"OH thou great All-Russian Sphinx, it is not easy to be thy Oedipus." Thus Ivan Turgeniev apostrophized the Russian peasant. And a sphinx the peasant has been, even since the educated classes of the Russian cities began to take an interest in his welfare. The Slavophiles of the last century saw in the peasant, with his strong village community organization, the mir, and his supposed loyalty to the Tsar and the Orthodox Church, the Russian primitive Christian. The romantic revolutionaries of two generations ago, and the Social Revolutionists who took over many of their ideas, hailed the peasant as the natural communist, who only needed to be freed from the oppression of Tsar and landlord to set an example to the whole world in spontaneous coöperative farming. The Bolsheviks regarded the peasant as a small producer who must be conciliated during the period of active revolution but who ultimately must somehow be fitted into a Marxian collectivist order of things.

Fifteen years of war, revolution, civil war and post-revolutionary reconstruction have demolished some mistaken conceptions about the peasant and revealed him more as a normal human being than as a mysterious idol in a sheepskin coat. The idea of the peasant as a faithful son of "Holy Russia," imbued with heartfelt devotion to Tsar and Church, has been smashed beyond any conceivable reconstruction. Also exploded is the fallacy that the peasants are naturally inclined to communism. They were thorough-going revolutionaries so long as it was a question of sacking the large estates and dividing up the land among themselves. Once this process was completed they became, for the most part, zealous upholders of the rights of individualist private property: and after a decade of mingled economic pressure and economic persuasion by the Soviet authorities, barely two percent of the peasants have been induced to try their fortunes in collective farms.

Russian peasants often say of themselves: "We are a dark people." And the Russian village is dark with the shades of poverty, neglect and technical backwardness. One cannot generalize too sweepingly about such a huge country; some parts enjoy a higher living standard than others. But an idea of the prevalent poverty may be obtained if one considers that the average yearly income of an adult peasant is officially estimated at 217 rubles,[i] that approximately three peasant households in ten have no working cattle, while only about one in five possesses more than one working animal,[ii] and that the countryside as a whole is split up into 25,000,000 little holdings, averaging little more than ten acres. These holdings are obviously too small for profitable extensive farming, and very few Russian peasants are occupied with those forms of farming which can give a high yield from a small area.

The war was a primary factor in changing the psychology of the Russian peasant. Two million Russian soldiers, most of them peasants who had previously seen little outside their native villages, were captured in the great German offensives and worked in Germany as farm laborers or in other capacities. Here they were able to contrast German farming methods and the living standards of the German peasants with their own; and the effect was very marked. In traveling through the Russian villages I have often noticed that the returned war prisoner is the most staunch advocate of new ideas and new practices.

Revolution and civil war also shook the Russian village to its depths. True, the peasant did not take the initiative in formulating the issues of the civil war; he was rather an object to be propagandized and mobilized, conscripted and subjected to requisition by Reds and Whites. Yet this competing propaganda inevitably had some effect on his mind; and there were times when by obeying or resisting a mobilization he gave his crude answer to the political problem as to whether the Whites with their returning landlords or the Communists with their grain levies represented the greater evil.

Now every young peasant who is called up for service in the Red Army gets a Communist course in citizenship along with his military training. How many of these officially inculcated ideas he retains when he goes back to his home and turns again into a peasant is another question. But this army educational work is a factor, along with the rural reading-room and the occasional radio installed in some of the larger villages, tending to make the peasant begin to think about problems which were almost entirely outside his sphere before the Revolution. Another link between the government and the peasants is the Krestyanskaya Gazeta, or Peasants' Gazette, a little paper which appears twice a week and is entirely addressed to a peasant audience. Its circulation fluctuates with the seasons, but has been as high as a million.

The pomyeschiks, or Russian country squires, have been literally swept off the face of the countryside by the impact of the most thorough-going agrarian upheaval in history. One could travel from one end of the Soviet Union to another without finding, except by the rarest accident, a manor-house still owned by a private family. Gone forever are the "noblemen's nests," the low-built country residences where Turgeniev's heroines learned French and music and read the verses of Pushkin and Lermontov. Not a few of them were burned or razed to the ground in the course of the Revolution; the others have been transformed into rest homes, schools or public buildings. The few pomyeschiks who somehow managed to go on living in their native estates through the period of civil war were forced to depart under the terms of a Soviet decree issued several years ago, since it was feared that their influence on the peasants might be harmful.

