Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Russian noblewomen: Inheritance, law and property

From 1753 noble Russian women enjoyed one legal right not held by most European women:  The right to alienate and manage their own property during marriage.  Noblewomen controlled their assets, whether acquired as dowry or inherited.  Women had the right to engage in the same range of property transactions as men, and the size of women’s holding grew dramatically.  By the nineteenth century, noblewomen controlled almost one-third of the land and serfs in private hands.

However, there was a fundamental contradiction between women’s station in family law and Russia’s standing law of property for women.  It was debated that the constraint of unlimited obedience in a marriage comprised a woman’s right as a proprietor.  In the 1831 Digest of Laws, Article 107 stated that ‘A wife shall obey her husband as the head of the family, abide with him in love, respect and unlimited obedience and render him every satisfaction and affection as the mistress of the house.’   Article 106 set for the duties of a husband: ‘A husband shall love his wife as his own body and live with her in harmony; he shall respect and protect her, forgive her short-comings, and ease her infirmities.  He shall provide his wife nourishment and support to the best of his ability.’   This not only reinforced gender hierarchies, but also made it difficult for noblewomen to have full control of their property.  Many noblewomen trusted their husbands to administer their holding for their mutual benefit.  Yet women’s’ failure to keep close watch on their holdings could lead to considerable loss for themselves or their children.  In order to reap the benefits of separate property, noblewomen were forced to patrol the legal boundaries between their own estates and those of their husbands.  As one observer of Russian social customs remarked, “Tho a married Woman has complete power over her Fortune she has not over her person.”1
For Russian noblewomen this was better than the practice of male primogeniture that was practiced in other European countries however, women still struggled to protect their personal rights and property.  

Bradford, The Russian Journals, p.232

Works Cited

"1780s Catherine Vorontsova, Née Senyavina by Dmitry Grigorievich Levitsky (location Unknown to Gogm) | Grand Ladies | Gogm." Notices and Definitions | Grand Ladies | Gogm. Web. 08 Nov. 2011. <>.
Lieven, D. C. B. The Cambridge History of Russia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, ., 2006. Print.  

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful insight you are bringing, Jen! I feel like this can be related to Countess Rostova, she is a good example of a woman who leaves her property in the hands of her husband and that ends up hurting her overall welfare. Her kids lose some of the property they were to inherit and there is nothing she can do about it but to try to put Nicholas in charge of everything (which is not successful either). I am curious about another thing though. How are these laws enforced? According to the research you have done, in Helene's and Pierre's marriage somebody should have stepped up and pointed out the fact that they are not respecting the rules. Who is that someone? Who has the right to come and tell you that you do not love your wife enough? Or that you do not respect your husband? Is there such a thing? Can this law of loving your husband/wife actually be enforced?