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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 6 (1999)

Peasant Dreams & Market Politics. Labor Migration and the Russian Village, 1861-1905. by Jeffrey Burds. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press (1998), xiv, 314 pp.


Reviewed by Don K. Rowney, Department of History, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio

This is a book about the human links between the Russian agrarian village and the growing Russian industrial communities after the emancipation and land reform of 1861. The author brings to this remarkable study a highly nuanced and detailed understanding of many of the evolving aspects of village social relations during the post-reform era upon which it focuses (1861-1905) in a group of provinces in European Russia known as the Central Industrial Region. Painstaking research in national and regional archives is cast into a carefully developed, unusually complex theoretical perspective that is, at once, post-structuralist and anthropological. This theoretical awareness is combined with a highly developed methodology and both of these are carefully designed to enhance understanding as well as to avoid the oversimplifications common to many historical narratives.

Middle chapters of the book are excellent studies that describe the details of migrant peasant economic, social and political life. Any reader - from student to seasoned professional - will find new and important information about the details of the social and individual experience of industrialization. In "Social Control of Peasant Labor" (Chapter 3), for example, we have an extended, revealing discussion of measures jointly adopted by the commune and state authorities to bind peasants economically to agricultural land in the 1880s and 1890s. Burds has done an exceptional job of gathering the details of these relationships using very clear and carefully developed explanations of the interaction of the passport system, the use of land dues to extract payments from town to country, and the arbitrary authority of volost (commune) elders; he illustrates the blindness and injustice of this system when it was applied to individuals.

A major issue for Burds is that rural Russia, the village, was not merely a passive recipient in the exchange of people and resources between town and country - this, in spite of the fact that much of the literature on the sociology of Russian industrialization gives one the impression of rural passivity. "My principal task in this study", he writes, "is to evaluate the transformation of the totality of social relations in the Russian countryside associated with the metamorphosis of peasant labor and products into commodities." (p. 5) "Peasant origins and peasant decisions to migrate need to be contextualized." (p. 8) "This study represents, then, a needed corrective, a recontextualization of Russian peasant labor migration, a restoration of village social relations as the ground for understanding and interpreting peasant experience outside the village" (p. 9).

Yes, context. But, successful contextualization has to be evaluated in terms of reasonable standards of sampling. That is, for the reader to be able to feel confident that a statement is fully contextualized, it is necessary to see the data on which it is based as a sample that is accurately situated within its relevant population. Otherwise we are left with a batch of random assertions.

Taken all in all, this is an important book whose technical sophistication and factual substance will amply reward readers in many disciplines. Having said this, I wish to devote the balance of this review to criticism of Burds' achievement. Let me reemphasize that in offering this criticism, I recognize that this book exceeds the standards of most historical narratives - even those written by authors much more experienced than Burds. My objective is not to undermine the author's achievements but to call attention to important ways in which I believe these successes might be extended.

The narrative forcefully and seamlessly integrates quotations about the post-emancipation, proto-industrial economic experience in the village without reference to the condition of the underlying economy - whether it was drifting through extensive agriculturalization, industrializing, growing rapidly, or stagnating - all of which occurred within the very broad timeframe of the study. In this narrative, the entire generation and a half, from the viewpoint of both the regional and national economies, is treated as a homogeneous entity. It is hard to imagine a serious historical treatment of the worklife experiences of American farmers or itinerate workers between, say, 1925 and 1960 that would not make the Great Depression, World War II and the economic boom that began in the 1950s prominent and differentiating independent components of its context.

Merely to assert that power in the village, or village culture, must be seen as the product of a "whole host" of non-economic factors doesn't necessarily help the reader to get a grip on the fully "contextualized" picture. This is owing, in part, to the frequent failure of post-structural studies to escape from the limitations of their self-imposed preoccupation with language, rhetoric and epistemology. One sometimes has the feeling that, in this research genre, facts-well-substantiated and broadly accepted data-are inconvenient at best, reduced to expressions of mere imagination at worst. But significant differences across this time period are not merely a matter of scholars' viewpoints and their language. For example, while arable land in the Central Industrial Region in this period was constant or reduced slightly, population rose dramatically. For instance, in Vladimir province, site of many examples presented in this book, between 1863 and the end of 1913, population rose by 66% (A. Rashin, 1956: 20). Most of this increase (more than 800,000 persons) was not in towns and cities, but in the countryside. Boom or recession in the manufacturing centers? Jobs, wages and per capita income fluctuated enormously and ruthlessly (annual per capita income in constant 1913 rubles varied from rs. 66 to rs. 115) with an impact on the village that we are required, in this study, to guess at. The only thing we do not need to guess is that the impact was vast.

