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


We explore the relationship between capacity for collective action and representation in autocracies with data from Imperial Russia. Our primary empirical exercise relates peasant representation in new institutions of local self-government to the frequency of peasant unrest in the decade prior to reform. To correct for measurement error in the unrest data and other sources of endogeneity, we exploit idiosyncratic variation in two determinants of peasant unrest: the historical incidence of serfdom and religious polarization. We find that peasants were granted less representation in districts with more frequent unrest in preceding years—a relationship consistent with the Acemoglu-Robinson model of political transitions and inconsistent with numerous other theories of institutional change. At the same time, we observe patterns of redistribution in subsequent years that are inconsistent with the commitment mechanism central to the Acemoglu-Robinson model. Building on these results, we discuss possible directions for future theoretical work.

Corresponding author
Paul Castañeda Dower is an Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 427 Lorch Street, Madison, WI 53706 (
Evgeny Finkel is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University, 2115 G Street NW, Suite 419, Washington, DC 20052 (
Scott Gehlbach is a Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 110 North Hall, Madison, WI 53706 (
Steven Nafziger is an Associate Professor of Economics, Williams College, 24 Hopkins Hall Drive, Williamstown, MA 01267 (
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Dower acknowledges the support of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, Grant No. 14.U04.31.0002. Gehlbach acknowledges the financial support of the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at UW Madison. For helpful comments, we thank Ingo Rohlfing and three anonymous referees; Quarmul Ashraf, Onur Bakiner, Chris Carter, Jasper Cooper, Oeindrila Dube, Jon Eguia, Jeff Frieden, Calvin Garner, Gunes Gokmen, Steve Hoch, Dmitrii Kofanov, Andrei Markevich, David McDonald, Marc Meredith, Jack Paine, Bob Powell, John Reuter, Jim Robinson, Bryn Rosenfeld, Jason Seawright, Emily Sellars, Ken Shepsle, Anand Swamy, Georgiy Syunyaev, Henry Thomson, Christian Welzel, and Galina Zudenkova; participants in seminars at Columbia, Emory, Harvard, the Higher School of Economics, LSE, the New Economic School, Penn, Penn State, Rochester, the Ronald Coase Institute Workshop on Institutional Analysis in Tallinn, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, Washington, Washington University, Williams, and Wisconsin; and participants in annual meetings of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, the Economic History Association, the Midwest Political Science Association, and the Society for Institutional and Organizational Economics.

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