- Ruling Peasants: Village and State in Late Imperial Russia
The “peasant question” is solved. Or rather, it has fallen silent. The fact is that there has been a notable lack of interest in recent times, both in Russia and the West, with Jane Burbank’s work on how Russian peasants “went to court” as the major exception.1 Given this silence, Corinne Gaudin’s book is especially appealing. The aims of this Canadian historian are ambitious and modest at the same time: namely, to reread the peasant question with a focus on the relationship between state authority and society; to define the complex identities of the peasantry by analyzing its internal rules of living and communication with the outside world; and to rethink the divided scholarly takes on peasant self-organization.
The author’s overarching goal is to move beyond the “cliché” of a “dark,” illiterate, conservative peasantry and to demonstrate how the peasant communities were forced to respond to increasing state intervention in village life, how they [End Page 710] adopted the “official transcript” and in so doing ultimately reformed their internal organization. This unprecedented dialogue with the state is at the center of Gaudin’s analysis of the period from the Emancipation of 1861 until World War I, with particular emphasis on the turning point of the 1890s–1900s. Gaudin chooses to avoid the “resistance/rebellion debate” and instead privileges everyday relations between the authorities (both in the country and in the towns) and the peasants.2 While state policies induced the peasantry to redefine notions of community, justice, and law, the local cleavages revealed by the government’s hesitant intrusion showed that peasant solidarity was always problematic and changing. The book offers five thematic chapters: (1) state rule and intervention “from above” in the village; (2) local executive, (3) judicial, and (4) legislative authorities; and (5) the critical question of landed property.
The first chapter, “Ideologies of Authorities and Institutional Settings,” highlights the contradictory nature of tsarist policy, which was predicated on the desire to modernize while leaving autocracy untouched. Government intervention constantly alternated between conflicting projects of protecting the peasantry from the violence of modernization and integrating the peasants into the new society. From the Emancipation onward, the only constant principle was that the countryside ought to be ruled by peasant intermediaries. This principle allowed for change without providing a clear direction for this change. A shift in this policy was provoked by the fear of losing control of the rebellious peasantry, which at the same time was also believed to be threatened and cheated by the kulak-miroed who was allegedly exploiting common peasants.3
In 1889, the Land Captain Statute established 60–70 officials per province who were appointed to restore the—imaginary—unity of the peasant community while promoting agricultural modernization. Despite the wide-ranging powers accorded by the statute, on the whole the land captains (zemskie nachal´niki) failed, for the center’s continually changing but always urgent demands on crucial matters, [End Page 711] such as tax arrears or agricultural experimentation, proved fatally counterproductive. In 1905, a new Instruction on Land Captains was issued by the Ministry of the Interior, with the goal of reducing the tension between responding to the population’s needs and concerns, on the one hand, and implementing government policies at the local level, on the other. The statute, doubtless inspired (although Gaudin does not suggest this) by the statistical work that the zemstvos’ “third element” was starting to publish in massive quantities, added to the land captains’ mission the systematic collection of data about the population of their precinct. The dénouement is well known: the 1905 Revolution allowed Prime Minister Stolypin to support the modernization that had been promoted since 1903, but his reforms were undermined by the autocratic reaction of 1911.
The second chapter, “Land Captains, Peasant Officials, and the Experience of Local Authority,” deals with the central role of the land captains, who replaced the justices of the peace in 1889 and embodied the...