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Poverty Is Not a Vice: Charity, Society and the State in Imperial Russia.

Poverty Is Not a Vice: Charity, Society, and the State in Imperial Russia, by Adele Lindenmeyr. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1996. xiv, 33 5 pp. $49.50 U.S.

In this long-awaited, painstakingly researched, and closely argued monograph, Adele Lindenmeyr of Villanova University explores attitudes towards poverty and begging in Russia, appraises the effectiveness of the autocracy's usually paternalistic response, and examines private charitable associations, especially their role in the formation of civil society. The book's contents fall naturally into two parts, the first four chapters dealing with the autocracy and poor relief from the accession of Peter the Great to 1914, and the remaining five with private charitable associations and the growth of voluntarism from the accession of Catherine the Great to 1914. Based on prerevolutionary archival materials as well as contemporary books and articles, the research is also informed by wide comparative reading from modern secondary sources. Such a study, especially when bearing the Princeton imprint, whets the intellectual appetite for the major work promised by the breadth of its subtitle.

The author begins by discussing what is unique about the "Russian culture of giving" in which "poverty is not a vice" (bednost' ne porok). This proverb epitomizes the traditional Russian view that since the poor are not responsible for their poverty, they deserve only compassion and loving care. Typically medieval Christian attitudes towards beggars and charity survived in Russia well into the late Imperial period, drawing praise from nationalists and conservatives who believed that the secular poor relief schemes of nineteenth-century Britain and western Europe were heartless, hypocritical, and frequently counterproductive. However, the proverb seems a curious choice for the title of this book after one discovers (in chapters four and seven) that the author's sympathies are plainly with the advocates of "scientific" charity who rejected these traditional moral views as anachronistic.

To be sure, there were also some influential figures in the west -- Domingo Soto and St. Vincent de Paul come to mind -- who held the conviction that "poverty is not a vice," but their views ran against the tide even in their own times. Many sixteenth-century European towns and cities introduced "common chest" poor relief schemes primarily so that they could ban begging and take energetic steps to suppress vagrancy. Soon they turned to more systematic repression and incarceration, devising the house of correction (Bridewell, tuchthuis) as an institution whose very existence they hoped would deter vagrants and reduce the numbers of "masterless men." When Tsar Peter the Great, no traditionalist and certainly no admirer of Orthodox teaching, visited Holland and England in 1697- 98, he was so favourably impressed by the absence of beggars that after returning to Russia he launched a full-scale assault on beggars and vagrancy, characteristically imposing substantial fines on those who flouted his decrees against almsgiving. Several important questions arise for the historian: did sixteenth and seventeenth-century Russia escape the perceived "plague" of vagrants that served as a catalyst for action in the west, and if so, how? If it did not, why was there no significant adverse reaction until Peter's reign? Did the first real increase in the number of beggars take place during his reign, or was it simply rudimentary mercantilism that led him to pursue policies so much at variance with traditional Russian attitudes?

Lindemneyr implies that the presence of slavery and serfdom account for Russia's different path, relying on Richard Hellie's argument that slavery functioned as a surrogate welfare institution, as did serfdom and the extended peasant household after the demise of slavery in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (pp. 27, 42). Yet Ivan the Terrible's Church Council in 1551 addressed the problem of homeless and vagrant poor, and an anonymous government report of 1682 denounced counterfeit beggars, so clearly these substitute welfare systems functioned imperfectly at best. Is the state of Russian urban development conceivably relevant here? Certainly the destruction of the great commercial centres of Novgorod and Pskov left Muscovy without cities like Venice, Lyon, Ypres, or Norwich, all of which possessed sufficient wealth both to attract beggars (and thieves) and to fund organized poor relief. Whatever the reason, almsgiving in Russia was still sufficiently widespread to attract Peter's wrath, the sources of which Lindenmeyr does not explore, although it clearly antedated Bishop Feofan Prokopovich's tirades against beggars. Catherine the Great took government involvement in poor relief a stage further by incorporating provincial social welfare boards into her 1775 reform of local government. Lindenmeyr apparently believes that despite this initiative, begging and vagrancy became serious problems in the 1780s; this may well be true, but the reader is left wondering why, given that serfdom, the putative substitute welfare system, was now more entrenched than ever.

