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Journal of Social History 38.3 (2005) 819-821

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Inventing a Soviet Countryside: State Power and the Transformation of Rural Russia, 1917-1929. By James W. Heinzen. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. x plus 297 pp. $44.95).

James Heinzen has written an informative work that concentrates not merely on what members of the Commissariat of Agriculture [Narkomzem] said, but more significantly what they did in the period prior to collectivization. Despite the somewhat post-modernist sounding title to the work, this is essentially an institutional history of Narkomzem—and that is not a complaint. Of late, the field of history has been inundated by works, influenced by the so-called literary turn, which imply that history is created by intellectuals uttering words. Heinzen reminds us that history is actually produced by people doing something, in this case, party leaders and non-party agronomists attempting to integrate themselves into the world of the peasantry and to transform that world into one envisioned by the intellectual elite. [End Page 819]

Despite the revolutionary claims of Narkomzem officials, Heinzen argues, Bolshevik work in the villages initially was essentially a continuation of tsarist efforts to modernize rural Russia. But even here, words were undermined by deeds: What had started out under the tsars as an effort to destroy the commune [mir] had been turned around by the peasants, who had no interest in destroying their world [not coincidentally also "mir"], into an effort to help the peasants make sense of land allotments and to consolidate their strips. By the outbreak of WWI most of the surveying being done in rural Russia was in connection with peasant petitions whose fulfillment served to strengthen the commune. In the 1920s, Heinzen tells us, these surveyors and agronomists are still out in the field doing this work. The Commissariat of Agriculture was composed of many of the same men who had served in the tsarist Ministry of Agriculture. An entire staff of former tsarist agronomists were still helping the peasants consolidate their scattered strips in the village into private plots.

For all the talk about collectivize and cooperative agriculture, until late 1928 early 1929 when massive forced collectivization fell upon the village, what the Bolshevik government was actually doing was continuing the tsarist Ministry of Agriculture's policy of developing private plots. After 1929, the government would be concerned only with compelling the peasants to deliver grain to the market. But the agents in the field, the agronomists, did not initially want to force the peasants to collectivize; they had wanted to develop the village into a modern farming system, an essentially capitalist market system. And, according to Heinzen, they were to a large degree succeeding in increasing grain production. Until 1929, the old agrarian experts were still running around in the countryside, spouting Bolshevik slogans, but actually continuing to carry out the old tsarist program, as modified by the peasants themselves, who had managed to turn the elite's program to their own benefit, or at least to their desires.

The death of this effort to build socialism upon a firm agricultural base, a base built in collaboration with the peasantry, came with the destruction of the New Economic Policy. Heinzen lays out his thesis thus:

The tension inherent in NEP were reflected starkly in the Commissariat of Agriculture. The Commissariat's position on the kulak [the successful market-oriented peasant], which was essentially the Right's position, contained a fatal flaw. While it properly downplayed the kulak threat, pointing out that the demonization of so many peasants would spell doom for the Right's program toward the countryside, the admission under political pressure from the Left (and likely under pressure from the observations of the GPU [political police] in its reports) that the region was faced with a kulak danger, even if currently latent, helped undermine the Right's position.
(p. 158)

Heinzen's primary lens for analysis is the story of Alexander Smirnov, first Deputy and then Commissar of Agriculture. Although not set forth...


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