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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.3 (2005) 461-499

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The Illegitimate Children of the Russian Nobility in Law and Practice, 1700–1860

Munk Centre for International Studies
University of Toronto1 Devonshire Place
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3K7

With the state-building expansion in Russia during the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, legally defined social status became the cornerstone of an individual's integration into society. As demonstrated by scholars of the social history of imperial Russia, in the period between 1649 and 1861 society's formal framework increasingly relied on juridically based social categories.1 Family played a key role in social stratification, so the legitimacy of birth determined affiliation with a particular social group and, accordingly, access to certain privileges and life opportunities. Illegitimacy, in contrast, prevented one from exercising one's family rights and thus put one in an awkward position, both legally and socially. Although since Peter the Great's reforms, according to Boris Mironov, Russian civil law had begun to recognize and protect the rights of individuals, the government, seeking to create a society with well-defined social boundaries and to protect its corporate order, strictly limited and watchfully regu-lated the penetration of members of other social groups into the most privileged estate, the nobility. To protect their illegitimate offspring, many noble parents were compelled to take action, often despite the law.

At the same time, the sociocultural transition from patriarchal to early modern ways of life, which Russia experienced in this period, determined changes in moral values and behavioral models that, in turn, resulted in the democratization of family relations and some easing of traditional marital [End Page 461] obligations. Denouncing this process, Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov stated in about 1787 that Russia's Westernization in the 18th century had brought about an extreme corruption of morals, among the ruling class in particular. In support of his contention, he referred to stories of wives leaving their husbands, both men and women openly taking lovers, and bastards among the Russian nobility becoming so numerous as to be "seen everywhere by the crowds."2 Although Shcherbatov's passionate railings stemmed mostly from his devotion to old pre-Petrine values, his claims were not unfounded. At the turn of the 19th century, illegitimate children accounted, according to parish registers, for about 3.3 percent of all newborns.3 There was nothing unusual about this ratio: contemporary Europe saw about the same percentage of illegitimate births, rising to 10 percent in some countries by the 1850s. In some larger European cities the rate reached as high as 30 percent.4 Bastards could be encountered equally in peasants' huts and royal palaces.5 [End Page 462]

Current scholarship, however, provides limited insight into the phenomenon of illegitimacy in Russian history. Prerevolutionary Russian legal historians and jurists made some observations about illegitimate children's legal status, but their works, which focused primarily on late 19th-cen-tury Russian legislation, were passionate cries for urgent change rather than scholarly studies.6 David L. Ransel's pioneering study Mothers of Misery provides an introduction to Russian legislation on illegitimacy throughout history, but since its main subject is infanticide and foun-d-ling homes, the issue of illegitimate children (unless they were abandoned by their parents) is beyond the study's boun-da-ries.7 Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter sees illegitimate children as potential recruits for the category of raznochintsy, but her special attention to this segment of the population is limited to soldiers' illegitimate children.8 The same group is the center of the discussion in P. P. Shcher-bi-nin's works.9 Studies on the his-tory of marriage, women's private life, and sexuality in Russia make some general remarks about illegitimacy, but they elaborate neither on the relevant laws nor on real-life situations.10 Two recent works on family and [End Page 463] family law by M. K. Tsaturova and V. Iu...


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