Ekaterina Pravilova’s book is a highly original study of Russian imperial finance. In fact, it is so original that it invents the field. Historians have written extensively on the problems of Russian imperial organisation and policy in recent decades, but they have said almost nothing about how much the empire costs, where, when, and whether the tsarist imperial structure worked well—or at all—as a financial system. Pravilova’s central contribution is to place “money and power” at the centre of the way historians analyse Russian imperial history.
The book is divided into three parts: Part One examines the imperial budget. Part Two measures the financial burden of empire in the long nineteenth century. And Part Three takes up the question of monetary integration. In each section, Pravilova works through the particulars of four key borderlands—Finland, Poland, the Southern Caucasus (Zakavkaz’e), and Turkistan—while at the same time commenting and analysing overall fiscal policy from the centre as well as between her chosen regions. The book is very nicely written—far livelier than most studies of fiscal policy. And Pravilova builds her conclusions, large and small, on a broad base of research in Russian and Polish archives as well as extensive reading in published sources and current scholarly literature in a variety of languages.
The overall argument of the book is that the Russian Empire, like all empires, was not cheap. Territorial expansion and imperial maintenance placed enormous pressure on the government’s bottom line. It also produced clear costs for borderland economies that were—to different degrees—shaped to serve imperial needs. The overall fiscal burden of the empire was made all the more onerous by the fact that the tsarist state never established a “conscious and well-coordinated strategy” for connecting the financial operations of the centre and the borderlands. The Ministry of Finance was not the leader that it might have been on this question, and because there was no institutional platform for united government in the tsarist system, the political and fiscal dimensions of regional economic policy were rarely integrated in the policies of the different agencies in charge (369). The result, Pravilova argues, was the absence of a coherent field of imperial finance. The lords of St. Petersburg, not surprisingly, aspired to centralise and standardise, but they did not have the mechanisms in place to make these processes work effectively, and consequently different imperial regions maintained their own budgets—even their own customs barriers and currencies—for far longer than the centre’s rhetoric of uniformity should have allowed. Poland and Finland were pulled kicking and screaming towards financial integration. Changes went more smoothly, relatively speaking, in the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia, though the costs in roubles and political capital were enormous.
Pravilova’s analysis is not “cliometric history.” Though she addresses the costs and occasional profits of empire—for the centre and for the borderlands—she does not seek to come up with a numerical balance sheet of tsarist imperialism (see her discussion of this issue on pages 149-151), focusing instead on the government institutions and public discourses that shaped the empire’s financial landscape. And what she shows is that Russians tended to understand this landscape primarily in political terms. That is, the project of empire in Russia was always much more of a political undertaking than an economic venture, and despite the good efforts of different financial planners to bring economic concerns to the centre, the political concerns of keeping the empire together forever trumped the bottom line. The deepest logic that Pravilova finds in tsarist finance is thus the principle of scarce resources tempered by political caution. As she shows, the tsars did not have the institutions, the personnel, or the capital to make the borderlands flourish, and they were reluctant to push economic growth too far anyway because borderlands with growing economies were more likely to demonstrate “centripetal tendencies” (371). The empire was caught in a kind of poverty trap—a dearth of resources and a lack of political imagination. Historians have long known the troubles of the Russian empire by the late imperial period, but Pravilova’s pathbreaking book helps us to appreciate these troubles in a new and revealing light.