Friday, February 10, 2012

From the Archives, Pt. V

I've spent some time over the last few days working my way through a long narrative about the United States.

"But," you ask, "I thought your project is about the Soviet Union and corn?"

It is. But that's where this gets interesting. One of the side-effects of the deepest freeze of the Cold War was that other than a scant few embassy personnel, confined to Washington and New York, as well as a few others, even Soviet government officials did not visit the United States between 1946 and 1955. One of the first events that reestablished contacts between the two rivals was an exchange of delegations, consisting of agricultural administrators and specialists on the Soviet side, and a smattering of researchers and regular farmers on the American side, in the summer of 1955.

The Soviets were interested in learning about American methods of cultivating corn. I know, I've read about it in excruciating detail. However, enmeshed in this narrative about this most mundane of topics is a whole host of fascinating observations about the society, economy, and culture (ca. 1955) of the United States, especially of the half-dozen or so states in the Midwest where the Soviet delegation spent the bulk of its time, including Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

The document itself runs to nearly five-hundred type-written pages, in three thick, bound volumes. As far as I can tell, no one has read them in decades, but they make for fascinating reading.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I've noticed, right off, is that they - much, I imagine, as their American counterparts - saw what they expected to see. If the Americans who visited saw poorly dressed, poorly housed, overworked peasants working underdeveloped, under-mechanized farms, then the Soviet delegations saw dark forces behind the facade of American abundance.

This is especially true in terms of the social relations that the Soviet delegation noted in its report: They drew from official American statistics a falling number of farms, falling percentage of the population occupied in agriculture, and an increasing size of the farms that remained.

These trends were quite real, representing the origins of the social and economic change in the American Midwest that gave rise to such phenomena as farm crises of the 1980s, and responses like  Farm Aid. This same trend has resulted in the increasing size of industrial farming, or agro-business, and the decline of the family farm as the basic unit of American agricultural production.

What these Soviet observers did, in accordance with their own presuppositions, is put this into a Marxist-Leninist framework. Thus we learn that the crisis of overproduction, farmers' debt, and increasing concentration of land and other capital is an unassailable law of capitalism.

The key passage on this issue:

"The concentration of production, the supplanting of small farmers by the strong ones, yet again confirms Lenin's maxim that the basic and chief tendency of capitalism is in the displacement of the small producer both in industry and agriculture.

During our travels around the USA and Canada, we personally saw many ruined and neglected farms, regardless of the fact that our trip crossed through the very richest regions.

We asked them to show us the very best farms - and they showed us such farms, though they represented them as average. And when we requested again that they show us the best farms, then they turned out to be, as a rule, worse than those they had shown earlier. Of an especially unsatisfactory appearance were the farms that we visited by chance, outside the plan. If on the farms that they showed us according to the plan had abundance and provision, then on the farms where we were able to look around outside the plan, the farmer was able to offer us only water from the tap, but not a soft drink or a good lunch. [It should be noted, here, that this is a crowd of at least 25 people, not to mention a gaggle of reporters, showing up unannounced.] Along the way, we saw farms with fields that were overgrown with weeds. We tried, of course, to study the best farms, where it was possible to find the methods and practices of farm management which might be useful for our farms, but along with that, we saw the dark side of farm life in America. We personally saw what it means in real life the line of statistics on the reduction in the number of farms in the USA - it is the ruining of the small farmers-laborers, the transfer of their land, buildings, and livestock into the hands of the larger farmers, who possess the means of production."

But there's more. On that, perhaps, next time.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

To Kursk

Central monument, with obelisk and eternal flame.
This past weekend, I took a trip to the city of Kursk to visit a friend and fellow graduate student who is there, working on his dissertation research. Kursk is a fairly large city located directly south from Moscow and is conveniently an over-night train ride away. Historically, it is of note as the major city around which Red Army and the Germans fought the (aptly named) Battle of Kursk in April 1943.

This (picture at left) is the central area of the main memorial to the battle. I say main memorial because it is only one of many memorials and other markers in the city, most of which are quintessential late Soviet-era monuments. The battle is a big deal to the city, and rightly so.

One historical explanation of the tide of the war suggests that if Moscow was decisive in the winter of 1941 in stopping the German advance, then Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43 turned the tide, and Kursk was the last gasp of the Wehrmacht as an offensive fighting force. Once the Red Army's defense of Kursk broke the German attack, its counter-attack left open the long and bloody road to Berlin.

It is interesting how Soviet monuments are evolving in post-Soviet Russia. I'm not a betting man, but I would put the farm on a wager that this Orthodox angel was not on the obelisk when it was erected in the Soviet period. At the same time, Kursk has changed in this respect less than many places in the country I've visited. The hammer and sickle are not hard to come by anywhere, but the topography of Kursk proudly displays "Karl Marx St." and "Lenin St." in addition to a myriad of toponyms honoring heroes of the battle.

Detail of the obelisk.
In any event, it was a weekend spent catching up with a friend and visiting a new place. I even, through the good graces of the regional library and the librarian in the local history reading room, got to spend a couple of hours looking at some materials they have relating to my corn project.

They were thrilled that an American was interested in the Khrushchev period, and in Khrushchev: his native village is in the Kursk region and I was reminded a couple of times of the fact. "Хрущев? Он - наш." "He's one of ours."

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Christmas is Here!

I have awesome friends and family. Today, I have physical evidence of the fact. Today, 1 February, 2012, I received Christmas presents. I should note that this is not such a big deal. Orthodox Christmas falls in early January and, frankly, we just took down our New Year's/Christmas tree last week. And it's not the fault of the sender that the Russian post office took five weeks to deliver a modest package.

Thanks to Julie and Sarah, I now have an awesome Christmas stocking and card. While the stocking is a little late for use this year, it will get much use in future years, without a doubt. In scores of other games, the fancy chocolate bar inside will not make it nearly that long.

From my family, many awesome things: peanut butter, homegrown/homemade blackberry jam, spices for cooking, Ziplock bags. Christmas gifts were never any better, and they amazingly made it here in less than ten business days. A new world record!

And this very awesome hand-made (thanks Mom!) wool hat. I have no doubt that it will stand up to the worst that Moscow can throw at me. Although forgive me if I'm not running outside to test it right this instant against the current temperature of . . . -22 C.
Nice looking hat. Who's the nerd?

Instead, how about a nice picture of me trying it on . . . indoors:

In other news, I've been a busy bee in the archives the last several weeks. I'm finding good stuff, and in pretty large quantities. The question, as always, remains - can I make an argument out of all of this?!?

More on that later. And also on a brief trip I'm planning for this weekend to visit a friend in the city of Kursk, several hundred miles/kilometers south of Moscow.