Revisiting the Russian Rural Commune

I’ve recently taken on a project that has required me to revisit some earlier work on the Russian rural commune.  (That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to do it.) It’s been interesting to discover how my thinking about it has evolved since then and to consider new ways to approach the subject. This exercise has also reminded me about the origins of my skepticism toward explanations for social or political or economic outcomes that involve notions of “collectivism” or “individualism” or other phenomena we connect to larger value systems or mentalités – and the nature of many proxies used to measure them and their effects in historical contexts.

This is not to say that these are not worthwhile subjects of study. On the contrary, they are interesting and important. It is to say that things aren’t always what they seem – especially when it comes to past societies.

For nearly two centuries, Russia has been considered the collectivist society par excellence (especially by those outside Russia). Any cursory google search involving the term collectivism will invariably give you something about Russia. The best known characteristics of the pre-Soviet countryside appeared to confirm this view: communal organization of rural society, communal land tenure and tax allocation, and large, extended multi-generational households. Debates about the origins of such features gradually gave way to a stylized narrative around collectivist values, which got built into scholarship from intellectual history to peasant studies. Although some micro-level studies on the inner workings of communal society painted a more complex picture, basic assumptions about Russia’s collectivist culture and the commune as its ideal expression have proved difficult to shift.

This is where my own interest in the commune began, and my earlier research was framed in these terms. Stumbling happily upon an estate archive that documented so many different aspects of peasant life made it possible to examine those features of the rural commune that weren’t visible on the surface. The census-like documents showing extended, multi-generational families didn’t show the many rejected petitions for household separation, the requests for poor relief that were denied, or the notarized contracts between members of these households that stipulated terms of credit agreements, inheritance, the division of tax obligations, and other sources of intra-household conflict. The records documenting the allocation (and period re-allocation) of communal land did not show that the bulk of the communal land was held by a few prosperous families (whose households were not large and who did not live from agriculture) and that this remained the case during the 50-70 years for which there were documents. They also did not show the complaints by peasants about village officials keeping communal land in reserve to rent to outsiders for their own profit or their attempts to collect extra taxes from villagers and pocket them. There were no indications in the documents pertaining directly to communal affairs that villagers were buying land privately on the side to bolster their earnings or hiring labor to work communal land they did not want in the first place and could not work themselves. When one sees these sides of communal life, it is not surprising at all that there was such strong demand for extra-local dispute resolution and enforcement mechanisms.

It turned out that most of the superficial signs of collectivism in the Russian countryside were responses to constraints posed by the local institutional framework within which the commune figured prominently. This was not only true on private landlords’ estates but also (perhaps even more so) on crown lands, where the volume of complaints (from peasants) about communal administration was at least part of the push to reform in the 1830s.

Behind the communes and extended family units were individuals pursuing strategies that looked very similar to those found in past societies not usually described as collectivist. These are the findings one remembers when one encounters the frequent elision of commune, the political-administrative entity, which we can observe and study on different levels, and commune, the more abstract entity, which implies something about shared values and norms and solidarities (and is, I would argue, more difficult to observe in historical contexts).

The estate archives used for that project provided a view of the commune from the ground up.  From that vantage point, it seemed that the crown might have done away with the commune – and communal land tenure and tax allocation –  as part of the 1861 Emancipation legislation, if they had been really serious about reforming the countryside. It would have removed some onerous constraints for those on the ground whose individual- or household-level strategies were continuously thwarted by communal considerations.

This new project views the commune not from below, but from the vantage point of a fiscally-strapped administratively weak central state.  And from this point of view, the feasibility of abandoning this institutional crutch in 1861 seems highly unlikely.  Especially once noble landlords no longer had an incentive to perform their old administrative functions for the state. Under serfdom, the rural commune became an administrative artifact of a weak state and of weak or absentee landlords.  Using peasant communes to allocate and collect taxes, administer poor relief, organize the upkeep of local infrastructure, and fulfill conscription levies kept costs to landlords and the state low. It also created a disincentive to invest in a system to replace it, which meant the state found its choices highly constrained at the time of the reforms.

However, keeping the commune in place (perhaps even strengthening it by assigning it some of the administrative roles landlords held previously) may have made later reforms even more difficult. It was realized, eventually, that the commune – or at least certain aspects of it, especially communal land tenure – were impeding agrarian development and a new set of reforms was planned and implemented in the early twentieth century. But just as the Romantic idea of the commune had become embedded over time in scholarship, the administrative reality had become embedded, over centuries, in the institutional architecture. And it wasn’t only the central state that had become dependent on it. Peasants themselves, particularly those who had benefitted as communal officials or recipients of large allotments, were not so keen to leave or, more problematically, to let their fellow villagers leave. (Conflicts similar to those described above under serfdom have been observed during the Stolypin reforms.) There is some evidence that this round of reforms had a positive impact on agricultural productivity but whether it brought – or would have brought if given the time – real institutional change is still an open question.


  • Tracy Dennison

    I am Professor of Social Science History at the California Institute of Technology. I am interested primarily in the character and role of institutions in premodern societies, and how they affected the decisions ordinary people made in their everyday lives. To date, my work has focused on the role of entities like states, landlords, communities, and households in central and Eastern Europe before 1900. My current research project examines the relationship between state capacity and the rise and decline of serfdom in Europe, in particular the cases of Prussia and Russia.

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