The Russian Obshchina as an Economic Institution

By Barnett, Vincent | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Russian Obshchina as an Economic Institution


Barnett, Vincent, Journal of Economic Issues


Anton Oleinik's article "Model of Network Capitalism: Post-Soviet Evidence" suggested that there was an ongoing continuity between some prerevolutionary Russian economic institutions and some post-Soviet economic practices, in particular regarding the localization of transactions involved in "network capitalism" (2004). According to Oleinik, at least some of the practices inherited from the prerevolutionary Russian commune (obshchina, incorrectly transliterated by Oleinik as obshina) could be found in Soviet work collectives and also (more surprisingly) in firms that have appeared more recently as a consequence of the "market" reforms of the 1990s (88). Contrary to this view, it will be argued here that to make an analogy between the Tsarist obshchina and post-Soviet "network capitalism" is in some respects a misleading juxtaposition that shows insufficient regard for accurate historical specificity in a number of significant areas.

First, Oleinik suggested that the obshchina was effectively closed to the outside world and was hostile to strangers (2004, 90-91). This is not accurate, as in fact special elected officials were chosen to mediate relations with noncommune institutions. Relations between the prerevolutionary commune and the outside world were sometimes difficult in part because of geographical and transportation issues, which do not apply in anything like the same form in Russia today. Second, Oleinik claimed that the obshchina was based on the principle 'Tll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" (88). In fact the commune was based on principles of common ownership of property, extended family unity, and the periodic redistribution of arable land. The back-scratching phrase usually has a mafia-style corruption connotation that has little in common with the communal practices of the Tsarist obshchina. Collective-based Russian peasants were not violent Sicilian peasant entrepreneurs.

Third, Oleinik's suggestion that there was an affinity between the prerevolutionary obshchina and the Soviet collective farm (kolkhoz) is not accurate. The Soviet collective farm involved state-based ownership and control, which in effect meant Communist Party--directed control, and was forced onto peasants in the 1930s against their will. The pre-revolutionary obshchina was a genuine peasant collective organization, albeit with a hierarchical ruling structure within but with no final controlling body from without. It was peasants themselves who had supported the commune, and the government-sponsored Stolypin reforms of 1906 and after had attempted to encourage peasants to leave this institution in favor of private ownership of the land.

The precise form and internal resilience of the Russian commune is still a controversial topic among historians today, but most commentators accept some general features. For example, Baron August von Haxthausen wrote contemporaneously:

   The expanded family is the Russian commune. The land belongs to the
   family or the commune with the individual enjoying only the right to
   use it. Because everyone in the community has exactly the same
   rights, the land is equally divided among all the living for
   temporary use. Consequently, the right of the children to inherit
   their father's allotment cannot exist. (von Haxthausen 1972,
   9)

Other features of the peasant commune highlighted by Haxthausen included rule by a respected elder, family unity, a specific principle of land allotment (which varied by commune), and fields divided into square plots that were then subdivided into long strips. …

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