Figes, Natasha’s Dance 4. 5

Bleaker Views of the Peasants after 1900

With the publication of Chekhov’s bleak story Peasants in 1898, the myth of the good peasant had been punctured. Russia’s identity had been built upon the myth which Chekhov had destroyed. The Populists denounced Chekhov for failing to reflect the spiritual ideals of peasant life. Tolstoy called the story ‘a sin before the people’ and said that Chekhov had not looked into the peasant’s soul. Slavophiles attacked it as a slander against Russia. But the Marxists, whose opinions were beginning to be heard, praised the story for revealing the way the rise of the capitalist town had caused the decline of the village. Reactionaries were pleased with the story, too, because it proved, they said, that the peasant was his own worst enemy.

The impact of the story was all the more disturbing for the simple factual style in which it was composed. It seemed not so much a work of fiction as a documentary study. Chekhov’s story was the fruit of its author’s first-hand knowledge of the peasantry. Shortly before he wrote the story Chekhov had observed a group of drunken servants in his own kitchen. One of them had married off his daughter, much against her will, in exchange for a bucket of vodka. They were now drinking it. But Chekhov was not shocked by such a scene. Over the years he had come to know the peasants through his work as a doctor at his country estate of Melikhovo.  

Chekhov was  a ‘small deeds’ liberal. During the cholera epidemic that followed on the heels of the famine crisis in 1891 he had given up his writing and worked as a doctor for the district zemstvo in the capital itself. In his report, Chekhov concluded that ‘The peasants are crude, unsanitary and mistrustful’. Five years later, in 1897, Chekhov helped to collect the statistics for the first national census in Russian history. He was horrified that just a few kilometres from Moscow there were villages where six out of every ten infants would die in their first year due to the lack of proper aftercare. Chekhov argued that since the rich got richer by turning the poor peasants into drunks and whores, they should be made to meet the costs of their health care.

For the Slavophiles and the Populists, who saw Russia’s unique virtues in the old peasant culture and community, the growing subjugation of the village to the town was a national catastrophe. But for Westernists, the liberals and the Marxists, who embraced the city as a modernizing force, the peasantry was backward and bound to die away. Even the government was forced to reassess its peasant policy as the influence of the urban market began to change the countryside. The peasant commune was no longer feeding the growing population of the countryside, let alone providing a marketable surplus for the state to tax.

Since 1861 the government had left villages in the hands of the communes -believing them to be the bulwarks of the patriarchal order in the countryside: its own state administration stopped at the level of the district towns.  After the 1905 Revolution, though,  the government under Prime Minister Stolypin attempted to break up the village commune by encouraging the stronger peasants to set up private farms on land removed from communal control, and at the same time helping those who were too weak to farm, or deprived of access to the land by the new laws of private property, to move as labourers into the towns.

The slow decline of peasant farming in the overpopulated central Russian zone resulted from population growth clashing with the peasantry’s egalitarian customs which gave them little incentive to produce anything other than babies. The birth rate in Russia (at about fifty births per 1,000 people per year) was nearly twice the European average during the second half of the nineteenth century. The astronomical rise of the peasant population (from 50 to 79 million between 1861 and 1897) resulted in a growing shortage of land. By the turn of the century, one in ten peasant households had no land at all; while a further one in five had a tiny plot of little more than one hectare which could barely feed a family, given the primitive methods of cultivation. The communes kept the open three-field system used in western Europe in medieval times in which two fields were sown and one lay fallow every year. Each household got a certain number of arable strips according to its size and, because the livestock were allowed to graze on the stubble and there were no hedges, all the farmers had to follow the same rotation of crops. In the most overcrowded regions these strips were no more than a couple of metres wide.

The long-term effect of egalitarian traditions on land sharing made the situation worse - for the soil became exhausted from being overworked, while livestock herds (the main source of fertilizer) were reduced because of the shortage of grazing lands. By the end of the nineteenth century, one in three peasant households did not even own a horse.97 Millions of peasants were driven off the land by crushing poverty. Some managed to survive through local trades, such as weaving, pottery or carpentry, timber-felling and carting, although many of these handicrafts were being squeezed out by factory competition; or by working as day labourers on the gentry’s estates, although the influx of new machines reduced demand for them with every passing year.

Most of the poorest peasants were forced into the towns, where they picked up unskilled jobs in factories or worked as domestic or service staff. Younger and more literate peasants looked towards the city and its cultural values as a route to independence and self-worth. Virtually any urban job seemed desirable compared with the hardships and dull routines of peasant life. Less than 2 per cent of the younger generation held any desire to follow in the footsteps of their peasant parents.Town boys set themselves above the other peasants by swaggering around in raffish city clothes. Such boys, wrote a villager, ‘would run away to Moscow and take any job’. They looked back on the village as a ‘dark’ and ‘backward’ world of superstition and crippling poverty - a world Trotsky would describe as the Russia of ‘icons and cockroaches’ - and they idealized the city as a force of social progress and enlightenment.

