Law & the Culture of Debt in Moscow, 1850-1870


A review of Law and the Culture of Debt in Moscow on the Eve of the Great Reforms, 1850-1870, by Sergei Antonov.

In one of the most famous scenes in Russian literature, Raskolnikov, the (anti)hero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, murders the pawnbroker and moneylender Alena Ivanovna, a crime he justifies to himself as the eradication of a worthless social parasite. In his 2011 dissertation, Sergei Antonov shows us that whatever their debtors’ opinions of them, lenders such as Alena Ivanovna were by no means the marginal figures depicted in nineteenth century novels, and indeed they, and the networks of credit and debt of which they were a part, were central to the economic and social functioning of the Russian empire in the late imperial period. Arguing that by the 1850s, “the network of personal credit connections in Russia and in particular in Moscow was large and independent of any state or private formal credit institutions” (p. 39), Antonov paints a picture of overwhelmingly informal mid-nineteenth century debt networks that cut across social and estate (soslovie) boundaries, contradicting the classic view of imperial Russian society as one stifled by the autocratic state and rigidly policed social hierarchies. Going beyond the social and cultural history of debt, Antonov also demonstrates the ways in which individual litigants engaged the legal system and in particular the oft-maligned pre-1864 reform courts in their efforts to win redress through the law regulating debt. By thus integrating his discussion of the culture of debt in nineteenth century Moscow with a careful and richly detailed study of the workings of Russian courts prior to the watershed moment of 1864, Antonov provides an important intervention into two sadly understudied areas of Russian history; namely, the social history of the economy and the history of pre-reform legal culture.

Antonov opens his study with an examination of the structures, relationships and social ties that constituted the credit networks of mid-nineteenth century Moscow, looking in particular at the social profiles of debtors and creditors and arguing for both strong vertical and horizontal lending networks that manifested in socially mixed and heterogeneous creditor profiles. In Chapter One, Antonov engages with the extensive literature on imperial Russia’s soslovie (estate) system, arguing alongside scholars such as Elise Kimmerling Wirtschafter that while legal definitions of soslovie were not insignificant, estate boundaries were porous and “in practice subverted by individuals” (p.76). Chapter Two looks at the everyday experience and culture of borrowing and lending, asking what these practices can tell us about the engagement of Russian subjects with the local economy and arguing that, contrary to the claims of earlier scholars, the Russian state was far from antagonistic towards lending. Antonov comes to this conclusion through an examination of the backgrounds of, and legal restrictions on, people who practised usury, stating that while technically penalties for certain types of lending remained in the legal codes until the end of the nineteenth century, individuals were rarely prosecuted and punishments were mild.

Chapter Three explores some of the more sensational cases of debt prosecution in the nineteenth century, those that involved ‘white collar crime’, a term that Antonov argues applies to a number of cases of large-scale fraud and embezzlement that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. According to Antonov, cases such as that of pyramid-scheme perpetuator and suicide-stager Aleksandr Saltykov reveal the major weakness of the law surrounding debt in the era of Alexander II; namely, the complicated, unwieldy and loosely regulated nature of the private borrowing networks that resulted from the continued reluctance of the tsarist government to sponsor the development of formal credit institutions. Chapter Four examines the interaction between kinship networks and debt relations in the nineteenth century, arguing that private debt relationships between family members were common and thus the study of debt can reveal much about the internal workings of Russian families and particularly the gender relations structuring these relationships in the period. As many historians of the period note, Russian law was unique in permitting married women to own and control property separate from their husbands, a practice explored in detail in Michelle Marrese’s A Woman’s Kingdom: Noblewomen and the Control of Property in Russia 1700-1861 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002). Antonov argues that this legal set up inspired creative attempts to confound debt litigation, as indebted individuals protected family property by moving it between spouses and thus circumventing attempts to force repayment. Further, spouses could use debt litigation to get around the rule of separate property or alternatively, use it as financial leverage, as “a debt obligation could shift the balance of power within the relationship and, for example, allow a wife to gain a divorce from an unwilling husband, or to allow either spouse to tap into the other’s property that would otherwise have been off-limits to them.”(p. 223). In this way, the laws surrounding debt worked symbiotically with those surrounding property to structure economic relations within families and between genders.