The Soviet Land Law, which is without a parallel, to the best of my knowledge, either in Europe or in Asia, vests the title to land in the state but permits anyone to use it, on condition that he farms it with his own labor. The amount of land allotted to any peasant is determined by the size of his family and the amount of land in the possession of the village community. It must be remembered that the individual homestead system is very little practised in Russia, although it is sometimes found in the Ukraine. Instead of having a separate farm, in American or West European fashion, the Russian peasant lives in a village, which may be a tiny hamlet of a dozen houses or a large settlement with several thousand inhabitants, and goes out every day to work on his share of the village land. If, for instance, the amount of village land permits an allotment on the basis of one dessiatine (2.7 acres), then a family of seven, consisting of a father, mother and four children, with perhaps an old grandmother, would be entitled to receive seven dessiatines, while a newly married couple would receive only two. A person convicted of buying or selling land is liable to a sentence of three years in prison; but old habits disappear slowly and surreptitious land sales sometimes take place.

If farming ability could be parcelled out as evenly as land the Soviet system should ensure the maximum of equality among the peasants. But experience has shown that it cannot be, and in every village one finds more or less clearly defined classes of kulaks (literally "fists"), or rich peasants; seredniaks, or middle-class peasants; and byedniaks, or poor. This division into classes became natural and inevitable when the New Economic Policy gave the peasants a certain amount of freedom in disposing of their products. Those peasants who emerged from the civil war with more cattle and machinery, those who were better farmers and traders, began to forge ahead of their less fortunate or less capable brethren in the acquisition of this world's goods. The emergence of a new class of rich peasants on the ruins of the old pomyeschik system of large landed estates was hampered and checked, but could not be altogether prevented, by the workings of the Soviet Land Law. While land cannot legally be bought or sold, it can be leased over a period of several years from one peasant to another. It is estimated that between six and seven percent of the arable land is held on a leasehold basis, and, contrary to the general practice elsewhere, in Russia it is the rich who must rent land from the poor. A familiar arrangement is for the poor peasant who cannot till his own holding to lease it to a richer neighbor, with the understanding that the crop shall be shared equally.

Who is a kulak? This is one of the most difficult and delicate questions of Soviet political economy. Communists who take a more indulgent attitude toward the peasant as an individualist producer are inclined to list among kulaks only persons who definitely exploit their neighbors by lending money and machinery on usurious terms or who hire labor throughout the year. But a stricter view, and one which is quite often applied by village officials (especially since the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party, which declare for an offensive against the kulak), is that any peasant who has raised himself above his fellows in wealth is a kulak and must be subjected to heavy taxation and various forms of administrative discrimination. This stricter view is exemplified in the case of a certain Komarov, a farmer of the Northern Don region, discussed in Pravda for August 14, 1928. Komarov, it seems, was a former merchant who before the war owned a large farm of several hundred acres. He was expropriated, of course, during the Revolution, but under the New Economic Policy he had succeeded in building up a new farm of some eighty or ninety acres, which he made profitable by concentrating on the production of meat and cheese. He owned eighteen cows, two bulls and four horses, took prizes at local agricultural exhibitions, and contributed letters on agricultural subjects to the press. In other countries he would probably have acquired the reputation of being a progressive and useful farmer, and even the local Soviet authorities were inclined to intercede for him. But the writer who discussed his case in Pravda sternly condemned him as a "new and more cunning type of kulak."

Estimates of the number of kulak farms in the Soviet Union vary with definitions of the term, but they probably do not exceed five percent of the total number. Thirty-eight percent of the peasants are freed from the agricultural tax on the ground of extreme poverty. In between the kulaks and byedniaks, come the mass of the Russian peasants, who fall under the heading seredniaks. In the heat of the civil war Lenin laid down as the guiding rule of Communist policy in the village: "Reach an agreement with the seredniak, leaning firmly only on the byedniak and never for one moment stopping the struggle with the kulak." This maxim, applied with variations of emphasis at different times, has on the whole guided the agrarian policy of the Soviet Government.

