- The End of Peasantry? The Disintegration of Rural Russia
The key word in this book's title is "disintegration." The authors, all geographers by trade, document increasing differentiation in Russian agriculture following the demise of the Soviet command-economy and the elimination of most federal subsidies. The authors depict a landscape marked by growing social and spatial polarization. For many farms this is a "transition" toward oblivion. Yet where conditions are favorable rural communities not only endure, but thrive. The authors argue that soil fertility, climate, and market access are the main prerequisites for success. Trying to explain the Russian countryside to foreign readers, perhaps most of whom have never been on any kind of farm, the authors start with broad strokes and gradually work toward a more nuanced picture. The complicated mix of types of farming is explained well, especially the survival of de facto collective farms in a, more or less, market-based economy.
In Russia today we are witnessing a historic reversal of agricultural colonization. Russians are still connected to the countryside-many were born there and most have some sort of access to land there. Yet away from the cities, especially in the "non-chernozem" zone-roughly the northern half of European Russia-rural communities are dying out. Following centuries of expansion, farms all over what the authors call the "inner periphery" are returning to forest. The [End Page 241] sparse, aging rural population in the north is simply incapable of maintaining their fields and herds.
The authors draw on a mixed bag of concepts from human geography and Russian history, some of which may have exceeded their shelf-life. But the authors' discussion is invariably refreshing. For example, they may have had the last word-at least, one can hope-on Russians' supposed innate predilection for collectivism: " . . . as soon as Russians have more than average means, the very first thing they do is detach their personal space from that of everybody else." (pp. 5-6) Photographs of massive fences underscore the point.
The authors' main argument draws on what they term "environmental determinism." Something may have been lost in translation in this regard. Environmental determinism in the US became a "scientific" justification for racism. Perhaps after the "theory" was rejected scholars were too cowed to explore some aspects of the human:environment relationship, but certainly those who studied agriculture were not so afraid as to ignore climate or soil quality.
The authors set up their statistical analyses based on the idea that climate, soil, and proximity to urban areas matter. They found that, indeed, these factors are crucial. In the non-chernozem region, location with respect to urban areas appears to be the determining factor as regards successful farming, whereas in the south soil fertility and climate are most important. Yet these geographical factors do not explain everything. The authors had to cite an additional factor, ethnicity, which was not incorporated in their theory or methodology. This is the main shortcoming of the book. Also, from the authors' discussion, it appears that actually the other main factor is not "ethnicity," but a form of alcoholism so intense that it makes many rural Russians psychotic. A look at rural Old Believer or Russian Baptist communities might help clarify in this regard.
This one criticism aside, this is a very well-written book based on an exhaustive, well-constructed study of a complex topic. The possible "end of peasantry" in Russia is social history in the making, and therefore I highly recommend this book to the readers of this journal.