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Russian Peasants

Russian Peasants

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In 1861 Alexander II issued his Emancipation Manifesto that proposed 17 legislative acts that would free the serfs in Russia. Alexander announced that personal serfdom would be abolished and all peasants would be able to buy land from their landlords. The State would advance the the money to the landlords and would recover it from the peasants in 49 annual sums known as redemption payments.

Alexander's reforms did not satisfy liberals and radicals who wanted a parliamentary democracy and the freedom of expression that was enjoyed in the United States and most other European states. The reforms in agricultural also disappointed the peasants. In some regions it took peasants nearly 20 years to obtain their land. Many were forced to pay more than the land was worth and others were given inadequate amounts for their needs.

By 1900 around 85 per cent of the Russian people lived in the countryside and earned their living from agriculture. The nobility still owned the best land and the vast majority of peasants lived in extreme poverty.

To give the land (to the serfs) meant to ruin the nobility, and to give freedom without land meant to ruin the peasantry. The state treasury impoverished by the vast expenses of war, could not afford to indemnify either party. There lay the problem. Could the serfs made to pay for their freedom? Could the serf-owners be granted loans on the security of their estates? Would not twenty-two million slaves suddenly set free combine to take matters into their own hands.

The position of most large landowners was this. They lived in St. Petersburg or some other great city. They did not farm their estates. They had stewards who administered their property and collected their revenue. They had numbers of serfs paying a handsome annual tribute for their partial freedom, a tribute which the landowners' agents strove incessantly to increase. It was their slaves rather than their land which brought them income.

From 1840 onwards, the need for serious reform does begin to be apparent: agricultural production is poor, grain exports low, the growth of manufacturing industry slowed down through the shortage of labour; capitalist development is being impeded through aristocracy and serfdom.

It is a perilous situation, which is given a fairly astute solution in the act of "liberation" of 19th February 1861, abolishing serfdom. With a population of sixty-seven million, Russia had twenty-three million serfs belonging to 103,000 landlords. The arable land which the freed peasantry had to rent or buy was valued at about double its real value (342 million roubles instead of 180 million); yesterday's serfs discovered that, in becoming free, they were now hopelessly in debt.

On our first day, we joined the other women workers in some pretty filthy work: shearing sheep. We performed this monotonous task in a large covered shed, saturated with the smell of sheep. Some of us sheared, while others picked burrs and all sorts of trash that had gotten caught in the wool.

We were soon transferred from the foul shed to a distant work site in the broad steppe, the realm of green fields. We were assigned to hay mowing.

At four in the morning, as the sun's rays were just beginning to spill over the steppe, the overseer would wake us, kicking the legs of those who wouldn't get up immediately. At the camp, the steward assigned us to the various sectors. In the morning, we froze from the bitterly cold dew, which drenched our clothing up to the waist. Staggering along, still half asleep, we worked as automatically as robots, gradually warming up a bit.

At ten, we returned to camp for breakfast, which lasted around half an hour. Despite the camp hubbub, some people preferred to nap instead of eating. Our food was of rather poor quality - very plain and unappetizing. In the morning, they cooked us a watery gruel made from wheat and water with a dose of salt, or buckwheat dumplings as big as cobblestones - one or two of these would satisfy the hunger of even the greatest glutton. The meal was poured into a wooden trough, from which you'd pull the dumplings with long, pointed splinters. We got the same modest fare for lunch and dinner.

After our brief breakfast, we returned to work. As the day wore on, the heat became so intense that you wanted to take shelter in any available patch of shade. The sun was so strong that the backs of most of the newly arrived vagabonds were practically covered with swollen blisters; later, as their skin toughened up, the burns went away. We women were often so exhausted from the heat that we lost much of our modesty: when we reaped and bound the hay, we wore only our shirts, since that made it a lot easier to work.

During the busy season, there were no set limits to the work day: if the steward wished, it could last for sixteen hours or more, with only an hour off for lunch. Actually, the work itself was lively and gay, although Galina and I found it difficult and alien.

In the evening, after the sun had set, we returned to camp. The fire would be going and dinner waiting. Some people filled their stomachs with the plain, unsatisfying food and fell asleep on the spot, scattered around camp. Everyone slept under the open sky, harassed by mosquitoes and subject to the bites of other enemies as well: the black spiders, whose venom could make your whole body swell up.

At first, people found it rather strange to hear ordinary girls - manual labourers like themselves - speak of many things they'd never heard or even thought about. They became most interested when the conversation touched upon the land: this immensely important topic was dear to every heart. Everyone was united on this issue; they all felt the need for land most acutely, and this provided us a way to reach even the simplest peasant.

However, we didn't actually conduct socialist propaganda; it was clear that we were still an alien, incomprehensible element in a world we scarcely knew.

Of course, our difficulties were compounded by the repressive political system of Russia and the peasants' own fear. They reacted to all radical talk with caution, distrust, and sometimes the most natural incomprehension. Frequently our evening talks ended with the peasants saying: "That's our fate - so it's been written", or, "We're born - we'll die."

In fact, we were rarely able to talk at all: after the day's work, our limbs shrieked with weariness, our exhausted bodies demanded rest and peace.

My father and mother lived out their hard-working lives with some friction, but very happily on the whole. Of the eight children born of this marriage, four survived. I was the fifth in order of birth. Four died in infancy, of diphtheria and of scarlet fever, deaths almost as unnoticed as was the life of those who survived. The land, the cattle, the poultry, the mill, took all my parents' time; there was none left for us.

We lived in a little mud house. The straw roof harboured countless sparrows' nests under the eaves. The walls on the outside were seamed with deep cracks which were a breeding place for adders. The low ceilings leaked during a heavy rain, especially in the hall, and pots and basins would be placed on the dirt floor to catch the water. The rooms were small, the windows dim; the floors in the two rooms and the nursery were of clay and bred fleas.

On the hill above the pond stood the mill - a wooden shed which sheltered a ten-horse-power steam-engine and two millstones. Here, during the first years of my childhood, my mother spent the greater part of her working hours. The mill worked not only for our own estate but for the whole neighbourhood as well. The peasants brought their grain in from ten and fifteen miles around and paid a tenth measure for the grinding.

Our cooperative store has still quite a stock of goods, and the steadier peasants all belong. We have eighteen hundred members now. Each paid five roubles to buy a share. There were six thousand purchasers last year; and because we charge higher prices to outsiders than to members, so many more peasants wish to join that we are almost ready to announce a second issue of stock.

Of course, our progress has been blocked by the war and the revolution. Goods have gone up to ruinous rates. Already we are nearly out of horseshoes, axes, harrows, ploughs. Last spring we had not ploughs enough to do the needed ploughing, and that is why our crop is short. There is not enough rye in the district to take us through the winter, let alone to feed the towns. And so the town people will starve for awhile - and sooner or later, I suppose, they will finish with their wrangling, start their mills and factories, and turn out the ploughs and tools we need.

Just take a trip to Petrograd. Go to any railroad siding there and you will see perfect hills of scrap iron. Why can't they melt it up again and out it to use? Soon we shall have no axles left, no tyres for our wagon wheels, no chains for the logs, no ploughs for the fields, no horseshoes for our horses! But still they do nothing! The blind fools! The trouble with those people is that they think all the best things are made in the cities. It is not so. Here we grow the flax and grain; here we raise the meat they eat, and the wool to keep them warm; we cut trees to build their houses and firewood to heat their stoves. Thy could not even cook without us! Other country districts turn out the coal and the iron ore. All the real things in Russia are done in the villages. What kind of crops do they raise in the towns? Only Grand Dukes, Bolsheviks and drunkards!

Peasant uprisings

Opposition and resistance to the Bolshevik regime was not confined to the cities or military garrisons like Kronstadt. There were dozens of peasant uprisings around Soviet Russia during and after the Russian Civil War. One official report from the Cheka, dated February 1921, numbered these uprisings at 118.

Trouble in Tambov

The largest of these peasant uprisings occurred in Tambov in 1920-21. Tambov was an agricultural province, located several hundred miles south-west of Moscow.

