Stalin’s Peasants, by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Introduction)

Do you remember when I said I bought a bunch of books and I was going to review them for y’all?

Yeah…I remember that too.

You can find this book on Amazon and elsewhere!

Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance & Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization by Sheila Fitzpatrick is a book centered around the conflict of the mir and the kolkhoz.

Fitzpatrick often uses Russian nomenclature in her book, but her glossary before she starts is welcomed.

The “mir” is the communal land of the peasants, while the “kolkhoz” is a collective farm that was established by the Soviet Union’s government. Specifically during the late 1920s and into the 1930s during Stalin’s rule. This is what will be falling under the scope of Fitzpatrick’s book.

Fitzpatrick is largely dealing with the aftereffects of Stalin’s expropriation of the Kulaks in rural Russia. The Kulaks were middle-class or upper class peasants. And as weird as that sounds from a class analysis standpoint, that’s what the administration of the USSR saw as the “exploiters of the peasants”, as Fitzpatrick’s glossary puts it.

This de-Kulakization of rural Russia led to a radical shift in the culture. Though, as Fitzpatrick notes, even though the grain procurement and output of the peasants certainly did improve, it didn’t end up helping the peasants themselves much.

This was in no small part because the immediate impact of Stalinization of the peasant’s lands resulted in the theft of their livestock from the peasants. This includes cows, sheep and sometimes even chicken, among others. And even when Stalin admitted that this was a mistake and that peasants were, as Fitzgerald puts it, “…entitled to keep a cow and small animals as a part of their non-collectivized household economics.” (p. 4)  the damage had been done.

Most of these livestock ended up being slaughtered, mistreated (and dying from it) or never returned to their original owners, even after the peasants cited mistreatment.

Interestingly, Fitzgerald notes later on (p. 15) that although Stalin’s regime had many faults, it was, at least later on, much more responsive,

The authorities read the peasants’ letters, investigated their complaints, and often acted on their denunciations.

Of course these, “denunciations” were often against fellow peasants in higher positions than the one complaining. I suspect this was sometimes used for power games. A good way to frame this power game is when Fitzgerald mentions the concepts of “passive resistance” (PR), “passive acceptance” (PA) and “active accommodation” (AA).

Those peasants who were in a state of PR often disliked those who were doing their best to be in AA. The individuals who used the framework of PA often tried to game the system to their own personal gain. And while sometimes this could be laudable (e.g. cheating the state out of work or money), in other cases it was likely done for less noble means (getting someone you don’t like sent to the gulags for example).

This process recalled another conception used during the 1920s where the Soviet Union had so called “rural correspondents”. These correspondents would write openly and vocally about the supposed “wrongdoings” of others in their local villages.

Again, though I don’t know for sure, I suspect this was an easy way to obtain more power for oneself while conveniently hampering or even “disappearing” their foes. Doubtless this was used by peasants who wielded it against those higher than them on the Soviet totem pole as well.

Speaking of which, there were several layers of bureaucracy going on in this system.

These layers can be divided among the PR, PA and AA categories we saw before. The individuals who work with a PR background tend to be peasants and would, I imagine, aim no higher. They engage in slow-downs, working to rule, “not understanding” the rules, etc. They complain loudly to friends and family about the Soviet and Stalin.

This may sound odd, but again, they’re in rural Russia. As such it was harder for the Soviet authorities themselves to suppress the speech of the peasants. And given all of the economic and social strife caused by Stalin came widespread distrust and dislike of Stalin. This became common enough that loud complaints (compiled by police reports at the time) were sometimes let “under the radar”.

As mentioned before, the PA individuals would game the system for their own personal game. This may mean that they’d actually get involved in the system to some extent to benefit themselves. Still, the passivity of the acceptance meant that they likely wouldn’t aim too high. For instance, they might try to become an officeholder or a short-term machinist for a number of years before leaving for the urban environment.

The AAs are the ones who would go the extra mile. They would openly and eagerly try to become an officeholder in a local community, a machinist or a Stakhanovite (lauded worker). This was particularly valued by women (usually younger but sometimes older) because it allowed them more independence. The privileges gained from the local officeholders or perhaps even the Soviet leaders themselves if they did well enough, could be great.

But all of these roles also carry risks as well.

Being PR could mean that someone higher up may complain about you and your slacker ways. And if you were a peasant (as you likely were) then you’re off for a getaway to Siberia…or a gulag. As a peasant you also likely had little bargaining power against such a punishment and little recourse for appeal.

