Published by EH.Net (January 2016)

Yanni Kotsonis, States of Obligation: Taxes and Citizenship in the Russian Empire and Early Soviet Republic. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. xx + 483 pp. $80 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4426-4354-3.

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

This deeply researched study by a leading Russian historian centers on Tsarist and early Soviet experiences with tax reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book presents a complex argument that centers on the movement towards individual assessment of wealth and personal income taxes that, while never fully realized, reflected Russia’s advancement towards modern citizenship and statehood between roughly 1870 and 1930. During this period, the state generated knowledge of the Empire’s population, income and wealth, and economic activities through new assessments of taxable resources. As policymakers collected this information and undertook more targeted tax collections (at the firm, household, and, eventually, individual levels), the Russian state was drawn into closer oversight of the economy, while the population was, at least in theory and as the title suggests, nudged towards becoming a real citizenry by the acts of declaring incomes and paying taxes. Although this was the case in cities and for the commercial elite, the retention of more indirect and collectivist fiscal practices in the countryside sharpened the urban-rural divide, limiting the identification of the peasant population with the modernizing efforts of the Imperial and Soviet states.

The book is divided into four interconnected parts. Following an introduction that very nicely places Russia’s tax history in a comparative light (drawing on works like Seligman (1914)), the first chapter in part one describes the Russian state’s fiscal knowledge, taxes, and tax reform efforts through the middle of the nineteenth century. From tax farming and regional apportionment for excise taxes to the use of communal collective responsibility to extract taxes from the peasantry, Kotsonis points out the pre-modern and hands-off (and information deficient) nature of early Imperial fiscal policies. The second chapter summarizes the tax reforms that the regime subsequently embarked upon, including urban and commercial tax reforms, changes to poll and land taxes (especially among the peasantry), and modifications of the excise tax system. This chapter postulates that each type of reform engaged with the relevant base in different ways, with a different set of information requirements and degrees of direct interaction (from individual assessment, to collective obligation, to transaction-dependent).

Utilizing archival records, contemporary publications, and insights drawn from a number of secondary literatures, the second and third parts of the book then focus on a series of policy discussions and tax reforms that emerged in the last third of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second part considers the progression towards individualized assessment of income and wealth among urban and commercial tax units over the period. Chapters 3 and 4 examine how previously ad-hoc, collective, or apportioned tax bills evolved towards person and firm-specific assessments of urban property, inheritance, and business taxes. These chapters describe the difficulties the regime faced in accurate assessment of taxable resources, and how a reliance on commissions of taxpayers (whether urban property holders or small businessmen), direct reporting (the corporate sector), and a new but limited tax inspectorate emerged. Chapters 5 and 6 then focus on the debates and proposals surrounding a personal income tax, which was only to come to fruition in 1916. It is particularly in Part 2 that Kotsonis emphasizes the evolution of more modern concepts of individual citizenship and legal personhood within tax discussions among Russian intellectual and policy-making elites.

Part 3 first considers indirect taxation (Chapter 7), especially in the form of alcohol excise taxes, and then studies the persistence of collective (i.e. non-individual) taxation of the peasant majority (Chapters 8 and 9). Kotsonis nicely summarizes the large literature on the evolution of Russia’s fiscal treatment of alcohol, from tax farming, to excises laid on producers, to the state monopoly after 1894, to the surprising declaration of prohibition in 1914, which gutted state revenues and partially led to the income tax. As others have noted, Kotsonis points out Russia’s dependence on alcohol revenues, which numerically greatly overshadowed any other types of taxes. This included the various assessments placed on the 85 percent of the population who were peasants. As nicely detailed in Chapters 8 and 9 (particularly with respect to the mechanisms of tax collection), the state actually lowered land and other tax burdens on the peasants from the 1880s onwards. However, into the Soviet period, the regime retained the system of collectively apportioning peasant obligations by province, district, township, and communal body. The frequency of mismatch between tax obligations and payment capabilities that resulted from such a system sharply contradicted the individualization of taxation and state interactions that was happening in the urban and commercial sectors.

Early Soviet tax policies endeavored to chip away at this urban-rural fiscal divide, but this quickly lost momentum, as Kotsonis documents based on a wealth of archival material in Chapters 10-12 of Part 4. Soviet authorities lowered exemption levels for the income tax, thereby doubling down on the commitment to connect taxation and citizenship. But attempts to expand this system to the peasantry failed during the War Communism period (1918-1921), and so authorities reverted to the earlier structure of collective imposition at the level of village, enforced by a greater level of violence. Prohibition ended between 1921 and 1926, with a renewed importance of indirect taxes and allowing some market relations to function under the New Economic Policy. But by 1928, growing state revenue and food demands led to the shift towards collectivization, with the direct imposition of state authority into the rural locality. By this point, Stalin was in charge and the Soviet regime carried state oversight of the economy to its (Communist) conclusion, with large-scale nationalizations and the tightening of state controls across the board. As Kotsonis argues, this was largely repeating the Imperial experience, with more violence thrown in.

