I'm a few chapters into Robert K Massie's biography of Peter the Great, and I was surprised to read that, in the aftermath of Peter's seizure of power from his sister and regent Sophia, when passing judgement on her lover Vasily Golitsyn, he confiscated the latter's property, revoked his status as a boyar, and exiled him to the Russian arctic.

This surprised me because everything I had read about the boyars up to that point had led me to believe that they were an ill-defined social class, with very fuzzy borders. I had thought that they were closer to the feudal barons of the Normans and Plantagenets, and not the more formal peerage of later English and British dynasties. In my mind's eye, a boyar was defined by his genealogy and landed estates, and not by a piece of paper from the crown; one's status as a boyar could not be revoked by fiat, anymore than Richard the Lionheart could have degraded one of his barons - although the estates on which such status depended could be taken away.

So that's the contradiction I'm trying to resolve. Have I misunderstood something? Or has Massie himself got the wrong end of the stick?

As a side note, Massie alludes to - but does not name - other, perhaps lesser, noble ranks, which Sophia and her predecessor would bestow on individuals. And then there is the title of prince, or knyaz, which seems to have had a subtly different meaning in the pre-Petrine era. If anyone could explain either of those phenomena to me, I'd be very grateful.

  • 1
    I suspect the answer is that the Russian autocracy was closer to a pure autocracy than others - the will of the autarch was more important than tradition/custom/historical precedent. Wonder how I would measure that?
    – MCW
    Sep 28, 2020 at 18:47
  • @MarkC.Wallace I'm sure you're right. But the way that Massie talked about, it made it sound like a boyardom was something specific that could be revoked - which is quite different to how I'd come to understand it. That's what I'd like clarifying.
    – Tom Hosker
    Sep 28, 2020 at 19:58

2 Answers 2


17th Century Russian Nobility

There were indeed numerous ranks within the nobility:

  1. boyars
  2. okol'nichie
  3. dumnye dvoriane

In general, Wikipedia's Russian nobility is instructive though it focusses on the 19th century. However, it does describe circumstances where nobility (formalized status of nobility, that is) could be granted, such as by Imperial grant or by reaching a certain rank in the military.

Upward mobility was curtailed by one's relations: for example, someone couldn't be made a boyar unless they already had a relation who was at least an okol'nichie (from one of the non-Wiki articles I've linked to, but I lost the specific one).

A characterization of the dumnye dvoriane before the 17th century is useful, indicating a far looser historic understanding:

Syn boiarskii (p1. deti boiarskie) refers to the lesser gentry in the Muscovite state, who provided the majority of the tsar's military servitors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. ... According to Richard Hellie, “The term literally means “boyar children,’ which may mean either that initially they were the sons of boyars, or, more likely, simply the retainers of boyars. By the mid-sixteenth century, at the latest, the term had neither of these meanings, rather signifying simply landholding members (pomeshchiki) of the cavalry. In the sixteenth century deti boiarskie were recruited from all social milieus, including cossacks, peasants, and even slaves. This avenue of social mobility was closed at the beginning of the seventeenth century as the rank became hereditary.
—Kleimola, 'The Duty to Denounce in Muscovite Russia'

Therefore, we recognise that there was fluidity within the ranks between the 16th and 18th centuries. The abstract for another article confirms as much with respect to the upper ranks:

The later seventeenth century was an era of unprecedented social mobility in the upper reaches of Muscovite society. Prior to the reign of Aleksei Mikhailovich, the boyar duma had been the preserve of a small set of pedigreed families. Aleksei, however, altered the traditional duma recruitment policy in the 1650s and began to promote undistinguished "new men" into the duma. Despite the claims of some historians, the new men were not radicals. It is true that many of them had made their way to the top by virtue of their service and skill, and not due to any hereditary right to elite ranks or offices.
—Poe, 'The Imaginary World of Semen Koltovskii'

The same article also indicates that the dignity of one's family would indicate status in the Muscovite court, 'the status of which was measured by its antiquity and the quality of its service to the grand prince' and because of that, many families tried to 'fabricate' longer histories for themselves.

Crummey's 'Aristocrats and Servitors' looks to be an useful reference work if this topic is of further interest.

The Title of Kniaz

Wikipedia's kniaz explains the title:

Kniaz continued as a hereditary title of Russian nobility patrilineally descended from Rurik (e.g., Belozersky, Belosselsky-Belozersky, Repnin, Gorchakov) or Gediminas (e.g., Galitzine, Troubetzkoy). Members of Rurikid or Gedyminid families were called princes when they ruled tiny quasi-sovereign medieval principalities. After their demesnes were absorbed by Muscovy, they settled at the Moscow court and were authorised to continue with their princely titles.

Prince Vasily Golitsyn

In Prince Vasily Golitsyn's case, he was descended from Gediminas of Lithuania (either thirteenth or fourteenth generation), hence his use of the princely title. He was, at the same time, a member of the boyar grouping, the two not being connected to each other.

I found a book, by Lindsey A. J. Hughes, "Russia and the West, The Life of a Seventeenth-century Westernizer, Prince Vasily Vasil'evich Golitsyn (1643-1714)", which sounds as if it would answer your case in detail. I didn't find an online copy.

However, a review of the book mentions that Golitsyn died in exile, but not his status at death—though the review naturally covers only a fraction of the length of the book. Hence, the revocation of Golitsyn's status cannot be discounted. De Madariaga's brief biography of Dmitry Golitsyn, a cousing to Vasily, also mentions only exile.


With this in mind, but without access to the actual biography of Vasily Golitsyn, I would guess that either the tsar had the power to 'cast someone down' (though I couldn't find a mention of this), or that downward mobility was possible along the same lines as upward mobility (i.e., within the ranks of nobility), or, indeed, that there has been a misunderstanding of Vasily Golitsyn's specific rank at death.


Under Feudalism, nobles are everyone who is a tenant-in-chief of the sovereign.

That status requires both satisfaction of mutual obligations (viz. The noble has right to property income from a fief(s), in return for feudal duties typically fulfilled as labour, often military service) and good behaviour. Whatever the legal apparatus, upon conviction of any "sufficiently severe" crime the feudal status was subject to revocation as punishment.

The examples of estate confiscation in Europe, from Seville to St. Petersburg, are far too numerous to list. In England alone they would fill a long answer.

Feudalism is a personal relationship of trust between sovereign and tenant(in-chief). Once that personal relationship is violated by the tenant they are no longer a suitable candidate for a such position of extreme trust. The only constraint on a sovereign to recognize the hereditary nature of tenancy-in-chief is the constant requirement on other tenants-in-chief in order to field military power.

Only with the combined rise of the middle class and the ascendancy of scutage is this broken, with sovereigns now dependent on taxation of the middle class instead of the loyalty of tenants-in-chief for military power. The varied fortunes of Louis XIV in France and Charles I in England demonstrate the consequences of a monarch not staying on top of this changing demographic.

  • 3
    I'm flattered that my question has drawn the attention of someone of your high reputation; however, your answer is only tangentially connected to what I asked - or, at the very least, what I intended to ask. I wanted to know whether the title of boyar had a clearly defined status - like being a viscount in the court of Henry VIII - or if it referred to a less clearly defined social class. I wanted to know about Russia, with a focus on the decades preceding the reign of Peter the Great.
    – Tom Hosker
    Sep 28, 2020 at 17:43
  • Perhaps we should use this as an opportunity to rephrase my question, so that yourself and other users can give an answer which is closer to what I'm looking for?
    – Tom Hosker
    Sep 28, 2020 at 17:43

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