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  • Russia’s Rural Economy, 1800–1930
  • David Moon (bio)

The last few decades have seen an upsurge in challenging research by historians working in the West about many aspects of the Russian peasantry.1 Much of this work has been on the period between 1861 and 1930. While the politics and economics of rural Russia have remained important topics of scholarship, attention has focused increasingly on social and cultural history. Peasant women have begun to receive attention commensurate with their importance in rural society. Historical geographers have continued to remind their colleagues that spatial and environmental matters are far more than just a backdrop or, worse, a determining factor, for their concerns. Historians have also considered how Russia's peasants were represented in contemporary intellectual discourse. Thus, the articles by Boris Gorshkov and David Kerans nicely complement this body of scholarship by turning attention to economic issues in the context of several trends in current research on rural Russia.

Boris Gorshkov's article is particularly welcome because, as he points out, peasant migrant labor in the decades before 1861 has not received due attention from historians. The numbers and proportions of peasants in the Central Industrial Region who left their home villages to work were indeed substantial and growing between 1800 and 1861. Furthermore, as Gorshkov indicates, zemliachestvo and arteli, which are well known from the literature on the decades after 1861, certainly merit deeper investigation in the preceding period. He takes care to examine the broad range of work peasant migrants were involved in. He is overreacting to the view that prevailed among Soviet historians, however, in his comment that "[a]n individual with an allotment of land, rather than a proletarian cut off from the village, was the typical industrial worker through 1917 and beyond" (640). "Proletarianization" and identities among Russia's workers have, of course, been the subject of many sophisticated studies by Western scholars that are too numerous to mention here.

A related issue that merits discussion is the role of peasant labor migration in urbanization in the Central Industrial Region in first half of the 19th century. [End Page 679] To what extent did migrant workers who went to urban areas from the villages cease to be temporary? Peasants (by legal estate [soslovie]) were permitted by law to transfer to the status of townspeople (meshchanstvo) on their own initiative if they had moved to towns and ceased to engage in agriculture, as long as they had no outstanding obligations or debts to their village community. However, they had to give a sum of money to the urban community they were joining as a guarantee that they would meet their new obligations. Before 1861, seigniorial peasants could become townspeople only if they had already been freed by their landowners. Although it was complicated, difficult and expensive, many peasants did make the transition to townspeople.2

Gorshkov analyzes the interrelationship between "activism" by peasant migrants and imperial laws on the peasant estate in general and temporary departures in particular. Changes in both fed off one another: after increases in labor migration the government issued laws relaxing controls on peasant mobility, which, in turn, led to more peasants leaving their villages to work with authorization. In 1827, the government introduced "tickets" (bilety) authorizing departures over 30 versty for less than six months as a simpler and cheaper version of the internal passport. From 1845, migrant laborers were permitted to renew their "tickets" without returning to their home villages if they had the preliminary authorization of their owners or local officials. Some of the decrees stated that they were intended to make it easier for peasants to get permission for labor migration in order to assist them in earning money to support themselves and meet their obligations to the state and nobles.3 On the other hand, the new laws can also be seen, in part, as an attempt by the authorities to regain control over unauthorized peasant migration.4 It was not, of course, only peasants who circumvented the law. Nobles continued to hire their peasants out as laborers after this practice was banned in 1825. The Sheremetevs hired out peasants from their estate of Molodoi Tud' in...


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pp. 679-690
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