Peasants in Russia From Serfdom to Stalin: Accommodation, Survival, Resistance.
Boris Gorshkov's flawed and rambling survey of the history of the Russian peasantry over two and a half centuries is part of the Bloomsbury History of Modern Russia Series, edited by Jonathan Smele and Michael Melancon. Priced beyond the reach of the average student or faculty member, it is clearly intended for library purchase.
The author situates himself among a cadre of social historians who in the last three decades (rather than the past two decades, as he asserts) have departed from the older representation of Russian peasants as being dark, benighted, and isolated within their villages. He presents the peasants as being resourceful, especially within the system of serfdom. Eight out of his thirteen chapters focus on serfdom. Gorshkov emphasizes serfs' entrepreneurial activities and mobility, traveling between their owners' estates and the towns where they worked in mills or engaged in trades, but most of that activity was, in fact, reflective of the last decades of serfdom. Although much of this proto-industrial work occurred in the non-black-earth region, where soils were insufficiently rich enough for a concentration on grain production, Gorshkov argues that historians have underestimated the extent to which serfs were economically diversified even in the black-earth zones. Stressing serfs' individualism over the collectivism inherent in their communal village structures, he nonetheless attributes to the serfs a public presence in their significant collective disturbances at the local level after 1800 (while underestimating their number by more than 1,200). Gorshkov claims unconvincingly that peasants formed the basis of a civil society, which was in turn an important factor in their eventual emancipation by 1861.
Having relatively little to say about post-emancipation peasants, he generalizes incorrectly that they were involved in capitalist production, simply due to the fact that Russia was a major exporter of grain. Using two different and unreconciled data sets, Gorshkov asserts in one instance that, by the turn of the twentieth century, the average household land allotment amounted to about 39 acres, and in another, by employing alternative figures, that this was only 19 acres. After ignoring agrarian disturbances in the southwestern regions in 1902-03 and glossing over the importance of these during the 1905-07 revolutionary years, he concludes his discussion of the Imperial period by stating that "by 1917 peasants' households were self-sufficient but had to put up with mortgage debts, inadequate acreage of land, and even some remnants of serfdom" (156). He does so in spite of the fact that redemption payments had been canceled in November 1905 and without defining what those "remnants" actually were. Subsequently, Gorshkov chronicles how the peasants lost their agency in the face of the draconian Realpolitik measures of the Bolsheviks and their communist successors in the 1920s and 1930s.
Unfortunately, the book is riddled with errors, simplistic generalizations, repetition, infelicitous writing, and sloppy footnotes. More egregiously, it ignores a significant literature on the pre- and post-emancipation Russian peasantry, including the seminal works of more than thirty specialists. Had Gorshkov consulted these writings, he might have achieved his goals of providing various estate and regional case studies as well as a more nuanced and complex picture of his subject matter. David Moon's The Russian Peasantry 1600-1930: The World the Peasants Made, published in 1999, remains the best synthetic work.
Northern Illinois University
Christine D. Worobec
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|Author:||Worobec, Christine D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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