Being PA meant that you’re more likely to get complained by anyone. Gaming the system all by itself could get the people in charge of the system upset with you. The peasants who may be below you might not like you. And of course the AAs think you’re in their way for great success in the Soviet hierarchy when all you want is personal gain.

The AAs have to worry about everyone below them and it was quite common (especially given the gender aspect) that they would be harassed or complained about for their servile obedience. And getting yourself on a big stage where you represent the Soviet Union (if you get that far) could mean mistakes are a much bigger deal.

All of this sets us up for a widely divided culture that is ripe for anti-work tactics of resistance.

That’s my main focus in this book, besides the general historical interest of course.

I’m curious to discover how exactly the peasants who lived under Stalin were able to get away (or not) with slacking off and, by proxy at least, sticking it to one of the worst tyrants in history.

I think a historical view on this could help us inform ourselves about how to resist the systems in place today. Which, by no means is as outwardly despotic, but still has despotic elements. And of course the present system can and does subsume us under the idea of “work” for the nation-state or corporation, nonetheless.

It isn’t hard to see why the peasants resisted Stalin’s rule.

After all, Fitzgerald constantly refers to this as a “traumatic” experience and remarks that,

…[N]o previous state farm had been conducted so violently and coercively, involved such a direct and all-encompassing assault on peasant values, or taken so much while offering so little. (4)

That the coercively imposed collectivization showed an utter contempt for peasant lifestyle was unsurprising. Those in the more urban areas likely had many classist prejudices against the rural peasants. Which isn’t, at the same time, to romance the peasants in any way. They likely had many patriarchal elements that greatly limited women’s autonomy for instance, as Fitzgerald motions to on several occasions, among many other faults of their own.

This conflict between Stalin and “his” peasants was so dramatic that Fitzgerald attributes some of the famine in 1933 to this conflict. Calling it a case of an unstoppable force (the state) and the immovable object (the peasants).

But despite all of this inner social and economic conflict, peasants often didn’t outwardly fight against the Soviet state. Part of that was purely a practical affair, they knew they’d lose and be sent somewhere worse than death. But it was also because many of the men who were young and capable left instead for the urban areas to work there.

Of note is that the Soviet state didn’t actively discourage the peasants emigrating from the USSR entirely. They made some ambiguous disapproval from time to time but in all, the Soviets felt that they had a gigantic surplus of rural peasants to make use of. So, generally speaking, the Soviet state didn’t pay much mind if peasants decided to emigrate.

In fact, ironically, due to the removal and expropriation of the kulaks, they had already lost 1 million or more peasants from their rural peasant population.

Regardless, peasants eventually found a middle path: They would stay in their local community but try to subsist on work outside the work the state offered. This is an interesting strategy indeed and encapsulates some of the strategies I’ve tried in my life, though under obviously much less oppressive conditions.

Going into the counter-economy for instance, can often remove a lot of the regulations and restrictions imposed by the state. It can reduce the costs of entry and thus make going into business a lot easier for lower-income folks than it would be normally.

Doing things like peacefully selling drugs, using alternative currencies, trying to live off the grid, voluntary sex work, etc. are ways that, while risky, may increase your individual profits by treating the state as damage and routing around it.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising to me but theology was another tool in the toolbox of resistance for the peasants. Ever since the rise of the Soviets, religion had been diminished in its importance more and more. Eventually this led to churches being closed down, priests arrested (and likely sent to camps) and believers having their icons burned. But instead of quieting the rabble, this, predictably only made it worse for the Soviet state.

When officials would come into particularly religiously minded rural communities, some peasants would start chanting, “Lord have mercy” has a way to show defiance to them. Other peasants would use “religious holidays” (not recognized on any known calendar) to get out of working.

The fact that officials had a tough time dealing with these methods of resistance wasn’t surprising. Their methods were usually sloppy and almost “improvisational” as Fitzgerald remarks. The process of collectivization was very messy and a sort of “process as practice” methodology. Whereby peasants, the local officials and the Soviet state came together through a complicated array of negotiation, submission and domination to work out disputes.

One of the biggest disputes was whether the fields of the commons would be completely common or not. Would the peasants own their own individual things or would the state own everything? Of course, it wasn’t as neat as this, I’m simplifying. Still, the officials ended up pushing for the most amount of collectivization possible.

This ended up being, by the mid 1930s a mix of collective and common ownership. Whereby the Soviet state would own the fields the workers worked on. but their own devices and houses became too difficult to manage.

