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Crime, Cultural Conflict, and Justice in Rural Russia, 1856-1914.

Crime, Cultural Conflict, and Justice in Rural Russia, 1856-1914. By Stephen P. Frank (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. xxii plus 252pp. $55.00/cloth).

None of the innovations during Russia's era of great reforms has been so ignored by historians as the special peasant courts created in the wake of the emancipation of 1861. Stephen P. Frank addresses this lacuna and seeks to characterize the experience of rural Russia with the new judicial system. He describes the "competing definitions of criminality and claims of justice" (p. 3) that he believes distinguished peasants' views from those of the "middle- or upper-class." (p. 5). He argues that the courts failed rural people, that "justice did not serve the common person's interests" (p.3O6), and that "Law proved incapable of conquering the turmoil that beset Russian society in the modern era" (p. 308). He thus sketches a pre-revolutionary antecedent to the legal chaos and lawlessness of today's Russia.

Frank borrows his theoretical approach from Subaltern Studies. Thus he is primarily concerned with power and culture in a context in which he perceives little common ground between peasants and officials. The latter he likens to foreign colonial administrators and groups together with "substantial segments of educated society" (p.307).

This book is divided into two unequal parts. The first contains two chapters. One concerns the workings of the judicial system and statistics on crime. The other focuses on views of rural crime held by the authorities and the educated minority. Part two addresses the peasants' understanding of the law, types of crimes and punishments, and the situation in the early twentieth century.

In the first chapter ("Colonial Perspectives") the author cites commentaries on crime by officials, nobles, clergy, and others. In chapter two, he summarizes statistics on rural crime, but does not offer his own taxonomy beyond separating the crimes of property from the crimes against persons. This simple division does not work very well, since it leads the author to link such crimes as woodcutting with horse stealing, and personal insults with murder. His main point in the chapter, however, is that the judicial system failed to protect the property of farming peasants. Although this is plausible, the evidence is largely anecdotal. There is no counting or sampling of cases anywhere in the book.

In the second part of the book, Frank treats the peasants' sense of the law and provides more 'information on property crimes and crimes against persons. There is an interesting section on the struggle over forests, and the author argues that peasants distinguished between divine and secular law and did not see the use of a rich outsider's property as a crime. Frank concludes that peasants felt their efforts to secure justice were frustrated. This may well have been true, but peasants nevertheless continued to turn to the courts.

Frank's grouping of everything from slander to murder in a single chapter is puzzling. So too is his decision to consider an insult to a fellow villager such as calling someone a slut under the same rubric as an insult to the tsar (pp. 152-53). One concerns honor within a peer group and the other the prestige of the state. The author does not reference the large literature on honor.

Chapters seven and eight concern varieties of official and unofficial punishment. Chapter seven is perhaps the best in the book, and the author stresses the indignity peasants suffered when subjected to the corporal punishment administered by the special peasant courts. He also describes the use of banishment, a penalty which did not work well in his view. His discussion of unofficial justice, which ranges from public mockery to lynching, is less stisfying since he provides little evidence as to the frequency of these practices. In the final chapter, he takes his story into the twentieth century, suggesting that rural crime increased marketdly as did cases of vigilante justice. The peasants, he asserts, rejected the courts, and elites bacame further obsessed with rural crime. Although this seems reasonable, the evidence offered is scanty.

Frank's interest in the law as an illuminator of rural society and popular values calls to mind Yves Castan's classic study, Honnetete et relations sociales en Languedoc 1715-1780 (Paris: Plon, 1974) but falls short of Castan's work. Castan clearly states that his material is regional in nature, and the reader is presented with a vivid portrayal of rural life in Languedoc. Frank also draws on regional material. His notes make it clear that much of his study is based on Riazan' province, but nowhere is the reader invited to consider how Riazan' may or may not be characteristic. The conclusions are by implication presented for Russia as a whole, rather than for Riazan'. The reader loses both the richness of a portrayal of a Russian locale, and a careful consideration of the appropriateness of generalization on the basis of this particular province. Thus in a section with the subheading, "Justice Revisited: the End of the Law," the author cites a report on samosud (summary justice) in stating that "during 1908 alone there were eighteen cases in Riazan' province" (p. 297). Was this many or few in the chaos that followed the revolution of 1905?