During the Civil War, the Tambov peasants had opposed the Whites – but this did not make them supporters of the Bolsheviks. Tambov’s farmers had long been dissatisfied with Bolshevik policies, particularly grain requisitioning. This dissatisfaction grew through 1920, culminating in the formation of a political group called the Union of Toiling Peasants (UTP).

The UTP quickly grew in popularity. In December 1920, it issued a manifesto calling for political equality, land reform, an end to the civil war and various liberal reforms.

The Antonovschina

The UTP was led by Alexander Antonov, a former Socialist-Revolutionary who had served as a police officer under the Provisional Government before reverting to terrorism and assassinations against Bolshevik targets.

By late 1920, Antonov had formed a cavalry force of several thousand men which attacked Bolshevik strongholds around Tambov province. His ultimate goal though was to drive the Bolsheviks from Moscow.

By 1921, Antonov’s army had more than 20,000 men, as well as supplies, weapons, an organised hierarchy and its own uniforms. His troops were sometimes referred to as the Blue Army, to distinguish themselves from the Bolshevik Red Army, the counter-revolutionary White Army and the Ukrainian-nationalist Green Army.

The Bolshevik response

Publicly, the Bolshevik hierarchy dismissed the legitimacy of the Tambov uprising. They declared the Tambov army to be nothing more than a rabble comprised of “bandits” or kulaks.

The Bolsheviks rejected the manifesto of the UTP as propaganda written by the self-serving Antonov, who was the real architect of the Tambov revolt (Lenin went so far as to call their rebellion the “Antonovschina”).

Privately, the Bolsheviks recognised the great threat that the Tambov army posed to Moscow. They took stern measures to quell the revolt.

Brutal suppression

Some of the Red Army’s most experienced commanders and battalions were summoned to the region, including a combat-hardened division led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky. They were accompanied by Cheka units, some containing Chinese ‘internationalists’ who had been recruited from the east, units known for their ruthlessness and brutality.

In total, more than 100,000 Red troops were sent into Tambov, carrying orders to shoot all suspected rebels to use poison gas to flush them out of hiding places in the forest to construct concentration camps and capture civilian hostages.

These tactics were brutal and indiscriminate but they worked. By mid-1921, the uprising had been suppressed. Antonov evaded capture until 1922 when he was killed during an arrest attempt.

Other uprisings

Tambov was the largest peasant uprising but there were numerous others across Russia during the first years of the Soviet republic. These uprisings were often spontaneous and formed in opposition to war communism.

In October 1918, several thousand Tatar peasants in rural areas of Kazan province rebelled against Soviet grain requisitioning. This uprising was suppressed by the Red Army in mid-November with around 30 deaths.

A much larger peasant rebellion broke out in Ufa in February 1920. Again, the impetus for this uprising was food requisitioning, which locals resisted by detaining and executing Bolshevik officials. The ‘Black Eagle’ or ‘Pitchfork Rebels’, as they became known, were defeated by Cheka paramilitary units in March 1921.

Peasants twice rebelled against Soviet rule in Altai Krai and Sorokino in south-western Siberia, first in mid-1920 then again the following year. These rebels had support from former White officers and local anarchists but were eventually overrun by the Red Army.

A historian’s view:
“At the height of the Antonov rebellion… popular sympathy for the cause of the rebellion extended well beyond the immediate control of the Partisan Army. Yet no one in Tambov lamented the death of the ‘hero’ Alexander Antonov in 1922, and the partisan leader did not survive in popular folk culture or local mythology… If the rebellion is remembered at all, it is as a tragedy in which countless innocent lives were lost, an episode in a wider tragedy of revolution and civil war in Russia.”
Erik C. Landis

1. Opposition to Bolshevik rule was not confined to the cities or the military. There were also dozens of regional and peasant uprising during the after the Civil War.

2. The largest of these uprisings occurred in the Tambov region, where a former SR named Alexander Antonov headed a group called the Union of Toiling Peasants (UTP).

3. By early 1921, Antonov had formed a large force dubbed the ‘Blue Army’ to resist the Bolsheviks. They were eventually defeated by a much larger Red Army force.

4. Despite its size and organisation, the Bolsheviks disregarded the Tambov uprising as the work of a self-serving bandit, dubbing it the Anotonovschina.

5. There were numerous other peasant rebellions and uprisings during the Russian Civil War, most formed in response to the Bolshevik policy of grain requisitioning.

Russian Peasants - History

By the 1860s, peasants throughout the empire lived in a variety of different circumstances with an accompanying diverse set of legal requirements, but in most cases peasants lived in some form of communal organization. Let's cover some of the terminology.

The mir (мир) was usually used to denote a local, self-governing peasant community at the village level. According to Stephan Merl, in the Encyclopedia of Russian History, vol. 3, pp. 948-49, "the village community formed the world for the peasants where they tried to keep a peaceful society." Merl noted that the mir was a "spontaneously-generated peasant organization" that stretched back in history as far, perhaps, as the eleventh century. By the nineteenth century, the duties of the mir included control of common land and forests, levying recruits for military service, imposing punishments for minor crimes, and collecting and apportioning taxes by the members. To make sure that taxes were equitable, as well as to insure that each peasant household had a sufficient minimal standard-of-living, the mir periodically redistributed the arable land among the households.

The village assembly (the skhod) made all decisions. The assembly was run by the heads of the individual families, i.e., the oldest men, who elected a single elder to represent the village community. Since age tended to be respected, the assembly was generally a very conservative body, frowning upon any ideas of innovation. After the emancipation, the government basically expected the assembly to to take over responsibilities previously held by the landlord and maintain order in the village.

The obshchina (община) is another term that you will often see used to refer to peasant communities in imperial Russia. The word "obshchina" is a bit difficult to translate, but it is generally taken to mean either "community" or "commune." According to Merl, the word obshchina really derived from the 1830s when it was used by the Slavophiles to focus more specifically on the land redistribution function of the village community. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the terms obshchina and mir had become essentially interchangeable.

Thus, it is important to remember that by the terms of the emancipation, the land was given to the mir/obshchina not to individual peasants. This meant that the conservative nature of the mir tended to prevent any improvements in agricultural methods. The village assembly decided what crops to grow and regulated crop rotation according to time-proven methods. (See the diagram below.) Because of the nature of the commune holding in which an individual household was given strips of land scattered across the arable land holdings of the commune, all farm work had to be done in common sewing, reaping, tilling, fertilizing all had to be done at the same time in the same manner. In other words, it did not work for you to plant potatoes on your strip of land in one field while everyone else around you planted wheat. The farms animals and machinery available also meant that everyone had to do the same thing, which tended to be the traditional bare minimum. There was absolutely no incentive to try and improve a particular set of strips because those holdings could always be repartioned to another household.

Illustration of what a Russian peasant commune might have looked like.

There are some other terms that you might run into that deal with peasant life in the Russian empire. The "pozemel'naia obshchina" basically just means the repartional commune. A selo (cело) is a "village," which can also be called a derevnia (деревня), and a muzhik (mужик) is a Russian peasant. Thus, it would not be unusual to refer to a peasant village/commune/community as a mir, an obshchina, or a selo.


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Kulak, (Russian: “fist”), in Russian and Soviet history, a wealthy or prosperous peasant, generally characterized as one who owned a relatively large farm and several head of cattle and horses and who was financially capable of employing hired labour and leasing land. Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, the kulaks were major figures in the peasant villages. They often lent money, provided mortgages, and played central roles in the villages’ social and administrative affairs.

During the War Communism period (1918–21), the Soviet government undermined the kulaks’ position by organizing committees of poor peasants to administer the villages and to supervise the requisitioning of grain from the richer peasants. But the introduction in 1921 of the New Economic Policy favoured the kulaks. Although the Soviet government considered the kulaks to be capitalists and, therefore, enemies of socialism, it adopted various incentives to encourage peasants to increase agricultural production and enrich themselves. The most successful peasants (less than 4 percent) became kulaks and assumed traditional roles in the village social structure, often rivaling the authority of the new Soviet officials in village affairs.

