Stalin’s Peasants, by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chapter 3)

Like a terribly repressive social policy in the 1930s by the Soviet Union under Stalin, State Farm is there!

I will admit that the book is not as relevant to anti-work struggles as I’d hoped it be. The difficulty with going off the suggestions and reviews of others (which I believe is what spurred me to buy this book) is that they may only be judging it generally instead specific chapter relevance.

Given that, we’re gonna hit chapters now and again that I’m not going to be able to tie back to the anti-work narrative as much as others. I still think the historical things I’m learning are quite interesting (and more often horrifying as well) and worth sharing in their own right. But it’ll be difficult to tie back some of this to anti-work at times, so bear with me.

Chapter 3, as you may have guessed, is going to be one such chapter.

It focuses mainly on the exodus (the title of the chapter) of villagers to the cities and towns after Stalin’s collectivization, de-kulakization, purging, the famine, etc. Many peasants saw the departure of the villages as a departure and not as some sort of “grand new adventure” to Leningrad or wherever they were headed.

These departures were, according to Fitzpatrick, “partly coerced and partly voluntary “(p.80). The “partly voluntary” part came from the pull of industry being set up in more heavily in the cities. The peasants realizing this, some decided to migrate towards the cities in hope of escaping the collective farms, the de-kulakization, the famine and so on.

This “voluntary” effort seems very involuntary indeed.

Moreover, Fitzpatgrick simplifies the causal effects of employment opportunities for peasants. After all, if the peasants had better choices at home, does she think they would leave their families, their land, and their property behind? Stalin had removed the ability for many peasants to be independent farmers via his de-kulakization efforts, and some farmers even did that for him before fleeing for fear of their safety. There may be an “invisible” hand of sorts going on but it has the mighty iron fist of Stalin behind it at all times, preventing free and voluntary incentives to arise spontaneously.

At any rate, all of this had the interesting effect of removing the resistance from the villages but also removing many of the instigators from the local communist organizations. Many no longer saw the village as the key to the “good life” and decided that they would be better off (for many reasons) in the cities. Some saw it as a way to get away from the collective farms and work in factories where they were likely to make more money, etc.

Now the way to get out could either be voluntary…or not.

There was a secret police called the OGPU that sometimes “assisted” you out of Russia if you were found to be a “kulak” which at many points was just a meaningless phrases. Essentially “kulak” was eventually used as a phrase to demonize peasants per se and not just “wealthy” peasants. This out-group bias was so strong that unions at first made efforts to keep peasants out of the workforce.The y didn’t wan the labor competition at first, but when push came to shove and more labor shortages happened, they changed their tune.

Fitzpatrick claims that there weren’t many differences between the “kulaks” who were able to stay in cities and free workers”…well except that the “kulaks” couldn’t leave the region where they settled (p.83). So that is kind of important…I mean, that seems like a big difference even if it’s just one difference. I feel as if it’s much more important to look at quality than quantity in certain cases and I believe this is one of those cases.

For a short time however, not everything was awful.

Many cities experienced what’s called a “sellers market” where laborers actually have more power than the bosses to demand work, rather than submit to a boss at a wage they find less agreeable. This all changed when the Fire Nation attacked…I mean, when the temporary crisis of 1932 happened, but Fitzpatrick implies the effects weren’t long-lasting.

The famine itself though was long-lasting. Not only did 30,000 communities flee the countryside but so many peasants did that the trains to cities or elsewhere in Russia started to be guarded. If peasants were spotted they were often arrested on the spot and forcibly sent back to their villages.

Meanwhile the state farms were still rather useless. The rate of workers for it increased dramatically year after year, but again, this is only because Stalin had effectively limited their alternative options. Most workers were only there temporarily and only so they could avoid the famine and get some privileges for themselves and their families. For example, the state farms afforded peasants social privileges that would make it easier for them to stay in the villages that they wanted to do. It also increased the chances they wouldn’t be deported or put on Stalin’s various lists.

