Dmitry Orlov on communities that abide

I recently read Communities that Abide, a quirky little book whose editor and lead author, Dimtry Orlov, seeks lessons for human survival in the study of small, resilient communities such as the Roma (gypsies), the Amish and the Hutterites.

Orlov thinks such lessons are needed because industrial civilization is in danger of collapse.  He writes weekly on his blog about this subject.  He sees the key to survival not in stockpiling guns, ammunition, gold coins and canned food, but in human solidarity and mastery of survival skills.

He admires the anarchist thinker, Prince Peter Kropotkin, and says the three communities follow the anarchist principle of mutual aid.  Community work is not based on payment of wages.  Distribution of goods within the community is not based on ownership of property.  Community rules are not enforced by means of violence.   That’s anarchism in a nutshell.

CommunitiesThatAbide_CoverLack of a formal governmental structure does not, however, mean a high degree of individual freedom.  Norms of behavior within the community, which are largely unwritten, are enforced my means of gossip, ridicule, peer pressure and, in extreme cases, shunning and expulsion from the group.   Such means are much more controlling than a system of formal rewards and punishments, because there is nothing tangible to rebel against.

Orlov said the experience shows that the maximum size of an effective community is about 150 people.   Any group larger than that starts to develop a bureaucracy, he wrote.  The three groups he described are all networks of communities small enough that members can decide things in public meetings where everybody gets a chance to speak.

This fits his own experience working with high-tech start-ups in the Boston area.   Every time a new company got to be larger than 150 employees, he wrote, it ceased to be a team and become a hierarchy.

My own experience is the same.  I belong to a church whose congregation never seems to grow beyond 150 members.  Our denominational leaders and ministers have told us we are wrong in being content not to grow.  But Orlov’s book indicates that maybe growth is better achieved by spinning off new groups.

Solidarity within Roma, Amish and Hutterites is maintained through customs, some of them hidden from the outside public, that separate them from the public.   Orlov said all communities that endure have a story of their founding, which they continually affirm through stories, ceremonies and historical re-enactments.   Jacob Hutter led his community for only three years in the early 1500s before he was martyred for his beliefs, yet so strong was his vision and his commitment that, 500 years later, there are people called Hutterites.

The key activity of these communities, aside from providing members with food, clothing and shelter, is the rearing and home schooling of children.  The greatest threat to group identity is public education, because it teaches the values of the modern world.  That is not to say they all refuse to send their children to school, but they have their own schooling to teach their own values.

None of these three groups reflects modern thinking concerning gender roles or gay rights.   Orlov wrote that this may not be an intrinsic characteristic of a community that abides.   It may merely reflect the fact that communities have have been proven to abide will, by definition, have originated before the state of the modern era.

The one aspect of modernity that is incompatible with a community that abides is individualism.  That is the meaning of small-c communism.   The welfare of the group comes before the rights of any individual member.  The welfare of children and grandchildren comes before the desires of the current generation.  Nor is there any room for questioning of the basic dogmas of the group.


Dmitry Orlov

Orlov touched on three other communities, the Dukhobors, the Israeli Kibbutzim and the Mormons.  The Dukhobors are a small religious sect subject to vicious persecution in their native Russia, and incredible hardship when resettled on the Canadian prairie in the 19th century.   But then they found prosperity and acceptance in British Colombia, and started to fall apart.   This shows that a certain amount of persecution and hardship is beneficial to group identity and loyalty.

The same is true of the Israeli kibbutz, communal farm settlements dedicated to Zionist ideals.   Their glory days were in the time of the Palestine mandate when they were fighting the British and the Arabs.  Orlov said their flaws are that they are too prosperous and that they value education too much.   The kibbutzim subsidize higher education for their talented young members and then find they don’t want to come back.

The Mormons are the most interesting and exceptional of the groups described by Orlov.   They practice Kropotkin’s principles of anarchist small-c communism within the group.   They have an enormous and effective internal welfare system, and they are highly differentiated from non-members in their customs and practices.

But they seek economic success and political power in the outside world.  The last Republican presidential candidate and the Senate Democratic leader are Mormons.   They have a hierarchy.  They do not reject the use of force.  They do not fit the Orlov-Kropotkin profile.

Yet I think they will be a community that abides.   I expect Mormons will be around long after many less distinctive groups fade away.

