Thursday, March 18, 2021

Soviet water law

"And Defeat Drought", by Viktor Govorkov (1949)
Both Central Asian and Soviet water law are underexplored in the English-language literature, so I was excited when a friend recently pointed me to an article by Beatrice Penati in the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, "Continuities and Novelties in Early Soviet Law-Making about Central Asian Water". The article uncovers not only generally unknown histories of water law, but new jurisprudential angles as well. Instead of the abstract, here's an excerpt from the introduction (notes omitted):

The present essay explores the definition of the water rights and water-related obligations of the peasants vis-à-vis the Soviet State. On one level, this study highlights the very high degree of continuity in both personnel and goals between pre- and post-revolutionary “lawfare” in the field of Central Asian water rights and water usage. It also shows how, although Bolshevism offered a solid ideological justification for the supremacy of State rights, it was not easy for this personnel to codify the State-centric approach to water governance in the new Soviet context. As the reader will discover, this is more the story of attempts to regulate, than of effective regulation.

The close observation of these attempts reveals how, in the field of water rights, one could find examples of two opposing situations: a stratification of formal regulations none of which was considered as ultimately binding, and texts that bound even in the absence of a formal sanction. This begs a few further reflections: first, one can ask whether this disorder was deliberately used as a tool of Soviet power, as argued recently by Christian Teichmann, also writing about Soviet irrigation in Central Asia. Second, one must reconsider what made a law in the light of socialist legal theory, thereby nuancing the notion that socio-economic change (here, in the field of water rights) originated from State decisions.

By analysing systematically what inspired and stymied these attempts at the regulation of water, this essay contends that early Soviet “lawfare” about Central Asian water—especially efforts at systematic codification premised on the supremacy of State rights—was constrained by two factors. The first, in continuity with the colonial period, was the persistent idea that indigenous water systems were ultimately impenetrable to outside observers: due to their supposed “irrationality” and “primitiveness”, these systems had been (and still were) regarded as both economically inefficient and impossible to reform, to the point that concessions to “custom” had to be made even after the consolidation of Soviet rule. The second, new factor was the early Soviet de-colonisation imperative, understood here (following Georgii Safarov) as both liberation from the relics of settler colonialism and from those “exploitative elements” which Russian imperialism had supposedly nurtured. This ideological option marked a profound discontinuity with the Tsarist regime in Central Asia, by defining the perimeter of the experts’ legislative initiative. That this factor was ultimately decisive is shown, by contrast, by the fact that socio-economic realities in the field of water and land rights were reshaped more by revolutionary initiatives, than by systematic efforts to change water laws. Despite (or because of) the proliferation of texts, drafts, and commissions, effective transformation did not require more (or more careful) law-writing, but for the Soviets and Party to invest other power resources (e.g. propaganda, coercion, financial means) to achieve a degree of social mobilisation in favour of radical reforms.

For earlier Imperial Russian water law in Central Asia, see here

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