In 1927 the Soviet government began to shift its peasant policy by increasing the kulaks’ taxes and restricting their right to lease land in 1929 it began a drive for rapid collectivization of agriculture. The kulaks vigorously opposed the efforts to force the peasants to give up their small privately owned farms and join large cooperative agricultural establishments. At the end of 1929 a campaign to “liquidate the kulaks as a class” (“dekulakization”) was launched by the government. By 1934, when approximately 75 percent of the farms in the Soviet Union had been collectivized, most kulaks—as well as millions of other peasants who had opposed collectivization—had been deported to remote regions of the Soviet Union or arrested and their land and property confiscated.

Urban-Rural Divide

The rural revolutions exposed the national and regional authorities’ powerlessness. Neither the Provisional Government nor the Petrograd Soviet addressed peasant concerns and demands. They asked the rural population to wait patiently for the Constituent Assembly to enact land redistribution.

Peasants largely ignored these appeals, and the central government couldn’t prevent their actions. Regional authorities started 1917 with the belief that rural revolutions emerged from misunderstandings and assumed that conciliation and education would halt disturbances. By that summer, the self-conscious assertiveness of rural communities who sought to make their own revolutions without recourse to central plans had eroded these beliefs.

Regional authorities increasingly relied on armed force to control rural areas. A handful of more perceptive leaders tried to control the peasantry by preemptively authorizing the transfer of privately held land to local committees. But the uprisings continued unabated because no central or regional power could implement any policy.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, Lenin quickly issued the Decree on Land, which transferred all privately held land to peasant use. Ironically, this order demonstrated the central government’s impotence, as peasants had already seized most private land by October. Lenin’s land decree presaged the battle for control of the rural economy that became a key feature of Russia’s civil war.

The history of Russia’s rural revolution is still being uncovered, and what we do know of it makes for a far richer view of Russia in 1917.

Russian Peasant Multiplication

Ogilvy and Andersen, in their excellent book Excursions in Number Theory , recount the true story of an Austrian colonel who wanted to buy seven bulls in a remote part of Ethiopia some sixty or so years ago. Although the price of a single bull was set at 22 Maria Theresa dollars, no one present could work out the total cost of the seven bulls — and the peasants, being peasants, didn’t trust the would-be buyer to do the calculation himself. Eventually the priest of a neighbouring village and his helper were called in.
“The priest and his boy helper began to dig a series of holes in the ground, each about the size of a teacup. These holes were ranged in two parallel columns my interpreter said they were called houses. The priest’s boy had a bag full of little pebbles. Into the first cup of the first column he put seven stones (one for each bull), and twenty-two pebbles into the first cup of the second column. It was explained to me that the first column was used for doubling that is, twice the number of pebbles in the first house are placed in the second, then twice that number in the third, and so on. The second column is for halving: half the number of pebbles in the first cup are placed in the second, and so on down until there is just one pebble in the last cup. If there is a pebble remaining when doing the halving it is thrown away.
The division column (the right one) is then examined for odd or even numbers of pebbles in the cups. All even houses are considered to be evil ones, all odd houses good. Whenever an evil house is discovered (marked in bold), the pebbles in it are thrown out and not counted, and the pebbles in the corresponding ‘doubling’ column are also thrown out. All pebbles left in the cups of the left, ‘doubling’ column are then counted, and the total is the answer.”
from Ogilvy & Andersen, Excursions in Number Theory

The working on paper would be as follows :

Doubling Column Halving Column

7 22
14 11
28 5
56 2
112 1

The priest worked out the result using holes and pebbles in the way I have demonstrated though instead of using different coloured beans the helper simply removed the stones from right-hand holes opposite ones with an even number in them. The colonel duly paid up, astounded to note that the crazy system ‘gave the right answer’.
Let us go further back in time. We suppose that a ‘primitive’ society had grasped the principle of numerical symbolism at the most rudimentary level, namely that a chosen single object such as a shell or bean could be used to represent a single different object, such as a tree or a man and that clusters of men or trees could be represented by appropriate clusters of shells — the ‘appropriateness’ to be checked by the time-honoured method of ‘pairing off’. This society has not, however, necessarily attained the stage of realizing that a single ‘one-symbol’ will do for every singleton, let alone reaching the stage of evolving a base such as our base ten. Now suppose the chief wants each of the villages in a certain area to provide ‘nyaal’ or
□ □ □ □ □ □ □ young men for some public works or warlike purpose. We have nyata’ or □ □ □ □ □ □ villages from which to draw the task force. The chief relies on two shamans to carry out numerical calculations, both of whom are adept in the practice of ‘pairing off’ but one has specialized in ‘doubling’ imaginary or actual quantities, the other in ‘halving’ imaginary or actual quantities. Although both shamans know that every quantity can be doubled, the ‘halving’ shaman knows that this procedure does not always work in reverse. He gets round this by simply throwing away the extra bean or shell — the equivalent of our ‘rounding off’ a quantity to a certain number of decimal places.
The ‘halving shaman’ works with a column of holes on the left hand side of a ‘numbering area’ (a flat piece of ground with holes in it) and he has a store of short sticks, shells or some other common object, which he places in the holes, or simply in a cluster on the ground. The doubling shaman works with a similar column of holes on the right but he has a store of beans or shells which are in two colours, light and dark. (The use of colour to distinguish two different types of quantities, or to distinguish between males and females, was the invention of a revered shaman who taught the two current shamans.)
The halving shaman sets out the sticks or shells representing the villages and tries, if possible, to have two matching rows. The doubling shaman watches carefully and, if the amount on the left can be arranged in two rows exactly, as in this case, he starts off with a set of dark coloured beans to represent the young men to be co-opted for the task at hand from each village. We thus have

Villages Young males

□ □ □ ■ ■ ■ ■
□ □ □ ■ ■ ■

Now the Halving Shaman selects half the quantity in the first hole, i.e. a single row of □ □ □, and arranges it as evenly as possible in two rows. In this case, there is a bean left over, and the Doubling Shaman, noticing this, doubles the original amount on the right but also changes the colour of the beans. We have

□ □ □ □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □

The Halving Shaman discards the extra unit on the second line of my diagram and once again halves what is left. This leaves just a single bean and, since we are not allowed to split a bean or shell, this signals the end of the procedure as far as he is concerned. The Doubling Shaman doubles his quantity and since the quantity on the left is ‘odd’ — it cannot be arranged in two matching rows — he once again chooses light coloured beans.

□ □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □

The two shamans collaborate to combine all the light coloured beans (but not the dark coloured ones) on the right hand side, giving a total of

□ □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □

□ □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □
□ □ □ □ □ □

The chief is given this amount of beans and thus knows how many young men he can expect to get for the task at hand. From experience, the chief will have a pretty good idea of what this collection of beans represents in terms of men and, if it seems inadequate for the task, may decide to increase the quota of young men impressed from each village. When preparing for battle, the chief might use human beings as counters, pair them off against the beans, then have them form square formations to judge whether he has a large enough army or raiding force.
If asked by a time traveller why the dark-coloured beans — which are always opposite an even number — are rejected, the Doubling Shaman would probably say that even amounts are female (because of breasts) and the chief doesn’t want effeminate men or boys who are still living with their mothers.