Interestingly, like a good capitalist and boss, Stalin explicitly discussed in 1931 that the primacy of the industry was more important than the state farms. And when it came to the labor shortages Stalin demanded under penalty of law that the state farms send millions of workers to the cities so that more workers could come to the cities and expand industry.

Things tended to get tricky from here though.

With so many peasants coming to the cities, eventually a passport system was implemented. Fitzpatrick tries to downplay it…by comparing it to the US immigration system in the 90s? I don’t know how much Fitzpatrick knows/knew about immigration back then but it wasn’t easy for immigrants to get into the US more than 15 years ago, let alone now. So this comparison doesn’t really do much for me as someone who has read on the horrors of borders.

On another note, and for more evidence on Stalin’s capitalist themed ideas, check this out:

The labor discipline law issued on November 15th, 1932 gave enterprise managers not only the right but the DUTY to fire any worker who took even ONE day off without permission.

The law emphasized that workers dismissed under this law must IMMEDIATELY be evicted from enterprise housing and must also be deprived of their ration cards. (p. 92, emphasis mine)

I’m not sure what else I really need to say here as I feel like this speaks for itself.

In any case, Fitzpatrick says that these laws were only really practiced during 1932.

And okay, that’s nice, I suppose.

But putting something like this in law is going to have unorganized cultural effects which can lead to many informal consequences for workers. In other words, just because there isn’t a secret cabal of police abducting and killing workers for not going to work for a day without their boss’s permission (and who knows with the OGPU…) doesn’t mean that there weren’t dispersed, decentralized, leaderless efforts at making workers who didn’t go to work making their lives hell.

On the other hand, it’s hard to prove a negative and it may be unfair to simply say that just because this is possible that it happened to a large or significant extent. And I can agree to that to an extent for sure. But I also want to stress that just because the official policymakers and their hired goons didn’t go after workers, doesn’t mean no one else did.

The passport regime was fairly authoritarian though and Fitzpatrick doesn’t deny the irony that it was often reminiscent to some communist leaders of the previous Tsarist regime. It also fed into anti-peasant bias and discrimination as people were now more formally and institutionally discriminating against peasants. The passport system (in theory at least) more or less prohibited peasant ID cards, even “lowly” state farm workers could get those. And given that refusing passports wasn’t an option this meant more mass deportation or fleeing of peasants from the cities.

In total between 300 – 800,000 “undesirables” (including many peasants) were the end-goal with relation to deportation efforts. The deportation itself was often left to OGPU and astonishingly not until the 1970s did peasants get an automatic right to a passport int he Soviet Union.

Oddly, Fitzpatrick downplays this system calling it “irksome” to peasants but nothing they couldn’t get around. While I find the peasants inspiring in their resiliency, ingenuity and believe Fitzpatrick on this point, it strikes me as weird to use a word like “irksome” in this context. I also understand governments are often ineffective at keeping their goals, but that doesn’t mean that the secret police, the larger society or some peasants themselves trying to gain social privileges, didn’t make it a bit more than “irksome” for other peasants.

Lastly, what probably didn’t help any of this was the fact that the Soviet’s “organized” recruitment to get new labor into industries to reduce the effects of the labor shortages. Unfortunately, it was riddled with bribery, ineffective results and funnily enough relied a lot less on “rational” or centralized planning and more on market mechanisms.

A lot of this may not mean much for an anti-work movement, but I do think it does a few things perhaps important:

  1. It further develops “Stalin as capitalist” narrative I’ve been building.
  2. It shows the resilience of oppressed people under even the most brutal of systems, which may build some confidence for workers now under oppressive and brutal regimes, wherever they may be.
  3. I think this also shows some inherent failures to communism as a way to anti-work, or at least through heavily authoritarian means. Even if that’s not what Stalin (or any of the Soviet Union) were going for, it’s clear that the consequences of whatever their intentions were are the apotheosis of an anti-work movement.

In the next chapter we’ll be getting to what the villages looked like after collectivization.

I suspect this is where we’ll see some anti-work resistance.

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