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Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia

Debt, Property, and the Law in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy

by: Sergei Antonov
published by
: harvard University Press
pp: 400
ISBN: 9780674971486

Book's frontpage

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.


Table of contents

I. The Culture of Debt
1. Usurers’ Tales
2. Nobles and Merchants
3. The Boundaries of Risk
4. Fraud, Property, and Respectability
5. Kinship and Family
II. Debt and the Law
6. Debtors and Bureaucrats
7. In the Pit with Debtors
8. Intermediaries, Lawyers, and Scriveners
9. Creditors and Debtors in Pre-Reform Courts
Appendix A: Glossary
Appendix B: The Table of Ranks (as of 1850)
Appendix C: St. Petersburg Pawnbrokers, 1866
Appendix D.1: Objectives of Legal Representation, Based on the Powers of Attorney Registered at the Moscow Chamber of Civil Justice
Appendix D.2: Legal Representatives Registered at the Moscow Chamber of Civil Justice
Appendix E: Agreement to Provide Legal Services, 1865


“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, author of Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence

“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. Martin, author of Enlightened Metropolis: Constructing Imperial Moscow, 1762–1855

“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, author of A Public Empire: Property and the Quest for the Common Good in Imperial Russia


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