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Section: PAPERS

Russian Heraldry: A Brief Survey

Author: Michael Medvedev / Publication date: 2006-08-16

Russian Heraldry: A Brief SurveyThe very essence of Russian heraldry is often misunderstood. It has been many times described as a fruit of the rich Byzanto-Russian symbolic tradition; or (just the opposite) as an artificially implanted imitation of foreign patterns; or as a disorderly practice of no rules or conventions. All this is wrong.

The “ancient arms of Russian cities” are frequently mentioned, and the 500th anniversary of the national coat of arms (the double-headed eagle) was solemnly celebrated in 1997; but in reality, no Russian emblem was truly armorial until the middle of the XVII century. The eagle, the Rider (originally a conventional portray of the Monarch defending the country against the dragon of barbarity) and the local emblems were partly inspired by western armorial designs; but it would be a grave mistake to apply to these emblems the heraldic criteria pertinent to colours, structure of achievement, or to legal status. The medieval Russian symbolic heritage was mostly concentrated on the impersonal (religious values, abstract qualities etc.) and thus rather opposed than supplied the heraldic influence(1).

However this influence was growing. In the course of the XVII century, the contacts with the West were more active; the major part of Ukraine (already “enlightened” heraldically) became a part of the Muscovite State; and the nobiliary reform of 1682 gave a new impulse to the feeling of genealogical pride. In this context, the first family arms began to be borne; and almost immediately this was officially recognised (at least for the noble lineages of foreign extraction, either recent or remote). So when in 1689 Princess Sophia was deposed from the regency, and Peter I gained the power to plan, prepare, and later to start his westernalist reforms, the Russian heraldry was already born. But it was Peter I who made first grants; appointed first officer of arms; managed the heraldisation of the state symbol; and legally prohibited usurpation of arms of a family for those who do not belong to it. Nevertheless, the free assumption of an armorial bearing was never prohibited as such, and coexisted with grants. The validity of such bearing depended on its being heraldically correct, original, and free of unbefitting attributes. In 1797 Paul I instituted the registration of noble arms; until the Revolutions of 1917, over 4660 arms were confirmed or granted by Imperial warrants; 2830 of them were duly registered(2). The legally assumed arms were thus cramped, but by no means supplanted, either legally or de facto.

From the very beginning, Russian armory was strongly influenced by Polish, German, and Scandinavian practices; Peter’s favourite heraldic adviser (Count James Bruce) was a Moscow-born patriot of Scotland; the first official heraldist, whose personal effect on the Russian armory was extremely strong (Count Francesco Santi), was a French-educated Italian from Piedmont(3). This import of rival forms, customs and notions resulted in spontaneous selectiveness of Russian heraldry. Only those features which matched the cultural and legal situation in Russia, were accepted and preserved. As a result, a pretty eclectic but specifically Russian tradition was formed: a truly unique and indigenous phenomenon of culture and public life, with its own specific customs and laws, masterpieces and curiosities. In a sense, Russian heraldry had too many objects of imitation to be just imitative.

In the course of XVIII and XIX centuries, numerous particular rules were established. For example, supporters were allowed for the titled and “old” (pre-1685) nobility as well as for those to whom they were granted by the Sovereign as an exceptional honour. Descendants of sovereign princes of old could enjoy a princely robe, even if the title was lost. The coronets (and caps) of rank could be placed either above or below a helmet, or in both positions. The coronet of an untitled noble could be substituted by a wreath (also an exclusively noble attribute) or omitted at all, the rank being indicated by the helmet. The system of the helmets of rank included grilled and tilting helmets (both categories being legally defined as noble), as well as the traditional Russian sharp-topped “Jericho caps”. In some cases, oriental helmets were borne.

It was frequently implied (under the Polish influence) that only a noble may be armigerous, although no formal ban of non-noble arms was ever proclaimed.

In accordance with the Russian traditional concept of a lineage, as well as with the Imperial laws on noble families, there was no “head of a family”, no person who would be alone entitled to represent his family and to bear its undebruised arms. Normally all lineage’s members, including women, were equal “co-representatives” and used no marks of cadency. In some rare cases (invariably defined by the Sovereign) a special version of arms, usually connected with a title, was granted only to a “senior member” (but not a “head”) of a family.

The heraldic possibilities of a lady were broader than those of a male armiger, for she shared the general right to use the arms (with a helm and a crest) of the family which was co-represented by her; but she also could enjoy her properly personal, specifically female version. Wives and widows enjoyed double family membership, and thus double heraldic rights. However, a lady could not transmit a right to arms. Even in the case of extinction of a family, its arms could not descend through any female line but by a Sovereign’s concession (legally equal to a grant of completely new arms).

