Stalin’s Peasants, by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chapter 6)

“on the margins” literally

I: Introduction

Whether it comes to the fiction I write or the non-fiction that I read or the ideas I embody or even the people I tend to associate with folks who live “on the margins” are usually the most fascinating to me. The individuals who have taken a look at society and concluded something to the effect of, “Thanks but no thanks.”

Maybe they’re outlaws, maybe they’re vagrants, maybe they’re disenfranchised and maybe they just want to see the world burn from the outside. Whatever the case, these people who have decided to live outside society and tend to be some of the most interesting folks to me. Not only because I often feel like an outsider within society but because the Outsider as a person often has interesting perspectives that, by definition, folks on the inside of society tend to dismiss.

So that’s just one of many reasons that chapter 6, On the Margins appeals to me.

II: Independents

Granted, when I read it last night I was already exhausted and pushed myself through the chapter. So my enjoyment of it was curtailed by external circumstances. In any case it gets us to take a look at four classes of peasants who lived in the villages (and some folks who lived on the outside of course).

The independents, the craftsmen, the khutor dwellers and the otkhodniks (and other wage earners) were the ones focused on.

Monocentric institutions like the USSR tend to use a process from agriculture called monocropping:

Monocropping is the agricultural practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land, in the absence of rotation through other crops or growing multiple crops on the same land (polyculture).

But instead of with regards to agriculture they did this with entire communities.

So they would try to grow and practice certain norms at the expense of other ones. There was heavy use of taxation as a form of punishment for those who didn’t join the collective state-run farms over the years. This was especially applicable to independents who, by 1938 had dwindled to 7% of the population from their previous 39% in 1932.

The last blow against the independents came when the right to keep a horse was denied by Soviets. This right was one of the few things that helped independents able to actually stay independent with any sort of stability or consistency. Partly because collective members were not allowed to own horses so independents could rent them out for a price and to do this they sometimes even used black markets. Generally speaking, the black market was one of many other tools that those on the margins and individuals who disliked the collective farms would use to resist the Soviet state.

Part of the dislike for independents by Soviet officials was not only that they were independent to begin with but also because independents were associated with kulaks! And if we have learned anything throughout the book t’s that the Soviets had their own “red scare” when it came to the phenomenon of middle and upper class peasants in the countryside. And even past that, the independents tended to be entrepreneurial, the horror!

Official discrimination often came along with these practices of high taxation on independents which included things like insurmountably high quotas for independents to meet for their sowing. As result of all of these pressures and internal pressures in the community independents would often engage in “refusal of sowing” (pg. 154). They would allow some of their plot to either die out or go unclaimed and then later sow it and sell it on the black market.

Although they didn’t necessarily do this as an act to abolish the government it is a tactic reminiscent of counter-economics which is a tactic whereby use black (illegal but peaceful) markets and grey (extra-legal and peaceful) market transactions to undermine the authority and legitimacy of an existing government.

One of the more controversial means of refusing or resisting work was were when independents who were men left “without leaving an address” (p. 154). This meant that they would leave the countryside without letting anyone (even their family) know where they were going. And although I applaud just about any form of resistance to the state, it doesn’t seem quite as virtuous to harm your own family as well.

On the other hand, some of the punishments that independents could face with officials over the amount of money they were making could be huge. It included deportation, death-sentences in some cases and prison time which explains why many independents eventually elf the countryside for the cities or elsewhere. So it’s perhaps understandable to some extent that some even abandoned their family so they could get away.

Despite all of this treatment though, when it came to independents selling their labor outside of the communities that often (though not always) treated them with disdain and disrespect they were sometimes regarded as doing something wrong. After all it was “the communities” independents and their wages naturally belonged to the community as well!

III: Craftsmen

Craftsmen didn’t have it much better and particularly blacksmith and mill owners (millers).

In fact, the process of collectivization generally reduced the amount of self-reliance individuals had as well as the overall collective self-reliance that communities used to have for themselves. Certain communities complained about the lack of materials that used to be in plenitude but given craftsmen being associated with the kulaks…well it wasn’t exactly popular to be one. Nevertheless, some managed to scrape by on deals that they made with the local state farms, blacksmith in particular tended to make out well for themselves and especially when they’d do independent deals on the side.

It wasn’t so much that the making of crafts was forbidden but it was “obviously discouraged” (159).

Part of the reasoning for this came from the newfound importance of obtaining food and rubles from the collective farms. This was another part of monocropping: Making community members more and more reliant on the monocentric institution and less reliant on themselves and their previous associations (like the mir).This makes the community members easier to regulate and control from the monocentric institution’s point of view.

This control was important enough that it didn’t even matter when things like mill owners were in dangerously low supply. In one case the loss of a miller meant the loss of electricity for an entire community and this was considered acceptable.

Why? Kulaks!

Overall there was very little coherence from Soviet officials on the role of blacksmiths while mill owners were more generally hated and reviled as being a leftover of the kulaks. To be clear, both of these sorts of folks were (as all of the classes of people in this chapter) a minority in the communities. But this just made it easier for them to get the short end of the stick among communities that were already getting a pretty raw deal.

And just like with the independents craftsmen used the black markets to sell their goods and trade them when they could and as often as they could, particularly in the beginning. Though this ended up declining as the iron fist of Soviet power clenched firmer and firmer on the peasants and their remaining abilities to deal with the awful economy they were in.

IV: Khutor Dwellers

There’s not too terribly much to say about these folks but as best as I can tell they were on the outside (geographically) of the villages and state-farm in their own small collective farms. I could be misunderstanding Fitzpatrick (and if so that’s likely on me) but just as with blacksmiths the state officials were unsure what to do about them.

Often these collective arrangements outside of the villages but close enough to trade with them were a mask for individual household who simply wanted to get benefits from the system. Otkhodniks were similar in that they’d work for the state farms but then also earn wages on the side. Mild calls for reform of the situation with Khtor led to absorbing far too many of the khtor collective farms and from this arouse claims of “gigantomania” once more.

These measures all but ended the dwellers after years of them barely getting by as it was.

V: Otkhodniks and Other Wage Earners

For those who don’t remember (and I wouldn’t blame you) otkhodniks are just workers who went outside the communities (often during the summer but not always) to get some extra income going for themselves. This way they could till get all of the benefit of the state farms but also still get an income on the side that may make them pseudo-independent.

The otkhodniks brought up a larger discussion of how much the state was entitled to the incomes of anyone who made rubles from anyone other than the state. Although they were eventually exempted from wage garnishment by 1933 the passport system I’ve mentioned before was instituted.

Luckily for the otkhodniks (and most people) the passport system wasn’t very well enforced.

It was difficult to manage that amount of paperwork and the sheer number of people who needed them for various reasons, particularly in the countryside where I’d assume they had less infrastructure to deal with problems of legibility. The passport system even worked to the benefit of the otkhodniks as some would use it as an excuse to more generally travel and thus gain some measure of freedom of movement they hadn’t had before.

Unluckily for the otkhodniks they were often the subject of way more inner conflict between themselves and other community members. Often accused of not “pulling their own weight” (sometimes true and sometimes not to be fair) which led to expulsion especially due to the otkhodniks interest in using their side-work to avoid taxes, etc.

VI: Conclusion

So there you have it, these are the people “on the margins” who used various tools (black markets, legal loopholes, refusal to sow) and more to undermine a deeply authoritarian system based heavily around work!

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