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Book Review

 

David Moon, The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, 1762-1907. Harlow, England: Longman, Pearson Publishing, 2001. Pp. xx + 203. $19.20 (paper).

 
      Russia is often poorly served in the emerging world-history curriculum. While it doesn't fit comfortably into 'Europe' , yet it's not sufficiently 'Asian' to pull its full weight in the global arena. Its modernization process, its imperial expansion, and its intelligentsia all invite fruitful comparative history, as does its potential contribution to humanity's long history of unfree labor practices. The British Longman series, Seminar Studies in History, recognizes the persistent gap between specialized monographic studies and textbooks, and seeks to make available the latest research to both scholars and students. Since the most recent work on Russian serfdom to be cited in Peter Stearns, et al., World Civilizations: The Global Experience (AP Edition, 4th Ed. Longman, Pearson 2005) is Jerome Blum's 1961 Lord and Peasant in Russia, (Princeton University Press) non-specialists clearly need a reliable summary of the last four decades of scholarship. For the advanced student, serious reader, or teacher, David Moon's book is an excellent introduction to a complex set of issues. 1
    Unfortunately, the abolition of serfdom is still too often credited to the Crimean War: Russia, defeated on Russian soil by an incompetently led, poorly-provisioned, and disease-ridden expeditionary force, realized suddenly that its military, social, and economic systems were hopelessly outmoded, and therefore quickly freed the serfs to pave the way for rapid industrialization. 2
    Forty years ago a Marxist historian at Moscow State University, P. A. Zaionchkovskii, sought to align Russian developments more closely to the dialectical class struggle in Western Europe. He broadened the post-Crimean war malaise in Russia to a general crisis, the broad-based harbinger of the rise of the bourgeoisie, similar to France before its revolution. Furthermore, in the early decades of the cultural exchanges negotiated by Kennedy and Khrushchev, he regularly accepted promising young American doctoral students and taught them how to do archival research in Moscow on the legislative history of Alexander II and his father. Collectively their efforts resulted in a series of dissertations and then monographs by Terence Emmons, Daniel Field, Bruce Lincoln, and others which substantially altered historians' perception of the end of serfdom. 3
     Even if one does not share Moon's view that abolitionist activity dates back to the eighteenth-century world of Catherine the Great and her consort, recent scholarship makes it clear that reform legislation of Alexander I and Nicholas I provided not only precedent, but impetus for the decrees of 1861. For over half a century the state consciously used Russian borderlands as a laboratory for abolitionary trials. A consistent stream of peasant legislation washed over the countryside. Increasingly the government's secret committees and ministries were staffed by 'enlightened' bureaucrats who knew how to write legislation, and who were uncommitted to serf-ownership as the basis for state service. They crafted the reform, consulted the nobility, incorporated counter-proposals, and, in the end, offered a very conservative law. Afterward peasants were not free to move to cities, to become industrial workers, or to become independent farmers; nobles were compensated nicely for land that they surrendered, usually controlling the amount and quality of land they quit, and retaining their privileged social role. To guarantee stability, loyalty, and tax receipts, authorities introduced the new order at glacial speed. Moon covers the ongoing adaptations and adjustments to rural reform down to the Stolypin era following the 1905 revolutions. 4
     This is a book which summarizes scholarship on the government's efforts to ameliorate, and eventually to abolish serfdom. It does not address peasant lifeways, peasant women, peasant religion, the agricultural cycle, or the crops themselves. It is remarkably thin even on the peasant commune, emphasizing the newness of post-Emancipation institutions of self-government, rather than continuity with the past village assemblies. The other Great Reforms, of the military, the judicial system, education, and municipal and provincial government city dumas and zemstvos receive only passing mention.   5
     This is, in short, an important and reliable summary of recent historical literature. It is more likely to educate the teacher than to be used in the high school classroom, although the inclusion of forty pages of translated documents, a glossary, a who's who, and a full bibliography, invite its use among advanced undergraduates. 6
Max J. Okenfuss
Washington University
St. Louis

 
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