In the early part of 1925, to be sure, there was an apparent relaxation of the struggle against the richer peasants. With a view to conciliating the masses of the peasants and increasing agricultural productivity, the burden of the agricultural tax was lightened; restrictions on leasing land were relaxed; and the process of hiring agricultural laborers was made simpler and easier. But this moderate agrarian policy was of comparatively short duration. The opposition in the Communist Party, headed by Trotzky and Zinoviev, raised the cry that the conquests of the Revolution were being surrendered to the kulaks. And, curiously enough, the dominant group in the Communist Party leadership, while suppressing and outlawing the opposition, took over and began to apply many of its critical suggestions in regard to agrarian policy. So the law excluding kulaks from participation in Soviet elections was enforced more rigorously; the agricultural tax was distributed in such a way that its main burden fell on the richer peasants, while larger and larger percentages of the poor were exempted from taxation; and more strenuous efforts were made to organize the poor peasants against the rich and to recruit more Communists from the ranks of the agricultural laborers and poorer villagers generally.

Some observers have interpreted this gradual reversal of the moderate agrarian policy of 1925 as a tactical political manœuvre, designed to disarm the opposition by carrying into practice some of the measures which they advocated. But the fundamental reasons for the shift go deeper than this. A class of rich peasants, of independent individualist producers, is a political and economic anomaly in the Soviet state. Not only is it a challenge to Marxist principles to see the rich peasant rising on the shoulders of his poorer neighbors, but the whole Soviet economic system, which depends very much on centralized planning and price adjustments, is menaced if the wealthier peasants concentrate in their hands the grain reserves of the country and hold them back for higher prices than the Soviet state organs feel able to pay.

A genuine tug-of-war between the Government and the more prosperous peasants occurred during the winter of 1927 and the spring of 1928 and seems likely to go on indefinitely. As early as the fall of 1927 it became evident that the peasants were holding back their grain to a degree which not only destroyed any possibility of exporting it but even seriously menaced the bread supply of the cities. How did this "grain strike" come about? It is very hard to answer this question. There is certainly no widespread secret organization among the peasants which could coördinate their activity or instruct them all to do the same thing at the same time. And yet they sometimes display an uncanny faculty for apparently unconscious spontaneous action, as when they deserted from all parts of the front and swarmed on the landlords' estates in 1917.

Faced with a severe crisis of grain supply, the Soviet Government introduced a series of "extraordinary measures" which were at least mildly reminiscent of the period of militant communism which preceded the New Economic Policy. Maintaining its fixed prices unchanged, it instructed the local Soviet officials in the countryside to get the recalcitrant peasants' grain at any cost. A number of richer peasants and private traders who were offering prices above the fixed rates were punished with exile and imprisonment. The masses of peasants were placed under strong pressure to give up their surplus grain. In many cases the free markets in towns and villages were closed.

This strenuous policy produced both good and bad results. It fulfilled its immediate purpose of obtaining the grain. But it left an unmistakable spirit of smoldering bitterness not only among the kulaks, but among all peasants who had any surplus grain to lose. The Central Committee of the Communist Party, meeting in plenary session in July 1928, decided that while the "extraordinary measures" had served their purpose of overcoming a crisis of grain supply it would be inadvisable to erect them into a permanent system. So it was agreed that future grain purchases should be voluntary, that there should be no more compulsion to subscribe to state loans, and that the peasants, as a further stimulus, should receive a fifteen percent increase in prices paid for their grain. At the same time it was declared that the offensive against the kulak must go on and that more attention must be paid to stimulating socialist and collectivist forms of agriculture, in the form of sovhozes (state farms) and kolhozes (farms organized by coöperative groups of peasants). The following plenary session of the Central Committee, which took place in November, did not reflect any very substantial change from the position of July; its long resolution on agriculture advocated the policy of simultaneously encouraging collective and individualist forms of farming.

According to figures which are to be found in the resolution of the November session of the Party Central Committee, the Soviet Union to-day has only 90 percent of the pre-war area under grain cultivation, 80 percent of the pre-war grain production, and 56 percent of the pre-war amount of marketable grain. And this with a population which is already more than ten percent greater than in pre-war times and is growing rapidly, especially in the cities! In the light of these figures it is easy to realize why white bread has vanished from the Russian cities and why the huge building in Moscow which displays the sign "State Grain-Exporting Company" somehow conveys an ironical suggestion.