The first civic arms, based on an ancient pre-heraldic emblem, were approved by the co-regnant Tsars Peter I and John V in 1692; this was followed in 1730 by a series of new grants. Thereafter, more than a thousand provincial and civic arms were established in the Russian Empire. These arms had a double task: first and foremost, they represented the Sovereign’s right to the particular territories; but they were also proudly borne by the local communities as symbols of their own, and accordingly used in provincial and municipal activities.

Hundreds of the civic arms granted after 1778, followed the specific “double-decker” pattern: per fess, provincial arms over the city’s own symbol. This purely administrative composition debased municipalities, raised justified objections from specialists, and was finally abolished in 1857 by Alexander II. According to the new pattern, the provincial upper halves should be replaced by cantons of provincial arms. Yet the vast majority of the local authorities did not dare to re-draw their arms by themselves; meanwhile the officers of arms, instead of making new drawings and mailing them out, indulged in the preparation of further reforms. Thus the original versions of these arms remained in de facto use and were generally believed to be valid.

Only in 1914 the national heraldic authority began a campaign for the proper execution of the decree, but this attempt was interrupted by the World War, and finally stopped by the revolutions.

* * *

Taking into consideration the Russian concept of family arms (described above), there is no wonder that the specific marks of cadency were extremely rare in the noble heraldry. However they were (and still are) successfully used in the local heraldry to denote the dependence and historical links, this being one of the special Russian heraldic curiosities.

If some arms were granted without any element to which the basic right was however enjoyed by the armiger (arms without a motto or with uncrested helmet and princely arms without supporters being frequent examples), this is normally not a conceptual omission but a structural gap which may be filled by assumption. The Imperial statutory principle which forbids any unauthorised “addition” or “removal” in the case of granted arms, is to be applied not to the achievement in general, but to its elements which are positively established by the grant.

This was, in short, the pre-revolutionary fundament of the Russian armory.

* * *

After the abdication of Nicolas II, his brother and newly appointed heir Michael (III) delegated the supreme power to the Constitutional assembly to be summoned and, temporarily, to the Provisional Government, which substituted the Imperial arms by a kind of a badge (an eagle without attributes, a field, and even without certain colours), and in its turn ceded to the Senate the right to grant family arms. For a short time, the grants continued, the last documents being signed just after the Bolshevist putch of 25 October 1917.

* * *

The reds abolished all the ranks and estates of the Russian society and all the nobiliary legislation. However, the heraldic legislation was not totally inseparable from the abolished honours and in principle all family arms, just like all family names, remained valid – as attributes not of a certain status, but of a family as such. Even the coronets, helmets of rank and supporters were, in principle, retainable as elements “de souvenir” (like the princely robes mentioned above). Until the 1920-ies, some nobles continued their armorial usages; new armorial bookplates were designed, printed and used; and the idea of a new, non-noble heraldry was openly discussed. But very soon the ideological pressure and the state terrorism made all this “heraldic survival” impossible. Similarly, the local arms were abolished not legally but ideologically. In 1920-ies, two reforms of territorial structure abolished the former governorships, areas and counties, and so their symbols lost the owners; but the civic arms remained (in pure theory) valid, and in some provincial cities they were occasionally borne until 1930-ies.

In the late 1960-ies, the situation somehow changed; the very idea of civic arms was partly rehabilitated. But such arms should be new and visibly proletarian, and full of political, industrial, agrarian and military symbols. Even if an old shield was used, it should be at least somehow distorted. All the heraldic conventions were neglected, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes by ignorance. The legal value of these “arms” was minimal. As a result of a totalitarian way of ruling, the State “arms” of Soviet Union and its member Republics (pretty unheraldic(4)) occupied all seals and letterheads of any importance, leaving no place for local arms. The new local symbol only could be used for ornamental purposes and for souvenirs (whence the typical collectors’ mania for ugly heraldic pins). The “Soviet” civic arms were approved by local councils or even party commitees, which theoretically could not overrule the original granting Imperial decrees; but in the Soviet Union it was just prudent not to appeal to that. In any case, showing their typical disrespect both to law and to heraldry, the communists never bothered to issue any legal abolition of the old local or family arms.

