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S is for Social Estate

As promised during M is for Manorial Estate, now we have S is for Social Estate for the Family History Through the Alphabet challenge!

While Manorial Estate was all about the countryside, Social Estate is primarily about the cities. Technically, social estate existed in the countryside as well, but there the division was quite clear – landowners and peasants. The cities are a bit more complicated than that, and that is what this post will focus on.

With the rise of industrialization, as well as the abolition of serfdom and the introduction of freer movement for the lower classes, many landless peasants began to migrate to the cities of the Baltic provinces in the second half of the 19th century. Movement was still not completely free, mind you, just easier now that peasants were not tied to the manorial estates. Most of these peasants would have been Latvians, who previously were a minority in the cities. As an example, Rīga – in 1867, only 23.6% of residents were Latvians, while in 1897 45% of residents were Latvians.

The records that are most useful for people tracing their Latvian ancestry in Latvian cities are the Rīga tax records for 1896/1897. However, being that Rīga had over 100,000 inhabitants at the time, looking through all of those records hoping for a glimpse of your family would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Thankfully, these records have alphabetical indexes!

Now, unfortunately, the indexes are not digitized yet (hopefully they, and their corresponding records, will be eventually). But they are available at the archives, in great big volumes, divided by gender and social estate. The alphabetical index will then provide a record number, and you will then need to order the corresponding record book to consult the actual record, which will include both genders. Social estate can be complicated, and different sources I’ve consulted say different things about who constitutes each estate, so I’ll outline all of what I’ve read here.

So, the different social estate categories….

  • Служилые люди – literally, this translates as “service people”. By some accounts, they are the lowest class in the cities, consisting of servants. This theory is supported by the index books – the index for women of this class is much larger than that of men, and women were more commonly found as house servants than men. Other sources (mostly Russian language ones) state that this class refers to “servitors”, such as political functionaries, clerks and members of military ranks, including people discharged from service or on leave. This part could fit with the first definition, since even the men of the lowest classes had to register for military service upon the age of 21.
  • Мещан – urban commoners. Sometimes they are also termed the “petty bourgeois”. From my experience looking at these records, most Latvians will be filed under this category or the служилые люди above.
  • Рабочие люди – workers. Strangely, this estate is quite small, and I’m not sure why. It would appear that most workers at this time period were instead registered in one of the previously mentioned estates.
  • Цеховые – craftspeople. This would include people who were in craftsmen or artisans’ guilds. In German, these guilds were called Zunfts. The Zunfts then made up the “Little Guild” in Rīga.
  • Купечество – merchants. The merchant guilds made up the “Big Guild” in Rīga. They had to pay to be included in this estate.
  • Разночинцы – “miscellaneous”. The intelligentsia were often included in this estate, if they had not yet advanced to the honorary citizen rank.
  • Граждане – honorary citizens. This was an even harder estate to achieve than the merchant estate. This was the estate directly below nobility.

ROOTS=SAKNES has a good in-depth outline on urban estates. You can also take a look at this Wikipedia article for more. If you do go to the archives in Rīga to look at these records, be warned – the index books are very big, and very heavy!

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