The multiplicative system just demonstrated is very ancient indeed : it is probably the very earliest mathematical system worthy of the name and was doubtless invented, reinvented and forgotten innumerable times throughout human history. Since it does not require any form of writing and involves only three operations, pairing off, halving and doubling, which are both easy to carry out and are not troublesome conceptually, the system remained extremely popular with peasants the world over and became known as Russian Multiplication because, until recently, Russia was the European country with by far the largest proportion of innumerate and illiterate peasants. It is actually such a good method that I have seriously considered using it myself , at any rate as a visual aid in doing mental arithmetic — it is one of the tools employed by traditional ‘lightning calculators’ and mathematical idiots savants.
Actually, one could say that the three mathematical procedures predate not only the earliest tribal societies but even the existence of animals ! Viruses, the lowest form of ‘life’ — if indeed they are to be considered alive at all which is still a matter of debate — are incapable of doubling, i.e. cannot reproduce, let alone halving and have to get the DNA of another cell to do the work for them. They may be considered capable of ‘pairing off’ however, since a virus seeks out the nucleus of a cell on the basis of one virus, one nucleus. Bacteria, a much more advanced life form, reproduce by mitosis, essentially duplicating everything within the cell and splitting in two, the ‘daughter’ cell being an exact replica (clone) of the ‘mother’ cell. Each prokaryotic cell is diploid, i.e. has a double complement of chromosomes, and this (even) number cannot be changed — it is 2(23) = 46 in humans. Eukaryotes, however, though still capable of pairing off and reproducing by mitosis (doubling) are also able to halve this diploid number by producing special so-called haploid cells (gametes) which, in our human case, come in two kinds, spermatozoid and ovum. Fusion of the ‘egg’ and ‘sperm’ cells restores the diploid number and incidentally introduces a further mathematical operation, combination, which may be considered the distant ancestor of Set Theory. It is thus maybe not at all surprising that peasants the world over have felt at home with ‘Russian’ Multiplication, living much closer than we do to the generative processes of Nature, even if they did not know what was going on.
A good written notation is not at all essential for Russian Multiplication, but it does speed things up. Using our Hindu/Arabic notation, suppose you want to multiply 147 by 19. This is a somewhat tedious enterprise if you are not allowed a calculator and these days two students out of three would probably come up with the wrong answer. So here goes

Now do it with a calculator. The result: 2793.

Why does the system work? You might like to think about this for a moment before reading on. (It personally took me a long time to cotton on though someone I mentioned it to saw it at once.)
Russian Peasant Multiplication works because any number can be represented as a sum of powers of two (counting the unit as the 0 th power of any number). Algebraically we have

N = An x n + An-1 x n-1 + …….+ A1 x 1 + A0

with x = 2. In practice there are only two choices of coefficient for the An , An-1 …….A0namely 0 and 1 because once we get to a remainder of 2 we move to the next column. When 0 is the coefficient this term is not reckoned in the final count — is discounted just like the pebbles in the hole opposite an even cluster. Since 1 × x n = x n , we can simply dispense with coefficients altogether — which is not true for any other base.
If we look back at the pattern of black and grey in the right hand column and write 0 for black and 1 for grey, we have the representation of the number on the left in binary notation (though it is in reverse order compared to our system). Take the multiplication of 19 and 147 a couple of pages back.

The pattern in the right hand column is, from the bottom upwards,

Grey = 10011 = 2 4 2 3 2 2 2 unit
1 0 0 1 1

A hole in the ground functions as a ‘House of Numbers’ and can only be in two states: either it is empty or it has something in it (i.e. is non-empty). The Abyssinian priest’s assistant who removed the stones from a house opposite one with an even number of stones in it was placing the House in the zero state. The right hand column Houses were in fact functioning in two different though related roles: on the one hand they were in binary (empty or non-empty) while on the other hand they gave the quantities to be added in base-one.
Did people using the system know what they were doing? In most cases probably not although, judging by their confidence in handling arithmetical operations, the Egyptian scribes, using a very similar method I shall perhaps write about in a subsequent article, almost certainly did : the peasants using the system just knew it worked. There is nothing surprising or shocking about this — how many people today who use decimal fractions without a moment’s thought realise that the system only works because we are dealing with an indefinitely extendable geometric series which converges to a limit because the common multiple is less than unity?

One might wonder whether it would be possible to extend the principle of Russian Multiplication to tripling, quadrupling and so on?

Take 19 ­ × 23 using 3 as divisor and multiplier

We have already run into difficulties since we cannot get back to the unit. On the analogy with modulus 2 Russian Multiplication, we might decide we have to take into account the final entry on the right nonetheless, plus all entries which are not opposite an exact multiple of 3. This means the answer is 207 + 23 = 230 which is way off since 10 × 23 = 230. What has gone wrong?

A little thought reveals that, whereas in the case of modulus 2 we only had to neglect at most a unit on the left hand side, in the case of modulus 3 there are two possible remainders, namely 1 and 2. If we are opposite a number on the left which is 1 (mod 3) we include the number on the right in the final addition. However, if we are opposite a number which is 2 (mod 3) we must double the entry on the right since it is this much that has been neglected. In the above 19 = (6 × 3) + 1 and so it is 1 (mod 3) but 2 at the bottom is (0 × 3) +2 and so is 2 (mod 3). Applying the above we obtain 23 + (2 × 207) = 23 + 414 = 437 which is correct.
To make the system work properly we would thus need not one but two ways of marking entries in the right hand column to show whether they just have to be added on or have to be doubled first. This is an annoying complication, and even apart from this it is not that easy to divide into three and to treble integers. And if we move onto higher moduli there are much greater complications still. The Russian way of doing things ceases to be simple and user-friendly. Russian Peasant Multiplication is a good example of an invention excellent in itself but which does not lead on to further inventions and discoveries: it remains all on its own like an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Once the crucial improvement of distinguishing the entries to be added from the others was made, there was nothing much that could be done in the way of improvements except possibly the introduction of colour coding, my distinction between dark and light coloured beans. To actually find a better multiplication system you have to make a giant leap in time to the ciphered Greek system of numerals or the full place value Indian system — and even so the advantages would not have been apparent to peasants. If you are only dealing with relatively small quantities, Russian Multiplication is quite adequate, is easier to comprehend and there are less opportunities for making mistakes. In such a case we see that there is indeed a ‘simplicity cut off point’ beyond which it is not worth extending existing techniques, since the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. However, there may also be a ‘second time round point’ when technology has become so sophisticated that it has become ‘simple’ (= ‘user-friendly’) once more. Computers, being as yet relatively unintelligent creatures, have reverted to base 2 arithmetic though I believe 16 is also used. Wolfram’s Cellular Automata based on simple rules which specify whether a given ‘cell’ repeats or doesn’t can perform complicated operations like taking square roots of large numbers.

This cycle of invention, stasis, disappearance and re-invention happens all the time : it is more often than not impossible to improve on an early invention without making a giant leap, a leap requiring not only new ideas but large-scale social and economic changes which are usually felt to be undesirable because disruptive, or are quite simply out of the question given the available technology. Short of hiring expensive modern haulage equipment the best way to move large heavy objects across uneven ground is the time-honoured Egyptian system of wooden rollers which are repeatedly brought round to the front. (I have often had occasion to use this system myself in inaccessible places and it is surprising how well it works.) The long bow made of yew and animal gut more than held its own against the far more advanced crossbow : English bowmen won Agincourt against axe-wielding French knights and Genoese cross-bowmen largely because the crossbow is slow to reload and its effectiveness is much reduced in wet weather (the English kept their cat-gut dry until the battle began). In point of fact the longbow, an extremely rudimentary weapon, was only superseded in speed, range and accuracy by the repeating rifle ¾ one of Wellington’s military advisors seriously suggested re-introducing the longbow against Napoleon’s Grande Armée. And the horse as a means of transport was only superseded by the railway : messages were not transmitted much faster across Europe (if at all) under Napoleon than under Augustus Caesar. S.H. 26/1/12

Acknowledgment : This article appeared in M500 Issue 243 , “M500” being the magazine of the mathematical department of the Open University, editor Tony Forbes, for whom many thanks. .

Kulak v. Russian Peasants Working Class: A food supply experience

As noted during History 135C | History of Russia lecture, riots and industrial worker strikes occurred in Petrograd on February 23, 1917, the causes of the disharmony in the capital city was born out of a food shortage and the population on the lower end of the social sphere were subjected to the deficiency more so than the upper class. However, I have often wondered, how did this problem evolve? In a country that was the world’s largest exporter of wheat and grain at the time would have a bread shortage, let alone a food shortage. Although governmental restrictions of food played a major role, I will argue Kulaks had a role in the food shortage of 1917, and were an underlying reason for the peasant uprising in February.

