Staunton, March 6 – On this date in 1990, the USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies approved a law allowing Soviet citizens to own private property. For more than half a century, they had been allowed to own “personal” property as long as it was not used to make money, something that could land a violator behind bars.
But despite this recognition that property is a complex phenomenon and that its maintenance requires a complex network of laws, institutions and understandings, many in Moscow at the time and even more in the West saw this as a transformative moment in Soviet life (sputnikipogrom.com/calendar/all/82736/06-march-1990/).
It certainly mattered: it opened the way to the wild 1990s; but precisely because those behind it acted on the assumption that a declaration was enough, the Russian authorities did not create the institutions and laws necessary to support genuine private property and thus to create the institutional basis for its role in limiting and shaping the state.
The case of property was hardly unique: in all too many areas and not in Russia alone, post-Soviet states aided and abetted by their Western advisors adopted declarative statements as if they were enough and ignored the legal context needed to ensure that whatever was being declared would not only survive but have the impact they hoped for.
On this anniversary, it is clear that this approach, one jointly the responsible of enthusiasm of the revolutionary elites and the desire of Western elites to declare victory quickly and go home, has been largely a failure and perhaps nowhere more than in the property realm where “property” in Russia is held not by right but by permission of the ruler.
Had people at the time been more thoughtful and more thorough, that might not have happened or at least not taken the radical forms it has. No one least of all this writer questions the centrality of private property for a limited and democratic state; but at the same time no one should assume that a single declaration however attractive is ever enough.