I would not wish to be a member of any of the groups that Orlov describes.   I’m pretty sure that Orlov himself wouldn’t.  That’s not the point.  The point is what, if anything, can be learned from their example.

I’m glad the Roma, Amish, Hutterites and other such groups exist.  The greater the diversity of human cultures, the greater the probability that some will survive.


In addition to the lead essay, Communities that Abide includes a passage by Peter Kropotkin on why communist communities often fail; advice on village health care by a Canadian physician; a memoir of The Farm, the largest and most successful hippie commune; a proposal for a community of sailboat dwellers; and a report on how Laotian villagers survived as a people in the face of bombing and invasion.


Dmitry Orlov is a Russian-born American citizen who apparently did well working in high-technology industry in the Boston area.   He created a remarkable slide show presentation in 2007, saying that all the factors that brought about the collapse of the USSR will bring about the collapse of the USA,

Since then he has become more pessimistic and now predicts the collapse of industrial civilization.  He once wrote on his blog that he had a business of collecting farm produce and taking it to dockside farm markets in the Carolinas on his sailboat.  Now apparently he just travels the world on his sailboat.  He wrote and edited Communities that Abide in Costa Rica.

Even if he is right about the imminence of the collapse of civilization, I expect, at age 77 and with my medical conditions, to collapse before civilization does.  But his writing is interesting.  I would not act on Orlov’s predictions, but I think the fact that some people do provides a kind of insurance for the human future.


The paper edition of Communities that Abide is sold out.  You can buy a Kindle edition, but much of the material in the book has been posted on the ClubOrlov blog.   Here are links.

Communities that Abide – Part I

Communities that Abide – Part II

Communities that Abide – Part III

Communities that Abide – Part IV: Causes of Failure

Communities that Abide – Part V: An Example of Success

Communities that Abide – The XIII Commandments

Resilience in the face of genocide

Village Medicine  [added 7/9/14]


The cover of the book shows the nests of the Montezuma Oropendola, a species of large yellow-tailed blackbirds, in a tree just outside the place where Dmitry Orlov was staying last winter.  The nests are woven of long strands of grass, and a flock in a given tree is highly organized.

A property owner killed the tree so he could gather and sell the nests to tourists.  The birds re-grouped, found another tree and soon started rebuilding.

For Orlov, these birds had the qualities of a community that abides.  They were (1) self-sufficient, (2) able to self-organize and recover in the face of calamity and (3) not tied to any one place.

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3 Responses to “Dmitry Orlov on communities that abide”

  1. williambearcatBill Says:

    Thanks for some really challenging thoughts about size of groups. I belong to two organizations that are very small at the local level, but get really bureaucratic as the small local groups combine to provide needed materials for further help for individuals. They are frustrating for me whenever I am enticed to make contributions at those bureaucratic levels.Even figuring out the hierarchy is troublesome and the rules become more rigid unlike at the local level.


  2. Holden Says:

    Very nice writeup. Thanks.


  3. Ted Lechman Says:

    This is a topic that is dear to my heart, primarily because it seems so unattainable. It seems that our unconscious rules about how we operate socially are inextricably linked to our religious beliefs – whether avowed or disavowed. What I mean by that is that although people may be avowed atheists they nonetheless operate under the soterological principle of individual salvation only inherited from their evangelical protestant cultural backround.

    It is sometimes claimed that religion is co-opted by existing political and economic power. But perhaps the religious and the political can never really be separated – every political and economic power depends upon a religious set of presumptions, irregardless of whether they are avowed or disavowed. There is no politics without a religious foundation.

    This seems to be the major weakness of atheism/Humanism. By focusing on the (lack of) scientific soundness of religious doctrine, they seem to completely miss how the kind of economic and social system we live in depends completely on the underlying soterological presumptions held by that society.

    Or, to turn this around – a community will only work if there is a compatible religious underpinning in place that will make that community work. If, as a religious person, you believe in individual salvation only, you will act in ways that will always destroy community. Similarly, if as a humanist, you believe that all life is in a struggle for the survival of the fittest, then you will act in ways that will always destroy community.

    So how do we create functioning communities when the dominant ideology is one of absolute individualism and survival of the fittest? How can humanism, in its present form, help create community? How would humanism have to change to facilitate community?


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