In Dostoevsky's The Idiot, the main character is Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin. Sometimes the word "prince" almost seems an honorary title, e.g.

"Here you all are now," the prince began, "looking at me with such curiosity that if I don't satisfy it, you may well get angry with me."

But usually it's mentioned casually, and the other characters certainly don't treat Prince Lev as some kind of royalty.

What were princes, and about how many were there (100? 100,000?) in those times? Were they respected for this title? Or was it mostly an empty salutation?

  • 1
    Bear in mind that "prince" is itself a fantastically ambiguous term, dating from the Roman republic, where the princeps was the leader of the Senate, and doesn't always imply royalty. So: great question!
    – Gaurav
    Jan 19, 2017 at 20:45
  • 1
    The same question for many other Russian books! I had this question in mind for a long time, it never crossed my mind to ask here :)
    – virolino
    Apr 20, 2023 at 6:53

1 Answer 1


Something like a duke, and the title wasn't all that special.

The English word "prince" is translated from the Russian "knyaz (князь)", which could be used either to denote a member of the royal family or more commonly a member of the nobility. Men directly related to the Tsar were usually called Velikiy Knyaz or Grand Prince instead. "Knyaz" can also be translated as "duke", which would probably give a more accurate idea of Prince Myshkin's status.

As the Tsardom of Russia gained dominion over much of former Kievan Rus', Velikii Kniaz (Great Kniaz) Ivan IV of Russia in 1547 was crowned as Tsar. From the mid-18th century onwards, the title Velikii Kniaz was revived to refer to (male-line) sons and grandsons of Russian Emperors. [...]

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.

From the 18th century onwards, the title was occasionally granted by the Tsar, for the first time by Peter the Great to his associate Alexander Menshikov, and then by Catherine the Great to her lover Grigory Potemkin. After 1801, with the incorporation of Georgia into the Russian Empire, various titles of numerous local nobles were controversially rendered in Russian as "kniazes". Similarly, many petty Tatar nobles asserted their right to style themselves "kniazes" because they descended from Genghis Khan

I haven't found a good figure for how many knyazi there were in Russia around the time when The Idiot was set, but given the size of Russia, the variety of places a man could pick up this title, and the generally large families of the Russian aristocracy of the time, I would expect at least thousands. This is supported by a Russian Wikipedia page listing hundreds of Knyaz families.

Our hero Prince Myshkin isn't a royal figure, or one of the highest nobles in the country. He's more like a son of a decaying aristocratic family which has lost most of its money. This is also quite apparent from the text of the novel, IMO - the word "prince" is thrown around quite casually, and he's never treated with special reverence due to his title.

  • A close equivalent titles are "Fürst" and scandinavian "konungr"
    – DVK
    Jan 19, 2017 at 12:05
  • The Knyazes! The sky is full of them! ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – DVK
    Jan 19, 2017 at 12:05
  • The closest real world last name I can find is Князья Мышецкие (ВКР)
    – DVK
    Jan 19, 2017 at 12:10
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    @DVK Hundreds of families in your link? Then it's probably safe to assume thousands of princes. (I was actually going to put "thousands", but was worried it might be an overestimate.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 19, 2017 at 12:38
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    Related (mostly because HNQ link was RIGHT near the comment box :): scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/150543/…
    – DVK
    Jan 19, 2017 at 14:57

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