Free Economic Society

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Free Economic Society


one of the oldest economic societies in the world and the first in Russia (the term “free” means that the society was formally independent of government departments). Established in St. Petersburg in 1765 by large landowners who, with the growth in agricultural markets and trade, were intent on rationalizing agriculture and raising the productivity of serf labor.

The founding of the Free Economic Society was a manifestation of the policy of enlightened absolutism. The society initiated its activities with the announcement of competition themes and the publication of Trudy VEO (Transactions of the FES; 1766-1915, more than 280 volumes) and its supplements. The first competition was announced on the initiative of Catherine II in 1766 on the subject “What does the property of the agriculturalist (peasant) consist of—his land, which he cultivates, or movables—and what right may he have to either of them for the public weal?” Out of 160 answers from Russian and foreign authors the most progressive was an essay by the jurist A. la. Polenov, who criticized serfdom. The answer displeased the society’s competition committee and was not published. Through 1861 some 243 competition themes were announced, relating to political economy and scientific management. The politico-economic issues concerned three problems: landed proprietorship and the relationships of serfdom; the comparative profitability of corvee and quitrent; and the use of hired labor in agriculture.

The society published the first statistical geographic studies of Russia. The society’s competitions and its periodicals contributed to the introduction of industrial crops and of improved agricultural implements in farming; its activities also led to the development of animal husbandry (especially sheep breeding), beekeeping, and silkworm breeding and of the beet sugar, distilling, and linen industries on the votchina (patrimonial) farms. The agronomists A. T. Bolotov, I. M. Komov, and V. A. Levshin, the scientist A. A. Nartov, the well-known political figure M. I. Golenishchev-Kutuzov, Admiral A. I. Siniavin, and the poet G. R. Derzhavin were closely involved in the work of the Free Economic Society at the end of the 18th century. In the first half of the 19th century, N. S. Mordvinov, K. D. Kavelin, and I. V. Vernadskii participated actively in its work.

After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the society played a progressive social role, acting as a focus of economic thought of the liberal pomeshchiks (landowners) and bourgeoisie. In the 1860’s and 1870’s it weighed the development of the peasant agrarian commune. At the end of the 1890’s public debates took place in the society between the “legal Marxists” and the Narodniks (Populists) on the “future of capitalism” in Russia. From 1860 to 1890 the society pursued extensive scientific activities in agronomy. Participating in the work of the society between 1861 and 1915 were D. I. Mendeleev, V. V. Dokuchaev, A. M. Butlerov, A. N. Beketov, P. P. Semionov-Tian-Shanskii, lu. E. Ianson, N. F. Annenskii, M. M. Kovalevskii, L. N. Tolstoy, A. B. Struve, M. I. Tugan-Baranovskii, O. D. Forsh, and E. V. Tarle.

In 1900 the tsarist government launched an attack on the society, seeking to turn it into a narrow institution of applied agronomy. The committees on aid to the starving (founded in the 1890’s) and the committee on literacy (founded in 1861) were suppressed, demands were made that the charter of the society be revised, and unauthorized persons were barred from society sessions. Despite these measures, the society in 1905 and 1906 published surveys of the agrarian movement in Russia, and from 1907 to 1911 it published questionnaires on the attitude of the peasantry toward the Stolypin agrarian reform. In 1915 the activities of the Free Economic Society virtually ceased, and in 1919 the society was formally abolished.


Khodnev, A. I. Istoriia imperatorskogo Vol’nogo ekonomicheskogo obshchestva s 1765 po 1865. St. Petersburg, 1865.
Beketov, A. N. Istoricheskii ocherk 25-letnei deiatel’nosti imperatorskogo Vol’nogo ekonomicheskogo obshchestva s 1865 do 1890 g. St. Petersburg, 1890.
Kovalevskii, M. M. “K 150-letnemu iubileiu imperatorskogo Vol’nogo ekonomicheskogo obshchestva.” Vestnik Evropy, 1915, book 12.
Bak, I. S. “A. la. Polenov.” In the collection Istoricheskie zapiski, vol. 28. [Moscow] 1949.
Oreshkin, V. V. Vol’noe ekonomicheskoe obshchestvo v Rossii (1765-1917), Istoriko-ekonomicheskii ocherk. Moscow, 1963.


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