In the introduction to his book, Sergei Antonov writes that he “re-creates the lost world of ordinary lenders and borrowers, and of not-so-ordinary bankrupts, usurers, and forgers” during the reigns of tsars Nicholas I and Alexander II (2). The author’s unassuming description belies the great significance of the book, which upends the old, yet persistent, view that in law and economics imperial Russia and the norms prevalent in the West represented a sharp dichotomy. This multifaceted cultural, legal, and institutional study of credit and debt relies on extensive data gathered from Russian archives, statutes, legal cases, memoirs, and the press. Antonov integrates the depictions of everyday life gleaned from works of fiction, taking some at face value, disputing the reliability of others. He consistently compares Russian developments to those in Europe and the United States. It is obvious that he takes pleasure in recounting stories of real people—especially the scoundrels—as found in the materials he has uncovered. While reading the book, I sometimes wondered whether so many lengthy anecdotes were necessary, but in the end I believe they were: in the case Antonov is making against a deep-seated historiographical tradition, he succeeds by overwhelming that narrative with a substantial weight of empirical evidence. Antonov’s arguments mesh with recent scholarship on imperial Russian history, most notably by Tracy Dennison, Michelle Lamarche Marrese, Ekaterina Pravilova, and Alessandro Stanziani. Taken as a whole, their work goes to refute the notion, derived in part from Max Weber, that private property and the law surrounding it were undeveloped in imperial Russia. For Antonov’s part, as he states, his book’s “central contention is that informal personal credit pervaded all aspects of life in imperial Russia and underpinned its entire regime of private property ownership and its entire social order; and that it relied upon reasonably effective legal arrangements that were established largely for the purpose of protecting private property interests” (3). These aspects of capitalism were no different in Russia, he argues, than they were in any Western nation, where the functioning of the legal system and credit markets was also hardly perfect. Antonov does not overcorrect to imply that there was full convergence between Russia and the West. He acknowledges that many government officials were anxious about free-market forces, and that the nation’s political trajectory resulted from the intransigence of the tsarist autocracy. But in the realm he is concerned with, the deviations from other contemporary societies were marginal. At the same time as Westerners did, Russians came to believe that debt was necessary for the economy to thrive, and that for people to be involved in commerce they would have to incur financial risks. Bankruptcy was therefore no longer perceived as a failure of morality, although of course it could happen because of reckless behavior. To be sure, bribery, corruption, and influence peddling were evident in Russia, but those features did not negate the effectiveness of the judiciary or institutions of credit. The latter flourished, in fact, because, contrary to what we might expect, the courts remained largely autonomous from the state bureaucracy. By and large, officials “respected the integrity of the legal process” (209). Even the police were meticulous about following procedure and did not systematically favor the rich in their investigations. As opposed to conventional wisdom, they were so unaggressive that malefactors found it surprisingly easy to hide account books and other evidence from them. As was the case everywhere else, the law tended to favor the creditor, but debtors had many legal protections and mechanisms available for resolving disputes. In Antonov’s assessment, common people were well versed in the law. Both before and after the judicial reforms of 1864, legal advice was just as available in Russia as it was in England, France, or the United States, albeit often through unlicensed, “underground” operators (271). That last point relates to one of Antonov’s most consequential findings, which is that, as in the West, all social classes in Russia had full access to credit as well as the courts. So did women, whose major roles in credit transactions Antonov carefully tracks. Moneylending in Russia took place horizontally among peers and vertically up and down the social scale. It was not unknown for aristocrats to borrow from their well-to-do serfs, in other words “to be hopelessly indebted to their own movable property” (91). By making these observations, Antonov calls into question the notion of a rigid social hierarchy in imperial Russia. This seems to apply even to the late eighteenth century, but certainly by the 1850s any such hierarchy had totally eroded. Antonov goes one step further, though, to push against the still largely unchallenged assumption that in nineteenth-century Russia a middle class was virtually nonexistent. His examination of debtor redemption rituals suggests the existence of “shared cultural norms” (13) among a broad swath of the population, which was well on its way to becoming a bourgeoisie. This is consistent with the thesis of European historian Jerrold Seigel’s book Modernity and Bourgeois Life: Society, Politics, and Culture in England, France and Germany since 1750 (2012), which contends that a coherent world view and way of life, rather than income level or occupation, should be considered the defining features of this class. Moreover, Antonov maintains that new forms of criminality, including swindling, embezzling, smuggling, and counterfeiting, bespeak a modern society based on credit, money, private property, and extensive informational networks. Understandably, Antonov does not continue the story to the end of the old regime, by which time the Russian economy had undergone rapid transformation due to industrialization and the onset of mass consumerism. But it would be interesting to know what position his research would lead him to take in the historiographical debate over the cohesiveness of Russian society prior to World War I and the revolutions of 1917. Regardless, his book is a landmark study that substantially revises our understanding of imperial Russian economic, legal, and social history. More broadly, it offers support to the new historiography of global capitalism, many of the characteristics of which, it turns out, were not unique to the West. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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