Riazan' was atypical in several respects bearing directly on Frank's thesis that popular and elite views diverged with regard to law and justice. In 1914, the urban inhabitants comprised a mere 7.2 percent of the population, less than half the average for European Russia. [1] Furthermore, the province was little exposed to the religious ferment that swept the Ukraine and much of Russia after 1861. In the census of 1897, fewer than one percent of its inhabitants were identified as Old Believers and 98.6 percent were described as Orthodox. Perhaps this explains why the author identifies religious dissidence with the skoptsy castrators and khlysty (flagellants), who had little to do with the changing religious attitudes of the majority of the population (p. 181-87). In the rest of the chapter, the author focuses on drunkenness and superstition. Crimes against the faith in other provinces may have taken a different character, and followed a different course in the legal system.

Literacy rates in Riazan' in 1897 were 20 percent, compared with 40 percent for the province of Moscow and 36 percent for Iaroslavl'. Nevertheless, literacy among army conscripts rose in Riazan' from 30 percent in 1874-83 to 57 percent in 1894 and 79 percent in 1904. [2] This is hard to reconcile with the author's statement that volost' county clerks "were often the only literate figures within township administrations (especially before the 1890's)" (p. 49). Even in Riazan' literacy rates were higher than implied in the statement above, and potential exposure to written materials may have been correspondingly greater than assumed in Frank's study.

Portrayals of peasant life abound in the prints, popular stories, and cheap newspapers that circulated in the Russian countryside at this time. Castan used such materials in his study of court cases in Languedoc, where literacy rates did not exceed those of late nineteenth-century Rizazn'. Frank did not use these materials to round out his portrayal of Russian peasant life. The most popular Russian story of the late nineteenth century, The Bandit Churkin by N.I. Pastukhov, was serialized in the daily newspaper Moskovskii listok (the Moscow Sheet) from January 1882 until the spring of 1885, and was based on an actual court case involving a robber and horse thief who operated in the countryside near Moscow and made forays into other provinces, including Riazan'. The story was read in bars and tea houses, and Churkin became a subject of oral lore and many printed texts. [3] One of them, The Terrible Bandit Churkin (Moscow: V.V. Ponamarev, 1885) appears in a recent collection edited by James von Geldern and Loui se McReynolds. [4]

Schooling and school teachers were also important in peasant communities, and one would expect peasants to turn to teachers in at least some legal cases. There were 150,000 teachers in the empire in 1911, and mast were in rural schools. [5] In 1894 the province of Riazan' had 1136 schools with 64,415 pupils; in 1911 there were 1632 schools with 122,035 pupils out of a population of 2.5 million. [6] After the 1905 revolution, Russian and Ukranian peasants voted for schoolteachers and others with secular links to the outside world to represent them in the Duma, as Terence Emmons has shown in The Formation of Political Parites and the First National Elections in Russia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983, p.246). Was Riazan' atypical in this repsect? Schoolteachers do not appear in Frank's study, although their competitors, the faith healers, the sorcerers, and practitioners of witchcraft, are described in considerable detail. Eugen Weber in Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural Fran ce, 1870-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976) noted analogous superstitions in nineteenth-century France, but he stressed the significance of schools and the army, another institution that does not figure in Frank's book.

A skeptical reader might thus conclude that Frank has focused on a backward province and made it seem more backward than it actually was. Backwardness might logically correlate with lawlessness. Perhaps a more balanced picture of the dynamic processes of change in Riazan' and in rural Russia more generally would also offer a view of law as an institution more accepted in rural society. Perhaps not. The present volume is ultimately unsatisfying because the question is posed, but then not answered convincingly either for Riazan' or for Russia as a whole.

Despite the book's shortcomings, the author provides a lively discussion of rural crime and punishment, and of local courts. He describes peasants' complaints, the prevalence of bribery and miscarriages of justice, rural people's recourse to unofficial justice, and the use of corporal punishment. He also shows how activities formerly sanctioned became criminal amid the increasing scarcity of resources, such as taking firewood from forests. The study may thus stimulate further work on the historical place of law in Russian society, a topic of obvious importance today.


(1.) A.G. Rashin Naselenie Rossii za 100 let (1811-1913 gg.): Staticheskiie ocherki (Moscow, 1956), 101.

(2.) Rashin, Naselenie, 305.

(3.) Jeffrey Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917 (Princeton, 1985), 118-25, 171-207.

(4.) Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life, 1779-1917 (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1998), 221-30.

(5.) Ministerstrvo Narodnogo Prosveshcheniia, Odnodenevnaia perepis' nachal'nykh shkol rossiiskoi imperii, proizvedennaia 18 ianvaria 1911 goda, vyp. 16, itogi po imperii, ed. V.I. Pokrovskii (Petrograd, 1916), 6.

(6.) Odnodenevnaia perepis', 52, 66.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Brooks, Jeffrey
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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