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Those Elusive Scouts: Pioneering Peasants and the Russian State, 1870s–1950s
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Accounts of peasant migration to Siberia and the Russian Far East frequently mention the figure of the khodok, who traveled in advance to identify and lay claim to land appropriate for settlement. The word has had many applications, but when used in connection with peasants, it has been rendered as messenger, emissary, or envoy.1 Following Donald Treadgold and others who have written on Russian peasant migration, I am translating it as “scout.”2 Who were these intrepid travelers? How were they chosen, or did they choose themselves? What was the nature of their interactions with other peasants, state officials, previous (“old”) settlers, and people indigenous to the regions in which they sought land? Because few scouts have left a written record of their journeys, one must rely mainly on secondary, albeit contemporary sources to track these fellows down.3 But what might be thought of as a liability turns out to have an ancillary benefit. For in writing about scouts, commentators revealed complex attitudes not only about the individuals and the services they performed but also about the entire enterprise of resettling so many of the empire’s rural inhabitants and thereby colonizing its vast territories to the east.

Because scouts facilitated the massive eastward movement of predominantly Russian peasants, they could be considered agents of the tsarist state’s expansionary efforts.4 That indeed is how many officials viewed them. Yet, if agents, they were unwitting ones, and any analogy with the Daniel Boones and Davy Crocketts of legend and fact is clearly strained. Khodoki were above all peasants and usually family men, perhaps not entirely “ordinary people” but not that extraordinary either.5 They typically neither blazed new paths nor explored new territory but rather inspected land already marked by surveyors for new settlement or tried to gain entry for their families and other clients to communities of previous settlers. If intermediaries, then they negotiated not so much between the state and aboriginals confronting peasant colonization and subjection to imperial rule but between state officials and settlers themselves.

More than a million scouts registered with officials as they crossed over into Siberia from European Russia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but scholars have given them only fleeting attention.6 When mentioned at all, they appear either as instruments in imperial authorities’ attempts to rationalize the resettlement process or as a statistical subset of settlers, who numbered in excess of five million.7 This article, part of a larger project on migration in 20th-century Russia, considers scouts in relation to what has become one of the major issues of imperial Russian historiography—the extent to which tsarist state policies and informal social institutions interacted with and shaped each other. Rejecting previous notions of a largely inert peasant society that for better or worse resisted outside officials’ attempts to refashion it, historians more recently have stressed peasants’ complicity in day-to-day rural governance. Despite considerable differences in method of inquiry and analytical framework, works by Jeffrey Burds, Jane Burbank, Corinne Gaudin, Aaron Retish, and others have demonstrated that peasants partook of political, economic, and cultural developments within the empire on an increasing scale from the serf emancipation on into the Soviet era.

What, among other things, is striking about this literature is how frequently one encounters individuals serving as links between their communities and outside forces. Burds, in discussing the contractual relations between seasonal migrants and employers, refers to middlemen (posredniki), contractors (podriadchiki), foremen (desiatniki), and “labor brokers.” Burbank identifies peasant judges at the township (volost′) level as “intermediaries” and township courts as lying “at the intersection of popular and state institutions.” Gaudin notes that village elders and scribes were subjected to both internal and external pressures, sometimes perceived as comprising the “highest organ of peasant self-government” and at others “the lowest echelon of the bureaucracy.” Tracking the peasants of Viatka province through the revolution and Civil War, Retish registers the success of the provincial Soviet government “in drawing support from key segments of the village population, who agreed to be the administrative links between peasants and power.”8

Except, of course, that power did not reside exclusively with state authorities. One of...

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