the merger took place towards the end of the 16th century).
While still profoundly differentiated from each other, all social classes at the beginning of the century. XVIII had this in common, that they were all more or less impaired in their freedom of action and all subservient to the authorities or to the upper classes. While, however, in the century XVIII continues on the one hand the process of enslavement, on the other hand the inverse process also begins: that of the gradual restoration of liberties. With the manifesto of 1762 the nobility was exempted, except in the case of war, from compulsory service, and the right to service abroad and the freedom of education for their children was recognized. At the same time both Peter the Great and Catherine II (regulation of 1785) tried to create a true bourgeois class (gra ž dane, meš è ane) specifying their rights (exemption from corporal punishment, military obligations and certain taxes) and placing a bourgeois corporation alongside the noble corporation with its own assemblies and with its own autonomy in the government of the cities. The fate of the peasants instead suffered in the century. XVIII a further deterioration. Yet, since the time of Catherine II, the tendency towards an emancipation, first partial and then total, of the peasants begins to manifest itself. Having remained unsuccessful for many decades, this trend was not translated into reality until after the Crimean War, with the reform of February 19, 1861.
There is no absolute agreement among the scholars of Russian public law regarding the origin of the ducal power, its relations with the authority of the ve è andand the relationships of the individual principles among themselves. The majority, however, believe that the ducal power, in the early days, did not belong to individual members of the family, but was reserved for the whole ducal family, understood as a community. This fact, together with that of the presence, in the Russian power of the first centuries, of democratic elements, also characterizes the right of succession – not rigidly determined either by the principle of legal transmission or by that of free election (valid only in “republics” of Novgorod and Pskov), but by an integration of both principles; with this in particular, however, that the election (or confirmation of the power exercised in fact) was also extended to the descendants of the elect, favoring the rise of dynasties and increasing their authority. The monarchical principle could,there is, and parliament is convened on the initiative of the Duke, or on the initiative of the principles, and to whom in the period Kievan attended all free men of the individual principalities), due to the influence of the autocratic regime of the Tatars, and finally for need to defend against it by creating a strongly centralizing power. In fact, in Moscow, the dukes had from the beginning almost absolute power over which the boyarskaya duma (aristocratic organ) and the sobories (organs representing the last remnants of the democratic principle) had only a minimal influence, as a continuation of the ancient ve è e (remained alive in Novgorod and Pskov until the whole of the fifteenth century), and also ofduma knja ž eskaja (council of the duke, chosen by the duke from among the most eminent knja ž ie mu ž i and boyars, who in the period of the Tatar invasions had partially replaced the ve č e).
The clergy contributed on the one hand, especially after the emancipation from Byzantium which led, in 1589, to the constitution of the Russian patriarchate, on the other hand the tendency to make the rights of the primogeniture prevail in the succession to the throne. In this way, also due to the superimposition of the Byzantine monarchical conception to the more ancient and indigenous one for which the state was considered property of the ruling dynasty, the unlimited power of Ivan the Terrible was reached. Repeated attempts by the boyars to regain interference in state affairs did not yield positive results. And the attempt also failed (beginning of the century. XVII) to oppose the ecclesiastical authority of the patriarchs to the power of the tsars. But the complete realization – effective and juridical – of the tsarist autocracy came only with Peter the Great. It was the heyday of autocracy, supported by a solid bureaucratic organization, which was modeled in part on that of Sweden. But since the death of Peter, oligarchic attempts by theverchovnyj tajnyj sovet (supreme council), remained, however, unsuccessful. In the same way, only a small part of the constitutional ambitions of Alexander I were implemented. The great reform of Alexander II instead meant a decisive progress in limiting autocracy with the institution of the zemstvo, an organ of decentralization and local autonomy. In fact, the zemstva were one of the most active factors in the struggle for the Constitution which was granted, after long hesitations, on October 17, 1905.