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Land Reform in Russia 1906-1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin's Project of Rural Transformation.

Land Reform in Russia 1906-1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin's Project of Rural Transformation. By Judith Pallot (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. viii plus 255pp.).

Judith Pallot's important book will become the standard work on the outcomes of the utopian agrarian social engineering project, commonly known as the Stolypin Reforms. A historical geographer, she has previously written seminal essays on aspects of the Imperial Russian government's attempts to destroy the peasant commune, consolidate and privatize agricultural lands, and create independent and civic-minded farmers. The book under review takes Pallot's search for peasant responses to social engineering several steps forward. It effectively questions the "modernization" paradigm, argues for the commune's continuing vitality, and presents evidence of substantial peasant resistance to the Stolypin Reforms. Deconstructing official statistics and reports as well as peasant petitions to the land settlement commission, many of which are housed in central Russian archives, Pallot challenges the traditional dichotomy that interpreters of the reforms have drawn to distinguish the separators from the non-separators, i.e ., peasants who privatized their allotments and left the commune vs. those who did not. She shows a peasant world that was far more complex and a situation far more fluid as households in different geographical regions created strategies to minimize risk. Ultimately she paints a picture of a vibrant peasant commune that successfully resisted its destruction, even in areas that adopted the reforms. At the same time she demonstrates the detrimental effects of enclosure, especially in the southwest commercial region where peasants turned to a monocultural system of wheat cultivation and thereby increased their vulnerability to drought and soil erosion. The downturn in livestock numbers that accompanied enclosure in the majority of provinces also signified problems.

Intent upon presenting the peasant point of view, Pallot explores the rationality of peasant communal agriculture. Without having the benefit of James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), she nonetheless argues along the lines of Scott that modern states' social engineering schemes severely underestimate the practical (nonscientific) agricultural knowledge of the people they are trying to reform. In the case of Russia, bureaucrats, who hoped to impose order upon what they perceived to be the chaos of the countryside, did not understand the peasants' risk aversion strategies or the multiple benefits of strip farming, periodic repartitioning of communal lands, and common pasturage. Neither did they appreciate the peasants' practice of offsetting land fragmentation through repartition and private land exchanges. Pallot goes even further to suggest that the Stolypin Reforms' promotion of land reform without requis ite attention to agrarian reform doomed the project's goal of economic modernization.

In cases where entire communes in the northwest, west, and the south filed petitions for consolidation of their land in conformity with the Stolypin Reforms, Pallot uncovers their "hidden transcripts," as James Scott would have it, to demonstrate that peasants were actually resisting the reforms and trying to reassert control over the disposition of land against the wishes of individuals petitioning for separation from the commune. Bureaucrats found it much easier to convince peasants to agree in principle to enclosure than to persuade them to abandon strip farming, their village homes and garden plots, communal meadows and grazing lands, and partible inheritance patterns. Violence against and intimidation of separators as well as denying them pasturing and social services rights were only part of the arsenal that peasants used in the fight against enclosure. They also lodged appeals and reversed decisions to consolidate. Some even put up fictitious huts on their newly privarized lands, while they continued to live in the village. In the final analysis, Pallot argues that if World War I and revolution had not intervened, a variety of peasants would have emerged, only some of whom "were likely to grow into the independent, prosperous husbandmen and loyal citizens of Stolypin's imaginings." (251)

Early in the book Pallot warns her readers that because of the difficulty of determining the peasant-centered viewpoint, her conclusions can only be speculative. What, she asks, about the hundreds of thousands of villages that did not become involved in the Stolypin Reforms? Did non-involvement signify successful resistance or were villages simply waiting for a more propitious time to become engaged? For answers to these and other questions historians will have to wait for regional case studies, a point that Pallot readily concedes. In the meantime, they will be well satisfied with this erudite study where virtually every sentence is packed with insight and meaning.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Worobec, Christine D.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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