Food shortage, especially bread shortages was the norm of the day. Famine existed prior to the February of 1917, but starvation amongst peasants merely exacerbate the situation after the closure of all plants and factories in Petrograd – the epicenter of the revolution. Understanding wheat for the bread was not grown in the city, the final product had to be transported to select towns’ bread lines across the county. As claimed by Olitskaia, “Something I had not seen before were Army trucks loaded with bread that had been brought in from the barracks. They stopped at the bread lines and distributed read among women.”[1] Even so, if, and only, if bread was shipped, it delivery was not guarantee, due to bread was a desirable commodity. According to Bunyan, “The bread requisitioned does not always reach its destination. Occasionally it is stolen on the way…Trains are held up and plundered… Sometimes it takes two or three hundred men to guard a train…Many villages have organized gangs who attack neighboring villages and waylay people with food…”[2] it was not only the supply of bread that was affected, Many desperate citizens resorted to shoplifting and ransacking of storehouses while others, outraged at being deprived of goods…”[3] and acknowledging there was a work shortage due to the strike funds was also in short supply, so much so, on the authority of Olitskaia, “the (former) workers survived by manufacturing small objects such as lighters, which they sold at the markets…”[4] This was a direr time in history for the Russian working peasants class.

Peasants receive minimum compensation for their labor efforts and worked in hazardous work environment in plants and factories, on the other end of the pendulum were the kulaks, associate with wealth and corruption. In the third year of the Second World War (1917), male Russian peasants were sent to fight in the battle field, the lion-share of those men did not return home. The opportunity-seeking Kulaks, who were peasants themselves, except land-owners who peasant bribed local officials to take advantage title-less land left behind by the aforementioned departed soldiers. By 1917, kulaks owned more than 90% on land in Russia, creating a monopoly of land and grain grown on said land. According to WWI – Russia, “The most valuable commodity throughout the Second World War was grain, and kulaks understood this with absolute clarity: food prices climbed higher than any other commodity during the war. In 1916, food prices accelerated three times higher than wages, despite bumper harvests in both 1915 and 1916…the kulaks hoarded their food surplus.”[5] The prior noted hoarded episode was a fundamental part of a diminished food supply line and famine suffered by the peasants, which culminated in the strike of February 1917.

[1] Ekaterina Olitskaia. My Reminiscences, from the Shadow of Revolution: Life Stories of Russian Women from 1917 to the second World War. Edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Yuri Slezkin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. p. 35.

[2] James Bunyan, and Harold Henry. Fisher. The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1918: Documents and Materials. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1934. pp. 664-665.

Russian Peasants - History

First Published: Proletarian Unity No. 23 (vol 5 no 1), January-February-March 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Our Party relies on two classes and therefore its instability would be possible and its downfall inevitable if there were no agreement between those two classes. (Lenin, Collected Works, volume 36, p. 594, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966.)

The following article in this issue’s column comes from a collaborator who took the initiative of sending us the results of a particularly interesting study on the peasant question in the U.S.S.R. The article deals with a specific subject and concretely illustrates the difficult concrete conditions in which the Soviet communists had to build socialism in the early twentieth century. The article details one of these conditions, the weak development of the productive forces in the U.S.S.R., a country where peasants constituted the majority. The article should be considered as one more contribution to the continuing debate aimed at understanding the actions of communists by looking at the conditions in which they acted.

The observation has often been made that, contrary to what Marx expected, the first proletarian revolution broke out in an economically backward country where the majority of the population were peasants. That is why the issue of a worker-peasant alliance was so critically important in the Soviet Union. It is well worthwhile, then, to take a close look at what became of the worker-peasant alliance from 1917 on.

The mass movement (1917)

February 1917: Tsarism collapses. From this moment on, the peasants are looking ahead to an agrarian reform. In fact they do more than look and wait. Starting in March, some peasants, especially the very poor and those returning from the front, set fire to the big landlords’ farms and seized the crops. The pent-up hatreds against the feudal lords burst out before the bourgeoisie had decided to do anything about agrarian reform.

In fact, the bourgeoisie never did do anything about it: Tchernov, the Socialist-Revolutionary Agriculture minister in Kerensky’s government, declared that he would not tolerate any spontaneous action by the peasants before the Constituent Assembly met. Let those who contemplated any “extreme” actions be fairly warned.

The peasants had no intention of sitting and waiting. In August, there are 500 recorded cases of land-seizures by force. In September, there are another 1000. The working class faces a clear choice: support the mass movement or let the government crush it. The Bolsheviks were the only ones to take a clear stand: take advantage of the situation to overthrow the provisional government. The working class thus enjoyed the support of the mass of peasants when it took power since, in the same blow, it was protecting the peasant movement and ensuring that the land would be redivided among the peasants. The first act of the new State was the adoption of a land decree.

The support of the peasantry for the new State was based on the ability of that State to carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end, not its proclaimed objective of building socialism. The Bolshevik revolution meant the transition from feudalism to capitalism in the contryside.

Civil war, grain war (1918-21)

The situation was to change very rapidly. Civil war and famine swept the country. The front and the towns had to be supplied. That meant that the peasantry must agree to hand over all the grain beyond the amount necessary to meet its own needs. The situation of war and famine did not permit elaborate campaigns to be organized to explain all this. It was decided to send armed detachments of workers to requisition the grain. First the civil war, then the grain war.

The peasant thus had a dual attitude to the Soviet State. On the one hand, he could see that it was the only thing stopping the landlords from coming back to repossess the land. On the other, grain requisition made him hostile to the same State. The petty entrepreneur peasant saw the grain as the product of his labour. He should be setting the price of its sale. The Soviet State, caught in the grips of famine and war, had neither the time to talk nor the wherewithal to pay.

The peasants reacted in two ways to the detachments that came to requisition their grain. At first they hid their extra grain. Later, they simply did not produce more than what was necessary for the survival of their own family. This of course only made the famine worse.

It is easy enough to see what kind of contradiction can develop between the peasantry and the working class. The Soviet State was first obliged to do what was necessary to supply the front and the towns and then later it had to collectivize agriculture. The first task was thus not carried out through persuasion but by military compulsion. This could not avoid undermining the accomplishment of the second task. The situation was not due to anyone’s will or to the political line of the bolshevik party. It was the product of two objective factors: civil war and famine.

The contradictions between the working class and the peasants came out after the civil war over in a series of peasant uprisings. The Soviet State was in a critical situation. It had to redefine its relations with the peasantry. [1]

New Economic Policy (1921-27)

The redefinition of those relations was contained in the New Economic Policy (NEP). It had two goals: (a) to revive agricultural production so that the needs of the towns could be supplied (b) to strengthen the worker-peasant alliance which had been shaken somewhat, by making concessions to the peasantry.

Concretely, Lenin proposed that grain requisitioning be replaced by a tax in kind. No longer would the State commandeer from the peasant all the grain above and beyond what he needed to just survive himself. A specified amount would be taken in the form of a tax and the peasant would be free to sell the rest, either to the State or to private buyers. The development of commodity exchange and competition is obviously capitalist. But that is what was necessary to stimulate agriculture in the conditions of devastation that the Soviet Union faced.

The economic basis to the worker-peasant alliance was necessarily the exchange of grain for the industrial products needed by the peasants. If the Soviet State had been in a position to provide the peasant all the industrial products he wanted then it would have been able to buy up all that the peasants produced in exchange. But Soviet industry was not in a position to do this hence the State made it legal for the peasant to engage in private exchange and thus develop competition and production for a market [2] .

The peasantry responded very well to the NEP. The taxes in kind were readily paid. Agricultural production improved markedly. In 1926-27, the pre-war level of production was exceeded by 6%. The one exception was cereals, which were slightly behind. There was a big jump as well in trade between the towns and the countryside.

