Peasant Dreams & Market Politics: Labor Migration and the Russian Village, 1861-1905.
In the decades following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, some Russian peasants experienced far-reaching social, economic and cultural changes in their formerly insular way of life as a consequence of expansion of market relations and the proliferation of outmigration for wages. In this richly documented but uneven study, Jeffrey Burds sets out to explore the nature, dimensions and cultural consequences of changes in the peasant way of life. His focus is the villages of the central industrial region, from whence tens of thousands of peasants set off each year to seek wages in cities and factory settlements.
His central theme is the ways that individuals, peasant institutions, and the state adapted to the tensions and exploited the opportunities generated by the growing role of cash in the village. Although the young were often eager to leave the village, the rapid growth of outmigration was primarily the consequence of economic need: villagers needed the funds that migrants remitted to the village to pay a crushing burden of redemption dues and taxes, as well as to supplement the meager returns from their land. However, according to Burds, extensive outmigration for wages created a "deep-seated crisis" for the peasants who remained behind. Earning a wage granted young peasant migrants unprecedented economic independence and opportunities for self-assertion. As the grip of village institutions and the church loosened, many of them succumbed to the temptations of drink, modish clothing and the "easy life" of the city or factory settlement. Equally disturbing for the stay-at-homes, once away from the village, youn g peasant migrants often felt little loyalty to their birthplace and preferred spending their wages on themselves to remitting them to the village. In the face of these challenges, villagers mobilized all the weapons in their arsenal in order both to "extort" money from outmigrants and to control and if necessary, to discipline them. Weapons included revoking internal passports for recalcitrant migrants, which forced the miscreant to return home, and flogging with a birch rod. The tsarist state, which had a stake of its own in social stability and a peasantry that continued to fulfill its fiscal obligations, gave village authorities its wholehearted support and ensured that their coercive methods succeeded.
Nevertheless, while it created a "crisis," the market economy also proved seductive to peasants who stayed at home as well as to wage-earning migrants. Burds argues that by the late 19th century, the market economy had generated a "mass consumer culture" in the village, and a new and powerful peasant "myth of upward mobility." He links this new mentality to the revolutionary upheavals of 1905: in his view, some of the impetus for worker as well as peasant unrest came from a new desire to live well and the consequent hatred of elites who already did so without having to work. Also important was the growing peasant awareness of events in the larger world, a result of the practice of reading newspapers aloud in the new village centers of sociability, the pub and the tea house.
I found this book both exciting and frustrating. Burds has done prodigious work in archives and published sources; he has travelled to rural as well as urban archives, visited libraries and rural museums, and his book draws upon a wealth of new documentation and features wonderful illustrations. His data base is extraordinarily rich, many of his anecdotes and examples are marvellous, and parts of the book make for fascinating reading. He explores little known and highly significant aspects of village life, such as the working of the hiring market and village patronage networks, and offers original interpretations of many key events, not least of them the revolution of 1905. He has also read widely in an impressive variety of theoretical and secondary works in his efforts to understand and interpret the material he covers.
Nevertheless, the books has serious flaws. One is methodological. Many of the materials Burds has unearthed derive from non-peasants (village priests, elite commentators, etc.), or from the records of church or secular court cases. Reflecting extreme cases, the margins rather than the center of village society and culture, such sources, while valuable and revealing, are hardly transparent. Yet Burds does not not treat them with the necessary caution. Perhaps as a result, many of his arguments are unconvincing or entirely too heavy-handed. For example, the thesis in chapter 1, that there was a "deep-seated crisis" in the village, relies heavily on highly tendentious sources, such as those written by village priests. Equally serious, Burds seems at times not to have fully digested or pondered sufficiently the implications of his own research findings. For example, chapter 5 makes a compelling case for the psychological, cultural as well as economic ties that linked outmigrant peasants to their village and ens ured that most returned home. However, Burds does not succeed in reconciling this evidence, which shows the mechanisms which effectively ameliorated the tensions generated by outmigration, with his thesis concerning deep-seated crisis. Contradictions abound: in chapter 4 he offers an original and compelling discussion of patterns of village patronage and of the respect that their role as patrons won for well-to-do peasants; yet on p. 156 he contends that wealthy peasants were respected by fellow villagers exclusively on the basis of their wealth, irrespective of what they did with the money. On p. 163 new consumption patterns led to better food, but on p. 169 peasants ate worse because they spent their money on clothes. Wealth mattered most to peasants in chapter 6; in chapter 7 it is morality that mattered most. And so on.
These shortcomings are particularly unfortunate because there is much of value in this book. Moreover, on the basis of my own work, I do not think that Burds is entirely off the mark. But he has undermined his own case by his incautious use of evidence, which has led him greatly to exaggerate the very real changes in the village, and to completely ignore the role of the family economy, which was so significant a factor in sending migrants out and bringing them home. Thus, I would recommend this book to students of Russian history and of the peasantry, but urge that readers exercise caution as they read and respond to Burds' arguments.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Engel, Barbara Alpern|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
|Previous Article:||The Religion of the Poor: Rural Missions in Europe and the Formation of Modern Catholicism, c. 1500-c. 1800.|
|Next Article:||Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920.|