If the autocracy did not spend enough on poor relief, neither did peasant communes, or the local government institutions established during the great reforms of the 1860s. The commune's mutual aid function was eulogized by writers such as Haxthausen and Kropotkin, and Lindenmeyr finds that peasants relied on customary "nommonetized" (p. 56) ways of helping each other that reduced communal spending on poor relief to a minuscule proportion of the overall budget. Zemstvo institutions did little better. Lindenmeyr attributes their sluggish performance to "financial constraints, legal ambiguities, [and] the existence of other urgent rural needs," and the fact that "the vast, sparsely settled Russian countryside" (p. 66) was not invaded by roving bands of beggars and vagrants. Changing class values and political priorities help to explain why the zemstvos could collect more than half a million rubles for war relief work during the war against Japan, but curtailed efforts to organize famine relief in 1906. In the wake of the 1905 unrest, helping starving peasants lacked the appeal that it had possessed in 1891.

As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the book is not without its conceptual problems. The author might have acknowledged that her interest in giving is confined exclusively to gifts for the poor, because that culture also included charitable gifts for other undeniably Russian purposes, such as the founding of monasteries, not to mention the six million rubles donated by Moscow merchants in 1878-79 for the construction of ships to fight the Ottoman enemy. A more serious flaw is that the term "voluntarism," as used here, is problematic: its meaning is not sufficiently well explained. Voluntary charity -- individual almsgiving, for example -- is not considered "voluntarism," partially because it is not a corporate activity, but also (and paradoxically) because the societies whose work the author most admires explicitly attacked the evils allegedly encouraged by individual almsgiving. Yet not all corporate charities automatically qualify as "voluntarist": some, like the Red Cross or the Institutions of the Empress Maria are ruled out, evidently because they are "charity bureaucracies" (p. 115), while others, for example the church temperance societies, are simply ignored, presumably because their assumptions and objectives were insufficiently secular. However, there is a puzzling inconsistency here, for not all of the state's "charity bureaucracies" have in fact been excluded: the prestigious Imperial Philanthropic Society (deservedly receives plenty of attention, and the semiofficial Guardianship of Work Relief is given an entire chapter. By the same token, many of the "voluntary" societies seem to possess a quasiofficial character, as the author herself concedes; when the governor, his wife, and many local dignitaries are ex officio members, the voluntarist impulse is sometimes difficult to discern.

Similar problems arise from her use of the terms "charity expert" and "charity activist." Despite her chosen tide, these experts are not, like Leo Tolstoi, practitioners of Christian humility, love, and compassion; rather, they are self-appointed critics and reformers who sought to root out "the careless almsgiving of individuals," and who were exasperated by "the uncoordinated, counterproductive handouts of charitable societies" (p. 142). Charity organization has not always been described so sympathetically: its remarkable lack of generosity was what struck the poet John Boyle O'Reilly, who captured its guiding spirit in a stinging couplet: "The organized charity, scrimped and iced / In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ" (In Bohemia, 1891). Lindenmeyr, it is clear, takes a less critical view. Convinced that the ultimate goal, "effective" charity -- another undefined term -- was worthwhile, she makes little of the fact that her "charity experts" were authoritarian rationalists who sought to discipline not only the beggars but also those who assisted diem. Their western counterparts, die Utilitarians who implemented the New Poor Law in England in 1834, and the transatlantic charity organization societies of the late nineteenth century, also wished to reduce the overall amount of assistance available, not to mention the financial burden on those who provided it; is this then what is meant by "effective" charity? Were these Russian "charity experts" not scrimpers and icers who believed that the central task of charity is to restrain generosity?