At the same time, the inequalities in land holdings, amount of instruments of production to work it with, etc. led inevitably to increased social differentiation among the peasants. The middle peasants who mostly owed their origins to the 1917 land decree, were the biggest group. A Soviet source from that period estimates that in 1926, 67.5% of the peasants were middle peasants, 29.4% were poor peasants and 3.1% were rich peasants. [3]

Agricultural production developed considerably in this period. But the socialist sector remained very small. In 1926-27, 96.7% of agricultural production was due to the private sector. The co-operative sector accounted for a mere 3.3%. Only 2.9% of the farm population was involved in collective production. In 1927, socialist agriculture was but a tiny island in the middle of a vast capitalist sea. [4]

The bad harvest crisis (1927-29)

In 1927-28, the harvest was not as good as it had been the year before. It was 73.6 million tons, down 2.8 million. The take from the tax in kind was thus expected to be a bit lower. In fact, there was a major drop. The crops and other products taken in from July to October 1927 were on a base of 3.74 million tons as compared to 3.96 million the year before, a slight drop. But in November and December, the reduction was 55%. It was a crisis situation [5] . The supplying of sufficient food to the cities was far from assured. The whole industrialization plan and export trade were threatened.

The party’s response was to adopt the “emergency measures” – the grain held by the kulaks (rich peasants) would be requisitioned. However, most of the grain was in fact held by the middle peasants since there were so many of them they accounted for the bulk of the production. To meet their quotas, the local cadres had no choice. They had to apply the emergency measures to not only the kulaks but to the middle peasants too. This was a violation of the principles upon which the NEP was based. The worker-peasant alliance was shaken. The Soviet State found itself faced with a new contradiction. It was still unable to provide the peasants with all the industrial products they needed, and thereby to pay for the whole crop. The peasants ended up holding on to some of what they produced. The State was obliged again to resort to compulsion to get it. [6]

The Central Committee of the Bolshevik party was aware of the errors that had been made with regard to the middle peasants. It decided to go back to the NEP policies again. But the relaxation of pressure led to a vertiginous plummeting in the yield going to the State. The party was forced to go back to a broad application of the emergency measures. The kulaks exploited the situation to the hilt and increased their political influence among the middle and poor peasants [7] . The extremely weak presence of the communist party in the countryside made it all the easier for the kulaks to succeed in this. [8] A vicious circle set in. The tension created by the implementation of the emergency measures made it more and more difficult to relax the pressure again and withdraw the measures. Emergency policy became regular policy. We are almost back to the requisition policy of the civil war period again.

Tension built up to a peak by the end of 1929. The newspaper Pravda reported that there had been some 2,000 different peasant demonstrations during that year in the Moscow region alone. Things could not continue on like that. The revolution was at a great turning point: the party decided to turn from the NEP to collectivization.

The great turning point (1929-30)

The emergency measures produced the same effects as the requisitions had during the civil war. The acreage that was planted diminished which made supplying the cities all the more difficult. The party concluded that the solution was rapid development of the socialist sector of agriculture.

The first stage of the farm collectivization movement was from June to October 1929. The percentage of peasant families on the collective farms went up from 3.9% to 7.5%. Most of those who joined the kolkholzes were poor peasants. It was essentially a voluntary movement.

In late 1929 and early 1930, administrative pressures started to make themselves fully felt. The Soviet government set a objective of 50% of agricultural production coming from the collectivized sector by the end of 1930. The expropriation of the kulaks began.

A number of documents indicate that that this phase of collectivization was mainly forced [9] . The bare statistics alone show this: in March of 1930, 59% of peasant families were on collective farms by October of 1930, that percentage was down to 21.7%. What had happened in the meantime was that Stalin himself had condemned the forced way in which collectivization had been carried out in many places. [10]

March towards total collectivization (1930-32)

After Stalin’s intervention, a decree was issued on March 15, 1930 which enabled the peasants to decollectivize if they wished. Sanctions were taken against those who were found responsible for the excesses.

However, the party determined that the industrialization plan could simply not be carried out with only 21% of the peasant families in the collective sector. Hence, the 16th party congress, which took place in the summer of 1930, reaffirmed the necessity to carry out a widespread and rapid collectivization [11] .

The collectivization movement started up again in early 1931. By 1932, 61.5% of the peasant families were on collective farms. The victory of collectivization was assured. The movement continued on at a slower pace until the process was completed in 1937.

The price paid for collectivization was very high. The peasants who opposed collectivization slaughtered their own livestock. There was a dramatic drop in livestock production between 1929 and 1934: the horse herds were down 55% cattle were off 40% sheep dropped 66% the number of pigs declined by 55% [12] .

Cereal production got worse also. The pre-war levels of production were exceeded by a small amount in 1930, which was an encouraging achievement. But it dropped the following year. It was even worse in 1932, dropping 15.6% below the 1926-27 level which had been the best year of the NEP. The pre-war levels would not be reached again until 1948 in the case of cereals and 1953 for livestock. [13]

The immediate result of this was the reappearance of famine which had disappeared during the NEP period. Rationing was reintroduced between 1931 and 1935. Theft of grain became a capital offence. Social tension increased. The working class had increased in numbers in the last few years. Industrialization was directly threatened. The number one priority was to feed the workers in the cities. Historian Moishe Lewin estimates that one million peasants died of hunger between 1932 and 1935.

The consequences of collectivization

How was it that the worker-peasant alliance had come to the point of breaking down? The confluence of two factors must be taken into consideration to answer that question: the relative economic backwardness of the Soviet Union and the hostile imperialist encirclement.

If the Soviet Union was to avoid becoming a primarily agriculture and natural resource extraction based economy, which would have condemned it very quickly to become dependent on the developed capitalist countries, it absolutely had to develop its industrial base. Surrounded by enemy forces, the Soviet Union could only rely on its own internal resources. Industrialization required more workers and the accumulation of foreign exhange gained from the export of agricultural products. The problem of supplying the cities became sharper and sharper because: (a) there were more and more workers in the cities (b) the workers came from the countryside, thus there was a simultaneous reduction in the agricultural workforce (c) a sizable chunk of agricultural production had to be exported.

It is highly unlikely that petty commodity production from individual plots could have met this constantly increasing demand. The Bolshevik party was certain it was impossible. Agriculture absolutely must be mechanized and that could only be accomplished through collectivization.

The mass of middle peasants who had made all they had by taking advantage of the NEP policies were not particularly interested in abandoning the approach which had worked well enough for them. It must be understood that the middle peasants were small-time capitalists who were mainly interested in selling the commodities they produced. The almost complete absence of communists in the countryside made the prospects for carrying out a patient struggle to persuade the peasants slim indeed. The field was left pretty well clear for the kulaks to operate and they managed to exercise significant influence on the other peasants.

Thus when the drive for collectivization got under way, the majority of the peasantry opposed it. This is shown by the fact that the expropriation of the kulak measures which were supposed to be applied to rich peasants only were in fact applied to 15% of the peasants. Kulaks were only 4% of the peasant population. The scope of the repression does not mean that the State organs were striking out blindly. What it does mean is that the kulaks had considerable influence on other peasants and that the hostility of the middle peasants was very measurable indeed. By 1932, agriculture was in large part collectivized but the collective farms were filled with peasants hostile to the Soviet State. Many peasants slaughtered their livestock and worked as little as they could get away with. And although it happened less and less often with the passage of time, some even engaged in local rebellions and killed communists.

It can be said therefore that collectivization led to the breakdown of the worker-peasant alliance. This is not to say that the breakdown was the product of a conscious political decision either. The explanation lies rather in the factors that brought about the political decisions that were taken during this period. Those factors come down basically to the economic backwardness of the country, the dominant position of petty commodity production in the economy and hostile capitalist encirclement.

The immediate effect of the breakdown of the alliance of the two labouring classes was an important shrinkage in the basis of support for the Soviet State and Bolshevik party. Before collectivization, the party was basically concentrated in the towns but it enjoyed the support of the majority of peasants who were satisfied with the NEP. After collectivization, that support waned considerably which made it all the more difficult to recruit new party members in the countryside. The Soviet State had to do something to make up for this weakness. It had no choice but to develop a bureaucratic and extremely repressive State apparatus. Collectivized agriculture had to be supervised. Grain stealers had to be hunted down as did all those who speculated on the black market, etc.

