Alexander Chayanov
and Soviet Kazakhstan

Literary Central Asia // An agricultural economist in exile.

If I understand your task correctly as an effort to bring an end to civil division, to transform the Russian problem from one of struggle against the regime to one of redemption and re-birth of the homeland, with all its existing forces, including the communists, so long as they have a living a, creative origin…

— Alexander V. Chayanov

One of my personal heroes is the Soviet agricultural economist, rural sociologist, and fiction writer Alexander V. Chayanov (1888-1937).

Chayanov is perhaps most famous for his Theory of Peasant Co-operatives (1919) and Theory of Peasant Economy (1923), which analyzed the state of Russian agriculture in the first decades of the 20th century based on extensive fieldwork and outlined a vision of a new rural economy based on vertically integrated peasant co-operatives. Chayanov was also an author of gothic and science fiction. His sci-fi novella The Journey of my Brother Alexi to the Land of Peasant Utopia (1923) describes a future Soviet Union set in 1984 by which time the organized peasantry had become the dominant force in the country’s politics. Some suspect that George Orwell’s choice of the year 1984 is perhaps in a homage to Chayanov’s novella as the two men lived and worked among similar social circles in the early 1920’s. His gothic novels have most recently been translated and published in Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the 20th Century (Maguire, 2013).

Chayanov’s letters from this era remain and can be read in the book Alexsandr Chayanov and Russian Berlin (Bourgoholtzer, 1999). Through his letters we find a warm and sociable man, deeply concerned with the situation developing in Russia following the October Revolution.

If I understand your task correctly as an effort to bring an end to civil division, to transform the Russian problem from one of struggle against the regime to one of redemption and re-birth of the homeland, with all its existing forces, including the communists, so long as they have a living a, creative origin… (Bourgoholtzer, 1999:63)

Like many educated Russians at the time, Chayanov travelled abroad extensively, yet chose to return to the country following the Russian Revolution. Like many of his generation, Chayanov eventually paid the ultimate price for his decision.

Both Chayanov’s theories on the peasantry and fiction eventually placed the man at odds with the Soviet state, particularly Joseph Stalin’s collectivization campaign, and resulted in his arrest, exile, and eventual execution. During his trial in 1931, the so-called ‘Case of the Labour Peasant Party’, Chayanov was accused of conspiracy not with any foreign power or domestic faction, but with a fictional agrarian peasant party in his futuristic novella. Sentenced to five years in prison in Moscow, Chayanov was released and internally exiled to Alma Ata, today’s Almaty. On 3 October 1937, Chayanov was rearrested in connection with the trial of Nikolai Bukharin and shot the same day, likely in the hill’s above the city, where many victims of the Great Terror came to rest.

Last week I visited the former Kazakh Agricultural Institute, today’s Kazakh National Agrarian University, where Chayanov taught statistics between 1933-35. Located in the heart of Almaty, the campus is modest and pleasant, containing many small gardens. The campus’ main buildings, today painted in bright yellows and pinks, remain in the Socialist Classical style of the 1930’s when Chayanov walked these grounds.

Updated 16 May 2018

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