The situation with the so-called "technical cultures" -- flax, hemp, cotton, tobacco, sugar-beets, etc. -- is somewhat better, but still far from satisfactory. The area under cultivation is estimated at 58.5 percent higher than the pre-war figure, but the yield per acre has declined, as compared with the pre-war level, in the following substantial proportions: cotton, 25 percent; flax, 32 percent; hemp, 15 percent; sugar-beets, 10 percent.[iii]

This same decline in yield is noticeable in the case of grain, where 90 percent of the pre-war acreage yields only 80 percent of the pre-war crop. This fact is all the more ominous because, despite the large belts of rich black earth in various parts of the Soviet Union, Russian peasant agriculture has always been notoriously backward.

What are the causes for these marked declines? The change in the system of land-ownership is undoubtedly an important factor in diminishing the supply of grain available for sale and export. Before the war the big estates of the pomyeschiks and the large farms of the kulaks produced about three-quarters of the marketable grain. The middle class and poor peasants produced between them little more than was needed for their own consumption. The agrarian revolution has annihilated the big landlords and reduced substantially the productive capacity of the kulaks. Whereas the landlords before the war are estimated to have supplied to the market over four and a half million tons of grain and the kulaks almost eleven million, the Soviet state farms in the year 1926-27 produced only about six hundred thousand tons of marketable grain and the kulaks about two million. The surplus production of the poor and middle class peasants has increased somewhat, but not nearly enough to compensate for the sweeping reduction in the number of large scale farms.

The marked tendency of Russian farms to split up into smaller and smaller units is another unfavorable element in the situation. There are now from 25,000,000 to 27,000,000 homesteads in the Soviet Union, as against 16,000,000 before the Revolution. This is attributable partly to increased population, partly to the unwillingness of younger peasant families to go on living with their parents, and partly to the desire to escape taxation, which falls more heavily on larger and richer homesteads.

The Soviet "class policy" of crushing the rich and favoring the poor peasants is not the least of the factors which account for the decline in grain production and the lowered yield per acre. The Soviet land system keeps far more land in the hands of incapable farmers than would be the case if free trade in land were permitted and no artificial restrictions were placed in the way of the growth of the kulak. Mr. Y. A. Kakovlev, Vice-Commissar for Workers' and Peasants' Inspection and editor of the Peasants' Gazette, has published in his little book "Za Kolhozi" ("For Collective Farms") a series of charts illustrating the productivity and cost of production in various types of peasant homesteads. Here one finds that the poor peasant in Pskov Province averages 8.2 poods (a pood is equal to 36 English pounds) of flax to a dessiatine, while his richer neighbor, working on the same soil, gets 15.2. The poor peasant in Kiev gets 26 poods of rye to the kulak's 50.9. Constant harrying of the kulak may be good politics, good Communist ethics or good Marxism; but the figures show that it is not good agricultural production.

The Communists are really confronted with their most difficult dilemma when they face the problem of how to deal with the individual peasant producer, whose disappearance was predicted by Marx, but who is still here in Russia, 25,000,000 homesteads strong. If the present policy -- merely cutting down the peasant who raises himself a little above his fellows -- were to continue, the outlook for the future of Russian agriculture would be dark indeed. It would almost inevitably remain on a low level, with little surplus production; and both the foreign trade and the industrial development of the country would correspondingly suffer.

But the Communists are determined that things shall not remain as they are. They see an outlet in the large-scale collectivization of agriculture through the agency of state and collective farms. They argue that giving the kulak a free hand in the village would not only destroy the prospect of building up in Russia a genuine socialist state, but would also be disadvantageous to the masses of the peasantry, because for every strong farmer who would emerge under a laissez-faire agrarian policy several poor and middle class peasants would go completely to the wall.

