Following Joseph Schumpeter’s assertion that “the public finance is one of the best starting points for an investigation of society, especially, though not exclusively, of its political life”, I find that the multidisciplinary study of the sources, practices and consequences of taxation can greatly illuminate fundamental dynamics of any institutional configuration. States of Obligation: Taxes and Citizenship in the Russian Empire and Early Soviet Republic by
Beginning in the 1860s, the Russian Empire replaced a poll tax system that originated with Peter the Great with a modern system of income and excise taxes. Russia began a transformation of state fiscal power that was also underway across Western Europe and North America. States of Obligation is the first sustained study of the Russian taxation system, its European and transatlantic context, and its essential continuities between the fiscal practices of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
Using a wealth of materials from provincial and local archives across Russia, in this very interesing and award-winning book Yanni Kotsonis skillfully examines how taxation was simultaneously a revenue-raising and a vital state-building tool, a claim on the person and a way to produce a new kind of citizenship. During successive political, wartime, and revolutionary crises between 1855 and 1928, state fiscal power was used to forge social and financial unity and fairness and a direct relationship with individual Russians. New taxation policy has been a crucial nexus for creating national accounting and the modern citizen. However, state power eventually overwhelmed both the private sector economy and the fragile realm of personal privacy.
This well articulated and enlightening book constitutes a crucial intervention in imperial Russian and Soviet history, demonstrating unexpected continuities between the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, challenging received understandings of the late imperial state’s reliance on agricultural taxation, and recalibrating the place of fiscality and the role of fiscal experts in the economic, political, and social shifts of the early Soviet period.
States of Obligation is a superb study in economic history, an astute analysis of the modern state, a valuable contribution to fiscal sociology scholarship and a compelling empirical demonstration of the state-economy-society mutual embeddedness.