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  • States of Obligation: Taxes and Citizenship in the Russian Empire and Early Soviet Republic by Yanni Kotsonis
  • Alison Rowley
Yanni Kotsonis. States of Obligation: Taxes and Citizenship in the Russian Empire and Early Soviet Republic. University of Toronto Press. xix, 483. $80.00

States of Obligation is not an easy book, but it is an important one. In it Yanni Kotsonis does several things: he demonstrates the growing connection between Russian state revenues and economic exchanges as the nature of economy changed owing to increased industrialization in the nineteenth century; he shows the extent to which government officials and intellectuals interested in political economy in all western nations borrowed ideas from one another; and he explains in great detail how an ongoing lack of information about village economic life made it impossible for the Russian, and later Soviet, government to treat the peasantry the same way as the urban residents of the country.

The book has a solid introduction that outlines the history of Russian (and European) taxation patterns from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. That is followed by twelve chapters and an afterword. The needs and impact of the Great Reforms are front and centre in the first few chapters. Kotsonis notes that tax collectors had no way to measure the value of the unpaid labour done by serfs and that the government did not have any real sense of what the paying capabilities of peasants were. The tax system also had no way to adapt to emergencies—like wars—that forced the government into added expenditures. The emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s theoretically shifted Russian society from one based on separate and unequal estates to one where everyone was equal. In practice, things were more complicated. In the cities, the nature of taxation changed dramatically as a result of the Great Reforms and the information that a more efficient bureaucracy generated. The poll tax ended; it was replaced by a host of others such as urban property taxes, the apartment tax, and business licence taxes. Paying taxes became a marker of citizenship and modernity. Over time, the government was moving toward seeing people as individuals, and that eventually led to the adoption, after lengthy debates, of, first, estate taxes and then, in 1916, a personal income tax.

Despite these shifts in attitude and urban taxation practices, much Russian government revenue still came from excise taxes. Kotsonis examines the vodka monopoly—where the state laid claim to an entire sector of the economy—in great detail in chapter seven. Here he connects questions of taxation and government revenue, as well as the desire to engineer a “better” society, with fin-de-siècle fears about racial degeneracy.

The next two chapters offer a closer look at the countryside. Here collective responsibility, in one form or another, persisted since until 1905 peasants owed redemption payments for the lands they were given at the time of emancipation, and village assemblies held meetings to [End Page 478] decide how to apportion tax bills right through World War I. Chapter nine also contains a fascinating discussion of the continued use of corporal punishment on peasants who failed to pay their taxes. This question of what to do about arrears seemingly had no good answer. Kotsonis’s research reveals that while the general public largely assumed peasants were in arrears as a result of their overall poverty, the reality was that peasants often did not pay their taxes because the punishments for failing to do so seldom materialized. Instead, peasants learned over time to expect that arrears would be forgiven on special occasions such as the birth of a new heir to the throne.

The final three chapters of States of Obligation take Kotsonis’s analysis right through the late 1920s. While there were some obvious differences between the czarist and Soviet governments, Kotsonis finds that many of the same bureaucrats affected tax policy after the revolution, and that overall government ignorance about everyday economic life in the village also continued. Like their imperial counterparts, Soviet officials found it much easier to tax urban residents, about whom they had much information, and a general economic collapse made excise...


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