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Sheila Fitzpatrick’s ironically titled tome Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization, delves deeply into the pre-collective and collective rural society of the Soviet Union under the rule of Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship of the 1930’s. Fitzpatrick’s array of anecdotes brings to life the peasant resistance to the kolkhoz system as well as the struggles of Soviet officials to implement Stalin’s commands. Stalin’s collectivization of the countryside was initially viewed by the peasantry as neo-serfdom. Over the course of the decade, however, peasants saw that the arbitrary collectivization was more of an attempt to eradicate peasant social identity and tradition. The kolkhoz was created to exploit peasant labor and commandeer agricultural resources. The peasantry paid the ultimate price, especially the kulak class (and anyone arbitrarily labeled as a kulak), with their lives. Although peasants traditionally identified with their own Mir rather than Russia, collectivization gave them the common bond of outright resistance. They worked to make the kolkhoz serve their purpose rather than that of the state.
“Stalin’s peasants” actually detested Stalin. Fitzpatrick’s discussion of the “Potemkin Village” illustrates the vast divide between the authorities and the peasantry. The idealized, utopian village of the Soviet establishment and the propaganda showing a peasant class that revered comrade Stalin was the “antithesis” of Soviet social reality. The common peasant saying “no food on the table, but Stalin on the wall,” was indicative of peasant struggles and frustration with the government, as well as their direct (and accurate) blame of Stalin for their ills. Show trials in which peasants vented true misfortunes and crimes, were used by the communists only as a propaganda tool rather than a remedy. Even Stalin’s “conciliatory” and “ingratiating gestures,” such as offering maternity leave for workers and his “warm public appearances,” were met with suspicion by peasants (p. 290-291). Peasants even rejoiced at Kirov’s murder, viewed by many as a moderate, simply because he was a member of the Communist Party.
Peasant opposition to collectivization evolved from one of active resistance to passive resistance. Subaltern strategies included “foot-dragging, failure to understand instructions, refusal to take the initiative and pilfering” (p. 5). The state’s ruthless oppression of uprisings prevented violent upheaval in the countryside. Over the course of the 1930’s, peasant resistance became one of “active accommodation,” in which the peasants could join the system rather than attempt to beat it. Fitzpatrick raises the question of whether or not this is “Sovietization” or the peasantry actually buying into the system. Peasants could fill the role of kolkhoz officeholder, machine operator for the local MTS, or work toward “Stakhanovism.” Of course, joining the system was a dangerous venture, despite the perks, as the central authority was known to use its officials as scapegoats should a collective fail to meet its quota. Moreover, Stakhanovism, in which a peasant works above and beyond what is expected, only raised expectations for the rest of the kolkhozniks. Often, this led to persecution of the stakhanovite (typically a woman) by the other villagers. As Fitzpatrick makes clear, the state initiated a forced collectivization that the peasantry never accepted.
Moreover, many peasants left the countryside for the cities. Over twelve million peasants left their villages in the early 1930’s to become wage earners, exacerbated by the first five year plan in 1929 (p. 80). Some left to find work on state farms rather than in the kolkhoz. This large loss of young males demoralized villages and thus made them less likely to physically protest collectivization. Most kulaks, whether they were deported or left of their own accord, ended up working in industries.
Rebellion or refusal to conform to the system was fraught with danger. The Bolsheviks feared the NEP would create “nascent capitalists” in the Mirs. This became the “fulcrum of their fears” (p. 33). During the dekulakization period (initiated by Stalin in December 1929), millions of peasants, whether they were classified as bedniaks (poor peasants), seredniaks (middle peasants), or kulaks, faced the danger of Siberian banishment. Although only three percent of Russian society was kulak by 1930, Soviet officials deported millions due to fears of capitalism permeating the Mirs. Kulak status was convoluted within the Mir. Kulaks were respected, yet envied for their perceived wealth. Dekulakization was frightening in its randomness, but peasants were indifferent overall, Fitzpatrick contends.
Collectivization officials were “outsiders” who knew little about farming according to peasants. The Politburo’s “gigantomania” in relation to collectivization left the concept in a state of oblivion. Although Stalin never specified what collectivization meant, the central government sent out quotas that were to be met in each raion, which then set down the quota in each kolkhoz. Officials had to meet quotas or face persecution. Moreover, meeting an annual quota often meant an increase in the next quota. The regime was purposefully nonspecific in its requests under collectivization, Fitzpatrick contends, in order to get “local cadres pushing for the absolute maximum” (p. 49). This often led to hysteria in the countryside as officials used any means necessary to acquire goods while committing numerous crimes against the kolkhozniks. In the early 1930’s, kolkhoz administrators got away with numerous crimes such as rape and theft. By the time of the Purges of 1937, however, officials were punished for violating the capricious “kolkhoz democracy” or the kolkhoz charter (p. 195).
Official drives to eliminate religion typically led to theological unification of the peasantry, Fitzpatrick contends (Fitzpatrick also makes clear, however, that collectivization caused “intense feuding” within the village communities). Komosol gangs stormed churches and vandalized church property. Priests were treated as kulaks. Returning Red Army soldiers proclaimed themselves atheist, while peasant marriages were increasingly carried out in civic institutions rather than in the Orthodox Church. Religious persecution, however, increased peasant resolve to resist collectivization. Resistance became religiously symbolic. Peasants carried out congregations in the homes of church members after priests were purged. “The distinction between Orthodox and Old Believers was losing its meaning in some places” (p. 205). Religious sects were increasing in the villages and peasants turned to “sectarian slogans” over Communist propaganda.
The 1930’s witnessed a countryside rife with hysteria. Peasant class tensions were exacerbated by the uncertainty of collectivization rules, the raiding Komosol thugs, incongruent government policies, and corrupt regional officials. Peasants were forced to choose whether or not they were for or “against Soviet power.” Officials continued with dekulakization, while peasants lynched Komosol and Soviet officials. Many peasants viewed collectivization as evil and the coming of the Apocalypse. “Why sow if the end of the world is coming soon?,” peasants often asked (p. 47). Peasants awaited a rumored German invasion, believing that the Germans would eliminate the collective system. Of course, German occupation bore a striking resemblance to Stalinism.
The Purges, which had their greatest impact on the urban population, hindered an already obfuscated system. Purged bosses purged subordinates. The number of registered party members by district decreased while “rural cadres were in a state of panic” (p. 198). Fitzpatrick indicates the level of turnover stating that by “the end of 1937,” nearly half of the “kolkhoz chairmen, brigade leaders, and heads of kolkhoz commercial farms had been on the job for less than a year” (p. 199). Show trials were used to show the “crimes” of officials and address real peasant grievances, but accomplished little in fixing the situation.
Fitzpatrick’s book exposes the clash between the onset of forced collectivization and the long-held traditions of peasant society. Stalin was indeed “Peasant Enemy No. 1” not only in the eyes of objective historians, but in the eyes of the peasants over which he ruled (p. 296). Peasants viewed collectivization as not only a rebirth of serfdom, but a renewed means of exploitation. They molded Kolkhoz collectivization to fit their needs (with the exception of state procurement of horses). They were able to maintain some semblance of village autonomy and identity despite Communist attempts to shatter peasant tradition and custom. The only real criticism of Fitzpatrick’s work, which she admits, is that many of her anecdotes come from limited sources. Still, this work is an encyclopedia of information on the struggles of collectivization in Stalinist Russia. Fitzpatrick’s work is a foundation for any study of Russian peasant society in the 1930’s.