Stalin’s Peasants, by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chapter 4)

“Down with the patriarchy! …Except mine.”

I feel that a more general book review is going to be helpful for Stalin’s Peasants at this point. But I do want to make some comments about the nature of the state and its relation to the peasantry.

Particularly the relation of the state wanting to take more from the peasants and the peasants wanting to give less. This is a classic Industrial Workers of the World model for how bosses treat workers and vice versa. The boss wants to extract as much surplus profit as possible and the worker wants to retain their own individual income as possible. This dynamic between boss and worker transplants nicely over to the peasantry and their desire to keep as much grain as possible while the Soviets wanted to take as much grain as possible.

Stalin, again, is best seen as a kind of capitalist who reinforced the importance of utopian urbanism even at the cost of peasants, perhaps even especially at the cost. With a lot of that cost having to do with the fact that “traditional” values were seen more and more as “backwards” or useless. The chief effect of this was to result in Gigantomania, state farms aiming as lofty as they could in terms of land size and use. Surveyors were largely considered counterrevolutionary or in general, political disgrace, due to their past allegiances with regimes.

But ironically this seems to go against any sort of “rational-planning” that the Soviets had in the first place. Most of their expansions were made through decrees and laws not scientific study or methodology. This came a little later in the mid 1930s when surveyors were finally allowed more freedom. But even then the surveyors would often delegate up spaces to people who may have bribed them, had the most political power, they happened to like the most, etc.

Even with these more scientific improvements to the study of land allotment the state still did poorly when it came to treating the worst-off well by any competent measurement. But the benefit of these larger crops or farm fields was that it would ensure that the peasants had less meaningful political power. Sure, they could vote for members of the state farm’s board but in the end there would be so much land that their power would pale to the Soviet state’s choices.

That said, Fitzpatrick denotes well that neither the peasantry or the state are monolith.

There were many factions within the state apparatus of the USSR. Besides Stalin himself there were many different councils, chairmen of state farms, influential leaders of thought within the party and competing party members with interests of their own, etc. Treating Stalinization as just revolving around Stalin himself would thus be a mistake.

Similarly treating the peasants in their many different habits, customs, cultures, villages and so on as monolithic would also be a mistake. Many peasants (especially on the basis of class, age and gender) had different ideas of what “the good life” looked like. Or they had various ideas about religion, work and of course different ideas about Stalin himself.

I will add though that the state is much more likely to be monolithic in intentions, means and goals than an entire culture of people. In addition, the peasantry were millions upon millions of people where as the state is characteristically a handful of people telling millions of other people what to do. So it seems much more likely you could refer to certain  incentive structures much more easily to governments ten you could to the peasants.

Making Fiztpatrick’s comparison between the two strike me as slightly unfair.

After the failures of the famine, the expulsions from the state farms and various other factors there would eventually be a congress held in the mid 30s to address some of the problems. Stalin took a mostly conciliatory approach towards the peasants and many others followed suit. Offers of more private lots for peasants, the potential for even kulaks to come back (though this was heavily contests for justified fear of reprisal perhaps) and maternity leave for women who worked in the state farms. Stalin made vague offers of as much as a month and a quarter to a half of a hectare (100 acres).

But for the most part this congress was not Stalin’s to make commencements about, though his words did of course get the most amount of press. The congress was mostly led by Iakolev who was looked favorably upon any peasants as hosting a newspaper they could actually lodge complaints and feel they could be heard. Over time though it became clear that the Congress of Outstanding Kolkhoz was held back in large part (though hardly the only part) by kolkhoz chairmen who were weary of giving “lassiez faire” attitudes towards the collectivized workers.

If they couldn’t introduce discipline into the ranks of the collectivized workers then how would they get anything done? Discipline was one of the most frequent and oft-cited reasons that I noticed why a given action couldn’t be done or could be done but had to be significantly revised first. The party leaders, at times, bowed to these concessions in favor of local experiences, but in other points only made vague gestures towards these concerns.

The kulaks in particular had toxic dialogue concerning them and what their role would be in the collective villages, a term that the higher ups originally didn’t to recognize. They wanted to see the villages as something much bigger because of their own anti-peasant bias but as Fitzpatrick denotes, most folks saw this as “unrealistically large farms” (105) that, within years, downgraded back to the general level of a village.

What this meant for the peasants was utter confusion and chaos at times about what land belonged to and why. If there were going to be decisions they’d probably be made in favor of the state farm worker than the few independent workers who were remaining by the early to mid 30s. In addition, the state farms often outright appropriated the collectivized land of the peasants if they felt they needed to. This was eventually (on principle) put to an end in 1937.

Not only is the USSR best understood in terms of state-capitalism at times, at least under Stalin, but it’s also best understood (as Fitzpatrick says herself) in terms of Tsarist Russia with regards to the way that the non-collectivized peasants and even the collectivized peasants were treated. That said, the comparison has its flaws because serfs under Tsarist Russia typically didn’t try to get into serfdom or get many benefits from being in that specific estate.

One way the peasants resisted these estate-like classifications was looking for loopholes. State farm workers got all of these benefits that independent workers did not. So at times the independent workers who were not part of the state farms would join up in a household with just one state farm worker. This gave them the ability to claim the privileges that state farm workers got while remaining independent from it.

Even though independents tried to resist in this way for the most part they eventually had to beg so a state farm would let them in. Otherwise if they weren’t allowed (especially during the years of the famine) they were “doomed to a hungry existence” at best. Independents became more and more interested as the rights and legal privileges that state farm workers got became more widely understood and respected within given communities. To some chairmen and general state farm workers this made the independent workers “late-comers” who were trying to profit off of their earlier labors.

And although expulsion was a right that was not encouraged it still happened frequently and within that high frequency, it was often used as a way to (once again) reinforce the discipline of the workers. Sometimes the reasons cited included individual workers not pulling their “collective weight” which was typically just another way to reinforce discipline.

During the famine this tool of expulsion was not only easily accessible and oppressive but actually deadly. Especially towards anyone the chairmen or members may find to be too much of an “idler” with the predictable result being that mostly independent peasants and peasants unfamiliar with the (sometimes dicey) appeal process.

Going back to the congress, it relied on more pretense of including peasants in political processes. But most of those representing the villages were those respected by the regime and not necessarily the relevant community. Ironically most of the rank and file state farm workers who were activists ended up giving the state leaders the most amount of grief.

Although the congress proved to be a decent step forward in some respects it only further reinforced the role of the peasants as workers and the communist parties as an aristocracy of bosses.


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