Usually translated as "community," this term refers primarily to a landholding group of peasants in pre-1917 Russia.
Pre-emancipation serfs, in common with state and other nonbound peasants, still had a large degree of freedom to organize their own affairs within the limits of the village itself. The obshchina represents the village as it looked inward—an economic unit based on the land it worked. It differed from what might be called the peasant mir (literally, "world" or "society"), representing the village as it looked outward. The mir assembly carried out the administrative, legal, and fiscal affairs of the village.
While not modern in its outlook, for many, if not most peasants, the obshchina was fairly well suited to carry out the necessary, limited functions of distributing land (and thus taxes and other dues) among people whose society was based largely, though implicitly, on a labor theory of value. The common but not universal obshchina practice of periodic redistribution of land, based on manpower and thus taxpaying ability, gave rise to much discussion among Russian intellectuals. The subject of widespread Romantic, philosophical, religious, economic, and political theorizing throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the real-life obshchina was never the idealized, optimally Christian body of the Slavophiles nor the protocommunist organization of the peasant-oriented revolutionaries known as narodniki (populists). It was often guilty (from majority self-interest) of stymieing rational agrarian practices, but not always the culprit that Marxists blamed for peasant immiserization, socioeconomic inequality, and the obstructed development of a progressive class mentality. Living in an institution with social strengths and some economic weaknesses, most obshchina peasants sought not to maximize earnings or profits—as liberal economists would have them—nor to escape Marx's "idiocy of rural life," but to "satisfise" their lives (in H. Simon's concept), that is, to achieve and maintain a satisfactory standard of living.
See also: mir; peasant economy
Bartlett, R., ed. (1990). Land Commune and Peasant Community in Russia. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Mironov, Boris, and Eklof, Ben. (2000). A Social History of Imperial Russia, 1700–1917. Boulder, CO: West-view.
Steven A. Grant