Land Tenure, Imperial Era

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Two themes predominate in historical literature on land tenure in the imperial era: first, the fragility of private property rights and their association with Russian economic "backwardness"; and, second, the problem of agrarian reform after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. From the medieval era, two competing conceptions of property coexisted in Russian law. The first concerned inherited (patrimonial) forms of landed property, which privileged the rights of the kin group, or clan (rod ), over those of the individual. Although individuals controlled inherited property, their right to alienate patrimonial land was restricted. Proprietors acted as custodians, rather than absolute owners, of immovable assets: If they chose to sell an estate without the consent of family members, the latter enjoyed the right to redeem the estate at its purchase price. Testamentary freedom over patrimonial estates was also severely circumscribed.

Alongside the institution of patrimonial property, a second conception of property emerged in the early modern era that invested far greater rights of ownership in the individual. Muscovite law codes allowed for the special status of the acquired estate, or land purchased from another clan. Proprietors of acquired land could alienate and bequeath such assets as they wished. After a family member inherited acquired property, however, this land became patrimonial and was subject to the laws governing lineage land. The notion of acquired property surfaced as early as the twelfth century; nonetheless, many legal historians argue that the concept of private property was not fully elaborated in the law until the reign of Catherine II, when the empress confirmed the status of acquired property in her Charter of the Nobility in 1785.

Yet even the Charter of the Nobility stopped short of granting the nobility unfettered rights over their landed estates. Patrimonial property continued to be governed by the rules of partible inheritance, according to which surviving spouses received one-seventh and daughters claimed one-fourteenth of the immoveable estate of the deceased; sons then divided the remaining land equally. In the absence of sons, each daughter received an equal share of the estate. The result of partible inheritance was estate fragmentation: In contrast to landowners in Western Europe, Russian proprietors often held land in small parcels, scattered in several districts, rather than consolidated holdings.

Some historians maintain that partible inheritance was instrumental in the decline of the Russian nobility and discouraged individual proprietors from improving their estates. Certainly this was the view of Peter the Great, who attempted to over-turn inheritance practice with the Law of Single Inheritance in 1714. The new law instructed parents to bequeath land in its entirety to one son or daughter. From the perspective of the nobility, the Law of Single Inheritance not only violated centuries of tradition but also undermined their children's welfare. Many nobles circumvented the decree through illegal transactions, fabricating debts and selling land in order to redistribute the proceeds among their heirs. When Anna Ivanovna ascended the throne in 1730, she quickly succumbed to noble demands to reinstitute partible inheritance. Devotion to partible inheritance did not preclude acknowledgement of its harmful effects, however. Until the eve of the Revolution, tension persisted between the nobility's conviction that landed property should be divided among all sons and daughters, and the conflicting desire to prevent disintegration of their patrimony.

Historians also blame absentee ownership and the insecurity of property for poor productivity on noble estates. The broad consensus is that Russian nobles were chronically in debt, preferred life in the city to residing on their estates, and were far more likely to engage in conspicuous consumption than to invest in the development of their holdings. Moreover, until the late eighteenth century, Russian nobles risked confiscation of their land for a whole series of misdemeanors. Although Catherine II's Charter of the Nobility stipulated that nobles could not be deprived of their estates without due process, the charter nonetheless defined crimes meriting confiscation as broadly as possible. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 dealt a further blow to noble property rights, as proprietors lost their unpaid labor and were compelled to relinquish approximately half of their land to their former serfs. Although the government guaranteed the nobility generous redemption payments for the land they had sacrificed, the response of many nobles in the post-Emancipation era was to sell their land and seek other sources of income. Some ambitious proprietors moved to the country and devoted their energies to modernizing their estates. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the vast majority of noble landowners were unable to support their families on the proceeds of their estates alone.

While the nobility campaigned to bolster the institution of private property, the notion of individual property rights was largely alien to Russian peasants, even after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The majority of Russian peasants lived in villages in which arable land was controlled by the repartitional commune (mir). Although regional variations existed, in most villages individual peasants owned their tools and livestock, while households controlled the land upon which they built their houses and cultivated their gardens. Arable land, however, was held jointly by the commune, which periodically redistributed strips of land among the village households. The goal of redistribution was to provide each household in the village with an equal share of resources and to ensure that each would fulfill its fiscal obligations. Redistribution by no means created perfect equality among commune members, but it allowed peasants some measure of security in an environment characterized by a short growing season, severe weather, poor soil, and primitive transportation.

For Russian intellectualsin particular, the Slavophilesthe peasant commune represented the true collectivist and egalitarian nature of the Russian people, which they contrasted with Western veneration of the individual. Yet the repartitional commune did not become a feature of peasant life until the eighteenth century, when the fiscal pressures of the Petrine reforms encouraged noble proprietors to impose collective responsibility on their villages to meet tax obligations. Collective ownership nonetheless impeded the development of the notion of private property among the peasantry. While historians continue to debate what the long-term consequences of the Stolypin reforms (19061914) might have been, if they had not been interrupted by war and revolution, when Petr Stolypin, advisor to Nicholas II, sought to transform the Russian countryside by allowing peasant households to separate from the commune and claim a consolidated holding, only a minority of villages took advantage of this opportunity. Educated Russians were convinced that collective ownership caused low agricultural productivity, but for the majority of Russian peasants the commune offered far more benefits than private ownership. Furthermore, although land hunger remained a constant among the peasantry in the years following Emancipation, historians have begun to question the existence of an agrarian crisis in the years leading up to the Revolution and to suggest that collective cultivation of land was by no means the major obstacle to economic innovation. The village commune remained central to the peasant way of life, not only until 1917, but until Stalin succeeded in destroying rural tradition with collectivization. Significantly, when peasants during the October Revolution seized the estates of noble proprietors, they claimed the land not for individual peasants, but in the name of the village commune.

Ultimately, the concept of private property was fraught was inconsistencies in imperial Russia, for nobles and peasants alike. As Richard Wortman has noted, property rights remained "an attribute of privilege " (p. 15), associated with despotism and oppression, rather than the foundation for political and civil rights. Educated Russians on the eve of Revolution remained divided in their belief that peasant loyalty to the repartitional commune was a sign of their "backwardness," and their own suspicion that the defense of private property would benefit only the landowning nobility. Under these conditions, the Bolshevik agenda to nationalize the land in 1917 initially met with little opposition.

See also: dvorianstvo; emancipation act; land tenure, soviet and post-soviet; serfdom


Blum, Jerome. (1961). Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Crisp, Olga. (1989). "Peasant Land Tenure and Civil Rights Implications before 1906." In Civil Rights in Imperial Russia, ed. Olga Crisp and Linda Edmondson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kingston-Mann, Esther, and Mixter, Timothy, eds. (1991). Peasant Economy, Culture, and the Politics of European Russia, 18001921. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marrese, Michelle Lamarche. (2002). A Woman's Kingdom: Noblewomen and the Control of Property in Russia, 17001861. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Wagner, William G. (1994). Marriage, Property, and Law in Late Imperial Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wortman, Richard. (1989). "Property Rights, Populism, and Russian Political Culture." In Civil Rights in Imperial Russia, ed. Olga Crisp and Linda Edmondson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yaney, George. (1982). The Urge to Mobilize: Agrarian Reform in Russia, 18611930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Michelle Lamarche Marrese