(from Polish, mieszczanin, “townsman”), in prerevolutionary Russia, a social class that comprised various categories of townspeople, such as craftsmen, tradespeople, and small householders. From the 14th to the 17th century, townspeople in the southern and western regions of Russia belonging to Lithuania and Poland were called meshchane, and in the 17th century the term was applied to the townspeople of the Smolensk area. Under the provincial reforms of 1775, posadskie liudi (traders and artisans) who owned less than 500 rubles were classified as meshchane. The meshchane paid a poll tax and were obligated to provide recruits for military service; their freedom of movement was limited.
Membership in the meshchanstvo class was hereditary. Meshchane who grew wealthy rose into the kupechestvo (merchant class), and bankrupt merchants became meshchane. Some emancipated serfs also became meshchane. The meshchane of each city, posad (traders’ and artisans’ quarter), and small town constituted a separate community headed by an elder (meshchanskii starosta) and his assistants. In 1811 there were 949,900 meshchane in Russia, accounting for 35.1 percent of the urban population; by 1897, the number increased to 7,449,300, or 44.3 percent of urban dwellers. As a result of the reforms of the 1860’s many meshchane entered government service or became members of the liberal professions. As a social class the meshchanstvo existed in Russia until the Great October Socialist Revolution.
In a figurative sense the term meshchane is applied to philistines—people whose views and behavior are characterized by egoism and individualism, money grubbing, and indifference to political issues, ideas, and principles.