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  • To the Editors
  • David Kerans

It is a truism that historians echo the concerns of the times in which they live. Let me begin by thanking David Moon for a thoughtful and laudatory response ("Russia's Rural Economy, 1800–1930") to my essay ("Toward a Wider View of the Agrarian Problem in Russia, 1861–1930") in Kritika 1: 4 (Fall 2000), 679–90, 657–78. Moon was quick to note the primary contributions of my piece, and careful to provide supporting evidence when raising plausible doubts about certain of my theses. Further, Moon explicitly warns us that he is playing the devil's advocate in much of his commentary. He may very well be as suspicious as I am of some of the established positions my article seeks to amend or dismiss. Perhaps in spite of his intentions, however, his response offers a number of defenses for the long-regnant paradigm in peasant studies I am so vehemently challenging – namely, the notion of the peasant farmer as poor, but efficient. This paradigm underlies many other aspects of peasant studies, and rural history more generally, and is therefore significant grounds for scholarly debate. Given the stakes, I think it appropriate to point out the weaknesses in the arguments he advances. Let me emphasize that I too find some room for the "poor, but efficient" portrayal of peasant farmers. I simply find the picture greatly exaggerated, and unjustifiably universalized. I will not be burdening the present letter with references, as my forthcoming book treats all of the topics much more fully.

To begin with, Moon warns me to be cautious about biases in the sources. He is particularly concerned, it seems, that I account for Yanni Kotsonis's recent description of the "patronizing attitude" of many agronomists towards peasants. Moon's point is not malevolent, yet I find it presumptuous in three ways. First, the relevant portions of my essay are clearly distillations of a monograph. I have, naturally, taken account of biases in agronomist's writings, as well as in other categories of sources.1 Fortunately, the remarkable number of separate categories of sources on the topic allows the historian to measure the contributions of each voice repeatedly, from myriad angles. Insofar as sources were misrepresenting peasant agriculture, this can be detected. Misunderstandings, contradictions, and distortions can be worked out. What emerges is far more than one could get from any one or several categories, however scrupulously studied and critically questioned.

Second, Moon overestimates Kotsonis's reach. Kotsonis did not study local agronomists at all. The manner in which he projects conclusions onto the entire [End Page 219] community of agrarian specialists on the basis of his reading of the cooperative movement is cavalier. Some of his conclusions are misleading even for the cooperative movement – his conflation of "inefficiency" with "irrationality" is just the most glaring example (he treats specialists who note inefficiencies among peasants as ascribing irrationality to them).2

Third, I think Moon's characterization of the Russian agrarian specialist community's biases and incompetence is heavy-handed. Many of these people – especially among those who committed their thoughts to paper – were remarkably conscious of themselves and their preconceptions. Moon's presentation of Fridolin's queasiness and anxiety regarding hands-on farm work is gratuitous. It is not representative of the local agronomists, veterinarians, experimental station workers, and other ranks who went to the countryside to work with peasants.

Concerning questions of technology, Moon inadequately qualifies my criticisms of peasants' reaping and manuring. The fact that peasants could contract fungal diseases from grain both prematurely reaped and then improperly dried does not alter the extremely costly fact of tardy reaping, where it occurred. The best time to reap is one stage – not more – before full ripeness. Peasants guilty of tardy reaping (reaping even at the stage contemporary agronomy called "dead ripeness") were not properly aware of grains' ability to continue to ripen in the ear after being reaped. Moon's discussion of the sickle in this context is irrelevant. The choice of sickle or scythe is much less important than selecting the timing of reaping. Sickles do not prevent shattering, as he implies. Sickles cause less shattering than scythes...


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