The Tragedy of Property
by Maxim Trudolyubov, Polity, 226pp, £17.99
In the mid 1990s I did a stint in the BBC’s Moscow bureau. It was high summer, some of the resident correspondents were away on leave and nothing much was happening. They were dog days, stiflingly hot, and Moscow seemed a defeated, depressing and occasionally violent place. Boris Yeltsin was the man in the Kremlin’s high tower but it would be stretching a point to say he was “in charge”– he had a serious drink problem and it seemed to me that Russia too was suffering from a permanent hangover.
In the first flush of power, Yeltsin had decreed that Russia would henceforth be a “market economy” – but such an entity is not created by the stroke of any politician’s pen: doing business in Russia in those years was a precarious, sometimes deadly, activity. I remember attending the funeral of one short-lived entrepreneur, gunned down in his office in a property dispute.
As I struggled to make sense of what was happening around me, it dawned on me that one of Russia’s great problems was the lack of a functioning legal system, particularly regarding property rights. This was why I found The Tragedy of Property: Private Life, Ownership and the Russian State so fascinating.
This is a book which might appear off-putting to the general reader but for anyone who has ever wondered about Russia, that “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” in Churchill’s famous phrase, it offers some useful insights.
Whereas a good general history might seem a more obvious way of trying to unravel the mystery, the narrow focus of Trudolyubov’s book proves fruitful. Because it is grounded in a close examination of a particular aspect of life in Russia – the relationship between the citizen and private property – it avoids some of the pitfalls of more conventional histories: this is not a book that ends up expatiating about the Russian “character”.
Trudolyubov starts from the premise that the idea of truly “private property” lies at the heart of the relationship between the individual citizen and the state. This strikes me as unarguably true. In our own country the idea of “my home” as being a place where the state has only limited rights is something that we take for granted, not always remembering how fundamental it is to our liberty. In Britain, the idea of private ownership has been honed through the centuries. The result, for most people, is that the home is a place of privacy and retreat where one’s rights are certain and inalienable. “My home is my castle” might be putting it too strongly but private property in the UK is not subject to arbitrary confiscation.
This, as Trudolyubov points out, is absolutely not the Russian experience. Rather, the boundary between what is the state’s property and what belongs to the individual has never been clearly defined. He carefully traces the history of the various property arrangements that have defined Russian life.
In the 18th century there were aristocrats who “owned” vast estates, but that “ownership” was contingent upon service to the state so that the Tsar could reclaim the land if proper service was not rendered. Meanwhile, in the 17th century, the peasants endured enserfment under which they became the property of their masters. In the upheaval of the communist revolution the notion of state ownership was taken to its absolutist conclusion, where literally everything was owned by the state which merely granted the use of certain assets to the individual. Under that system the enjoyment of property was seen as a privilege granted to the citizen by the state and one, moreover, that could be revoked at any time. A decent (if small) flat in Moscow might be the reward for being a good citizen – which is indeed what the author’s grandfather achieved in his mid-fifties and was mightily delighted with it. But then came the sudden downfall of communism and an entirely new way of viewing property came to Russia.
One of Boris Yeltsin’s most radical measures was to transfer the legal ownership of millions of flats to the people who lived in them. Overnight millions of people became – for the first time in their lives – property owners. It is a striking fact that because of this measure the level of home ownership in Russia, at 85 per cent, is one of the highest in the world (and significantly higher than the UK). But this property revolution did not turn out to be quite as transformative as expected; the corresponding psychological shift proved much slower to emerge.
Many Russians “owned” property but in their minds they remained chained to the state. Meanwhile, a tiny number of oligarchs achieved control of swathes of state assets and became monstrously wealthy.
Trudolyubov’s book underscores how Russia has undergone periodic and radical shifts in the notion of private property. The author argues that now, for the first time, there is the possibility of the transfer of some assets from this generation to the next. That fact alone, he says, might presage a new era in which Russia comes more to resemble other countries and where continuity of ownership begins to confer stability on the whole of society. That at least is his hope.
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