Those were all things that had to be done all right, but doing them required a bureaucracy and repressive apparatus.


This brief analysis certainly does not answer all the questions that need to be answered about the history of the relationship of the peasants to the Soviet State. To begin with, a study of how collectivized agriculture developed in subsequent years need to be done. Further, such an analysis would have to be tied in with a look at the industrialization and concomitant growth of the Soviet working class. Finally, a closer look should be taken at the impact of balance of power between classes and countries on a world scale on the internal situation in the U.S.S.R.

It is already clear though that the backwardness of the Russian economy, of which the numerical preponderance of the peasantry is but one aspect, put the Soviet State up against a lot of contradictions from the very start which could not be resolved through sheer will power. Tragically, the very moment that the Soviet Union achieved the socialization of agriculture it found itself, to use Lenin’s expression, shackled with the most elemental task of any society: fighting off famine.


[1] For more detailed analysis of Bolshevik agricultural policy between 1917 and 1922, see Robert Linhart. Lenine, les paysans, Taylor, Paris, Le Seuil, 1976.

[2] On NEP, read volume 32 of Lenin's Collected Works, especially the pamphlet “The Tax in Kind”, pp. 329-365.

[3] This study, carried out by S.G. Stoumiline for the central bureau of statistics, was based on the classifications proposed by Lenin. The poor peasants are classified as those who do not get enough from the land to live off they are obliged to do some work for pay. Middle peasants have a slight surplus which enables them to accumulate savings. Rich peasants have a constant and large surplus. They are thus able to accumulate savings and to exploit other strata by hiring on wage labour, engaging in money-lending at high rates, etc.

[4] For more statistics on the countryside during the NEP, see Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the U.S.S.R., Second period: 1923-1930, (vol. 2), MR Press, 1978.

[6] According to Bettleheim, the shortage of industrial goods is due to errors made by the Bolshevik party. Those errors were connected to the line on industrialization promoted by the majority of the Central Committee.

[7] This fact was confirmed by articles published bv a number of Bolshevik leaders in 1928 and 1929.

[8] The number of party members in the villages went from 0.26% of the total peasant population at the time of the 13th congress (1924) to 0.37% at the time of the 14th congress (1925). In 1929, there were only 242,000 party members in the rural areas out of a peasant population of 120 million.

[9] Here is one example: in mid-February 1930, the delegates to the meeting on collectivization in the Sosnovski district received the order to collectivize the localities assigned them within five years. Those who failed to fulfill their quotas would be hauled before the judicial authorities within 24 hours. Cited in Bettelheim, op. cit., p. 447 (in the French version).

[10]Stalin, Le vertige du succes, Oeuvres (Works), vol. 6.

[11] The report presented by Stalin to that congress can be found in volume 12 of his Collected Works.

[12] Helene Carriere d’Encausse, Staline l’ordre par la terreur, Paris, Flammarion, 1979, p. 32.

Russian Peasants - History

At the end of the 19th century big changes were sweeping across Mother Russia. The Industrial Revolution had finally arrived. Only, 100 years after it had begun in other European countries, but who&rsquos counting? Thousands of poor peasants flocked to the cities in search of factory work. And, as in other industrializing countries, a new middle class of educated professionals began to emerge who saw Russia as a backward country hopelessly stuck in the middle ages.

These liberal thinkers, freshly educated from the top universities in Europe, were inspired by life in France, Germany, and Great Britain. When they returned home they formed secret political clubs, to discuss illegal topics such as democracy, socialism, labor unions, and freedom of the press, all the time aware that the Tsar&rsquos dreaded secret police&ndashThe Okharna&ndash could burst in at any moment and exile them to Siberia for treason. In spite of this threat, or perhaps because of it, revolution was in the air at the turn of the 20th century.

Operating secret printing presses, diverse revolutionary groups printed pamphlets about what they saw as the best future for Russia. Some of these groups pushed for moderate change that would turn Russia&rsquos autocratic state into a softer gentler constitutional monarchy. Others held more radical views calling for socialism and a complete overthrow of the Tsar. Some wanted to bring change peacefully, others used terrorism to spread their message. To Tsar Nicholas all of these groups were a threat to his Romanov Dynasty and the traditional ways of Russia.

Nicholas responded to any threat to his rule the same way his father Alexander III did- by putting the muscle on his opponents. Whenever workers went on strike to protest their miserable conditions the Tsar&ndashegged on by his wife Alexandra&ndash sent out the police to put down the strikers. Okhrana agents were sent out to root out the revolutionaries placing spies in the universities and coffee houses where these young liberals hung out.

But the reformers knew they couldn&rsquot change Russia alone. The middle class was a new thing in Russia and only made up less than 5% of the population. The true power of Russia was with the more than 100 million peasants who toiled on small plots of land in abject poverty and misery. The problem was that most of these peasants were farmers who had no interest in politics, and being illiterate, couldn&rsquot read the revolutionary literature even if they had wanted to. Liberals took to the countryside to teach the peasants to read and write, and educate them about how truly backward Russia really was. Most peasants had no clue about what life was like outside of Russia, most had never traveled outside of their villages- and up until the late 1800s it had been illegal to do so.

Meet the Peasants

Now back to Tsar Nicholas. Ol&rsquo Nicki was an indecisive guy who listened to the advice of his strong-willed German wife-Tsarina Alexandra who urged him time and again to respond to protests with brute force. He also listened to the nobles who were pretty out of touch with the reality of everyday life in Russia. For example, in 1905, the country was experiencing some serious political protests.

95% of Russia's people were poor peasant farmers who owned no land but paid high rents to the country's landlords. Most of these landlords just happened to be members of the royal family. Life as a peasant was tough.Russian peasants lived in villages cut off from the rest of the world.The villages were not much more than a collection of mud huts lining the main road where illiterate peasants farmed the land to keep food on the table and pay the rent to wealthy landlords. Russia was a feudal laughing stock. While the rest of Europe had abandoned this medieval lifestyle long ago, Russia's leaders did little to try to bring the country into the 20th century.

Russian peasnts did have one other alternative to a misreable life of tenant farming. They also couldmove to the city to find work in one of the many miserable factories that were springing up all over Russia. The factory system had come to Russia 100 years later than anywhere else in Europe.

The hours were long. By Russia law workers couldn&rsquot be forced to work more than 11 ½ hours in a day but most factory bosses ignored this and the police were easily bribed to look the other way. Wages were very low.

The factories were dirty, dark, and dangerous. Workers were given free housing but the conditions of these barracks were so terrible that they made a New York City tenement look like a room at the Ritz. Each room was nothing more than a long warehouse where each family stayed in a room divided by a shabby piece of cloth. Each &ldquoroom&rdquo was only large enough to fit a bunk bed that often touched the one next to it.

Like any job, the type of boss you had could make all of the difference. Some factory owners were generous and provided hospitals and kitchens for their workers free of charge. But again, we&rsquore talking about basic treatment here folks. These simple wooden facilities often gave basic care. The food barracks served simple stews and bread so plain that it would make you stand up cheer for more school cafeteria food.

The Revolution of 1905

Rather than trying to bring about the changes that the people were demanding Nicholas decided that what the country REALLY needed was a war to boost morale. So in 1905, in the midst of an economic crisis no less, Russia decided to go to war. By attacking Japan over some islands in the North Pacific the Tsar was counting on an easy victory. The conflict known as the Russo-Japanese War was, to everyone&rsquos surprise, a humiliating blow for Russia.

The common folk, already in a bad mood, were now joined by the soldiers returning home in humiliation. Fed up by low wages, poor living conditions, and oppressive laws, factory workers went on strike. On a bitterly cold January morning in 1905 three hundred thousand protestors marched on the Winter Palace in the capital of St. Petersburg where they had been told the Tsar would hear their complaints. Led by Father Gapon, an Orthodox priest, the protestors carried portraits of the Tsar and chanted &ldquoGod Save the Tsar&rdquo. The people believed that their Tsar loved them and simply did not know what was happening. The people were in for a bitter reality check.