* * *

In 1992 the heraldic authority was revived in Russia: first as a part of a Government, and since 1994 as a special board to the President, the head of the State. In 1999 this board received its actual title: the Heraldic Council to the President. One of the first problems met by the authority was the collision between the historical and the Soviet civic symbols. This was solved (on the advice of the author of this text) by the recognition of full legal continuity in heraldic matters; the pre-revolutionary grants (as well as the armorial rules and conventions on which these grants are based) were proclaimed valid; and the Soviet-made “arms” were proclaimed null and void (in the case of the cities to which arms were granted before 1917) or at least liable to heraldising corrections (in the case of the previously non-armigerous cities).

The State coat of arms was established in 1993 by a Presidential decree; only in 2000 it gained the parliamentary approval. The eagle received the same crowns and regalia as in the Imperial arms but the colours were modified, evoking the pre-Petran, pre-heraldic period when the eagle had no certain tinctures but was often painted in gold over a bright red background. The Rider keeps his position overall but he is now turned to the sinister (the traditional attitude which was preserved prior to 1856) and is identified as just a horseman killing a dragon, not St. George (the latter explanation being a novelty of the early XVIII century, properly appliable to the arms of the city of Moscow and the Muscovian province only).

As a part of the State arms, the Rider stands for the “Russia ancient”, not for the Grand Duchy of Moscow, as it did since the Petran reforms. The Empire symbolised by “Or the eagle Sable” never existed without Ukraine and Bielorussia as does the modern Russia, and this territorial difference was the good reason for establishing the arms with a difference in tinctures. It was provided that with some exceptions only federal bodies will make use of the federal arms and thus a space was left for the symbols of provinces, counties, and cities. For these, since 1996, an obligatory registration is provided. The “State Heraldic Register” is kept by the Heraldic Council to the President but it is not the only instrument of heraldic validation, for the Council keeps also a special record of the private corporative bearings, and is entitled to produce, at the armiger’s will, expertise of personal arms and to issue correspondent letters of confirmation (although at present this latter practice is frozen). The Council takes no fees at all, so the usual letters of confirmation do not cost a penny but look strikingly modest. Only recently it became possible also to apply, on special conditions (the payment is to be made directly to the artist supervised by the Council), for a nicely painted certificate.

The Council supervises, and collaborates with, numerous heraldic bodies, State-established (the Heraldic commissions instituted in several provinces and some federal ministries) as well as private. Understandably, among both private and even State groups there are marginals which prefer bogus activities beyond their competence; and in these cases there is no collaboration with the Council, and obviously no proper legal effect.

Returning to the revival of the Russian historical heraldry: it should be kept in mind that not singular arms were restored but the general system. As it has been said, many cities never brought their armorial practice into conformity with the decree of 1857, so this is to be done now (taking account of the changed administrative context, as the decree’s flexible norms presume the correspondent changes of the arms), and the result often seems to be a novelty. Unlike civic arms, those of the provinces and counties are to be established ex novo, and although the Council tries to keep the old shields, the changes of the full achievements are inevitable. For example, since the first half of the XIX century the arms of the governorships (provinces of the first rank) were all ensigned with the Imperial crown which obviously did not “befit the degree” of the territories as such, and denoted not a special attention of the Monarch but merely the direct jurisdiction of the Emperor. Today it would be absolutely irrelevant to continue this usage, as, according to the Constitution, the actual provinces are States of their own within the Federation, not parts of the federal system of power. So the titular crowns of the Duchies, Grand Duchies and Principalities (borne in the XVIII century) were reanimated to ensign the actual provincial shields; the newer provinces to which no old titles correspond, may bear special coronets which also were invented in the XVIII century. The new system of the municipal coronets, which could match the new circumstances, is under discussion.

The supporters retain their importance of a rank attribute. They are allowed (but not prescribed) to provinces and their capital cities, and the cities which had old supporters may retain them irrespectively of the present position. In the case of families, they keep or obtain their supporters on the same conditions as before the revolution (including a possibility to assume new supporters if the basic rights to bear them belonged to the family in the Empire).

The grants once made by Emperors are fully recognised. However in some cases, if the original document was prepared too amateurishly (some tinctures were not blazoned, the design was not heraldically precise etc.), the omissions must be made up. This is called a “heraldic interpretation” and is not considered as a distortion of the original grant. Foreign grants are optional legal sources and should be brought into conformity with the Russian norms.

If there is no historical grant, the Council does not make a new grant, but confirms (or rejects) the arms assumed by the armiger. Such arms may be then changed at the armiger’s will.

