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Making Peasants Backward: Managing Populations in Russian Agricultural Cooperatives, 1861-1914

Author(s):Kotsonis, Yanni
Reviewer(s):Hayward, Oliver

Published by EH.NET (May 2000)

Yanni Kotsonis, Making Peasants Backward: Managing Populations in Russian

Agricultural Cooperatives, 1861-1914. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

x + 245 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-312-22099-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Oliver Hayward, Department of History, University of


This study presents succinctly (188 pages of text) the clearest and most

thorough explanation yet available in the West of the failure of those

ostensibly responsible for the welfare of Russia’s peasantry to assist them

toward the progress enjoyed by many of their contemporaries in Western and

Central Europe.

In developing his analysis, Yanni Kotsonis (Assistant Professor of History,

NYU) has made effective use of extensive archival materials in Moscow and St.

Petersburg, as well as archives in the Archangel section of the Imperial State

Bank and the Agricultural Society of Vologda. He consulted newspapers,

periodicals, and serial publications of several Imperial government and private

agencies operating in the decades up to 1914. Also utilized are many published

monographs and articles on the subject, often by persons involved with

formulating and executing policies ostensibly designed to assist Russia’s

peasantry out of its backwardness.

Following an introductory statement of the theoretical framework within which

he explores various aspects of the peasant situation following the promulgation

of the “Great Reforms,” Kotsonis analyzes the subject in more depth through

chapters utilizing the following periodization: 1. 1861-1895,

during which the “Great Reforms” were set in motion; 2. 1895-1904,as Witte

attempted to strengthen Russia’s peasantry as part of his overall program for

modernizing the economy; and 3. 1906-1914, as first Stolypin and later

Krivoshein made further attempts to enhance the position of Russia’s peasantry.

Chapter 4 (“Citizens: Backwardness and Legitimacy in Agronomy and Economics,

1900-1914″) introduces the new set of forces which descended upon the Russian

countryside: agronomists, economists, and “cooperators,”

the professionals charged with assisting the peasants in establishing

agricultural cooperatives.

The final chapter (“Making Peasants Backward, 1900-1914″), utilizes the various

themes from the first four chapters to explain more precisely why the promising

programs ostensibly designed to assist Russia’s peasants in fact for the most

part conspired to “make peasants backward.” No element in Russian society–the

zemstvo nobility, government ministers and other leaders, the agronomists, and

other professionals sent out presumably to assist the peasants – seems to have

been able to escape the blinders created by their own prejudices and

preconceptions in order to further the peasants’ true interests.

Kotsonis’ brief Epilogue suggests some of the implications of all this for

rural Russia during World War I, especially its impact on the tumultuous years

of 1917-1918.

Permeating the entire book is the overwhelmingly pernicious attitude toward the

peasantry held by almost every group bearing some responsibility to assist the

peasantry. Through extensive quotations from the writings and speeches of

representative individuals, Kotsonis demonstrates this attitude to be a melange

of the following specific assumptions: that Russia’s peasantry were

overwhelmingly illiterate; that they were particularly ignorant in financial

matters; that they were therefore in unceasing danger of being exploited and

misled by unscrupulous and predatory middlemen, and that they therefore must

not be exposed to an impersonal credit market that could only be deleterious to

their interests.

Based on these assumptions, the cooperative movement generally focused on

bringing professionals down to the peasants in order to guide and protect them,

rather than seeking to educate the peasantry and showing them how to more

effectively manage their own agricultural activities. Many in the cooperative

movement viewed capitalism as a form of predatory power that should not be

practiced on or by the peasants except under the close supervision (nadzor) of

agronomists and other professionals.

State officials, zemstvo noblemen, and agronomists and other professionals all

vied to see which among them should conduct the peasants’ affairs for them.

Rarely were the peasants involved in the process even consulted on the chance

that they might have some useful insights regarding how to improve their lot.

Struggles for influence and bureaucratic control took precedence over the

interests of the peasants.

Perhaps most ominous of all, Kotsonis suggests, was the attitude with which the

various groups responsible for overseeing the peasantry in Russia did so, with

attitudes vastly different than those of their counterparts in other parts of

Europe. While there were the familiar references to the backwardness and

barbarism of peasants in European countries as well, there it was often in a

context of the need to mobilize the peasantry into the broader population as a

political nation. In Russia, in contrast, the presumption that peasants could

not measure up to the requisite standards of citizenship, self-reliance,

progress, and rationality produced not only a failure to recognize the

possibility of “dynamic transformation of peasants, but often a caste-like

reification of them and a justification of permanent administration over them,

‘as if by a foreigner'” (p. 134).

In his footnote to this assertion (p. 218, footnote #117), Kotsonis notes that

even in Poland, in stark contrast to Russia, “the integration of peasants into

a national idea was the central issue in political movements from the early

nineteenth century.”

That a mass cooperative movement encompassing by 1914 one-quarter of all

peasant households in Russia could nevertheless achieve so little in mobilizing

the peasantry into a broader political nation is a situation fraught with

ominous implications for post-1917 Russia. Kotsonis has made a significant

contribution to our understanding of how, despite often benevolent intentions

toward the peasantry on the part of many officials,

professionals, and “cooperators,” this dangerous situation was actually

deteriorating still further in the last decades of the Russian Empire.

I would make but one suggestion for improving this study. The specific data on

the extent and distribution of the cooperative movement in Russia that Kotsonis

presents in chapter 5 could have been more helpful if presented much earlier,

for it helps better assess the merits of various proposals to make credit more

readily available to the peasantry and thereby modernize Russian agriculture.

This work is, in any event, a major contribution to augmenting our

understanding of a crucial failure plaguing the troubled history of late

Imperial Russia. Those who might have been able to help formulate a

constructive response to the “Cursed Question” instead compounded and

perpetuated the curse.

Oliver Hayward is completing a study of the life and policies of M.Kh.

Reutern, Minister of Finance under Alexander II. He is currently researching

the periodic flooding of the city of St.Petersburg/Leningrad and efforts to

control that flooding.

Subject: A Geographical Area: 4 Country: Russia Time period: 7, 8

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII