Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Gift

Thus far I've not had all that much luck with podcasts related to Soviet history. I did however stumble upon a good Standford lecture by historian Nancy Shields Kullmann entitled "Dealing with Corruption in Early Modern Russia." Kullmann's lecture builds upon similar studies in France and England. As she points out, if tiny, prosperous England was undergoverned and underpoliced, we can only imagine how hard it was for the tsar's to exend their influence to remote corners of their vast empire. Indeed, Russia was both vast and hard to navigate. Roads were few and far between, and the long winters made them impassable for large portions of each year.

Corruption is perhaps inevitable; sociologists say that the phenomenon exists in every kind of society. Even so, early modern Russia was awash in it. The tsars did what they could to raise revenues and enforce laws throughout the land. They sent agents with very limited authority to the furthest reaches of Siberia. But for whatever reason the tsars relied on a very limited pool of well-connected or well-educated servants to do their bidding. This mean that they often re-appointed their agents even when these agents amassed a great deal of wealth at the expense of the areas they administered.

In theory, the tsar's agents were entitled to some graft. The concept of the gift--see Marcel Mauss' book of the same title--was well established. Kullmann points to the scene in the Godfather: "don't insult me with money but allow me to do this favor for you and then, perhaps, one day, I'll ask a favor in return." The tsar's agent arrived on the scene, and received gifts from the locals who needed his favor. Their were limits, of course. Early modern populations could become disgusted with the enforced gift-giving if it exceeded custom. They could become irritated if favors were not granted in return for gifts. They could become offended if the government official granted assistance to only one faction or group in the area. They could complain if the tsar's agent beat or arrested local people too frequently.

But in general local people knew that they needed to give gifts to the tsar's agent (or more usually his wife or children) on birthdays or festivals, or at times when a legal dispute was likely to occur. Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great, made some inroads against corruption. However, the depiction of local government in Russian novels isn't far from the mark. These officials were somnolent at best, and venal at worst. The Russian Center never erected the bulwarks that Western states used to limit the sphere of corruption in their realms, such as reasonable state salaries, a culture of public disgust for scandal, an active press, pluralistic civil society, reform movements, and general transparency in the arena of government.


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