Revision lists are the nearest Imperial Russian equivalent to the censuses conducted in places such as Canada, USA and Britain which are so familiar and indispensable to family historians in those regions. While those censuses were intended as a count of the population at a particular point in time and were conducted over a single night or weekend every 10 years, the Russian revision lists were generated for taxation purposes and were more irregular, with each one tending to take up to a year or more to be completed. 

The revision lists, also known as revision of souls, are extremely useful to those genealogists with ancestral roots in the Russian Empire, which of course covered great swathes of territory outside its current borders, for instance in the Baltic and in the modern states of Belarus and Ukraine.  The term “revision” derives from the detailed comparison which is being made by the census-takers between the census being undertaken and its immediate predecessor. 

Although revision lists evolved and therefore vary over time, essentially each revision list enumerates all residents of a particular place. In the Baltic, land was in the hands of a small number of the usually Baltic German elite. Their estates were divided into the demesne (the manor or farm – hof – and it surrounding estate lands) and the peasant farmsteads or smallholdings, all of which were named, and of which there could be a hundred or more on any one single estate. Agricultural labourers lived both on the estate lands and on the smallholdings of other peasants. Those smallholding peasants did not have an opportunity to own their farmsteads until this was made possible by the land reform measures implemented first in 1849 and then ratified in 1860 in Livland (Livonia) and in 1863 in Kurland (Courland). Thereafter, peasant ownership expanded rapidly until by the 1880s most smallholdings were owned by their occupiers. 

What the revision lists provide, among other things, for the family historian is evidence of movement. This is because each revision records not just where an individual is resident at that time but also where he or she was resident at the time of the previous revision. For example, the 1850 revision gives where a person was living in the 1833 revision. This of course makes it possible to track a person across time. 

It is important to understand that migration in early and mid-19th century European Russia, for instance in the Baltic provinces, was generally local. Usually, we are not talking about emigration beyond Russia or beyond the province, but about small-scale movements of only 2 or 3 km in most cases.  

Movement between estates was minimal. Those peasants making such movements were usually young men and women in their twenties getting married. Military conscripts were the only other major group of individuals who moved outside the estate. 

Movements within an estate were common.  Some smallholders moved to another farmstead, while many agricultural labourers were mobile, even moving annually between different farms on the estate. 

A revision list such as the 9th revision in 1850 records departures and arrivals. For those individuals who were present at the time of the previous revision in 1833 and have left since, it records when they left and their destination. For those who were living elsewhere in 1833 and have since arrived, the place of origin is recorded. Just as the 1840 and 1850 American censuses, or the 1841 and 1851 English censuses, show only where individuals were living at those two dates, and are silent on any movements in between, so the 1833 and 1850 revision lists only plot where a person was at these two dates, not any interim places of residence. For instance, an agricultural labourer could quite conceivably have moved every year between the two revisions but will only be recorded on them at the two qualifying dates of 1833 and 1850. This also means that a person who is at the same place in 1833 and 1850 may of course have lived elsewhere in between but returned. The family historian must therefore accept that they are only being presented with snapshots in time and not with an unbroken seamless record of movement. Nevertheless, the significance of the revision lists cannot be under-estimated for those researchers investigating their ancestors and the structure and composition of family trees in the 19th century.

Filed under: Genealogy Research

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