Krugovaia poruka (Russia)

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Krugovaia poruka 🇷🇺
Russia map.png
Location: Russia
Definition: Collective responsibility or irresponsibility (cover-up)
Keywords: Russia FSU
Clusters: Solidarity Normative ambivalence Conformity Lock-in effect Community lock-in
Author: Geoffrey Hosking
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK
Website: Profile page at UCL

By Geoffrey Hosking, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

Joint responsibility, in one form or another, is characteristic of any society where state capacity and the reach of its law-enforcement agencies are limited. In those circumstances local communities have to improvise their own ways of preserving law and order. Sometimes they act in the interests of higher authority, but sometimes they defend their communities against that authority's attempts to extend its jurisdiction and 'interfere' with their traditional communal practices.

Early medieval England offers an example: in the smaller townships (villata) free males aged twelve and over were required to belong to a tithing, and to take an oath, or francpledge, to maintain local law and order and the 'king's peace'. Each tithing had its own 'chief-pledge' or 'elder'. The members were divided into groups of ten or twelve. Much is obscure about their operation, because their members were all illiterate, and even their existence can be adduced only from sherrif's records. If a felony was committed, for example a murder or a cattle theft, members of the tithing were required to raise a 'hue and cry', find the culprit and deliver him to the king's justice. Similarly they were required to provide for defence against brigands. When they failed they could be fined collectively: the tithing was responsible as a whole, not individually. Sheriffs checked regularly that every free adult male in a community was fulfilling his duty in a tithing, so their function was evidently considered important (Pollock & Maitland 1968: 268-71).

According to Jerome Blum village communities of collective responsibility emerged in most European countries during the middle ages, was dominant for several centuries, then began to weaken in the eighteenth century, and faded away with the growing penetration of central and local government institutions during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was 'simultaneously an economic community, a fiscal community, a mutual-assistance community, a religious community, the defender of peace and order within its boundaries, and the guardian of the public and private morals of its residents' (Blum 1971). Typically, it had a collegially organised council of 'chosen' or 'best' people, headed by an elder (Schultheiss or Ammann), which took decisions as far as possible by consensus. It also had a court, often composed of the same people, to adjudicate disputes and to judge criminal cases. Its priority was to preserve the peace, order and economic viability of the community rather than to observe laws strictly. In dividing up responsibilities among household its guiding principle was Hausnotdurft - requiring from each household what it had the resources to fulfil (Blickle 1991).

The community of joint responsibility was obviously useful to higher authorities in ensuring that low-level administrative functions were carried out. At times of crisis, though, these communities could become the seedbed of rebellion. Whole communities could apply the principle of Hausnotdurft to their own needs: they came to believe they had a right to self-defence against excessive landlords' demands or threats to their rights and property, especially if these were not sanctioned by tradition, by asserting that violations of this principle were an offence against God's law (Blickle 1981).

In France the collective responsibility of village communities lay at the foundation of the monarchical ancien régime as late as the eighteenth century. Hilton Root, who has studied peasant institutions in Burgundy, believes that they were in a sense more democratic than the reformed institutions which were set up after 1789. The village assembly typically handled the collective financial liability of the community for royal and municipal taxes and the mortgaging of communal property. It also took all the main decisions required by open-field farming: crop rotation, the timing of the harvest, the use of common land, the management of cattle, the upkeep of roads and bridges. For this purpose it elected an elder ( échevin) who oversaw the operations and liaised with higher authorities. Seigneurs and royal officials would try to insist that all heads of household participated in the deliberations of the village assemblies, so that they should not be dominated either by the wealthier households or by narrow clannish interests (Root 1987: 66-72[1]).

In Russia the term krugovaia poruka,literally 'circular surety', was used to describe the functioning of analogous local institutions. In the nineteenth century the Slavophiles and later the Narodniki argued that the principle of communal democratic governance and mutual aid embodied in them was peculiar to Russia. That is not really the case: what had happened is that such institutions survived later than elsewhere. It could be argued, though, that Russia had special need of communities of joint responsibility: its land was abundant but relatively infertile and much of it was situated at the northernmost extremity of viable agriculture. It was a highly risk-prone environment, especially if one considers that most urban and rural buildings were constructed of wood and hence posed a fire hazard. It made sense to spread risk as widely as possible, and to ensure that in case of a poor harvest or of a major conflagration the whole community was required to help those who had suffered most severely.

