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  • Imperial Property Law and Its Consequences
  • David L. Ransel
Ekaterina Pravilova, A Public Empire: Property and the Quest for the Common Good in Imperial Russia. 448 pp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. ISBN-13 978-0691159058. $45.00.

In and around Russia’s big cities many of the lands once set aside for recreational, ecological, or cultural purposes have increasingly been taken over by private developers and wealthy individuals and turned into properties for luxury housing. Aggrieved local citizens have protested and in some cases brought suit in court, demanding removal of the developments and return of the parks, woods, and meadows to their former status as recreational sites for the public. In the case of lands of cultural and historical significance, scholars and writers have petitioned, protested, and taken legal action to halt private takeover of lands considered essential components of the Russian national heritage. How interesting then to turn to the new book by Ekaterina Pravilova and discover that the current legal conflicts are echoes of debates over private ownership, national heritage, and public goods that began early in the 19th century and gradually expanded from questions of control of natural resources to ownership of cultural artifacts and even literary legacies.

Pravilova, a professor at Princeton University, did her graduate studies in St. Petersburg under the direction of Boris Anan´ich, a specialist on the finance ministers and ministries of imperial Russia and a man well known to American historians of Russia, whom he aided in their researches over several decades. Following Anan´ich’s lead, Pravilova authored two books on administrative and financial questions.1 These studies laid the foundation for her new book on the emergence of the notion of public goods in 19th- and [End Page 679] early 20th-century Russia. The book is divided into three parts. The first covers theories of property and controversies over ownership of forests, minerals, and water courses. The second speaks of defining a national patrimony and the extent to which privately owned buildings and art should occupy a place in it. The third treats the tricky question of literary property and the peculiar Russian view of a writer’s social and national role.

Pravilova begins her account with a story about the government’s defense in 1802 of absolute private property right for an owner of a river course and national seaboard, the property having been legally acquired. This notion of private property was an extension of Catherine II’s decision to turn mineral and forest rights over to private ownership, a major shift from earlier patrimonial and Petrine statist ideas. Pravilova writes that Catherine’s conceptions of property and freedom resembled German notions. In this view, rights to property and freedom derived from the ruler or state, not pressure from below, an interpretation that corresponds to that of Marc Raeff, another scholar sensitive to the influence of German political thought in Russia, in his 1970 article about the emancipation of the nobility from government service.2 By guaranteeing the right to property without service obligations, Russian monarchs sought to create an unshakable bond between the ruler and the nobility, a condition that, as Pravilova demonstrates in her unfolding analysis, proved difficult to modify and which subsequently impeded imperial Russia’s modernization.

The private property right instituted by Catherine II also had immediate practical purposes as a response to the overuse of natural resources, a problem that later became known as the tragedy of the commons. Two solutions of the problem are usually recommended: nationalization or privatization.3 Nationalization allows the state to preserve a resource by enforcing limits on its use; privatization leaves the resource to an owner who, in theory, has an interest in managing it sustainably. Realizing that the state lacked the administrative capacity to regulate key resources, Catherine conceded to private owners this responsibility by granting and strengthening property rights, much as she did with labor resources when she left serf peasants in [End Page 680] the care of landlords. Pravilova’s objective is to explain how an idea of public good gradually eroded the state’s initially firm guarantee of private property.

The strength of the government’s commitment to the nobility...


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pp. 679-687
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