Unknown to the protestors the royal family had fled to one of their other palaces and had given ordered to the police to disperse the marchers by force if necessary. However, some twitchy military officers got spooked when they saw the massive crowd of men, women, and children coming their way. The soldiers were ordered to open fire into the unarmed crowd who fled in terror. Father Gapon had made sure each protestor was searched for weapons beforehand. No one knows how many died on the day now known as Bloody Sunday. The government reports said 96 the revolutionaries claimed a figure closer to 1,000.

The Bloody Sunday Massacre

The fallout from Bloody Sunday was huge. The people&rsquos faith in their Tsar was finally shaken &ldquoGod Save the Tsar&rdquo gave way to angry cries of &ldquoThe Tsar Will Not Help Us&rdquo. The number of terrorist attacks surged. In 1905, more than fifteen hundred government officials were assassinated. Lenin couldn&rsquot have been more pleased at the news coming out of Russia. He urged his followers to step up the attacks. Even the soldiers began to sympathize with the people by joining in on the strikes. But this is only 1905 we still have twelve more years of strikes and protests before the real revolution begins.

The Bloody Sunday massacre created something of a public relations nightmare to say the least. The Tsar and the whole concept of absolute monarchy were falling faster than a snowstorm in Moscow. Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto where he agreed to Russia&rsquos first written constitution and (begrudgingly) gave up some of his power to the Duma. He even agreed to ease up on restriction against speech, the press, and labor unions. The Duma was to be Russia&rsquos version of Parliament with its members elected by the people. But the Duma was far from democratic. Most of its members came from the aristocracy and tended to make laws that favored their own wants and needs over the majority of the people.

But the Tsar had no intention of giving up any power to the people. He was an old fashioned kind of autocrat that honestly believed that God had put him in charge. No sooner had the protestors went back to work that Tsar Nicholas disbanded the Duma and refused to reform the hated censorship laws. Strike leaders&ndashmany of whom like Lenin and Trotsky who would play a part in the revolution of 1917&ndash were rounded up, beaten, and exiled to Siberia.

The February Revolution

It all began on February 23rd, 1917 on International Women&rsquos Day when 90,000 Petrograd textile workers walked off the job chanting &ldquoWe Want Bread&rdquo. The next day other factory workers joined in the strike. Troops were called in to put down the strikes but the soldiers refused to obey orders and shoot at the crowd. The strikes continued to swell into the hundreds of thousands. Then three days in March would turn the strikes in a full-blown revolution.

On March 8 1917, tens of thousands marched through the streets of Petrograd shouting slogans of &ldquogive us bread&rdquo &ldquodown with the Tsar&rdquo and &ldquodown with the war&rdquo. By the next day the crowd had swelled to over one hundred thousand as workers, sailors, and soldiers joined in the demonstrations. Storefronts and bakeries were looted and a few policeman were attacked.

The next day the crowds got even bolder and government offices were targeted. On March 9th, Nicholas banned all public meetings or gatherings but with little effect. The President of the Duma sent a telegram to the Tsar urging immediate action. The Tsar responded with a simple message: dissolve the Duma! This time the Duma refused to be dissolved. After Russian soldiers refused to fire on the protestors it was clear that the Tsar had lost all control. Each day more and more protestors streamed into the streets of every major Russian city. Some looting was reported but surprisingly people went about their business going shopping or to work as if nothing was unusual.

On March 13th, thousands of common soldiers disobeyed orders and began joining the protesters in the streets. Later that day the red flag of revolution was flying over the winter palace. That day Nicholas II gave the word that had abdicated his throne. The 300 year reign of the Romanov&rsquos was no more. Throughout the country the people celebrated the revolution that had ended with so little bloodshed. Russians were hopeful that Russia could become a democratic country. Even President Woodrow Wilson of the United States greeted the news of the Russian revolution with enthusiasm. The ex-Tsar Nicholas II and his family made plans to head to England as ordinary citizens. However, they were place under house arrest by the revolutionaries.

The Tsar was gone but that didn&rsquot solve the problems that mattered to the average Russian. Russia was still involved in the war and German armies were kicking butt. The German army had overrun Russian forces in the Ukraine and was marching on Petrograd. The Provisional Government was divided between too many opinions. The conservatives wanted to keep Russia as close to the old ways as possible. The liberals wanted to make Russia a democracy like the other European countries. The socialists like the Bolsheviks wanted to turn Russia into a communist utopia inspired by Karl Marx that would get rid of class systems and make everyone equal and free.

For the time being an awkward system was set up where the Provisional Government led by the Social Democrats ruled alongside the soviets who controlled the labor unions and many of the villages. Sort of like two siblings fighting over the use of a bedroom that are now forced to share it. Just to be clear on one thing, the word &lsquosoviet&rsquo (little S) is Russian for assembly. The Soviet (big S) would refer to the Soviet Union that took power under the Bolsheviks in 1922.

Back to the story. Once the Tsar was gone many villages elected their own assemblies (soviets) to keep things running. Many factories&ndashencouraged by the socialists&ndashpushed out their owners and took control of the factory through elected councils. Even the army had its own soviets for a short time. Lenin and the socialists issued Order no. One which told soldiers to get rid of their tyrannical officers and elect trusted men to lead them. All across the country two government were competing for the hearts and minds of the people. The Social Democrats who wanted a representative democracy like the United States, and the Socialists who wanted to make Russia the world&rsquos first communist utopia.

The Russian Civil War

In November 1917, the revolution became an all-out Civil War. The Bolsheviks were gaining support from across Russian society by promising land to the peasants, peace to the soldiers, and food to the workers. The Bolsheviks called their version of democracy the &ldquodictatorship of the proletariat&rdquo. Under Lenin&rsquos vision the government would be necessary only until the people were ready to take control of their own lives. Private property that existed under the rich landowners who had greedily hogged so much at the expense of the poor would be swept away and replaced by peasants who owned land collectively. Under this new communist utopia the common soldiers would be given control of the military and workers would be given control of the factories, the peasants would own the fields. No one would be better than anyone else.

The Revolution that seemed to end so peacefully in the spring was turning into a nightmare by the winter. Russia was in open civil war from 1918-1922 as the Bolsheviks (&ldquoThe Reds&rdquo) sought to extend their control over the entire country. Those who opposing the Bolshevik takeover were known as &ldquoThe Whites&rdquo, although Whites could mean anyone from the Mensheviks or even those who supported a return to Tsarist rule. The only thing that the Whites had in common was that they hated the Bolsheviks. When the election results came in from the November elections, the Bolsheviks had won less than a 25% of the seats in the Duma. Lenin, not letting a little thing like voting stand in the way, ordered the Red Guard to prevent the elected representatives from entering the Tauride Palace where the Duma met. Democracy in Russia only lasted one day and would not return until 1991.

Throughout 1918 until 1922 a reign of terror known as the Great Fear spread throughout Russia. The Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky, recruited workers and soldiers loyal to the communists to fight but it needed trained officers to whip this ragtag group into an effective fighting machine. Most of the generals were loyal to the whites and so Trotsky used kidnapping as a recruiting tool. Families of officers were held hostage to ensure that these men stayed loyal to the Red cause. Wherever the Reds won control they were followed by their army of secret police&ndashthe Cheka&ndash which was more brutal than the Tsar&rsquos police force had ever been.

Thousands were rounded up and shot if they were even suspected of being loyal to the Whites. Some estimates put the number of people murdered during the civil war by the Cheka at 50,000. Property and food was confiscated for the use of the Red Army which led to mass starvation. This time became known as the Red Terror. But, it was equally as bad as the White Terror which was being carried out by the White Army who did the same things to suspected communists. One of the most chilling examples of White brutality was against the Jews. Russia has had a pathetic record for tolerance of its religious minorities and Jewish communities have fared the worst. Many of the communists were also Jews and so Jewish towns were terrorized by the Whites who stereotyped all Jews as being communists. Ironically, the communists under Josef Stalin would target the Jews for terror.


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