The Russian obshchina as an economic institution.

Author:Barnett, Vincent
Position:Notes and Communications

Anton Oleinik's article "Model of Network Capitalism: Post-Soviet Evidence" suggested that there was an ongoing continuity between some prerevolutionary Russian economic institutions and some post-Soviet economic practices, in particular regarding the localization of transactions involved in "network capitalism" (2004). According to Oleinik, at least some of the practices inherited from the prerevolutionary Russian commune (obshchina, incorrectly transliterated by Oleinik as obshina) could be found in Soviet work collectives and also (more surprisingly) in firms that have appeared more recently as a consequence of the "market" reforms of the 1990s (88). Contrary to this view, it will be argued here that to make an analogy between the Tsarist obshchina and post-Soviet "network capitalism" is in some respects a misleading juxtaposition that shows insufficient regard for accurate historical specificity in a number of significant areas.

First, Oleinik suggested that the obshchina was effectively closed to the outside world and was hostile to strangers (2004, 90-91). This is not accurate, as in fact special elected officials were chosen to mediate relations with noncommune institutions. Relations between the prerevolutionary commune and the outside world were sometimes difficult in part because of geographical and transportation issues, which do not apply in anything like the same form in Russia today. Second, Oleinik claimed that the obshchina was based on the principle 'Tll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" (88). In fact the commune was based on principles of common ownership of property, extended family unity, and the periodic redistribution of arable land. The back-scratching phrase usually has a mafia-style corruption connotation that has little in common with the communal practices of the Tsarist obshchina. Collective-based Russian peasants were not violent Sicilian peasant entrepreneurs.

Third, Oleinik's suggestion that there was an affinity between the prerevolutionary obshchina and the Soviet collective farm (kolkhoz) is not accurate. The Soviet collective farm involved state-based ownership and control, which in effect meant Communist Party--directed control, and was forced onto peasants in the 1930s against their will. The pre-revolutionary obshchina was a genuine peasant collective organization, albeit with a hierarchical ruling structure within but with no final controlling body from without. It was peasants themselves who...

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