Mind and Labor on the Farm in Black-Earth Russia, 1861-1914

Mind and Labor on the Farm in Black-Earth Russia, 1861-1914

Mind and Labor on the Farm in Black-Earth Russia, 1861-1914

Mind and Labor on the Farm in Black-Earth Russia, 1861-1914


Did Tsarist Russia's political and industrial backwardness result from its rigid and archaic agrarian structure? Did the Russian revolution stem in large part from a parasitical elite's exploitation of an enormous peasant class? Was the Russian peasantry itself backward and 'dark' as a result? The attention contemporaries and historians have lavished on these questions has enshrined them as fundamental issues in Russian history. Mind and Labor on the Farm in Black-Earth Russia endeavors to recast our understanding of the agrarian problem by uncovering the history of both the physical and the mental dimensions of agriculture. Employing Russia's unparalleled resources of literary, agronomic and statistical information on peasant labor and culture, this book also offers new and haunting perspectives on the limitations of traditional agriculture to adapt to a rapidly changing economic geography, such as that of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russia.

Historians have long agreed that Russia's agricultural sector was incapable of rapid increases in productivity, and thus doomed to stagnation and poverty. Obstacles imposed by the communal organization of agriculture, the scarcity of education, the oppressive power of landlords and the lack of non-agricultural employment are recognized as having shackled peasant farming in centuries-old backward routines. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and Stalin's brutal collectivization of agriculture at the close of the 1920s are commonly understood to have been natural outcomes of these frustrating circumstances.

By taking a ground-level view of the evolution of Russian agricultural technique, the author arrives at a very different understanding of the agrarian problem. The book identifies both the achievements and the limitations of peasant farmers in adapting farming practices to the economic and technological challenges of the half-century preceding the Revolution. Most importantly, the book delves deeply into peasant life and culture to demonstrate how and why farming improvements did not pass determinable levels.

"[readers] ... will be rewarded by a comprehensive description of how peasants in Tambov province farmed in the three-field system before 1914. The choice of province is appropriate: situated in the black-earth belt of central Russia, it was one of the regions that, rightly or wrongly, defined the agrarian question. Using a wealth of published and archival sources, the book includes the only detailed account ... of the entire crop cycle." - American Historical Review

"...quite simply a resource that no historian can afford not to read. [recommended to] All academic collections." - Choice


“The whip of authority, the pull of tradition, or the lure of gain.” in the words of a great historian of economic thought, these are the three alternative principles that can organize the economic life of a society. the three principles correspond to great historical stages, the last among them—the lure of gain—underpinning the market society which first arose in a mature form in Western Europe less than three centuries ago. the transition from one stage to another is bound to be unsettling in any society, no matter how gradually it may transpire. in Imperial Russia the transition was so traumatic as to lead towards cataclysmic revolutionary upheaval.

Over just three generations, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, the will of Russian monarchs and the pressures of international market mechanisms fated Russian society to experience all three patterns of economic organization. Just thirty years after Emperor Alexander ii laid the age of serfdom to rest in the 1860s, Russia was undergoing one of the greatest industrial booms in history. the first decade and a half of the twentieth century witnessed the birth of commercial and legal frameworks that lie at the foundation of any market society. On the eve of the First World War Russia remained an overwhelmingly peasant nation, but the society as a whole was beginning to shed its agrarian character.

The telescoping of economic epochs into such a short span of time jolted the fortunes, allegiances, and composition of all social groups in Russia. Fundamental problems facing the Russian State in the late nineteenth century—such as the priority of industrialization with its attendant social perils, the scope of political freedoms within the country, and the unstable alignment of the population into estates—acquired tremendous intensity. No less formidable was a fourth problem, the agrarian problem, by which contemporaries understood the task of improving the lot of the huge peasant population while simultaneously . . .

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