- Late-Imperial Russia. An Interpretation: Three Visions, Two Cultures, One Peasantry
Reminiscent in tone of George Yaney’s Urge to Mobilize: Agrarian Reform in Russia, 1861–1930 (Urbana, 1982) and, in part, inspired by his notion of “reform as a conversation or transaction between cultures,” this book is just as difficult to read and equally difficult to review (368). Where to begin? Perhaps with the author’s almost terminal arrogance and omniscience, as he both claims for his work a uniqueness that is unjustified and attacks literally everyone’s narrowness of perspective, past and present, contemporary and historian—that of scholars, bureaucrats, and public activists, dismissing all as “Westernizers” and “arrogant visionaries,” diseased by “process-mindedness,” “positivism,” and other “over-determined” forms of thinking.
Ostensibly an interdisciplinary study of the impact of modernization on the Russian peasantry between the emancipation of the peasants in 1861 and the revolution in 1917, the author spends 20 percent of the book explaining what he plans to do. He claims that his is a work of synthesis and re-interpretation that seeks to combine cultural and structural approaches and political culture and political economy—an “unusual” history, “in between” history, a social history writ large, aspiring to (and one suspects in the author’s eyes achieving) l’histoire totale, one that introduces a “pluralist” vision by focusing on the interaction between government officials and intellectuals, on the one hand, and the Russian people, on the other, and letting each social group speak for itself. In fact, the author tells little about what was happening in the countryside (process), and permits no peasants to speak for themselves, though he repeatedly speaks for them, making claims about peasant motivations with a complete absence of supporting evidence.
Of the book’s two remaining parts, the first is a conventional intellectual history that one more time critiques, and often ridicules, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Marxist (“stratifying”) and populist (“humble”) visions of peasant society and its place in the historical “process” and then goes on to privilege ethnographic (“parochial”) perspectives from the same period as if they were absolute truth. The second analyzes a variety of statistics supposedly describing the realities of peasant life, while the author presents his version of truth in the form of “correlation analyses” of selected data on demography, economic development, and agrarian reform.
In the course of these more than 400 tiresome pages, written in the jargon-filled, and often incomprehensible, language of postmodernism and discourse theory, and suffused with pretentious sarcasm and metaphors, including a forty-page statistical appendix the textual interpretation of which is often completely impenetrable, the author seeks to prove several major, though familiar, arguments. Among the most important [End Page 334] are (1) the “otherness” of peasant culture and the failure of “reforming outsiders” to transform the peasantry, or, in different terms, the falseness of Western models; (2) the results of the interaction between the peasants’ “incumbency” and both reform from above and “external” economic developments as being neither capitalist transformation, modernization, evolution, nor even revolution but “involution” or peasantization—both terms being metaphors for the peasants’ ultimate triumph and the emergence of a uniquely peasant “third way”; and (3) the failure of the government-sponsored agrarian reforms (the Stolypin reforms) adopted after the revolution of 1905 either because an intensive agriculture, a class of wealthy peasants, and a peasant land market had not yet developed, or, at best, because the reforms took root only in those regions that had already been prepared by such changes. Consequently, the author almost gloats, the reforms “foundered on the rock of the peasantry’s ‘other culture’” and, rather than driving the supposedly intended wedge between different social classes within the peasantry, involuted and reinforced peasant “otherness,” increased social conflict, and led directly to 1917 (389).
Unfortunately, even though his attempt to apply Geertz’s concept of involution, and the notion that culture influenced, controlled, and even distorted political economy, to Russian rural society at the turn of the century...