Russian Culture, Property Rights and the Market Economy

Contract law: still waiting for a Russian resolution

February 28, 2008

This is more a remarkable and original monograph than a textbook. Uriel Procaccia argues that culture determines economic behaviour (like Francis Fukuyama argues in Trust) and that there is something unique about Russian culture (like Orlando Figes argues in Natasha's Dance).

Teaching law in Russia in the 1990s, Procaccia came to the conclusion that something very profound made it very difficult for Russians to take in the notion of "contract". The argument is very hard to grasp, but it seems to be based on the idea that contracts amount to the quintessence of individualism, because they create or modify rights and obligations enforceable over time independently of the state. They embody personal freedom of choice. The thesis of this book is that this notion is contradicted by the nature of Russian culture, and by icons above all.

Procaccia, drawing heavily on Galen Burghardt, views the Renaissance as the time when across "Western" societies the individual came to be at the centre of art and thought. He suggests Russia never made this shift. The significance of icons is that they reject individualism. The design of the icon is stylised imagery, passed down through generations of artists with no desire to be original or to represent any individual people or ideas. "Icons are never (or almost never) dated, nor are they signed," the author says. They embody the spirit of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Soviet art is portrayed as playing the same role. Procaccia also sees a fundamental mysticism about Russian culture that contrasts with the rational empiricism that he suggests sustains a society based on freely chosen private contracts. A section headed "Contract, rationality and empirical evidence" argues that the Western notion of contract relies on the presumption that individuals can "correctly identify their own concerns and rationally devise means to address them". This became embedded in the idea of freedom of contract in the West. Even if in recent decades new thinking about rationality has questioned this belief, there is an underlying foundation of what may be termed liberalism.

But in Russia, Procaccia argues, there never was this underlying basis. Tsarist Russia never had substantive contract or even company law and the legal basis of the New Economic Policy did not embrace it wholeheartedly before being swept away by Stalinist centralism. Hence, when the market economy appeared after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was no underlying cultural basis for it to rest on.

The final conclusion of the book is that "if Russia wishes to keep its allegiance to her own history and to forego (sic) contract, or else to become a contractual and corporate nation but to sacrifice her traditional and extremely spiritual historical calling is not for me to say". Whether this tantalising account is correct is beyond me.

Who is it for? Researchers and advanced students of law or history.

Presentation: Difficult but good.

Would you recommend it? Yes.

Russian Culture, Property Rights and the Market Economy

Author: Uriel Procaccia
Edition: First
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Pages: 312
Price: £45.00
ISBN 9780521835060

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