Stalin’s Peasants, by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chapter 1)

When we last left our intrepid heroes we…Wait, no, that’s not where I am…

Oh right, millions of Russians are being exiled, exploited, stolen from and murdered by Soviet power.

Silly me, always getting fairy-tales and communism mixed up!

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Seriously though, I hope you enjoyed my summary and analysis of Fitzpatrick”s book in the last part. A fair warning that this part won’t nearly be as long since my first entry covered a lot of ground. This chapter was mostly dedicated to covering even more background before we get into Stalinization of the peasants land and how they resisted. So I’ll be a bit briefer and looser with myself this time around.

It’s been an interesting ride already though. This book has been filling me up with a lot of historical intricacies and nuances I wasn’t aware of during the time of Soviet power (or at least during Lenin and Stalin respectively).

One of the things I got out of chapter one was the brutal sense of elitism that Soviet officials often felt towards the “backwards” peasants. It’s not so much that the elites (whether they be Soviet or not) being classist would really shock me so much as it surprised me how cavalier they could be about it. And past all of that the image of the communists being for the common man yet despising the common man who isn’t a worker was a bit jostling at first.

Still, caste systems tend to engender class divisions and distrust between those on the top and those on the bottom. So it isn’t much of a surprise that this resentment towards peasants caused the bogeyman of the kulaks (upper class peasants) to become an excuse to exploit and harass the peasants more generally.

And in turn, the peasants only increased their resistance against the Soviet state. Whether it was by giving false information to state officials, harassing people selected by the Soviets to deliver news of grain procurement (theft, really) or even murder in some cases (well a lot of cases, actually). In other situations it was the “bedniaks” (roughly middle class peasants) who simply reported their fellow peasants to the local officials who got harassed or killed.

In sum, 90,000 complaints from peasants about unlawful, arbitrary and violent acts occurred during 1929 alone. This was in large part because Stalin decided it was a good idea to try to scapegoat the kulaks for all of the political power he could gain. And so grain procurement on a massive scale happened…much to the chagrin of the peasants.

All of this violence stemmed from Stalin and the rest of the Soviets beliefs that for some reason the kulaks (even though they’d mass emigrated and were continuing to leave as years passed) were still some sort of threat to their power. So to this end their phony notion of potential class conflict engendered real class conflict between the state and the peasants.

It didn’t help that Stalin also wanted to replace the mir (the self-governing peasant organized intermediaries between the community officials and the state) with collective farms. And eventually went to such lengths to create simply the facade that it was succeeding as to have votes where a community would simply be forced into it by a vote.

That way more and more collective farms could be said to exist…at least on paper.

Unfortunately for Stalin, peasants generally disliked the collective farms. And the ones that succeeded the most, says Fitzpatrick, were ones run by religious leaders and not communists. 

Lastly, the farms themselves were often not very big or independent. Instead, they were often feeble and largely depended on state subsidies to exist. They sure as hell didn’t depend on the good will of the peasants.

The peasants lack of good will was also impacted by the fact that they couldn’t make appeals to the state about illegal taxation. That isn’t terribly surprising, since Stalin was using a mix of scare tactics and political power games so as to assert dominance. What better way to assert it even more than to plug your fingers in your ears when your citizens cry out from injustice?

The kulaks themselves were hard to pin down. What constituted a kulak? Was it economic class? Social appearances? The things that you bought or owned? The Soviets, understandably, had a hard time making clear cut class divisions between the bedniaks, kulaks and Everybody Else.

Insofar as a kulak did stick around, they tended to be much more dangerous. After all, what did they have left to lose? They’ve likely already lost much of their property and been constantly harassed, threatened with violence, etc. So in a certain way Stalin was surely right about the threat of kulaks. Unfortunately for every other peasant he used that as an excuse to show them to flex his political power as much as possible.

And even if the kulaks were more dangerous, they still likely were not a threat to Stalin himself. And blowback theory dictates that attacking them even harder will only lead to Stalin having more problems for himself down the line. But I’m guessing Stalin didn’t really care about the long-term, he had a thing for 5 Year Plans and that was about it.

In papers peasants often distinguished the kulaks by their past, their general attitude towards life and towards the Soviet power. But all of these things are also very general and can only help the Soviets so much in their quest to eliminate the kulak bogeyman.

One other thing Fitzpatrick discusses in this chapter is the plight of the religious.

We discussed in the previous entry how churches were expropriated, forcibly shut and the religious freedoms of others was often disregarded in favor of atheism or general lack of religion. Fortunately, things improved in the mid 1920s as closures of churches became discouraged and priests were allowed more social freedoms.

But before that happened, things got so bad that there was a priest in a community who decided to take up local performance acting…and starred in the shows as a priest. No, I’m not making that up, it’s on page 35 and was pretty funny to read and share with my friends.

So…what does this have to do with work?

Unfortunately, as I said, Fitzpatrick is just setting us via some background information that’ll set the stage for later conflicts.

As the book goes on we’ll go into more depth about how the peasants resisted and what anti-work folks can learn from that. But for now, I’m just mostly left to summarize the details of this chapter and add in a few funny things I noticed as well as some brief analysis and commentary

I know that’s probably not terribly interesting, but it’s all in preparation for the good stuff!


Hey, y’all!

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