Rural Revolutions in Southern Ukraine: Peasants, Nobles, and Colonists, 1774-1905

By Staples, John | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2010 | Go to article overview

Rural Revolutions in Southern Ukraine: Peasants, Nobles, and Colonists, 1774-1905


Staples, John, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Leonard G. Friesen. Rural Revolutions in Southern Ukraine: Peasants, Nobles, and Colonists, 1774-1905. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 2008. viii, 325 pp. Maps. Bibliography. Index. $39.95, cloth.

Leonard Friesen offers some valuable new insights into economic development and social relations in New Russia (today southern Ukraine). However, in the end this study is not fully convincing in its big arguments, and it is sometimes dated and unsatisfactory in its details.

Friesen identifies a three-part dynamic in New Russian development: before the Great Reforms, New Russia enjoyed a land surplus that resulted in extensive, inefficient agricultural practices; the Great Reforms redistributed land, encouraging peasants to introduce land repartition and continue pre-reform agricultural practices, with the sideeffect of reducing labour supplies for nobles and colonists; finally, a cycle of rising and falling international grain markets pushed nobles and colonists to engross large areas of prime agricultural land and rapidly introduce modern, labour-saving technologies. As a result, in little over a generation New Russian peasants went from land surpluses to land shortages, while in their midst nobles and colonists emerged as wealthy proprietors of large-scale commercial agricultural estates. The consequence, at least in some cases, was political radicalization. Yet, as Friesen shows, where the transition to modern commercial agriculture started early and was gradual, social relations were often amicable, and he argues that even after the revolution of 1905 New Russia teetered between "peasant adaptation or peasant revolution" (p. 252). He speculates that, without World War I5 it may well have tipped toward peaceful adaptation.

One has the perplexing sense that Rural Revolution sat too long on a shelf between its writing and its publication. Where Friesen relies on otherwise-unused archival sources - e.g., in his excellent section on serfs - he provides some striking insights; but where his main sources are secondary, he is fifteen years out-of-date. These fifteen years saw a flood of new studies informed by post-Soviet archival access, including a significant body of work by Ukrainian and German scholars. Friesen' s inattention to this scholarship is a serious shortcoming.

The question of land surpluses, so central to Friesen' s argument, is particularly problematic. Friesen treats all land as though it were equal, broadly comparing New Russia's population density to European Russia's, in order to demonstrate a supposed New Russian surplus. …

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