- Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia: Debt, Property, and the Law in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy by Sergei Antonov
This book undertakes the monumental task of illuminating the culture of debt in nineteenth-century Russia to challenge prevailing views of credit as one of many areas of Russian underdevelopment or backwardness. Russians participated in a vast and vibrant web of informal private credit that transcended social estate (soslovie) boundaries to lubricate the daily economic needs of commerce and family fortunes. Private credit rested on legal institutions that, despite their perceived faults, functioned as a means of safeguarding private property and enforcing contracts. Debtors and creditors displayed a sophisticated knowledge of these legal institutions, which shaped their participation in private credit markets. The book uses court records to examine debt, and debt to examine the court system, resulting in a more nuanced and positive view of the pre-1864 reform courts and casting doubt on stereotypes of spendthrift nobles and Russians unable to use credit to create wealth.
Part I, “The Culture of Debt,” examines credit from the perspective of those who loaned and those who borrowed in order to challenge the tropes of usurious moneylenders and dissolute young guards officers populating the literary [End Page 183] landscape and the historical understanding of credit in nineteenth-century Russia. In Russia, as elsewhere, usury was an essential component of commerce and individual economic life. Interest rates were not higher than those in other states, and penalties against usury were mild and rarely enforced. The private credit market was a mixed and vertical system that involved peers, family members, those engaged in urban commerce, and even serfs. Members of all sosloviia participated as borrowers and lenders, often simultaneously. Although debt was burdensome, for many the payoff from borrowing to secure a prestigious position in society or a lucrative commercial contract exceeded the cost of the loan. Surprisingly, Russia was ahead of many continental peers in valuing risk takers by protecting them through bankruptcy procedures while still condemning others as morally suspect. Bankruptcy created a framework for negotiations between debtors and creditors. In Russia, as elsewhere, paying one’s debts was connected to honor, and wealth was generally interpreted as a sign that someone was incapable of dishonorable behavior, assumptions that occasionally facilitated grifting. The first section closes by using the lens of borrowing and debt management to contribute to the discussion of the empire’s property and heritance laws, particularly the right of female spouses to control their own property and the devolution of property to children.
Part II, “Debt and the Law,” examines aspects of the legal system essential to private credit networks. Contrary to the literary portrayal of Nikolaevan Russia, when it came to debt-related matters, the bureaucracy functioned well and provided a framework for Russians to employ their wealth, social status and legal knowledge to protect property and financial interests. Whether this demonstrates the existence of a politically conscious “middle class” is debatable, but the book illustrates well how debtors and creditors alike used the police and courts to meet their needs. Governors and the Third Section had the legal and personal means to interfere in court decisions, but tended to let debt-related matters run their legal course without interference unless they perceived a threat to public order. Debt imprisonment was one legal option available to creditors, but not to be chosen lightly. Russia, unlike England, required creditors to pay a maintenance subsidy for debtors they imprisoned. Given that once a debtor did his/her time the debt was erased, creditors had to weigh carefully the net value of imprisoning delinquents.
The book’s attempt to relate celebratory “redemption rituals” such as the paying of debts and release of prisoners at coronations and other holidays with the Nikolaevan ideology of “official nationality,” and its claim that the common character of debt imprisonment transcended soslovie lines (thereby playing a role in the development of a “middling” class) are less...