The Communist with an eye of faith sees the present Russian peasant villages -- with their tiny holdings, divided into uneconomic strips and patches of land, their primitive implements and their backward farming methods -- transformed into big state or coöperative productive units, equipped with tractors and the best modern machinery and turning out harvests comparable with those of Western Europe and America. It is a long road, however, to the realization of this dream. At the present time the state and coöperative farms (sovhozes and kolhozes) are mere islands in the sea of individual peasant homesteads. The Soviet Union now has 32,500 coöperative farms, with 375,377 families and 1.15 percent of the total planted area, and 4,794 state farms, with 126,076 workers and employees and 1.27 percent of the total planted area.[iv]

The sovhoz is managed, in principle, like the state factory. It is a fairly large tract of land, usually a former pomyeschik estate, which the government succeeded in salvaging in the midst of the orgy of peasant land seizure. Its workers are paid wages, like factory workers, and the proceeds of the enterprise, if there are any, belong to the state. It is supposed to be a model farm and is sometimes operated in connection with an agricultural experimental station. Financially these state farms have not been successful, their total losses up to January 1, 1928, being estimated at eight million rubles.[v] However, their advocates contend that their book losses in some cases are due to the fact that they furnish the neighboring peasants with valuable agricultural aid at moderate rates.

Quite different in character is the kolhoz, or collective farm. It is an association of peasants who decide to pool their land and work it in common. These collective farms are strongly encouraged by the Government and receive first consideration in the allotment of land and credits. They are of three types: communes, where the members live together and share the proceeds of their labor equally; artels, where they live together, but are paid according to labor; and the looser tovarischestvos, or coöperative groups, in which the members band together to work the land but usually retain their own homes. It is this loosest form of association which is most common. The chief obstacles to the spread of coöperative farming are psychological. Again and again I have heard peasants express the fear that in a collective farm they would become involved in constant family quarrels and that they would have no guarantee against lazier members of the group who would try to live on the labor of the others. A system of payment according to work performed has been introduced in most of the coöperative farms; but the peasant's instinctive fondness for "his own" farm, for his own land and chickens and pigs and geese remains and is not easy to overcome.

The struggle between old and new forms in the village is by no means peaceful. The "extraordinary measures" of grain requisition and the heavy taxation collected in the autumn of 1928 left their heritage of rankling bitterness, especially among the more prosperous peasants. Attacks upon Communists and active Soviet agents in the villages became increasingly frequent during the latter part of 1928; and from August 15 until October 15 there were 44 murders of village officials and correspondents,[vii] besides 33 attempted murders and numerous burnings of houses of individuals and property of the newly formed coöperative farms, which are a special object of antipathy to the richer peasants. The Soviet authorities retaliated by treating these village murders and attacks as counter-revolutionary crimes and shooting a number of persons implicated in them. In as much as Soviet agrarian policy, especially since the Fifteenth Party Congress, is avowedly designed to repress the rich and to help the poor, one may wonder why its application has provoked so many murderous assaults in the country districts. There are few Russian villages where the poor peasants do not outnumber the rich ones by ten to one.

The issue of this contact of Karl Marx with the Peasant Sphinx, this daring attempt to turn grandsons of serfs into practical communists, equipped with the most modern machinery, depends on so many factors that one hesitates to venture a prophecy. It depends on the stubbornness with which the present agrarian policy is carried out, on the tenacity of the resistance of the more prosperous peasants, on the success of the still experimental state and collective forms of large-scale farming, on the ability of the cities and the industries to weather the informal internal blockade which the discontented part of the peasantry is consciously or unconsciously attempting to impose. Whatever the issue, the effort to extend socialism from industry to agriculture, to end the chronic dualism of the collectivist city and the individualist countryside, is the most absorbing and most important episode of the Russian revolutionary drama.

[i] See "Control Figures of National Economic Life," pp. 494-495, published in Moscow in 1928 by the State Planning Commission.

[ii] The following tables of percentages, showing the distribution of working animals among the peasants of Russia proper, without certain Asiatic and Caucasian regions, were supplied to the writer by the Commissariat for Agriculture.

1924 1925 1926
Without working cattle 31.0 30.6 30.4
With one head 51.4 52.3 50.2
With two head 12.5 12.4 13.8
With three head 3.1 2.9 3.5
With four or more 2.0 1.8 2.1
Later figures were unobtainable; but the process of change is obviously very slow.

[iii] See Rabochaya Gazeta for Nov. 3, 1928.

[iv] These figures were furnished to the writer by the Soviet Central Statistical Department.

[v] See article of K. Kindeev, in Pravda, September 29, 1928.

[vii] See Pravda, Oct. 27, 1928.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now