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  • Taxes and Citizenship, 1850s–1920s
  • Scott Gehlbach
Yanni Kotsonis, States of Obligation: Taxes and Citizenship in the Russian Empire and Early Soviet Republic. 504 pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. ISBN-13 978-1442643543. $80.00.

Iosif Stalin does not enter the story until the very end of Yanni Kotsonis’s fiscal history of imperial and early Soviet Russia, but the shadow of Stalinist collectivization hangs over nearly every page of this monumental work. From Emancipation to the 1920s, the Russian and then Soviet state had tried and failed to extract revenue from, and in the process make citizens out of, the Russian peasantry. This repeated and systematic failure was all the more frustrating for occurring alongside a process by which urban residents were increasingly treated as individuals rather than as members of social estates, were taxed as such, and were made participants in the emerging state. Collectivization was a solution—a violent, immoral solution—to a seemingly intractable problem that had bedeviled generations of Russian policymakers.

Kotsonis’s narrative begins roughly in 1859, with the creation of the Supremely Instituted Commission for the Improvement of the System of Taxes and Duties. It ends in 1928, with the return of grain requisitioning, a desperate policy previously practiced during the period of War Communism. In between, one observes the abolition of the poll tax, the elimination of quit-rents on state land, and the creation of the state land tax in 1886; the replacement of tax farming with excises on vodka and other goods in the 1860s, the creation of a vodka monopoly in 1894, and the catastrophic ban on vodka sales in 1914; the institution of repartitional and corporate income taxes on business in the 1880s; the creation of a tax inspectorate to oversee the collection of state revenue in 1885; the enactment of personal income taxes in 1916; and the return to various tsarist practices under the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the 1920s. Throughout, States of Obligation [End Page 698] places the Russian experience in an international context, showing how European and American practice informed debates in tsarist and even early Soviet Russia. (One sympathizes with Pavel Genzel´ [later Paul Haensel]—a holdover from the imperial period who served the Bolshevik state before emigrating in 1928—who sought to draw an analogy between the Soviet state and the Duchy of Westminster [340].) By emphasizing urban as well as rural taxation, Kotsonis provides a far more balanced portrait of the fiscal state than was previously available.

Three themes structure this narrative. The first is the drive toward “universalism,” which is to say an abandonment of the practice of providing differential treatment based on social estate. Thus the state land tax applied to peasants and gentry alike, although elite capture implied that the peasants typically paid more.1 The personal income tax enacted in 1916 was the culmination of this trend: a national tax on personal incomes that applied to all individuals with earnings over a certain amount, regardless of background or occupation. The second is the relationship between taxes and citizenship. Both tsarist and early Soviet officials maintained that paying taxes would provide a direct connection between individuals and the state. This bond was further strengthened by the active participation of individuals in the process of tax assessment, thus making them de facto members of the state apparatus.

The third theme—a persistent urban/rural divide—provides a corrective to the previous two. Up to the moment of Stalinist collectivization, the Russian state essentially did not exist below the district (uezd) level. Compounding matters, much of the rural economy was unmonetized, which vastly increased the difficulty of imposing uniform taxes, and there was no national land cadastre with which to assess peasant holdings. As a consequence, even as urban Russia converged on a set of practices similar to those in Europe and the United States, revenue in the countryside was gathered largely as it always had been. The government would establish the amount of revenue necessary to meet some need, which was then divided up among increasingly smaller units. Ultimately, village elders would decide which households should pay which portion of the sum that kept elders out of...


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pp. 698-701
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