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Book Review 220: Rural Russia under the Old Regime

November 24, 2011 - Harry Eagar
RURAL RUSSIA UNDER THE OLD REGIME, By Geroid Tanquary Robinson. 342 pages, illustrated. California paperback

The more I study the history of Russia, the less I believe that the Bolshevik revolution ever happened.

Of course, a new gang of crooks took over at the top, but state policy was unchanged – both the tsars and the Bolsheviks partitioned Poland with Prussia, to give just one of many examples – and for the majority of the population who were peasants (9 in 10 in 1917), life and law went on very much as before.

This becomes obvious if G.T. Robinson's “Rural Russia under the Old Regime” is read along with Zhores Medvedev's “Soviet Agriculture.” Robinson could not make this observation in “Rural Russia,” written in 1931, but he did often refer to the communal heritage of the peasants – even, at one point, calling the serfs communists – while recognizing, as did Medvedev, that most (not all) would have preferred their own land.

To give a few examples of how, in practical terms, the peasant of the 1880s was oppressed in the same ways as the peasant in the 1980s, take passports. Neither serf, emancipated serf nor collective or state farm peasant could travel without a passport.

Those who did, one way or another, end up working in towns usually maintained their allotment in the village and returned to harvest, and sometimes to plow and plant, right up to the end of Bolshevism (and beyond).

One difference was that the emancipated serf often, probably, would have cut his ties to the village, if he could have; while under collective farm laws, families found it useful to maintain allotments (which meant that at least one member had to stay on the farm, usually a babushka, while the rest moved to town).

Robinson restricts his study to European Russia, in an analysis that is preponderantly legal and statistical; only secondarily social and agronomic.

He distinguishes a serf, with rights to use land, from chattel slaves, although in actual performance the differences were slight enough. Both serfs and slaves could be raped or killed without consequence, and if the serf had a legal right to a house and garden that the slave had not, the slave (at least in the American South) usually had a house and garden.

Emancipation in 1861 was largely a sham; if it had been real, there would not have been a jacquerie in the countryside in 1905-6.

The peasants were provided title to plowland but (as in the slightly earlier Great Mahele in Hawaii) not the gathering lands that were essential to rural survival. In Russia. These were forests for fuel and timber and meadowlands to support their animals.

Usually, they had to rent these lands on unfavorable terms from their former lords.

Worse than this, they had to redeem the plowlands, but prices were fixed at double what the land could produce.

The peasants, honest men unlike tsars, nobles and priests, loyally paid in what they could, but by 1905 they were in arrears to the state banks by about half. That is, they had paid as much as they possibly could have – even more, since it appears their food intake was falling in the 1890s.

The Bolsheviks also established dues the collective farms could not meet, and by the time of Khrushchev's ill-conceived reforms, most collective farms were insolvent.

As a consequence, both the Romanov state and the Bolshevik state were effectively bankrupt because they could no longer support the loans and defaults of the countryside, yet another of the many, many things that did not change despite the revolution.

The Bolsheviks treated peasants as class enemies; the tsarist government as dangerous political enemies based on many past insurrections. The motives for treating the peasants as enemies of the state were dissimilar, but the effects on the peasants were about the same.

In neither regime did the peasant get what he wanted. As Robinson trenchantly puts it, the tsarist government dealt with unrest “not by providing them the land they want, but by teaching them not to want it.”

The Bolsheviks did much the same.

After 80 years, “Rural Russia under the Old Regime” retains its value as a compact summary of the complex (and varied, like the Bolsheviks, law and regulation differed greatly from place to place) situation of the Great Russian (and to a lesser extent Little Russian, White Russian, Cossack, Caucasian, Polish and other) peasantry.


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