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The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom

Author(s):Dennison, Tracy
Reviewer(s):Nafziger, Steven

Published by EH.Net (July 2013)
Tracy Dennison, The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xx + 254 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-19448-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Steven Nafziger, Department of Economics, Williams College.

In late 2011, this reviewer completed an early analysis of Dennison?s important monograph on serfdom on one relatively large estate in a north-central province of European Russia (Nafziger 2012). Since then, roughly a dozen reviews of this book have been published in English in various historical journals by a number of prominent scholars of Russian history. Overall, these scholars applaud Dennison?s skilled employment of myriad archival sources to describe how the estate of Voshchazhnikovo functioned, and they are mostly sympathetic with her argument that the variation in serfdom was largely the result of the heterogeneity in the institutions set up by estate owners. The Sheremetev family, who owned more serfs than any other noble family in Russia, controlled Voshchazhnikovo and relied on a particular set of administrative practices, property rights, judicial structures, and customary norms to extract rents while allowing considerably economic flexibility to engage in markets among their peasants. Dennison explores this setting in a series of thematic chapters that investigate the interaction between institutional structures (as fostered by the Sheremetevs) and peasant demographic and economic actions from 1750 until emancipation in 1861. After considering the book for a second time, my admiration has only grown for the detailed empirical work Dennison has done in depicting the operations of this particular estate to show how these structures influenced individual, household, and communal decision-making among the serfs.??

What other reviewers have found problematic in Dennison?s study concerns the broader framework and conclusions laid out in the first two and the last chapters. Section 1.1, entitled ?The Peasant Myth? (pp. 6-17), asserts that scholars of the Imperial Russian peasantry have frequently misunderstood their subject matter and overemphasized the persistence of a distinct moral economy among serfs (and the Russian peasantry more broadly) that was grounded in cultural and geographic factors. In critiquing Dennison?s study, the influential historian Steven Hoch (2012) appears guilty of fostering this very myth by claiming that because the serfs of Voshchazhnikovo were evidently involved in a variety of factor and goods markets, they were not really peasants at all, since, according to his interpretation, the peasant economy was antithetical to market relations. As pointed out by David Moon (2013) in another review of Dennison?s book, Hoch?s work considered a labor-service serf estate in an agricultural region to the south of Russia, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the structures created by the serf owners (the Gagarin family in his case) were more coercive and less conducive to peasant involvement in local markets. This is something Dennison is well aware of in emphasizing the heterogeneity of serfdom, but neither her work, nor that of Hoch, nor anyone else?s research for that matter, gives us a good sense of the overall distribution of serf estates along the relevant dimensions of institutional constraints, demographic practices, or market involvement. Just what ?serfdom? was for the modal estate, or for estates in very different geographic and economic circumstances than the ones studied by Dennison, Hoch, and the small number of other practitioners of the case study (who tend to focus on similar sets of archival records for estates in similar locations), demands further research.

This reviewer is mostly comfortable with the use of the ?peasant myth? as a focal point for Dennison?s analysis, especially given the persistence of that viewpoint in the work of Hoch and others. Dennison puts forth Alexander Chaianov (1986) as one of the main perpetuators of the Russian peasant myth, because he assumed away several dimensions of market involvement and utility maximization in proposing the existence of a unique peasant economy. Chaianovian ideas were adopted by scholars such as Theodore Shanin (1972) and James C. Scott (1976), who, in turn, influenced the work of historians such as Hoch. However, development economists have incorporated behavioral richness, various forms of market imperfections, and institutional constraints into the basic agricultural household model (which owes a lot to Chaianov?s initial insights about the relationships between consumption and production decisions of rural households) to show that standard tools of utility and profit maximization do go most of the way towards explaining the economic decisions made by peasants in developing economies. Much of Dennison?s success in this historical work is to incorporate insights from these and other modern social science ?models? to interpret her empirical findings in illuminating ways.?

Other reviewers (particularly Melton 2012; and Wirtschafter 2012) have emphasized one aspect of Dennison?s use of the ?peasant myth? as a foil that is perhaps more problematic for her study?s broader message. They note that late Imperial and Soviet scholarship on serfdom, while ideologically blinkered and limited in their own ways, was not wedded to the peasant myth, but instead emphasized and empirically documented considerable market involvement by serfs, especially in the region where Voshchazhnikovo was located. As such, they view the myth that Dennison focuses on to be something of a straw man. Dennison does cite these earlier studies of serfdom, but she does not really draw on the archival and quantitative evidence they present to make her argument. A more complete analysis of serfdom as a varied set of institutional conditions that affected market development and peasant economic behavior would benefit from further consideration of these and other available facts to really get at the different ?distributions? of the serf experience, as noted above.?

These few caveats should not detract from what is truly a paradigmatic new work on the economic history of Tsarist Russia. The boom in empirical research on the economic histories of societies that fell behind during the Great Divergence has mostly left Tsarist Russia behind. This reviewer modestly hopes that his comments and the reviews of others might help spur not only further work on serfdom and related topics by Dennison, but additional scholarship by others on the full set of institutional factors that underlay Russia?s development experience prior to 1917.?


Alexander Chaianov. The Theory of the Peasant Economy. Ed. by David Thorner, Basile Kerblay, and R.E.F. Smith. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Steven Hoch. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (2012): 966-967.

Edgar Melton. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? Journal of Interdisciplinary History 43, no. 1 (2012): 109-111.

David Moon. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? Slavonic and East European Review 91, no. 2 (2013): 367-369.

Steven Nafziger. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? Economic History Review 65, no. 4 (2012): 1597-1598.

James C. Scott. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

Teodor Shanin. ?The Nature and Logic of the Peasant Economy.? Journal of Peasant Studies 1 (1973): 63-80.

Elise Wirtschafter. ?Review of Tracy Dennison?s The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.? Slavic Review 71, no. 3 (2012): 693-694.

Steven Nafziger is an Associate Professor of Economics at Williams College. He is currently embarking on a book-length study of the development consequences of Russian serf emancipation.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century