I have a similar complaint about contextualization in Burds' discussions of state-community relations. Although he does seem to understand that state local administration policy shifted substantially during the period in question, the author seems unaware of the massive increase in the number and authority of state administrative organizations during the reigns of Alexander III (1881-1894) and Nicholas II (1894-1917). But this is very important information when one judges the significance or typicality of a particular complaint about a bureaucratic intrusion into village life.

Moreover, I fear that there is more than a little "anthropomorphization" of "the state" that making it seem a unitary force or independent variable in this discussion. To discuss state policies in the era of industrialization as though they were unitary, is, I think, seriously misleading. As many authors note, there was, for example, a sharp contrast between Ministry of Interior policies (whose interest, owing to the influence of provincial governors, zemstvo politicians, and staff in the Ministry's own Chief Administration for Local Economy, was to stabilize the commune and village life during most of this period) and the Ministry of Finance (whose interest was to make migrants' "transition costs" from country to town as low as possible in order to reduce labor costs in general). To write about "the state" as though these contrasts did not exist implies that the author is unaware of them and of their undoubted impact on peasant-worker lives. No one will question that the narrative strands of this history that are drawn from the Ministry of Internal Affairs' Passport Commission archives or from the records of volost administrations in provincial archives are both relevant and enlightening. The question remains, however, whether, in a country where tens of thousands escaped the control of the passport regime and tax arrears amounted to many millions of rubles, stories based on these data are typical of the out-migrants' experience.

Moreover, we read assertions about the structure and affect of Russian state tax policy that are marshaled to explain out-migration: "To meet the excessive obligations of state taxes and redemption dues, peasants in the Central Industrial Region were compelled to depart for earnings outside their native villages" (p. 21). But the data offered are based entirely on a limited range of experiences in Central Industrial Region villages - making a comparative assessment impossible - and they do not seem to differentiate across different time periods.

The notion that one can dispense with these missing analytic formalities is refuted by the fact that Burds' conclusions about the tax structure are, at best, misleading. He writes that, "Despite the presence of a well-developed industry and the predominance of nonfarm earnings among peasant households in the Central Industrial Region, taxes were most often based on land, on the size of peasant allotments" (p. 19). He is quite wrong about this. If, for example, one looks at A. M. Anfimov's summary of peasant tax payments in 1901, the total of direct taxes, of which communal taxes were a part, was rs. 166.2 million. Commune levies were rs. 45.9 million, or 28% of direct taxes. But all direct taxes were only 34% of the total of state tax revenue for 1901 and commune levies were only 9% of total tax revenue (A. Anfimov, 1984: 110).

To be sure there was a major downward revision of redemption tax rates (which Burds mentions) before the beginning of the great industrialization "spurt" (1885-1900) that marginally reduced the relative role of land taxes. But, consistently and notoriously, Russian government derived its income principally from indirect taxes and excises as far back as the 18th century (Kahan 1985: 332). My major difficulty with this apparent misunderstanding of tax policy is that it implies that out-migration had nothing to do with the continually rising ratio of population to land, with extremely high birthrates, high illiteracy, the continuation of what were even then broadly regarded as the most inefficient methods of cultivation in Europe, and high volatility in grain and land prices. I am arguing, in other words, that a finding that the state's interest in supporting the commune was rooted in an overwhelming attachment to land taxes is a gross over simplification - both of the policy and of the role of state agencies in shaping peasant out-migration.

This is an interesting book, in sum. But its claim to be an adequate "recontextualization" of the peasant experience during Russian industrialization is overwrought.

References Cited:

Anfimov, A. M.

1984. Ekonomicheskoe polozhenie i klassovaya borba krestyan Evropeiskoi Rossii, 1881-1904. Moscow: Nauka.

Kahan, Arcadius.

1985. The Plow, the Hammer, and the Knout. An Economic History of Eighteenth-Century Russia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rashin, A. G.

1956. Naselenie Rossii za 100 let (1811-1913 gg.). Statisticheskie ocherki. Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Statisticheskoe Izdatel'stvo.