From Peasants to Labourers

Review: Cap on Kukushkin

Vadim Kukushkin. From Peasants to Labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration from the Russian Empire to Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007. xvi + 283 pp. Illustrations, tables, maps, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-3267-0.

Reviewed for H-Migration by Krystyna K. Cap, Department of History, The Johns Hopkins University
Published by [mailto][/mailto] (April, 2008)

Monographs treating the complexity of Eastern European migration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are scarce. While scholars have become increasingly interested over the past decade in questions related to population movements within national, regional and transatlantic systems, more studies are needed that aim to deconstruct cohorts, that analyze relationships between donor areas and the establishment of ethnic communities in recipient countries, and that examine changes to socioeconomic structures in both sending and receiving areas. Moreover, historical studies of migration employing interdisciplinary approaches from such fields as anthropology, political sociology, and demography, are critical in an effort to bridge the existing "disciplinary canyon"between history and the social sciences.[1]

Vadim Kukushkin's fascinating study, From Peasants to Labourers, attempts this by informing the existing literature on Canadian immigration with a study that treats the area of Russia's western borderlands--from the Dnieper River basin, to the west coast of the United States and Canada--as the "easternmost Atlantic migration system" (p. 10). Kukushkin's monograph fills the lacuna inadvertently created by studies that often fail to differentiate sufficiently between East Slavic immigrants and tend "to 'essentialize' the boundaries of immigrant communities as they were 'imagined' and constructed by ethnic elites" (p. 7). As Kukushkin rightly notes, the teleological trajectory of many previous studies tracing the crystallization and national awakening of ethnic groups have often underappreciated the transference of "cultural subdivisions" between communities in recipient countries (p. 6). Furthermore, this reading has led to reluctance on the part of many scholars to probe the nuances of political, social, and economic behavior within diasporic groups--with the Ukrainian Diaspora being a particularly striking example.

From Peasants to Labourers, thus, challenges existing conceptions of emigration from tsarist Russia, demonstrating that most migrants were neither predominantly political nor religious refugees, but rather temporary, economic "sojourners" and transient laborers, who intended to return to Russia after earning money in Canada. Driven from the land due to a demographic explosion and facing poor soil conditions and unfavorable land inheritance practices in mid to late nineteenth-century Russia, many Ukrainians and Belarusans were pushed to explore economic possibilities outside of the empire and even outside of continental Europe.

Kukushkin's research also demonstrates that a significant portion of "Russian immigrants" to Canada in the 1900s were not ethnically Russian at all, but rather Russified Ukrainian or Belarusan peasants. Relying heavily on the biographical and geographical data of émigrés from the Russian Empire found in the Passport/Identity series of the Likacheff-Ragosine-Mathers (Li-Ra-Ma) Collection at Library and Archives Canada, Kukushkin supplements this research by compiling information on the villages and regions of origin. Taken together, Kukushkin determines that many migrants came from the western frontier of the tsarist empire, the least ethnically integrated region due to its late incorporation into the Russian state after the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century.

In the first chapter [...]