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  • The Problem of the Individual in the Stolypin Reforms
  • Yanni Kotsonis (bio)

On Individuals and Rights

In Russia from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, property was one of those "key questions" through which contemporaries understood the existing polity and an idiom by which they discussed its reform.1 The Stolypin land reforms were one such occasion, because they used property law to bring into focus the idea of a peasant individual. It is easy to assume that this individual would be autonomous and rightful, endowed with legal immunities and empowered by a new regime of private property, but the debate surrounding property law in fact suggests that the reforms anticipated individualization without private property. The origins and implications of this phenomenon were primarily political rather than technical or economic.

The nature of this individual remains vague because much of the historical literature is singly concerned with the 1906–14 period and gives primacy to questions of technical innovation and land usage. This approach has been sensible, because the reforms were often framed in technical terms and were chronologically contained. They had a beginning (1906, when the government decreed that peasants could consolidate their farmlands and own them as individuals rather than through a commune), a middle (1911, by which time the drive for full-scale consolidation yielded to small-scale technical improvements), and an end (1914, when land settlement work came to an [End Page 25] end). One may reasonably debate their success as well.2 But it is also possible to view the reforms as a moment in a longer chronology and as an articulation of a broader theme. George Yaney's Urge to Mobilize, for all its idiosyncrasy, is a serious and critical narration of the Stolypin reforms as part of a protracted effort to make peasants responsive to "capital-city" commands.3 Judith Pallot's Land Reform in Russia views consolidation as a modernist utopia of symmetries, allowing us to see the aesthetic sensibilities ("a liking for squares") that stare back from the printed map of a reformed peasant farm.4 Their virtue lies in their framing of familiar facts in original ways, highlighting the assumptions that animated contemporaries, and identifying the larger paradigms that inform historians.

Individualism is one such paradigm, and it invites a reconsideration of the concept of the individual—a curiously inexact term, when one thinks about it, because it could imply anything from rightful autonomy and immunity to social atomization, isolation, and vulnerability. The term requires a concern with context. This debate over peasant property forms began with the provision for transferring title of the land from the commune to the individual peasant household (ukreplenie v lichnuiu sobstvennost´) as decreed on 9 November 1906—or, in the law of 14 June 1910 passed by the legislatures (the State Duma and State Council), to the individual head of household. By privileging the individual, the measure reversed decades of policy that had bolstered collective ownership and had showed little concern for the individual at all. The exact meaning and significance of "individual property" (aside from the fact that it was not collective) is often assumed rather than explicated. At one extreme, the idea of the individual might be lost in protracted [End Page 26] technical discussions and in the recounting of bureaucratic procedure.5 At the other extreme, one may take flight from the evidence and cast property reform as a step in the direction of private property in particular and capitalist development in general. Indeed, while historians diverge in their evaluation of the reforms' objectives and achievements, there is some consensus that the Stolypin reforms were somehow related to a larger plan or "objective-historical" tendency to reinforce a new regime of proprietary capitalism, even if Stolypin did not say so himself.6

This is doubtful prima facie because so many contemporaries in and out of government vied to renounce "capitalism" and deal a blow to "capitalists." To this we will return. As for private property as such, one will find few explicit and unqualified references to it on the part of Stolypin and his deputies, though many on the part of critics who used it to delegitimize the government. One...


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