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  • Toward a Wider View of the Agrarian Problem in Russia, 1861–1930
  • David Kerans

Very few analysts of late imperial and early Soviet Russia would deny that the agrarian sector played a fundamental role in the economic and political life of the country. The enormous mass of contemporary and historical literature that has accumulated on agrarian themes – primarily on issues related to the peasantry, as opposed to the landlord class – certainly testifies to this consensus. Indeed, the perceived insufficiency of Russian peasant agriculture underlies most conceptions of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, as well as the failure of the NEP. A proper understanding of the limitations of peasant agriculture is therefore a central and enduring concern for Russian historians.

The enormous effort invested in examining the agrarian problem has yielded solid conclusions. In contrast to the picture of a deep and spiralling "rural crisis" prevailing in contemporary and historical accounts all the way up to the 1970s, recent research has demonstrated gradual improvement in the peasant economy as a whole for the period from emancipation to World War I.1 The evidence demonstrates rising productivity per unit of land as peasants intensified or otherwise improved farming.2 Just as important, productivity also rose per capita, even if agricultural exports are accounted for.3 Average nutrition levels in rural Russia reached more than acceptable levels (according to contemporary European standards) by the turn of the 20th century.4 [End Page 657]

The scholars who have revised our view of the peasant economy have not belittled the political significance of the agrarian problem. The mere fact of economic progress does not render peasant insurgency during the 1905 and 1917 revolutions anomalous. We need look no further than Alexis de Tocqueville's classic hypothesis of revolutions proceeding from rising expectations to find insights squaring the agrarian disturbances with the reassessment of the agrarian economy.5 And social inequities inevitably fed peasant frustration with the established order of society. Furthermore, no scholar has equated the gradual improvement of the peasant economy with the conquest of poverty in rural Russia. All the way into the 20th century the nation's crude mortality rate remained much higher than in Western European countries.6 The infant mortality rate was the highest in Europe at this time, having remained at the same level as in the 1860s.7 Finally, it seems the peasant economy was not thriving at all in large, politically sensitive, and centrally located regions like the Central Black-Earth and Volga provinces.8 [End Page 658]

While the agrarian problem remains a fundamental issue for Russian historians, we still do not have a well-rounded picture of it. Research has focussed almost entirely on the political, social, economic, and legal dimensions of the agrarian problem. The present article is a discussion piece addressing some of the more important – yet practically unexplored – cultural, technological, and industrial issues concerning the evolution of peasant agriculture in late imperial and early Soviet Russia.9 The goal is to broaden our understanding of the agrarian problem beyond the well-worn paths delimited by the issues of: 1) land hunger, 2) the peasant commune, and 3) the economic conjuncture that was so unfavorable to agriculture during most of the period in question. Extending the analysis beyond this terrain will allow us to identify two other elements of the agrarian problem – the problematic relationship between peasant culture and technology, on the one hand, and the set of obstacles pertaining to the intensification of agriculture beyond the stage defined by the three-field system, on the other. Furthermore, analysis of these new elements will demonstrate how the nature of the agrarian problem was changing over time, forcing the farming population and the authorities to look for new sets of solutions.

Inevitably, the perspectives in this essay will open up new lines of inquiry extending far beyond the customary boundaries of agrarian history. Quite apart from the weighty implications of agrarian issues on economics and politics, the notion of investigating the cultural dimensions of technological aptitude speaks to a widely recognized need in the disciplines of history and economics. As a president of the American Association of Economic Historians recently emphasized, substantive inquiry...


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