The impending social revolution … by transforming at least the far greater part of permanent inheritable wealth—the means of production—into social property, will reduce all this anxiety about inheritance to a minimum.1—Friedrich Engels
The global economic crisis that engulfed the Soviet Union in the late 1920s drove forward a massive restructuring that fundamentally transformed all aspects of economic and social life. In the international sphere, the Soviet regime responded to the global crisis by implementing capital controls, suspending the convertibility of the currency, and turning piecemeal toward a system of economic autarky. Domestically, the state responded to the crisis by systematically abandoning the market relations of the New Economic Policy (NEP) period, implementing austerity measures, embracing economic planning, and unleashing the coercive apparatuses of the state against “kulaks,” “wreckers,” and other purported enemies. Coercion alone, however, proved to be a tremendously destructive, destabilizing, and unsuccessful mechanism for transforming social practices. As the attempted “solutions” to the economic crises of the 1920s unleashed even more intensive social catastrophes by the early 1930s, Soviet policy makers responded by embracing, haltingly but unambiguously, a social institution deemed capable of restoring the functioning of social and economic life: individual property ownership. [End Page 103]
Given the overarching emphasis on the centrality of property within Soviet Marxist theory, the right to hold and inherit property remained highly contested throughout the early period of Bolshevik rule. In theory, the “right” to certain types of property was granted with the 1918 Decree on the Abolition of Inheritance and strengthened over the course of the 1920s through a series of laws intended to establish the legal limits for inheritance of property. Yet by the late 1920s and into the first half of the 1930s, vague notions of what constituted rightful property for purposes of individual ownership and inheritance combined with an ideological antipathy toward inherited wealth to repeatedly undermine what appeared on the books to be increasingly liberalized inheritance laws. Just as state authorities confiscated the property of the living to deal with the chronic structural problems of the late NEP economy, so too did they use confiscatory inheritance practices to acquire a larger share of the estates of the deceased. Enforcement of property rights became increasingly capricious as the Bolsheviks intensified confiscatory measures to combat the reality of economic crisis. Thus the onset of economic crisis did, in the words of George Armstrong, Jr., “revolutionize the right to control property” between 1927 and 1935.2 Despite intense confiscatory measures, however, economic crisis did not result in a socialist system defined by an absence of individual ownership of property, market relations, and material incentives for labor.
In light of the arbitrary nature of property rights throughout the first decade of Soviet rule, legal historians have generally viewed the allowance of property and inheritance rights in the Soviet Constitution of 1936 with great and understandable skepticism. Previous scholarly works on Soviet civil law, including analyses of property relations, have stressed the politically charged nature of debates among major legal theorists and specific changes to the laws, leaving little room for an examination of court practices and actual outcomes.3 [End Page 104] Yet throughout the 1920s and 1930s, courts had to adjudicate property claims on a frequent basis. Legal professionals had to substantiate in practice what was inchoate in theory. An examination of the practices of adjudication suggests that a decisive turn in the regulations of property relations emerged by the mid-1930s. Beginning in roughly late 1934, legal institutions actively began to defend the right to personal property, suggesting the turn to a new regime of property relations that predated codification in 1936.
This article argues that the renewed commitment to the defense of property rights through inheritance constituted an attempt to establish a new social contract based on the protection of rights heretofore considered bourgeois. This change also consolidated a new social structure based on incentives and limited but persistent market relations. The new social contract marked a clear departure from both Marxist theories concerning the political meaning of property and earlier postrevolutionary legal practice that treated inheritance as a temporary measure...