Daily Archives: 31 October 2012

Odessa’s meshchane estate

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 134-136:

From the perspective of the tsarist state, Russian society was divided into identifiable and highly regulated “estates,” or sosloviya in Russian. Membership could be fluid, at least across several generations, and in many cases one’s estate was never as predetermined or immutable as one’s sex or eye color. But it was still a fundamental part of a Russian subject’s social identity. In contrast to what Marxists would identify as “class,” an individual’s estate membership had little to do with his or her place in the hierarchy of economic production, much less with wealth or income. Like for the impoverished nobles in the works of Tolstoy or Chekhov, estate status was part of one’s birthright, the genetic code of Russian society as a whole, not a reflection of economic power. When the state came to sort and categorize its own citizens, the labels that presented themselves in the late nineteenth century were clear: nobles, clergy, military, civil servants, and a group known as the meshchane—by far the largest estate in Odessa.

The meshchane—a word that might be translated as the petty bourgeoisie—were the large group of semi-skilled workers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and Russian subjects caught between the castes of large-scale landowners and their former serfs living in grinding poverty in the close-in suburbs. They eked out a living on the fringes of Odessa’s trading economy, vulnerable to the pendulum swings of commerce and the periodic blights afflicting agriculture. Unlike the wealthiest members of society, they had little recourse when times were hard, other than to join the day laborers hanging around the docks or hoping to pick up a job as a porter at one of the city’s bazaars. Unlike their peasant neighbors, they had few real connections to the countryside that might allow them to weather economic fluctuations in town. Already by the middle of the nineteenth century, Odessa was largely a city of these vulnerable meshchane. In 1858 the nobility comprised 3 percent of the city’s population, merchants nearly 5 percent, foreigners (that is, people who were not Russian subjects) just over 4 percent, peasants nearly 4 percent, and the military under 7 percent. The remainder—nearly 70 percent of the city’s total—were meshchane.

With a transient foreign population and a constant stream of newcomers arriving by ship and overland carriage—far moire than in the empire’s twin capitals, St. Petersburg and Moscow—Odessa was ripe for the kind of swindles, trickery, and palm-greasing that helped ease the economic burden of the petty bourgeoisie. When visitors complained of the hotelier who charged extra for bedding, the cobbler who charged twice to repair the same shoe, or the droshky driver who charged different rates for the same ride, it was the city’s huge estate of meshchane who were the makers of the city’s reputation. They could be found in virtually any profession. In 1892 over half the city’s 607 prostitutes reported that they were meshchane by estate.

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