Tracy K. Dennison: “Four legs good, two legs bad”: Inequality in Russia in Historical Perspective


Monday, November 9, 2015, 12:00pm to 1:45pm


CGIS South-020, 1730 Cambridge St.
Note location this week

Tracy Dennison, Professor of Social Science History, California Institute of Technology.

With oligarchs, Party elites, or aristocratic overlords on the one hand, and impoverished masses on the other, inequality in Russia has always taken deeper and more structural forms than in Western-style social democracies.

This talk focuses on imperial Russia, and examines inequality as the result of an institutional context in which a weak state is forced to make concessions to powerful corporate entities to enable it to carry out its basic functions.

This institutional equilibrium has, over many centuries, undermined tentative developments toward a rule of law, distorted or prevented economic development, and created conditions in which corruption is so deep-seated as to exclude any possibility of a level playing field.  

About the speaker

Tracy Dennison is a Professor of Social Science History at CalTech whose research interests encompass economic history and social science history, with a focus on pre-revolutionary Russia and Eastern Europe, demographic history, institutions and economic growth, and history of ideas about peasant societies.

Dennison is interested in how society worked in the past and how societal rules affected the decisions of ordinary people. She investigates how premodern institutions such as states, communities, and corporative entities influenced economic, social, and demographic behavior.

Her research has centered on the role of households, communities, and landlords in the Russian rural economy under serfdom. In particular, Dennison has studied the role of landlords' policies, especially the quasi-formal legal systems established by some wealthy landlords that made it possible for their serfs to conduct property and credit transactions despite their ambiguous legal status. This subject was explored in her 2011 book, The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom (Cambridge University Press).

Among Dennison's current projects is an investigation (with Sheilagh Ogilvie at the University of Cambridge) of the relationship between institutions and marriage patterns in premodern Europe. She is also working on a new book about the political economy of imperial Russia, examining serfdom and emancipation in the context of state capacity and fiscal reform. Dennison eventually intends to expand her analysis of institutions to include Russian rural society in the post-emancipation period, exploring the nature and extent of institutional change in the Russian countryside after the 1861 Emancipation Act, as well as the terms of the act itself and the motivations behind it.

Her awards include the W. Bruce Lincoln Book Prize for best first monograph (2012), the Henry A. Wallace Award for best book on non-U.S. agricultural history (2012), and the Economic History Society's First Monograph Prize in Economic and/or Social History (2012). She also received a National Science Foundation Award for the Imperial Russian Incomes Project (2010–2011) as part of the Global Price and Income History Group.

See also: Fall 2015