Chapter Five provides a fascinating discussion of the practice of debt imprisonment in Moscow, which as Antonov notes has undeservedly been ignored by historians. While debt imprisonment may be more likely to evoke Dickens than Dostoevsky, Antonov argues that it was a major part of the tsarist regulatory mechanism surrounding money lending, and also raises questions about the traditional picture of Nicholas I’s paternalistic regime as one that suppressed private initiative. Indeed, debt imprisonment itself was something enforced by the law but carried out on behalf and at the expense of the individual creditor, something Antonov considers “a surprising concession by the autocratic regime of what we today view as a major prerogative of the centralized modern state”(p. 225). Examining the plights of those individuals who were not able to repay their debts, Antonov also looks at the charity networks that developed in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of the indebted, thus challenging the notion that debt itself elicited little sympathy in nineteenth century Russia.

Chapter Six explores the legal formalities of debt relations in the Russian empire, looking at specific documents and the kinds of debt relations they regulated, such as zaim (simple loan regulated by civil law) and veksel (bill of exchange). In this chapter Antonov argues that the increasing proliferation of such formalities and the complexities they produced led many debtors and creditors, even the wealthy, to simply refuse to adopt them, and to turn to legal requirements many considered ‘safer’ (such as structuring deals as sales of collateral rather than debt). Chapter Seven uses the category of debt as a prism through which to explore the operation of Moscow’s pre-reform court system. This chapter explores and challenges in detail various negative claims that have been made about the pre-reform court system, from excessive formalism to insufficient autonomy from the state, arguing that “even though many structural elements of pre-reform courts appeared anachronistic by the mid-nineteenth century, their practical impact was modified in practice and adapted to practical circumstances and to the imperative of protecting private property and thus social stability” (p. 302). Chapter Eight narrows the focus to civil procedure and debt litigation, looking in particular at the kinds of out-of-court procedures in which lenders may have engaged in order to recover their debts. In this chapter, Antonov interrogates not only the ways in which the state aimed to regulate debt through law, but also the ways in which individuals could work against or around this system in their attempts to reach out-of-court settlement or to thwart attempts to recover debts.

Throughout the dissertation, Antonov explicitly engages with recent trends in the history and theory of law that seek to place legal systems in their political, social and cultural contexts, as well as the analogous shift towards the study of legal practice rather than writ in Russian historiography. By doing so, he presents a picture of pre-reform courts that were far more workable, and individual engagement with the law that was far more active, than the traditional image proffered by historians of this period. As such, Antonov’s dissertation is as much a rethinking of Russian legal history as it is an exploration of the history of debt and finance. He argues that, although important, it is not enough to show that legislation and practice were not one and the same in imperial Russia; indeed this should be a starting rather than end point of research. Instead, Antonov aims to “show the precise mechanisms that allowed the transition of legal rules into practice. These mechanisms were inscribed in Russia’s laws relating to contracts, loans and bills of exchange, which were at once detailed and formal, and yet left much to the discretion of creditors and debtors” (p. 299). This careful attention to detail and elaboration of the complex and mutually constitutive relationship of ‘law as written’ and ‘law as practiced’ make the dissertation, and will make subsequent publications based on this project, invaluable not only to economic and legal historians but to all those interested in the social and cultural history of the imperial period.

Philippa Hetherington
Department of History
Harvard University

Primary Sources

Central Historical Archive of Moscow (Tsentral’nyi Istoricheskii Arkhiv Moskvy)
State Archive of the Russian Federation (Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii)
Polnoe Sobranie Zakonov Rossiiskoi Imperii 1649-1913 Voenno-statisticheskoe obozrenie Rossiiskoi imperii (1851,1853)

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2011. 428 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard Wortman.


Image: Photograph by Sergei Antonov

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