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
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
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
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
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
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