History of things: A look at charters to the nobility from the times of Alexander I and Catherine II

History of things: A look at charters to the nobility from the times of Alexander I and Catherine II
Patent of nobility to Collegiate Assessor Vasily Konoplyov signed by Emperor Nicholas I. 1843. Cover, printing in a metallic case with tassel. Vellum, ink, watercolour, drawing and writing by hand
Gentry privileges and rank promotion in Russia from Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks to 1917.

In this issue of the History of Things, we will talk about important, serious and beautiful documents dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. These are three charters that made a person a member of the gentry and assigned them a rank. The charters were given by three Russian rulers to their distinguished subjects.

A charter was a certificate that established the class status of the holder and entitled the recipient to exclusive privileges and benefits accorded by the personal grace and will of the sovereign. Since the time of Ancient Rus, the charters were issued to churches, monasteries, and merchant associations, as well as to private individuals. In the 18th century, this richly decorated document got a new meaning: it could now turn an ordinary person into a nobleman or noblewoman.

In 1722, Peter the Great introduced the Table of Ranks, which established a well-structured system of state service that placed it firmly under the control of the sovereign. The table was divided into branches of service and 14 ranks. Certain honorary titles and orders were associated with the rank system. A title was bestowed on holders of certain ranks and state awards, and usually precipitated a career rise.

Charter to Alexander Naryshkin on being assigned the rank of Ober-Kammerherr signed by Alexander I. 1816. Parchment, manuscript, drawing. From the Museum of Moscow collection

Another law that established the system of class privilege was the Charter to the Nobility adopted by Catherine the Great in 1785. It stipulated the process of granting and proving noble status and the special rights and privileges of the nobility, including exemption from tax, corporal punishment, and mandatory service.

Unlike personal nobility, hereditary nobility was passed on to one’s children. The holder of a relevant charter was entitled to have their dynasty entered in the provincial dynasty records. The senate reviewed proof and approved nobility status and honorary titles, issued charters, diplomas and other certificates of noble entitlement, drew noble dynasties’ coat-of-arms and put together  armorials, and held responsibility for the individual’s promotion to higher civil ranks based on the length of service.

The Museum of Moscow has preserved several charters. One of them granted hereditary nobility to Collegiate Assessor V.G.Konoplyov and was signed by Nikolai I in 1843. Another one gave the rank of Ober-Kammerherr to Alexander Naryshkin by will of Alexander I in 1816. The third promoted Ivan Zhdanov to the rank of Lieutenant Captain. It was signed by Catherine II in 1783.

Charter to assign Ivan Zhdanov the rank of Major (Lieutenant Captain) signed by Empress Catherine II. 1783. Parchment, letterpress printing, manuscript. From the Museum of Moscow collection

Special effort went into richly decorating hereditary nobility charters, which were kept with care. The document listed the holder’s service history and awards. The text was entered by hand into colourful embroidered frames on parchment with the coat-of-arms bestowed on the dynasty placed at the end of the charter. The charter was usually kept in a box that was ordered specifically for the purpose.

The charters were in force until the October Revolution of 1917. Estates, ranks and titles, as well as class privilege and restrictions, were abolished by a Soviet government decree of 11 November 1917.