All assumed arms, to be valid as arms, must correspond to some general rules. No unproven kinship, rank or legal link may be shown, no arms of a state, a province, or another “superior” may be quoted without a “double permission” (the superior’s formal concession authorised by the Council); no separable marshalling may be used, at least without some very special reason(5); the heraldic conditions of colours & direction should be observed(6), all elements, including motto, should have certain tinctures; armiger’s name cannot serve as a motto or substituted for it; existing buildings & articles should be either avoided or turned into conventional symbolical analogies, and the attributes of the modern time are to be treated similarly; no inscriptions, characters and numbers are allowed inside the shield. The borders, bends overall and labels are normally not allowed as common charges but they are not infrequent as territorial brisures, modo Rossico. No helmets, and thus no crests, are allowed to municipalities and corporations. No wreaths of leaves around the shield (once uniformly borne by administrative areas of the Empire) are allowed to the actual provinces and municipalities, these elements being considered in Russia as purely administrative attributes, improper for autonomous entities.

If a graphic standard for a coat-of-arms is provided by the correspondent local laws or by-laws, the registration is to be rejected by the Council, for “frozen arms are dead”.

As to the provincial, county and civic heraldry, these general norms were described in my brochure “Territorial and municipal arms” (S.-Petersburg, 1998) which was originally written as a kind of a short analytic study (the norms being deduced from the Russian precedents rather than just proposed), but then was published as a formal public clarification, and became the first official code of heraldic norms in the modern Russia.

In these and many other cases, the Council shows a consistent creative traditionalism. But what is traditionalism? That is the question often asked, whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to preserve a familiar picture, or to change it, preserving the basic heraldic logic, the armorial language? During the three centuries of the Russian heraldic history, the Russian officers of arms preferred the latter, and so they usually do so far. For example, it appeared to be up to the modern Russian armorists, in accordance to the legal basis of local symbolism, and to major distress of many amateurs, to put the Alexandrine reform of 1857 into practice. In this and in many other cases, the old rules provide modern Russian heraldry with a firm foundation, which results in dynamism and rapid development.

* * *

As to other official bodies: there are numerous provincial heraldic councils, commissions and boards, established by the provincial authorities and working under the patronage of the federal Council. It should be noted that in several provinces these commissions are empowered to keep the records of personal arms.

There is a pretender from the Kirillovich branch of the Romanov family (although this branch was excluded from the succession and now is separated from the Imperial House), Princess Mary, who issue grants of arms. The real Head of the House, the King of the Hellenes, prefers not to act in his Russian sovereign capacity. The legitimate corporations of the Russian nobility also are not heraldically active, although they could keep “official” (within the virtual Imperial system) records of the members’ arms, and are the only heirs to the pre-revolutionary provincial and county bearings(7).

The majority of the false “Orders of Malta” pretend to trace their history back to the Russian branch of the catholic Sovereign Order. Some of these “Orders” are “doing something heraldic”. It is a proven fact, however, that the Russian branch, which existed indeed temp. Paul I and Alexander I, did not survive, either de jure or de facto, and that all the “successors” of it are impostors.


1. Several coats of arms of Russian nobles mirror the narrative style of an icon, the complicated allegorism, or certain motives of Byzantine origin (an eagle killing a serpent etc.); but such “native” features are neither characteristic of the Russian armory in general, nor unique within the European context.

2. Of the twenty volumes of the register (The General Armorial of the Noble Families), only the first ten volumes were published and became widely known. This forms a somehow distorted image of the Russian armory in general.

3. According to a legend, the Santi descend from a man who once came with Normans from England!

4. These “arms” were themselves a reflection of the common political symbolism (hammer and sickle as a mark of the social segregation, the red star [Mars] of war) showing the Communist party’s omnipotence.

5. Only one helmet is allowed likewise. Marshalled shields and extra helmets are rather numerous in the General Armorial, especially in the 10 published volumes; but it should be kept in mind that these “additions” are the specific honours granted or graciously confirmed by the Sovereign.

6. However it is allowed to turn the beasts and tools to the sinister for the historical or symbolic reasons, and to use ordinaries and sub-ordinaries “cousues” and of the “shade colour”.

7. The Union of Nobility (once founded by the emigrés) with the headquarters in Paris is now too cautious in the heraldic affairs, and so is the Assembly of Nobility of the Governorship of St.Petersburg (which at least sports the proper heraldic emblem: the provincial arms on the Imperial eagle’s breast). The Baltic and Finnish noble corporations ceased to be Russian even in the modest measure in which they were sometime. The Muscovial provincial Assembly, being integrated into a larger association, keeps no self-standing heraldic activities. All other noble and quasi-noble Russian bodies cannot claim the pre-revolutionary legal heritage.

© 2006 The.Heraldry.Ru / M. Medvedev