I have long thought about many issues discussed in this book and greatly admire the job Kotsonis does in unpacking the intellectual, political, and economic conditions of tax reform in Imperil and early Soviet Russia. Each page delivers an insightful comment or little known but significant fact. The skilled employment of archival evidence and little known official records and contemporary publications generates a nuanced and largely convincing account of the rise of Russian fiscal modernity. The detailed discussions of urban and commercial tax reforms, the ways that indirect (i.e. vodka) taxes functioned, and the collection of collectively imposed obligations from the peasantry are real feats of historical scholarship. The study is impressively engaged with the Russian historiography (including some work in economic history), as well as the broader and comparative histories of taxation in this period. Indeed, a key contribution is to illustrate how Imperial Russia largely shared the experiences of fiscal evolution and state building with many contemporary states, albeit with a distinctive absolutist twist. However, and perhaps unfortunately, I imagine that only a few economic historians will be as interested in or impressed by this study as I was. There are several reasons for this.

The first has to do with style. Kotsonis is a skilled writer, but this study is repetitive at times and probably 20 percent too long. The writing is regularly overtaken with statements and paragraphs that complicate rather than clarify the argument. Sometimes this stems from the odd phrasing of an economic concept or argument (e.g. “The commercial and industrial sector was easily or only expressed as money,” p. 89; “Russia . . . had an inelastic system of revenue,” p. 236); sometimes this is due to almost gleefully convoluted or cryptic sentences (e.g. “The future was folded into the present,” p. 187). Making things more difficult for the non-specialist is the rather erratic utilization of quantitative evidence, where numbers are frequently offered without much effort paid to comparisons across space or over time (for example, the six tables in the book only draw on data from 1913). These stylistic features do not detract from the work’s careful and largely qualitative analysis, nor do they make the text unreadable (far from it!), but they do make the writing quite dense and the argument hard to track at times. While this critique might just speak to this reviewer’s own limitations, it would seem like even very interested specialists will find grappling with this study a difficult task.

A second and more significant difficulty with this book is its relationship to economic analysis and modern economic history. In a nutshell, Kotsonis seems uninterested in engaging with recent economic research on topics ranging from the history of the social welfare state (e.g. Lindert, 2004) to the interconnection between political liberalization and fiscal reform in the long nineteenth century (e.g. Aidt and Jensen, 2009). Economists and economic historians have made major advances in these and related areas over the past twenty years, very little of which is reflected in the footnotes or bibliography of this book. To take one important example: in a book detailing the construction of economic knowledge, administrative practices, and fiscal policy reform proposals, the concept of “state capacity” is never once mentioned, despite its growing prominence in the social sciences (e.g. Besley and Persson, 2009; Dincecco, 2015). To his credit, Kotsonis is interested less in the economics of Russian fiscal policy than the surrounding political and intellectual contexts. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that economic historians should engage with such contexts when considering the causes and effects of tax changes. However, social science historians without special interests in Russia might feel put off by the absence of direct connections to more familiar literatures and methodological approaches.

A third, related, issue that might limit the appeal of this book to the broader economic history community is the nature of the questions it tackles. While Imperial Russian authorities and policymakers might have been deeply engaged in debates over the proper structure of business and income taxes for decades, no broad income tax was enacted until 1916 (just before the fall of the regime) and it was largely ineffectual in terms of raising revenues in the chaos of the war or during the early Soviet period. Kotsonis discusses myriad other tax reforms over the period, some of which (e.g. changes in alcohol policy) had major revenue implications. However, the main theme of the book — that the move towards income taxation was both cause and effect of a shift towards both individualization and control in the state/citizen relationship — only comes to a head at the very end of the Imperial era and it seems to be contradicted by the absence of real change in the countryside. Thus, all the discussions and debates over taxes among Petersburg elites that Kotsonis details in Part 2 appear to have mattered little on the ground in effecting real change in Russia’s economy and society. The absence of perspectives from small businessmen, commercial farmers, traders, factory workers, and peasants makes it difficult to know whether changes in tax policies really mattered for non-elite conceptions of Russian citizenship. And since the book exclusively focuses on government revenues and ignores expenditures (and largely limits itself to discussing central government taxation), the reader gets little sense as to whether any fiscal developments over the period mattered for the provision of public goods and services.

But Kotsonis does not really have such objectives in mind in writing this book. His intention is to identify how tax discussions among the Russian elite, and the subsequent policies that these generated, reflected and affected the Imperial and Soviet regimes’ engagement with modern state building. In this, he largely succeeds, thereby providing an important contribution towards our understanding of how Russia became modern. For scholars interested in the political and intellectual contexts for fiscal reforms in other (especially lower income) societies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kotsonis’s work offers much food for thought. For specialists or fellow travelers in Russian business and economic history, this book is required reading.


Aidt, Toke, and Peter Jensen. “The Taxman Tools Up: An Event History Study of the Introduction of the Personal Income Tax.” Journal of Public Economics 93 (2009): 160-175.

Besley, Timothy, and Torsten Persson. “The Origins of State Capacity: Property Rights, Taxation, and Politics.” American Economic Review 99 (2009): 1218-1244.

Dincecco, Mark. “The Rise of Effective States in Europe.” Journal of Economic History 75 (2015): 901-918.

Lindert, Peter. Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Seligman, Edwin R. A. The Income Tax: A Study of the History, Theory, and Practice of Income Taxation at Home and Abroad. Second edition. New York: Macmillan, 1914.

Steven Nafziger is an Associate Professor of Economics at Williams College and a Center Associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. He is currently working on numerous projects related to the economic development of Imperial Russia.

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