Land Possession

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Land Possession


the holding of land on a definite basis (the right of property, the right of use), with corresponding rights and obligations on the part of its possessor.

The forms of land possession are determined by the prevailing mode of production. In historical, economic, and legal literature, land possession is understood, as a rule, as property in land as this concept has developed historically. Such an understanding of the term “land possession” embraces all those numerous cases when the possession of land is identified with the right of property in land, that is, when the possessor of the land and its owner are one and the same person. Within the limits of a definite historical form of property in land, a variety of large-, medium-, and small-scale types of land possession usually arise; a different legal procedure characterizes each type. In tsarist Russia, for example, there were the forms of state land possession, appanage land possession, land possession by the tsar’s family, and land possession of the church, monasteries, cities, trading quarters, and other institutions and legal persons (associations and companies). Private possession of pomeshchiks, or the dvorianstvo (nobles, gentry), also existed, as did communal, private, and allotment possession of peasants and the private land possession of factory owners, merchants, and the townspeople (meshchanstvo).

However, possession is not always identical to ownership—private, state, or otherwise. In Roman private law for example, the category of possession of land is counterposed to the category of ownership of land. In the feudal Orient, where the supreme landowner was the state, private property in land did not exist, although both private and communal possession and use of the land existed. This feature of the land relations of the feudal Orient has continued down to the present day. In Ethiopia, all the land is nominally the property of the emperor, and all duties and taxes from the land also belong to him. In fact, all the land is divided up into four categories, according to the character of its ownership: crown land (imperial or state land), church land, communal land, and privately owned land. In French history, the benefice, in its pure, classical form, arose as conditional land tenure bestowed by the king on his vassal for the latter’s lifetime and entailing definite obligations for the vassal. Over the course of several centuries, the benefice in France was gradually transformed into a hereditary fief. This classical form of hierarchical feudal land tenure was characteristic of all the countries of Western Europe.

The differentiation between possession and ownership of land was also characteristic of Russia. The pomest’e (service land) form of land tenure arose in Russia at the end of the 15th century. Such estates were granted only for service and under conditions of service, and pomeshchiks did not have the right to dispose of them by alienation, donation, or other means. The principle of “no land without service” was firmly established in Russia in the second half of the 16th century. Small-scale nonserving ownership of land was eliminated. Service land estates occupied approximately 80 percent of the land of the Muscovite state in the 17th century. Land tenure acquired a strictly caste character. The process of the fusion of the pomest’e with the votchina (patrimonial estate), which had already been the property of its owner, gradually moved forward. With the ukase of Peter I of Mar. 23, 1714, On Primogeniture, the last differences between pomesfia and votchiny were eliminated, because both types of estates were united under a common name—real estate (imenie)— and a single system of disposing of them was established. The Charter of the Nobility of Apr. 21, 1785, following the manifesto on the freedom of the nobility issued on Feb. 18, 1762, completely freed the dvorianstvo from obligatory state service and finally abolished the last remnants of the conditional character of pomest’e land tenure, transforming the land into the complete and unconditional property of the noble land-owners.

Capitalism is characterized by the process of the separation of the land from the direct producers by the massive and brutal expropriation of the land from the peasants, as in the enclosure movement, and by the concentration of property in land in the hands of a few landlords, capitalists, and capitalist corporations. The process of the separation of the land as an object of farming from property in land and from the land-holder occurs in the developed capitalist countries as absentee landownership. The capitalist leaseholder becomes a central figure, along with the landed proprietor. The proprietor gives direct possession and use of the land to the leaseholder, who is contractually obligated to pay rent to the owner. The capitalist leaseholder, although not the direct producer, enjoys complete freedom to dispose of the land over the entire term of the lease in order to secure his entrepreneurial interests.

In the USSR, where the land has been nationalized and the socialist state alone is the sole, exclusive owner of all the land, the term “possession of the land” acquires a completely different content. The Soviet state, as the exclusive owner of the land, in all cases has the right of possession of the land, and no one, aside from the state, can implement this right as an element of the content of the right of state property in land. The possession of land with the rights of use is derived from, and dependent upon, the right of state property in land. Citizens and organizations may possess land only in cases where it has been granted for use by the competent bodies of the Soviet state. The purchase and sale of land is completely excluded in land relations in the USSR because of the nationalization of the land. Land may not be the object of commodity circulation, borrowing, rental, donation, or inheritance, and the exchange of land between users is prohibited without the knowledge and permission of the state. In foreign socialist countries, as well as in the USSR, land possession of nationalized lands is permitted only with the right of use. In those cases in which land is the property of cooperatives or of individual peasants, its tenure is subordinated to the tasks of its rational use in the interests of socialist construction.

Radical reforms in the system of land tenure are being carried out in countries which have started, or are starting, along the path of noncapitalist development.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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