Oct 2, 2017
This article continues our series on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, taken from the words of participants.
“Civilization has made the peasantry its pack animal. The bourgeoisie in the long run only changed the form of the pack,” Trotsky wrote in the chapter of his History of the Russian Revolution devoted to changes in the way of thinking in the countryside. The peasantry, who represented three-fourths of the population, lived under conditions that varied depending on region and social situation, from the landless agricultural worker to the farmer who rented out his land. It also included the small landholders who struggled to feed their families and the big proprietors who ranked among the village notables. But during the course of the revolution, the peasants expressed themselves in more and more radical ways, not holding back from breaking past the Provisional Government’s hesitations and taking direct possession of the land.
In his memoir, Through the Russian Revolution, the U.S. socialist journalist Albert Rhys Williams recounted the visit that he took in August 1917 to the village of Spasskoye in the Volga River basin with Yanishev, a Bolshevik militant who had been driven out of the village ten years earlier and who had not returned since: “Since our arrival, the villagers had been asking Yanishev to make a speech. In the early evening, there arrived a delegation beseeching him.
‘Think of it,’ said Yanishev. ‘Ten years ago, if these peasants had suspected that I was a Socialist, they would have come to kill me. Now, knowing that I am a Bolshevik, they come begging to talk. Things have gone a long, long way since then.’ …
The committee drew a wagon out upon the village green and when the throng was thick around it, Yanishev mounted this rostrum and began telling the Bolshevik story of the Revolution, the War, and the Land.
They stood listening while evening darkened into night. Then they brought torches, and Yanishev talked on. His voice grew husky. They brought him water, tea, and kvass [a fermented rye drink]. His voice failed, and they waited patiently till it came back again. These peasants who had labored all day in the fields stood there late into the night, more eager to gather stores for their mind than they had been to gather food for their bodies. …
So much reverence and age-old longings in those eager faces pressing around the speaker. So much hunger in these questions rising out of the dark. Yanishev toiled on until he was utterly exhausted.”
In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky relates the words of a Moscow liberal newspaper that echoed the concerns among the landlord circles in the summer of 1917: “The muzhik [Russian peasant] is glancing round, he is not doing anything yet, but look in his eyes – his eyes will tell you that all the land lying around him is his land.”
Analyzing the hundreds of struggles that broke out during the revolution all across Russia, Trotsky continued: “In that autumn period, the villages were struggling with the kulaks [wealthier peasants], not throwing them off, but compelling them to adhere to the general movement and defend it against blows from the right. There were even cases where a refusal to participate in a raid was punished by the death of the culprit. The kulak maneuvered while he could, but at the last moment, scratching the back of his head once more, hitched the well-fed horses to the iron-rimmed wagon and went out for his share. It was often the lion’s share. ‘The well-to-do got the most out of it,’ says the Penza peasant, Begishev, ‘those who had horses and free men.’ Savchenko from Orel expressed himself in almost the same words: ‘The kulaks mostly got the best of it, being well-fed and with something to draw the wood in.’
According to the calculations of Vermenichev, to 4,954 agrarian conflicts with landlords between February and October, there were 324 conflicts with the peasant bourgeoisie. An extraordinarily clear correlation! It alone firmly establishes the fact that the peasant movement of 1917 was directed in its social foundations not against capitalism, but against the relics of serfdom. The struggle against kulakism developed only later, in 1918, after the conclusive liquidation of the landlord.”