Here was the basis of the cultural revolution on which Bolshevism would be built: a science of contempt for the peasant world.  Bolshevism was built on the mass commercial culture of the towns: the urban song, the foxtrot and the tango, the gramophone, the fairground entertainment and the cinema. The village song was gradually being supplanted by the urban ‘cruel romance’, or the chastushkaa crude rhyming song which was usually accompanied by an accordion (another new invention) in the tavern or streets. Unlike the folk song, whose performance was collective and impersonal, these urban songs were personal in theme and full of individual expression. The folk tale was also dying out, as the new rural readership created by the recent growth of primary schooling turned instead to the cheap urban literature of detective stories and tales of adventure or romance.

Tolstoy set up the Intermediary to publish cheap editions of the Russian classics and simple country tales such as ‘How a Little Devil Redeemed a Hunk of Bread’ and ‘Where There Is God There Is Love’ which Tolstoy himself wrote for the new mass peasant readership. Within four years of the publishing house’s foundation, in 1884, sales had risen from 400,000 books to a staggering 12 million 100 - book sales that could not be matched by any other country until China under Mao.

The peasant had been ‘lost’ to the crass commercial culture of the towns. The peasant who was meant to bear the Russian soul - a natural Christian, a selfless socialist and a moral beacon to the world - had become a victim of banality. Suddenly the old ideals were crushed, and, as Dostoevsky had predicted, once the champions of ‘the people’ realized that the people were not as they had imagined them to be, they renounced them without regret. The educated classes were thrown into a moral panic about what they saw as the peasantry’s descent into barbarity.

In October 1905, with the Russian empire engulfed by popular revolts, the army crippled by soldiers’ mutinies, and his own throne threatened by a general strike, Nicholas II finally gave in to the pressure of his liberal ministers to concede a series of political reforms which granted civil liberties and a legislative parliament (or Duma) elected on a broad franchise.

However, these concessions did nothing to halt the political revolution from developing into a social one, as the workers pressed radical demands for industrial democracy in a growing wave of strikes and violent protests, and the peasantry resumed their age-old struggle for the land, confiscating property and forcing the nobility from their estates. For the propertied elites, the October Manifesto was the final goal of the revolution. But for the workers and the peasantry, it was only the beginning of a social revolution against all property and privilege. The growing insubordination of the lower classes, the fighting in the streets, the rural arson and destruction of estates, and the mistrust and the hatred on the faces of the peasants continued to disturb the landed nobles long after order was bloodily restored. All these destroyed the romance of ‘the people’ and their cause. intelligentsia gives up on the peasants during years leading to 1917. After the 1905 Revolution liberals and socialists went their separate ways after October over the pectre of social revolution

In 1909 a group of philosophers critical of the radical intelligentsia and its role in the Revolution of 1905 published a collection of essays called Vekhi (Landmarks). The essays caused a huge storm of controversy for they instigated a fierce attack on the nineteenth-century cult of ‘the people’ and its tendency to subordinate all other interests to the people’s cause. They argued that the intelligensia was pushing Russia to a second revolution, much more violent and destructive than the first. Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1913-14) is filled with images of the city being overrun by Asiatic hordes.

The author Alexander Bunin, a member of the provincial nobility,  never had any illusions about the spiritual or noble qualities of the peasants. His diaries are filled with horrific incidents he had seen or heard about in the villages: a woman who was beaten by her drunken husband so that she had to be ‘bandaged up like a mummy’; another woman raped so often by her husband that she bled to death. Bunin’s village was a realm of natural beauty that was being undermined and gradually destroyed by the new industrial economy. The Village is set in 1905 in a place called Durnovo (from the word ‘durnoi’, meaning ‘bad’ or ‘rotten’). Its peasants are portrayed as dark and ignorant, thieving and dishonest, lazy and corrupt. In Bunin’s opinion all of peasant Russia is a Durnovo. The most that the peasant, was capable of achieving… was only the awareness of his hopeless savagery, of being doomed.’106

The author Maxim Gorky came from the ‘lower depths’ himself.  Gorky had known more human suffering in his first eight years than Count Tolstoy would see in all his eight decades. In My Childhood (1913) Gorky depicts provincial Russia as a place of poverty, cruelty and meanness, where the men took to the bottle in a big way and the women found solace in God. In 1888, at the age of twenty, Gorky had ‘gone to the people’, despatched to a village on the Volga near Kazan. The enterprise ended in disaster. The villagers burned them out after Romas failed to heed the threats of the richer peasants. Three years later, Gorky was beaten unconscious by a group of peasant men when he tried to intervene on behalf of a woman who had been stripped naked and horsewhipped by her husband and a howling mob after being found guilty of adultery

To these writers, the violence of the revolutionary years was put down to the ‘savage instincts’ of the Russian peasantry. Gorky wrote in 1922:

Where then is that kindly, contemplative Russian peasant, the indefatigable searcher after truth and justice, so convincingly and beautifully presented to the world by Russian nineteenth-century literature? In my youth I earnestly sought for such a man throughout the Russian countryside but I did not find him.