Like her chosen "experts," Lindenmeyr places most emphasis on work relief schemes that assumed poverty was caused by idleness or unemployment. A consequence of this selective focus is that little or no attention is paid to other groups who may have seen matters differently, such as the Old Believers. The omission is even more stiking in the case of those who regarded disease as an important cause of poverty, and formed societies to combat alcoholism and tuberculosis; the Pirogov Society's Commission for the Diffusion of Hygienic Knowledge also played a major role, but one unacknowledged here. Urban housing fares only slightly better, but surprisingly there is no mention of Gavan' Workers' City, created by the Society to Combat Housing Needs (formed in 1902), although its founder was the same D.A. Dril' whom Lindenmeyr identifies as a member of the Commission established a decade earlier to reform the Statute on Public Assistance. As a rule, those societies most active after 1905 receive far less detailed treatment here than those that figured in the 1901 survey of Russian charitable societies undertaken by the Department of the Institutions of Empress Maria. The author relies heavily on this survey for statistical data to support her claim that voluntarism reached its zenith between 1881 and 1914. Yet here another problem arises: if one accepts this definition and dating, then how are we to categorize and understand the wartime voluntary activity of those who worked at the front and in the rear for the Russian Red Cross, the Union of Zemstvos, and the Union of Towns? Would Lindemneyr endorse Allen Wildman's implication that they were simply defaulting on their military obligations?

While this book contains much interesting material and several insightful discussions -- of the social welfare boards established by Catherine II, of peasant communal assistance, of the work relief movement -- there is much more to be said about charity, society, and the state in Imperial Russia. In particular, there is still room for a book to be written on the Institutions of Empress Maria, and perhaps another on the Russian Red Cross. This is not to fault the author for properly defining limits that in this case excluded informal aid networks or (probably futile) attempts to determine the actual extent of poverty. In the end, however, what disappoints most is the author's consistently whiggish perspective, apparent not only in her choice of words, but also in the questions that remain unasked. Almsgiving survives because of the "tenacity" of traditional beliefs (p. 22 8); the Orthodox image of the poor was "frozen in time" (p. 10); reformers "all pursued a(n) ... agenda of social betterment through rational, effective poor relief" (p. 177). Traditionalists are faulted for persistently seeing victims of life's misfortunes where other -- she implies more astute -- observers saw the beginnings of a dangerous proletariat.

Regrettably, there is not much here on the relationship between charity and political economy. The author does indeed recognize that the vast sums spent on various charitable enterprises by the Romanovs served a crude public-relations purpose for the dynasty, but one wishes that this astuteness had been more broadly applied, and indeed that social class had been more frequently and productively employed as a tool of analysis. For example, did all Russians define voluntarism as "the morally superior rival of the state"? (p. 99). Surely she is speaking of educated society; such views are unlikely to have been shared by the majority of townsmen, let alone the peasantry. Why is it necessary to speculate that urban workers "probably" found charity "condescending and offensive" (p. 232), when firm evidence might have been derived from the workers' own newspapers, or from the socialist press? Many intelligent Russians decided that the best response to endemic poverty was to join the revolutionary movement and work for socialism, but except for Chernyshevskii they do not figure among those whom she considers seriously concerned about poverty.

Lindenmeyr mentions without comment Leo Tolstoi's criticism of organized charities as "mere props for a grossly unjust social order" (p. 231), but never questions the motives of the advocates of "scientific charity," even when tantalizing pathways lie ready for exploration. For example, she identifies one of her "charity experts," S.K. Gogel', as a professor at the St. Petersburg Psycho-Neurological Institute and an expert on criminal law and sociology; true enough, but among his colleagues at the Institute were the psychiatrist V.N. Bekhterev and the above-mentioned Lombrosan Dril', all of them interested in the connections between poverty, morality, heredity, and insanity. When Gogel' promoted "correct views on charity" (p. 163), he meant views that reflected their professional judgement and embodied their professional authority. Again, she describes in an earlier chapter the "Western-influenced" (p. 113) Prison Guardian Society and its work for the material improvement an moral rehabilitation of prisoners, but does not explore its members' views on that most philanthropic of all innovations in prison discipline, the penitentiary. If Theresa Odendahl is right in insisting that "charity begins at home," then surely the motives of all these "benefactors" deserve tough-minded analysis that goes beyond "admiration and sympathy for the[ir] ... generosity and compassion toward those in need" (p. 232). Lindenmeyr deserves credit for pioneering the field; Russian charity now awaits a Sandra Cavallo or a David Cantor.
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Author:Hutchinson, John F.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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