Collective Action and Representation in Autocracies: Evidence from Russia's Great Reforms

Paul Dower (Florida International University)
Evgeny Finkel (George Washington University)
Scott Gehlbach (University of Wisconsin–Madison)
Steven Nafziger (Williams College)

Abstract: How do autocratic elites respond to threats of unrest by excluded groups? We explore the relationship between collective action and representation with data from Imperial Russia on peasant disturbances and representation in institutions of local self-governance. To correct for measurement error in the unrest data and other sources of endogeneity, we employ an instrumental-variables strategy that exploits regional variation in the historical incidence of serfdom and religious polarization. Consistent with the Acemoglu-Robinson model of political transitions, and inconsistent with many other theories of institutional change, we find that peasants were granted less representation in districts that experienced more frequent unrest in preceding years. Yet we also observe patterns of unrest and redistribution in subsequent years that are inconsistent with the commitment mechanism central to the Acemoglu-Robinson model. Further exploring causal mechanisms through close analysis of particular cases, we discuss possible directions for future theoretical work.