What is an artel?

In short, it is a type of informal cooperative based on equality of participants and shared ownership. However, the definition and practice of artel has changed over the centuries. Hence, by engaging in this form of collaboration, we aim to enhance our own, thereby aligning with our intended assumptions. Artel is an organic creation that takes different forms depending on who is forming it and why.

A bit of history

The homeland of artels is Ruthenia. They originated from the Cossack communities and informal self-organization of Ruthenian peasants and hired labourers in the areas of today’s Ukraine and Russia.

The first Cossacks were the Polovtsians and Tatars, and it was only in the late 15th and 16th centuries that the name began to be used by outlaws and refugees from the Ukrainian and Polish possessions of the Rzeczpospolita to the so-called Zaporozhye. It was they who created a specific military democracy, incidentally, among other things in defense against the Tatars. Like many peoples inhabiting the area before them, the Cossacks toiled in militancy, but also in fishing, hunting, farming and trade.

Artel was formed on the border between peasant and military democracy, and even a bit of brigandage.

However, the fact that they were groups of men, detached from the full community (family, tribe, village), additionally engaged in one type of activity (fishing, hunting) may have influenced their radically equal character.

Russian historians actually distinguished three types of artels, although they did not always describe them in the same way[1].

  1. Temporary groups of fishermen, carpenters, tanners, etc., formed by the participants or the person making the contract. This is an ancient form of temporary association of workers for the period when they were needed. Traditionally concluded orally, based on customary laws, well known to all parties. They were relatively equal, although a headman was elected for the duration of the group’s existence. Members were artisans, wage labourers and peasants hired for seasonal work.
  2. Formed for a long period of time, with certain characteristics of enterprises. Various tasks were divided among the participants, and the rules of operation were somewhat more complex. Work could be carried out by members, such artel-enterprises could also employ workers. Often the tools, land, and money came from the investor.
  3. The third group of artels was production-oriented and resembled workers’ cooperatives – the group’s capital came from contributions and loans, and income was divided equally or according to the work put in.

Artels first appeared under this name in the mid-17th century. By the end of the 18th, they have strictly defined rights and obligations of members. Each member of an artel had a guaranteed wage, but was responsible for the damage and losses done.

In the 19th century, artels were already clearly understood to be formed with the consent of all workers, doing work beyond the capacity of a single worker. Wages came from a common fund and work was done collectively. Everyone was responsible for each other.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, artels were formed under a contract or charter approved by the governor. Men and women from the age of 17 could participate in the work and earnings, but only people over 21 were on the board of directors.

Artels discussed the most important matters in general meetings, when the number present was no less than half of the participants. For more significant matters, it was ¾ of all participants. Decisions were made by majority vote.

During the Soviet era, the idea of artel was dying out, subordinated to state power.

Artel of Artists

The Artel of Artists, formed in 1863 in St. Petersburg by Ivan Kramskoy. It was a response to the financial troubles of a group of leftist artists, into which they had fallen as a result of a conflict with the Russian Academy of Arts.

The artists moved into a shared apartment, allowing them to create a commune with a place for everyone to sleep and work.

In 1871, the Artel ended due to the reconciliation of some members with the Academy and the conflict between Kramskoy (who had been the Artel’s foreman all along) and one of the group’s members.

The artists were inspired by revolutionary-nationalist Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s book “What to Do?” (a slogan later spread by Lenin’s book of the same title, “Shto dielat?” – Lenin, like the Artel Artists, was inspired by Chernyshevsky’s work).

People who planted trees

Between 1971 and 1994, an artel cooperative known as the Hoedads[2], which grew out of hippie ideas of freedom, equality and alternative economics, emerged and flourished in the US Northwest. The Hoedads (also known as the Mudsharks) worked in the leek reforestation industry in the state of Oregon. Their self-governing work brigades, organized on an artel basis, brought women into an all-male occupation, uncompromisingly upheld the principles of equality and community, and became a seedbed for the values and ideas of the counterculture of radical, working-class hippie movement[3].

And Today?

Every era, place, and group of people has its own specific circumstances and needs. What might an artel look like today? What qualities should it have in our particular situation?

  1. Based on: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/217164841.pdf
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoedads_Reforestation_Cooperative
  3. https://around.uoregon.edu/oq/with-a-human-face-when-hoedads-walked-the-earth and http://hoedadsonline.com/


  • Ludka (All text)
  • Petros (the Hoedads remark and edition/translation)

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