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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
& Market Politics. Labor Migration and the Russian Village, 1861-1905.
by Jeffrey Burds. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press (1998), xiv,
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.
Anfimov, A. M.
Rashin, A. G.