Theses Doctoral

Law and the Culture of Debt in Moscow on the Eve of the Great Reforms, 1850-1870

Antonov, Sergei Alexandrovich

This dissertation is a legal and cultural history of personal debt in mid-nineteenth-century Moscow region. Historians have shown how the judicial reform of 1864 dismantled an old legal apparatus that was vulnerable to administrative interference and ultimately depended upon the tsar's personal authority, replacing it with independent judges, jury trials, and courtroom oratory. But as many legal scholars will agree, political rhetoric about law and high-profile appellate cases fail to capture the full diversity of legal phenomena. I therefore study imperial Russian law in transition from the perspective of individuals who used the courts and formed their legal strategies and attitudes about law long before the reform. I do so through close readings of previously unexamined materials from two major archives in Russia: the Central Historical Archive of Moscow and the State Archive of the Russian Federation, including the records of county- and province-level courts and administrative bodies, supplemented by the records of the charitable Imperial Prison Society. I also analyze the relevant legislation found in imperial Russia's Complete Collection of the Laws. Specific topics covered in the study include the cultural and social profiles of creditors and debtors and of their relations, the connection between debt and kinship structures and strategies, the institution of debt imprisonment and its rituals, various aspects of court procedure, as well as the previously unstudied issue of white-collar crime in imperial Russia. I have found that debt was ubiquitous in Russian life, as in other pre-industrial societies in which cash was scarce, incomes erratic, and formal credit institutions insufficient. It was also overwhelmingly personal, relying heavily on kinship, acquaintance, and the reputations of borrowers and lenders. My research contradicts the conventional view of Russian society at mid-century as a system of predominantly separate and closed estates. The system of private credit centered in Moscow connected merchants, civil servants, and the landowning gentry, and even wealthy peasants, some of whom lived or owned property in far-away provinces (privately-owned serfs were of course subordinate to their landlords in matters involving property). The credit network was sufficiently extensive and diverse to place an additional burden on Russia's already overworked legal system. The central theme of my study is the engagement of ordinary Russian lenders and borrowers of varying wealth and status, male and female, with each other and with the legal system (and through it with the state) during a crucial turning point in Russia's social and political history. My research also questions the dominant notion of a closed system of inquisitorial justice in pre-reform courts. The cases I examined reveal the pre-reform legal process as messy, incomplete, polyphonic, and open to extra-legal influences, including those of tsarist administrative officials. Private individuals retained significant discretion and initiative both according to the law and in practice, beginning with the way a debt transaction was formalized and ending with the decision to imprison a debtor or to commit an insolvent to a criminal trial. I therefore argue that pre-reform law with all its faults was a site of conflict, cooperation, and negotiation among diverse individuals seeking to protect and promote their property interests and between private persons and government officials. I show the law to be a key tool for Russia's propertied classes for asserting their own rights against other private individuals and/or against the state. Thus, I reinterpret the relationship between individuals and the administration, modifying the commonly held view of the Nicholaevan bureaucracy as a monolith imposing itself on the tsar's subjects. As the only study of imperial civil law in practice, this dissertation offers unique evidence on the operations of state and society in Russia at the key period of the Great Reforms, as well as establishes a basis for understanding subsequent legal developments.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Wortman, Richard S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 16, 2011