Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Public property in Imperial Russia

Ivan Bilibin, Vasilisa the Beautiful at the Hut of Baba Yaga

A while back we noted the LSA's honorable mention for of Ekaterina Pravilova's A Public Empire: Property and the Quest for the Common Good in Imperial Russia (Princeton UP, 2014) and expressed the hope that we'd hear more about the book soon. The American Historical Review answered our prayer; its latest issue has a review by John Randolph. Some excerpts:
Pravilova perceptively observes that although historians have long debated the status of private property in Russia, little attention has been paid to public goods, distinct from the domains of the Romanovs and those of their individual subjects. Pursuing this quest for a “res publica in the imperial state” across many cultural realms—from forestry and mineralogy to arts and letters—Pravilova presents it as a powerful force in late imperial life. Though only fitfully realized before the October Revolution, this ambition encouraged the prominence of “rule by experts” in Russian statecraft, a heritage handed down to the Soviet state. It also stimulated popular demands to institutionalize the common good, expropriating it where necessary from private hands. Indeed, Pravilova argues, the greatest legacy of the search for a public domain in imperial Russia was to present a change in property rights as the essential foundation of progress, obscuring and in some cases occluding other kinds of political and economic reform.
Pravilova's engrossing study opens with a paradox. Liberal theory has long seen rule of law as the foundation of property rights. Yet autocratic Russia, where the sovereign's will was often understood to stand above all law, possessed one of the absolute property regimes in Europe, giving owners sweeping rights to hold, use, and defend their estates. Pravilova explains this by arguing that the invention of private property in its modern form in Russia rested on a promise—made by Catherine the Great and her successors—that property rights were guaranteed irrevocably and inalienably by the autocracy itself. Those who sought to limit private use of natural resources, such as the fish caught on a river or the fallen wood in the heart of a forest, had to argue that the monarch's inviolable and unlimited promise was not so inviolable and unlimited after all. For much of the first half of the nineteenth century, this proved too steep a hill to climb. As a result free Russia became a veritable ownership society. All manner of grand enterprises (capitalist or autocratic) were complicated by the individual rights of myriad landlords. The state-led emancipation of Russia's serfs in 1861 deepened this conundrum, “[leaving] the state face to face with millions of people and new proprietors, who before the reform had been placed under the administration of their landlords” (p. 57).
All the same, in the second half of the nineteenth century this fractured proprietary geography saw its absolute dominion restrained and at points undone by apologists for public property, according to Pravilova. She conceptualizes this shift neither as a purely legal evolution in property law, nor as a public campaign with a specific chronology or set of actors, but as an “ongoing reformist project” (p. 138) that labored, in an uncoordinated fashion, for much of the second half of the nineteenth century. To make this claim, she works across cultural realms with impressive fluidity, showing how similar notions animated agents in arenas as seemingly diverse as hydrology, philology, and church governance. In each of these areas, experts staked claims for cultural patrimony, arguing that a portion of Russia's rivers, religious architecture, and even its poets' private letters had to be reserved, preserved, and managed by the state. Most generally, Pravilova characterizes this “project” as reflecting a tension in the history of liberalism in Russia. Though absolute property rights had been presented by Russia's absolute rulers as an example of imperial freedom, over time society's sense of its own right to develop freely seemed to require the creation of a common inheritance so that Russia could reach its true potential. Pravilova suggests that this imperial “public domain” was far from finished or secure by 1917, but that its ideals nevertheless helped frame the radical solutions Soviet power would bring thereafter as the new state nationalized the empire and empowered science to rule it on the people's behalf.

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