This problem is an issue of “legibility” that sociologist and Marxist James C. Scott refers to. And though Fitzgerald refreshingly refers to Scott by name and his notion of “hidden” and “public” scripts (in reference to the peasants approval of Stalin) she doesn’t mention this important conception.

Legibility is, in part, what helps explain why the Soviet state was less able to command the peasants. It couldn’t effectively command what it couldn’t see. It tried to delegate this to local officials to make up for its knowledge problems but in the end even these local officials had difficulties totally challenging the peasants autonomy.

There were different responses to this encroachment on their autonomy.

Many different peasants had different views of the “ideal life” but for sake of simplicity Fitzgerald uses three categories:

  1. The traditional peasant – They’d like to go back to a closer rural community structure, possibly with the previously patriarchal family elements, but surely the religious ones.
  2. The rationalist peasant – This sort of peasant was more focused on economics and favored the Soviet New Economic Policy of the 1920s; a small independent farming peasantry that was left largely alone by the state.
  3. The welfare-state peasant – A peasant who, for either personal gain or legitimate belief, wanted what they were promised from the Soviet constitution; things like their security and guarantees of other sorts from the state.

(I prefer the term “good master” (which Fitzgerald briefly mentions) to the “welfare-state” as I feel it’s more accurate, so I’ll be using that term instead.)

As you might expect, given these three options, I support the rationalist peasant the most.

Although I doubt I would’ve agreed with all of the details (particularly cultural ones), I’m certainly for less state involvement in the lives of independent producers. And if communities want to live on their own, be self-sufficient and have little to nothing to do with the state, then so much the better.

On the other hand, I’m not a relativist. I don’t think these communities would suddenly become magically perfect or stop being patriarchal and intolerant of the a–religious. I don’t think that their idea of a market or farm-based economy would meet all of my desires for what a community ought to organize itself on.

So, it’s not like I think this is the best option but rather the best of the available options I can see. It’s at least possible the rationalist peasants would be less inclined towards the traditional views as well as the good master views. That’d perhaps lead to a nice synthesis of making use of both views.

In fact, the rationalist view would likely be aided by the notion of the good master conception of security and networks of support, but doing it through voluntary means. Likewise, the traditional view could be helpful insofar as it helps bring together communities and lets those voluntary networks of mutual aid flourish within a more market-orientated society (PDF).

…But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Insofar as the AAs existed, their acceptance was provisional.

It’s historically important to recognize this: Acceptance was always provisional.

This is one of the most important points I got from this introduction.

The peasants who lived under Stalin’s rule, lived under his rule. And that means they were often put into situations where they didn’t want to be or wanted to devise shortcuts around. A situation where you’d have your livestock stolen, religious symbols and communities torn apart by violence, and economically suffer from the mistakes of bureaucrats is certainly one you’d be upset by.

So too were the peasants, whatever the central authorities thought of their precious Potemkin Village.

The “Potemkin Village” as the Soviet authorities called it, was, “…the state’s idealized and distorted representation of what of rural life.” (p. 16) Think of the way North Korea’s authorities romanticize the society of North Koreans, or how Mao’s leadership did the same for the People’s Republic of China.

Still, there were some peasants who lived up to this vision. A vision that proclaimed Stalin as the Great Leader of Soviet Russia and the peasants and workers his children. The “Potemkin peasants” were the ultimate in brown-nosing and were widely despised by other peasants. Sometimes on a general level and of course, in other cases, on a power level.

One notable thing that the Soviet Union did, with or without such a distorted vision, was widely enhance the literacy rates (a favorite statistic for apologists of Stalin and other brutal Soviet dictators to cite, but try to cite the same for public schools in the beginnings of America and it’ll be a bad thing because it’s “The West”) but all this led to was manipulation on the part of peasants towards the state.

In particular the peasants used the model of Potemkin Village to try to get certain officials out of office. They claimed that a certain official (and typically they were right) was brutal, apathetic towards the plights of the peasant, etc. This sort of tactic against the state was effective, but only in the short-run.

In the long run, “Stalin’s peasants” as they were known in the Potemkin lore, used everything they could to avoid work.

They used religion, slow-downs, working to rule, working to vision (the Potemkin one), they used the system against itself and for their own game, etc.

As Fitzgerald parenthetically remarks on page 1:
…[D]o peasants ever actively support programs of radical change advocated by the state?
Remember: Acceptance was always provisional.

Acceptance may be provisional but I hope your support won’t be!

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