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The Russian Peasantry, 1600-1930: The World the Peasants Made.

The Russian Peasantry, 1600-1930: The World the Peasants Made. By David Moon (London & New York: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd., 1999. xii plus 396pp.).

This book originated in a lecture course Professor Moon gave at the University of Texas at Austin in 1989. It is based largely on secondary sources and will be of most interest to students, particularly graduate students. The author focuses on the serf system and primarily on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The discussion of twentieth century is perfunctory. Thus the author discusses the census of 1897 but not that of 1926. The organization of the book is thematic rather than chronological, and the choice of topics shows the author's interest in social structures and demography rather than culture, economics, anthropology, or ethnography. The most interesting chapters concern population and households.

The subject of "the Russian peasantry" is a bit of a conundrum, since this was a legal estate in pre-revolutionary Russia. As a result, although the author is chiefly concerned with rural agriculturalists, the data he uses also concern former peasants and people in the process of leaving farming. In this respect, he tends to overstate the separateness of the peasantry and its "otherness". Thus in describing the census takers of 1897, he writes, "When they crossed the thresholds of the peasant's house, however, the enumerators entered a different world" (p. 11). He may have been led astray by journalists of the period, who often stressed the peasant's exoticism and backwardness. Although nobles might have gaped at the inside of peasant cottages, other census-takers were probably familiar with peasant life. The children of parish priests often grew up playing with peasant children, and primary schoolteachers were frequently the children of peasants, as were many estate stewards and clerks. In that respect, lat e nineteenth-century Russia was filled with former peasants, just as turn-of-the-century America was filled with former farmers.

The strength of the book lies in the information that Moon presents about the demography of the peasant population and its social institutions, particularly the family and the peasant commune. The author points up the seeming anomaly that despite its poverty and exploitation, the peasant population of the Russian empire increased rapidly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He attributes this phenomenon to the peasants' decision not to limit their birthrates and hence the failure of Russia to undergo a demographic transition. Arguing that peasants behaved rationally, Moon attributes their decision to marry early to economic, social, and institutional factors. He points out that the peasants' early marriage suited the interests of serf owners, heads of households, and families who faced the reality of high childhood mortality rates. Yet the increase in population can also be attributed to the availability of food, which was generally plentiful, as the late economic historian from the University of Chicago, Arcadius Kahan, long argued.

The chapter on households is particularly interesting for the author's discussion of family size, which he shows varied considerably over time and space. The chapter on the peasant commune will prove helpful to students. In this respect the author does a good job in bringing together a wealth of recent research.

The weakest features of the book are the treatments peasants' economic and cultural life. The economic life of the peasants is discussed variously in four separate but somewhat overlapping chapters (2,3,4,6), which cover the environment, exploitation, production, and consumption respectively. Thus peasant migration, which was primarily an economic decision, is discussed in the chapter on environment, whereas serfdom, which was an impetus for flight to border regions is treated in a chapter on exploitation. One issue that is lost in this approach is the low level of peasant productivity compared with that of western European agriculture. There is little on the beliefs and values of the peasants, whether expressed through religion, folklore, or popular culture. The discussion of peasant life has an old-fashioned anthropological tone to it. Hence the reader learns of peasant customs, but little about how they fit into the larger picture of peasant life. As a result, Moon makes the peasantry seem more religiousl y and ethnically homogeneous than they actually were.

He might have corrected this impression by drawing on memoirs and ethnographic commentaries published in the so-called "thick journals" of the nineteenth century. The author's command of Russian sources is spotty. He was probably too late to use L. V. Milov, Velikorusskii pakhar' i osobennosti rossirskogo istoricheskogo protessa (Moscow, 1998) but he should have found the results of the international conference on peasants--Mentalitet i agrarnoe razvitie Rossii (XIX-XX vv.) Materialy mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii. Moskva 14-15 iiunia 1994 g. ed. V.P. Danilov, L. Milov, et al. (Moscow, 1996). The book contains a guide to further reading but no bibliography.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Brooks, Jeffrey
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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