Land Tenure, Soviet and Post-Soviet

views updated


A central idea of communist ideology was opposition to private ownership of the means of production. This prohibition against private property was manifest first and foremost in land relations. Guided by their ideological beliefs, the new Bolshevik regime, the day after seizing power from the Provisional Government in October 1917, issued a decree "On Land" that abolished private ownership of land and introduced the nationalization of land. The October decree was followed by land legislation in January 1918 that forbade the renting or exchange of land.

Following the end of the Russian Civil War (19171921), the first Soviet Land Code was adopted in 1922. It regulated land use and stayed in force until the early 1990s. The first Soviet Land Code affirmed the nationalization of land and abolished private ownership of land, minerals under the soil, water, and forests. Article 27 of the 1922 Land Code forbade the purchase, sale, bequeathing, or mortgaging of land. The 1922 Land Code did allow land leasing from the state until 1928. Starting in 1928, legal changes were introduced that eroded the liberties contained in the 1922 Land Code. Restrictions on land leasing laid the basis for the collectivization of agricultural land starting in 1929. Family farms, which were based on leased land, were aggregated into large state and collective farms based on state ownership of land. Restrictions on land leasing remained in force until the late 1980s.

The prohibition on private land ownership did not mean, however, that Soviet citizens were deprived of land use. Rural and urban households were able to use small land plots, which were used for the growing of food for family consumption and to supplement family income. These plots of land were called "auxiliary plots," sometimes translated as personal subsidiary plots or simply "private plots." In general, food production and food sales from state and collective farms were planned and regulated by the central government. Auxiliary plots were not based upon private ownership of land, but they did lie outside the scope of state planning. Auxiliary plots could be assigned to a family or an individual. Although communist ideology was opposed to these private uses of land and considered those land plots remnants of capitalism, the food produced from these plots contributed significant percentages of the nation's food, in particular meat, milk, eggs, vegetables, and potatoes. For rural dwellers, the food produced from auxiliary plots and sold at urban food markets accounted for nearly one-half of the family income well into the 1950s. Given these circumstances, the Soviet leadership had to put pragmatism above ideology and permit auxiliary plots to exist. Successive Soviet leaders had different ideas concerning the treatment of auxiliary plots. During difficult economic times, the Soviet regime adopted more lenient attitudes. However, among the political elite the supremacy of large-scale collective agriculture was not and could not be doubted, and, prior to the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, no Soviet leader considered allowing independent farms based on land leasing.

When Gorbachev became General Secretary, he wanted to revitalize Soviet agriculture, which had experienced stagnation in its food production during the early 1980s. His idea was to allow individuals who desired to start independent farms to lease land from state and collective farms. In February 1990, the USSR Law on Land was adopted. It legalized the leasing of agricultural land in order to create independent individual farms, but did not legalize land ownership. In April 1991, a new Land Code was adopted, replacing the 1922 Land Code, and this new version codified the right of land leasing.

The Law on Land also allowed individual republics of the USSR to pass their own land laws. In December 1990, the Russian Republic reversed the 1922 legislation regarding land ownership by adopting a Law on Property that distinguished between private (chastnaya ) and state ownership of land. The passage of a number of other laws, including On Land Reform, meant that, for the first time since the Communists came to power in 1917, private ownership of land was permitted, although the purchase of land was heavily regulated and a ten-year moratorium placed on land sales.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in late December 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin moved decisively to reaffirm his commitment to private land ownership, which had already been legalized during the Soviet period. In late December 1991, Yeltsin issued government resolutions and presidential decrees ordering large farms to reorganize and distribute land shares to all farm members and allocate actual land plots to those who wanted to leave the parent farm. He also restated the right to private ownership of land and encouraged the rise of a new class of private farmers based on private ownership of land. Despite these steps, during the 1990s the issue of private land ownership and the right to buy and sell land were heavily contested and were key aspects of the policy conflict between reformers and conservatives.

Following the dissolution in October 1993 of the Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputiesthe leftover Soviet era legislatureYeltsin continued to shape land relations. On October 27, 1993, Yeltsin issued a decree entitled "On the Regulation of Land Relations and the Development of Agrarian Reform in Russia," which had an important impact on land relations until the end of the decade. This decree provided for the distribution of land deeds to owners of land and land shares, thereby creating the legal foundation for a land market. In December 1993, the new Russian Constitution guaranteed the right to private ownership of land. This right was reaffirmed in the Civil Code, adopted in 1994.

Starting in 1994, a rudimentary land market arose, involving the buying and selling of land, including agricultural land. The land market was somewhat restricted in that agricultural land was to be used only for agricultural purposes. But the decree was an important first step and had the desired effect: By the end of the 1990s, millions of land transactions were being registered annually (although most were lease transactions).

After seven years of heated political disagreement, a post-Soviet Land Code was passed and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in October 2001. For the first time since 1917, a Land Code existed that allowed Russian citizens to possess, buy, and sell land. The most contentious issue, the right to buy and sell agricultural land, was omitted from the new Land Code.

Following the passage of the Land Code, the Putin administration moved quickly to enact a law regulating agricultural land sales. By June 2002, a government-sponsored bill on the turnover of agricultural land passed three readings in the State Duma and was sent to the upper chamber, the Federation Council, where it was approved in July 2002. Near the end of July 2002, President Putin signed the bill into law, the first law since 1917 to regulate agricultural land sales in Russia.

The law that was signed into force was very conservative, requiring that agricultural land be used for agricultural purposes. With the exception of small plots of land, such as household subsidiary plots, if the owner of privately owned land wished to sell his land, he was required to offer it to local governmental bodies, who had one month to exercise their right of first refusal before the land could be offered to third parties. If the land was offered to a third party, it could not be at a price lower than was originally offered to the local government. Owners of land shares were required to offer their shares first to other members of the collective, then to the local government, both of which had one month to exercise their right of first refusal. Only if this right was not used could the shares be sold to a third party, but not at a price lower than was originally offered to the local government. If the owner changed the price of his land (or his land shares), then the local government had to be given the right of first refusal again at the new price. The law established minimum size limits on land transactions and maximum size limits on land ownership. Finally, the law provided for land confiscation (as did the Land Code) if the land was not used, or was not used for its intended purpose, or if use resulted in environmental degradation.

See also: agriculture; collective farms; land tenure, imperial era


Danilov, Viktor P. (1988). Rural Russia under the New Regime. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Medvedev, Zhores A. (1987). Soviet Agriculture. New York: Norton.

Wadekin, Karl-Eugen. (1973). The Private Sector in Soviet Agriculture. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wegren, Stephen K. (1998). Agriculture and the State in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Stephen K. Wegren