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Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russia Village after Collectivization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


The term "Stalin's Peasants" in the title of this book is patronizing, but not on author Fitzpatrick's part. It was an aspect of the Uncle Joe's image Stalin liked to use as his public persona while authorizing monstrous acts. Fitzpatrick, a scholar based at the University of Chicago, who has had access to Russian archives, has searched through recently available records to open the experience of the rural people of Russia--including many ethnic Germans--across the 1930s. This was the period of collectivization, a messy process that happened fast, at least on paper.

Stalin and other communist leaders worked from a view centered in a primal hatred of the prosperous peasants they called kulaks, a grating word that meant fist. They sent out callous city gangs whose mission was to force collectivization onto the countryside, beginning with the destruction of the livelihoods and often the lives of Russia's best food producers. Their method was to steal every last kernel of grain, including seed grain, lead away livestock to the collective farms, where many of the now-neglected animals died, requisition horses for military use, lock up the churches, cart off bells and metal in the icons for recycling, and deport the best workers to the north. Stalin had a general disdain of peasants as being backward even as he saw them as a threatening, recalcitrant lot, best dealt with by coercion of the harshest kind. This included, in addition to the above, starvation, deportation, summary execution, and (at least initially) deprivation of the passports given to city workers. Communism's twisted philosophy had a relative view of wealth that demanded production while it found the producer threatening.

The survivors of the first onslaught (usually bedniaks, lower-class peasants) were forced onto collective farms where life often seemed little better than the serfdom that had been abolished in 1861. Called kolkhozes, these were at first mostly coterminous with the old villages, which had always been communal in nature. Each kolkhoz was arm-twisted into formally accepting production quotas. (The communists always insisted on outward democratic forms, though the reason is not clear.) Later, villages were clumped together. Then committees redrew lines, often without bothering to look at the land itself. Sometimes land boundaries were redrawn repeatedly until nobody knew which land was theirs. Workers in one kolkhoz complained that they had to cross several ravines to get to their assigned land. Agricultural machinery was housed in a central facility called a Machine-Tractor Station, which was also a center of political influence in the countryside, so was not readily available when it was needed.

A second type of agricultural setup was the state farm, a variation on the collective, in which people were hired in the same way as factory workers. Working and living conditions on the state farms were dismal, food, eaten in a single hall, was terrible, and the workers had no individual plots or ownership in the outcome of the harvest.

A third kind of farmer, who existed for awhile, was the independent farmer, who was assessed individual quotas. Persons in this category had freedoms the others did not have but were often required to deliver specified amounts of milk and meat even when they did not own animals.

Just when collectivization seemed a done deal, Stalin wrote an article titled "Dizzy with Success," in which he accused the collectivizers of being overzealous (a common tactic of his). Thousands of peasants withdrew from the collectives and became independent farmers again. Nomadic peoples, who had been forced to settle on collective farms, simply packed up and moved, as they had always done.

Stalin and his fellow ideologues focused on the wellbeing of the workers in the cities, believing it most expedient that the peasants be forced to pay for his first five year plan, begun in 1929/1930, which called for rapid industrialization. With a slight shift in thinking, he could have dubbed the peasants Workers, along with the city folk, honored producers of the huge amounts of grain, meat, and other foods needed by those laboring in industry. Even while they had little regard for the lives of the peasants, the communist leaders believed that there was a huge surplus population in the countryside which could be siphoned off to work in the mines, factories, and the military. Young men left and heavy work increasingly fell to women.

Part of the fuzzy policy-making, Fitzpatrick believes, was a test to see what the system could bear. When real famine occurred in 1932-33, the communists took little interest in it. They reacted by limiting migration to the cities where starving peasants sought food, publishing articles about distress in every part of the world but their own, and generally explaining away the dying that roamed the countryside. They would monitor every commune that seemed to be functioning well for evidence that the inhabitants were reverting to the old mir system, governing themselves as before.

But Fitzpatrick does not see just communist bad guys and peasant good guys. She recognizes human nature and notes that the peasants exacted the common revenge of the powerless. Some saw the opportunity to get even for old grudges. She observes that the peasants had always been ambivalent about their churches, even while they supported the clergy far better than they ever supported schools and teachers. (The peasants may have, in effect, taught the communists how to behave against the clergy.) Peasants wrangled endlessly, stole from the communes, destroyed equipment, butchered livestock about to be taken, terrorized the new leaders and teachers, hid grain from the requisitioners, and disrupted meetings by creating disturbances, especially just before a vote was to be taken (more communist insistence on outwardly democratic forms). They dragged their feet and refused to produce the food that, they reasoned, would be wrested from them with only token payment anyhow. They learned from the communists who lectured them at endless meetings. Most who gained even a modicum of education, such as training as a tractor driver, fled the villages to seek work in industry. They informed on and denounced each other and hid their kulak origins as long as they could. Many realized that, if they were to survive, they had to act aggressively in the midst of what was for them a state of siege.

An unexpected and interesting part of this pushing-back process was the letter-writing. Peasants wrote tens of thousands of letters to government officials, complaining of what was happening and making demands and suggestions. Someone had been incorrectly classified; a local official had abused a worker; a neighbor was hiding grain. Fitzpatrick was able to read many of these letters, and she occasionally quotes from them. They provide insight into the thinking and experiences of the persons caught up in the turmoil in the countryside. More often than one would think, the letters were read in Moscow and individual peasants received redress of wrongs.

Fitzpatrick does not mention the ethnic identification of peasants very often, but again and again, areas that, she says, were most troublesome to the communists were the parts of the country where the largest number of German villages existed. These areas were where the largest amounts of grain had been initially requisitioned and which now produced little; the areas in which the largest percentage of the villagers were kulaks.

Very often, whole histories of the 1930s describe the experiences of the rural people of Russia in generalities, dismissing their plight in a sentence or a few paragraphs at most. Now, thanks to the work of scholars such as Robert Conquest Sheila Fitzpatrick, Ingeborg Fleischhauer, and others, we know more than scattered anecdotes. "Stalin's Peasants," which included many Germans with their traditional faiths and work ethic, had one heck of a time of it.

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