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Russian Peasants Go to Court: Legal Culture in the Countryside, 1905-1917.

Russian Peasants Go to Court: Legal Culture in the Countryside, 1905-1917. By Jane Burbank (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2004. xxxiii plus 375 pp. $49.95).

This excellent study of peasant use of township courts brings attention to ways in which Russian peasants employed legal institutions originated by the state to meet their local and individual needs. In doing so, the book challenges common conceptions of peasants' interactions with each other and with the state.

The book questions previous depictions of the Russian peasantry as a "backward, disorderly, and uncivilized" (5) collective. To do so, the monograph examines the township courts and through them rural legal culture; that is, the way in which peasants used the courts and accepted their legitimacy. The Russian government instituted the township courts in 1861 in order to provide peasants a forum in which to handle minor suits and petty crime. The book argues that peasants accepted these courts as a "means of resolving conflicts," that peasants "shaped" Russia's legal culture, and that their experience with these courts "constituted an unrecognized foundation for a law-based polity." (5)

The book ably illustrates the township courts' effectiveness. Its evidence shows the geographic accessibility of courts, the meticulous recording of case records, the short wait before court appearances, and the relatively quick fulfillment of the courts' decisions. Bringing suits to the court often led to reconciliations or dropped cases, and peasants felt empowered just by having on record the accusations of verbal or physical insults that made up much of the courts' business. Peasants trusted the judges, literate peasants elected by village assemblies, who decided their cases on the basis of the testimony of the defendants, witnesses, and documentary evidence, not bribes. In addition, the courts' scribes meticulously kept track of court proceedings and decisions. Peasants' growing satisfaction with the courts was reflected in a 78 percent increase in their use from 1905 to 1914. The courts in turn served to instill market values and economic responsibility, foster gender neutrality in decision-making, and shift the focus from the family to the individual. Even under the stresses of World War One the courts continued to function effectively.

To make the case for the courts' effectiveness, the study draws on over nine hundred cases from up to ten townships and two additional data sets. Although these data overall are used effectively, some problems emerge. In the best of all worlds, the choice of townships to examine could have been more geographically diverse as seven of the townships come from Moscow Province and two from St. Petersburg Province. Many of these townships had been involved in small-scale manufacturing or trade since the mid-nineteenth century. Is it really surprising to find that contracts and market relations were important to these peasants? Unfortunately restrictions on archival access in the 1980s probably necessitated these selections.

Evaluating the use of the author's selections in the statistics is sometimes difficult. The "Note on Sources" assures us that the "Case Data" set of 907 individual cases came from a "series of cases recorded at various courts, always proceeding sequentially for all cases recorded in the township record or for cases from a particular area within the township." (p. 290). The actual breakdown of the number of cases by township and the timeframe covered for each township is not provided and must be reconstructed from information presented in the book and on the accompanying website. It appears that not all ten townships were used extensively throughout the book. Only one or two townships provided data for both before and during the war.

Occasional problems with statistical analysis crop up as well. Although statistics from published sources show the great increase in the number of cases heard in Moscow Province, numbers for previous decades would have provided even more context as would have more numbers from other provinces. The intermixing of prewar and wartime data often presents challenges for the reader. Although the book devotes a whole chapter to the wartime period, sometimes examples from that period show up in tables and examples in earlier chapters. For example, in one of those chapters we learn that "the most common" (126) cases were suits about personal dignity (55.7 percent according to Table 5.5), but this table includes all cases from 1905-1917. In the chapter on wartime transformations, we learn these personal dignity suits made up only 38 percent of the prewar cases, about the same percentage as cases involving public welfare.

The case files also become problematic when discussing peasant life outside the courts. Most case files were two pages long and in one township allowed nine lines for the testimony of each participant. Scribes evidently greatly summarized the witnesses' testimony, and did not routinely note age, occupation, and marital status. As Burbank notes, subtexts of family, village politics, and longstanding feuds cannot easily be discerned, making it difficult to come to firm conclusions about social transformations. Finally, sometimes the book overstates its points due to lack of awareness of earlier peasant practice. The book singles out the precision with which peasants kept accounts (using both rubles and kopecks) as a sign of their new activeness in markets (85), but peasants had been that precise since the eighteenth century. And the assertion that it was "noteworthy" (210) that in 1916 a woman's demand for an inheritance share was supported by her village and the courts loses some impact when remembering that a woman in a similar position (guardian of two young sons) would have received the same treatment a century earlier.

The book stands as a significant study of legal culture and reminds its primary audience of scholars and graduate students the importance of analyzing new sources instead of relying on nineteenth-century ethnographers. It adds great weight to the destruction of the myth of Russian peasant collectivity and is a landmark in the study of peasant legal culture.

Rodney Bohac

Brigham Young University
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Author:Bohac, Rodney
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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