Thursday, January 5, 2017

Antonov on Debt in Imperial Russia

Sergei Antonov, Queens College CUNY/Columbia has published Bankrupts and Usurers in Imperial Russia:Debt, Property, and the Law in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy with Harvard University Press. From the publisher:
As readers of classic Russian literature know, the nineteenth century was a time of pervasive financial anxiety. With incomes erratic and banks inadequate, Russians of all social castes were deeply enmeshed in networks of credit and debt. The necessity of borrowing and lending shaped perceptions of material and moral worth, as well as notions of social respectability and personal responsibility. Credit and debt were defining features of imperial Russia’s culture of property ownership. Sergei Antonov recreates this vanished world of borrowers, bankrupts, lenders, and loan sharks in imperial Russia from the reign of Nicholas I to the period of great social and political reforms of the 1860s. 
Poring over a trove of previously unexamined records, Antonov gleans insights into the experiences of ordinary Russians, rich and poor, and shows how Russia’s informal but sprawling credit system helped cement connections among property owners across socioeconomic lines. Individuals of varying rank and wealth commonly borrowed from one another. Without a firm legal basis for formalizing debt relationships, obtaining a loan often hinged on subjective perceptions of trustworthiness and reputation. Even after joint-stock banks appeared in Russia in the 1860s, credit continued to operate through vast networks linked by word of mouth, as well as ties of kinship and community. Disputes over debt were common, and Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia offers close readings of legal cases to argue that Russian courts—usually thought to be underdeveloped in this era—provided an effective forum for defining and protecting private property interests.
Praise for the book:

“Sergei Antonov introduces us to an imperial Russia in which aristocratic sons borrowed from usurers for their military uniforms and gambling debts and landowners borrowed money from serfs they owned and had mortgaged as collateral for other loans. With imagination and rich detail, he shows how informal personal credit pervaded every aspect of culture, society, and government, undergirding the social order and an entire regime of private property ownership. Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia is a masterly addition to the new cultural and social history of debt.” -Bruce H. Mann

“Antonov is a pioneer in the use of sources about private moneylending as a lens onto the tsarist social order. He is a keen analyst of large-scale processes, but the book is also highly readable and brings everyday imperial Russia to life. Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia is an important scholarly intervention, one built on archival sleuthing, expertise in social and legal history, a skillful integration of Russian developments into a global context, and a solid familiarity with the Western, imperial Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russian literature.” -Alexander M. Marti

“From humble peasants to wealthy aristocrats, Russian pre-revolutionary society was permeated by the bonds of debt. Antonov’s meticulously researched and beautifully written book uncovers the circuits of unofficial credit relations that existed outside of the state banking system. It tells the stories of tragic bankruptcies and prodigious fortunes, family strife, legal battles, and reconciliations between debtors and usurers. This is an important study that fundamentally recasts our understanding of the legal regimes, economy, and sociability of credit in imperial Russia.”-Ekaterina Pravilova

More information is available here.