Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia: Debt, Property, and the Law in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy by Sergei Antonov (review)
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Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia: Debt, Property, and the Law in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. By Sergei Antonov (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2016) 387pp. $49.28

In late 2015, a new law went on the books in Russia that allowed individual citizens to file for bankruptcy. The law applied to all types of loans, from consumer and car loans to mortgages and borrowings in a foreign currency. Previously, in post-Soviet Russia, only legal entities such as companies and business partnerships could file for such protection. This change takes us back to the imperial era when private credit and personal bankruptcy were common.

Antonov’s fascinating new book sheds light on the little-studied subject of bankrupts and usurers in nineteenth-century Russia. It joins a recent revival of the legal and administrative history of Russia represented in works by Burbank about peasant legal practice, Pravilova about property law, and Kotsonis about taxation and citizenship.1 Like these other authors, Antonov builds his study on a strong foundation of social [End Page 265] history and rests his arguments on detailed cases of actual usurers and bankrupts.

Antonov accompanies his impressive survey of credit and the law in imperial Russia with frequent comparisons to developments in Europe and the United States. His purpose is to demonstrate that Russia should not be viewed as “backward” in its moneylending practices. A culture of credit that included commonly accepted values, practices, and laws, he argues, was well developed in Russia at all levels of society long before the Great Reforms of the 1860s that overhauled the judicial system. He criticizes writers who idealize Western rationality and compare it to Russia’s supposed lack of rationality and adherence to the rule of law. His study, he claims, “undermines the view that the reforms were imposed on a population whose legal culture had no use for these innovations” (16).

The book is divided into two parts—the culture of debt, and debt and the law. Part 1 offers a series of stories about lenders who charged abusive rates, who were seen as usurers, and whom the police sought to curb in order to protect profligate nobles from ruining their families. But the authorities also had to weigh this objective against the need to keep the flow of credit open even for some high-risk borrowers. Antonov notes that private credit “greatly exceeded state credit operations” and therefore was vital to economic growth.

He also points out that improvident nobles were not the outsized problem that is portrayed in Russian literature. Government banking operations did not subsidize the nobility, as is often thought. On the contrary, writes Antonov, the Moscow Board of Trustees bank, which granted loans to the nobility, was paid back more than it lent and “enjoyed a significant positive balance in its accounts.” Commercial credit showed the same level of responsible borrowing. Merchants usually paid off their loans to the Commercial Bank of Saint Petersburg, bad debts being a small part of the picture. Antonov analyzes the social position of borrowers and lenders, the role of friends and family in lending, and cases of swindlers and conmen. Part 2 looks at the role of mediators such as lawyers, scriveners, and government officials in facilitating loans and settlements. Antonov also treats the question of debtors’ prisons and the work of charitable societies in assisting debtors.

At times, Antonov strains to make what sounds like a strawman argument, writing, for example, that “my research contradicts the myth that pre-reform law was dysfunctional to the point of not deserving to be called law at all and that Russians possessed no culture of using the courts in a rational and efficient way to promote and protect their property interests” (285). On this point, and in the book generally, Antonov is working against a body of literature produced by jurists in the late imperial era who exaggerated the inadequacies of pre-reform legal practice in an effort to defend the 1860s judicial reforms against attempts by conservatives to undo them. Although those older views may still enjoy currency in some fields of judicial history and in literary studies, the...