From the earliest times collective surety developed in rural and urban communities as a way of ensuring that (a) local law and order was upheld, (b) taxes were collected and paid to an official, (c) recruits were available for the army as needed. Rulers took a direct interest in their operation. The earliest mention of joint responsibility comes in Russkaia pravda, in which communities are fined as a whole for crimes committed on their territory. In Muscovy fines were jointly levied if excise or tavern duties were not paid (Brokgauz 1895: 836-9[2]; Dewey 1988[3]).

Given the hazards of Russian agriculture, the normal procedure was to divide open fields into strips, so that each household had a share in the different kinds of soil available. From the seventeenth century population grew and land became scarcer in certain regions; accordingly, it became common practice periodically to redistribute the strips, as households grew or declined in size. Then the liability for taxes and other dues, which were imposed by landlords or state officials on the whole community, would be redistributed proportionately among households, so that the largest or wealthiest would bear the largest share. If any household fell behind on its payments, then the others had to make up the difference. For that reason villagers were inclined to look askance on any behaviour which might impoverish, endanger or bring disrepute on the whole community. Drunkenness would be frowned upon, as it degraded the work capacity of the drinker. Sexual irregularities likewise, as they could disrupt households.

The communal assembly was democratic, in that it represented all households, but paradoxically it was also authoritarian, in that it tended to be dominated by the more affluent villagers or by older males.

Russian village communities also bore responsibility for welfare provision, for maintaining village infrastructure and for keeping peace and order in their lands. When serious crime took place, it was incumbent on the whole community to find and apprehend the criminal and bring him to justice, either in a community court, or by delivering him to higher authorities. If conflict between individuals or households became violent, the community as a whole was expected to stop the fighting, limit the damage and ensure restitution took place in such a way as to minimise the harm to the common interest. If the community failed in any of these obligations, then higher authorities could impose penalties on them collectively (Robinson 1932[4]; Milov 1998: 418-23[5]; Danilova & Danilov 1966: 22-39[6]; Dennison 2011, chapter 4[7]; Hosking 2004: 47-62[8]; Ledeneva 2004: 85-108[9])

'Joint responsibility' affected Russian peasants' attitude to all social institutions: authority, law, property and tradition. They regarded the land as belonging to God, which implied that it should be available to all who needed it and could work it, together with their dependents.

The mentalities associated with joint responsibility persisted in Russia long after krugovaia poruka was officially abolished in 1903, indeed well into the Soviet period. The concept of personal duty or legal responsibility tended to remain diffused in the collective. Lower-level collectives arose whose members both acted as a channel for commands from above, yet also as a means of unobtrusive resistance when those commands were uncongenial. Members covered up each other's transgressions. Party secretaries would bring with them to any new appointment their trusted associates from the underground or civil war. They would then dig themselves into the new authority structures and protect each other against investigations or reprimands from higher up. At the party Central Committee of February-March 1937 Stalin's accusations of semeistvennost (nepotism) reflected this survival of krugovaia poruka into an apparently incongruous milieu (Easter 2000 chapters 2-4[10]; 'Materialy’1995[11]).


  1. Root, H.L. 1987. Peasants and King in Burgundy: agrarian foundations of French absolutism, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Entsiklopedicheskii slovar' Brokgauz i Efron. 1895. St Petersburg, 32: 836-9
  3. Dewey, H.W 1988 'Russia's debt to the Mongols in surety and collective responsibility', Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30: 249-270.
  4. Robinson, G.T. 1932. Rural Russia under the Old Regime: a history of the landlord-peasant world and a prologue to the peasant revolution of 1917, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Danilov & Milov, L.V. 1998. ‘velikorusskii pakhar’ i osobennosti rossiiskogo istoricheskogo protsessa, Moscow: Rosspen: 22-39
  6. Danilova, L.V. and Danilov, V.P. 1966. 'Krest'ianskaia mental'nost' i obshchina', in V.P.
  7. Dennison, T. 2011. The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom.Cambridge University Press.
  8. Hosking, G. 2004. 'Forms of social solidarity in Russia and the Soviet Union', in Ivana Marková (ed.), Trust and Democratic Transition in Post-Communist Europe, Oxford University Press for the British Academy.
  9. Ledeneva, A. 2004. 'The genealogy of krugovaia poruka: forced trust as a feature of Russian political culture', in Ivana Marková (ed.), Trust and Democratic Transition, Oxford University Press for the British Academy.
  10. Easter, G.M. 2000. Reconstructing the State: personal networks and elite identity in Soviet Russia. Cambridge University Press
  11. Materialy fevral'sko-martovskogo plenuma TsK VKP(b) 1937g', 1995.Voprosy istorii, no 3.