Free Economic Society

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The Free Economic Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture and Husbandry, established in 1765 to consider ways to improve the rural economy of the Russian Empire, became a center of scientific research and practical activities designed to improve agriculture and, after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the life of the peasantry. "Free" in the sense that it was not subordinated to any government department or the Academy of Sciences, the society served as a bridge between science, agriculture, and reform until shut down during World War I. It sponsored a wide variety of research in the natural and social sciences as well as essay competitions, publishing reports and essays in Transactions of the Free Economic Society (comprising 280 volumes by 1915), and nine other periodicals.

Founded under the sponsorship of Catherine the Great, who provided funds for a building and library, as well as a reformist agenda influenced by physiocratic ideas, the society brought together noble landowners, government officials, and scholars to study and disseminate information on advanced methods of agriculture and estate management, particularly as practiced abroad. Papers were presented on rural economic activities, new technologies, and economic ideas that could be applied to Russia. Young men were sent abroad to study agronomy. At the initiative of Catherine, the society's first essay competition examined the utility of serfdom for the commonweal, but the winning essay, which opposed serfdom, was ignored.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the society's membership came to include more scientists, professionals, and officials, and fewer landowners. Its work focused on discussion of advanced ideas in agronomy, medicine, and the developing sciences of chemistry and biology. After 1830 the society concentrated on practical applications of technology to agriculture. Among its most important projects were research on the best varieties of plants to grow on Russian soil, efforts to improve crop yields and sanitary measures, and the introduction of smallpox vaccination into rural areas.

After the accession of Alexander II in 1855, the society threw itself into reform efforts and greatly expanded its activities. It offered popular lectures on physics, chemistry, and forestry. It entered the fight against illiteracy and in 1861 established a committee to study popular education. It supported research on soil science, agricultural economics, demography, and rural sociology, and carried out systematic geographic studies. To educate the newly freed peasantry, the society initiated a wide range of activities, mounting agricultural exhibits, establishing experimental farms, encouraging the use of chemical fertilizer and industrial crops, promoting scientific animal husbandry and beekeeping, and expanding its efforts to vaccinate the peasantry against smallpox. As part of its educational mission, the society published popular works on agriculture and distributed millions of pamphlets and books free of charge.

Increasingly, as the society became a forum for progressive economic thought critical of government policy toward the peasantry, its work took on political dimensions. The government revoked its charter in 1899, ordering it to confine its activities to agricultural research. Nonetheless, in 1905 the society supported the election of a constitutional assembly and after 1907 published surveys of peasant opinion on the land reforms proposed by Interior Minister Peter Stolypin that were implicitly critical of government policy. During World War I the tsarist government closed down the society because of its oppositional stance, and the new Soviet government formally abolished it in 1919.

See also: agrarian reforms; agriculture; moscow agricultural society; stolypin, peter arkadievich


Pratt, Joan Klobe. (1983). "The Russian Free Economic Society, 17651915." Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri.

Pratt, Joan Klobe. (2002). "The Free Economic Society and the Battle Against Smallpox: A 'Public Sphere' in Action." Russian Review 61:560578.

Vucinich, Alexander. (1963). Science in Russian Culture. Vol. 1: A History to 1860. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Vucinich, Alexander. (1970). Science in Russian Culture. Vol. 2: 18611970. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Carol Gayle

William Moskoff