III Icons and Cockroaches

1 A World Apart

Early one morning in March 1888 Mikhail Romas left Kazan and sailed thirty miles down the Volga River as far as the village of Krasnovidovo. There he hoped to change the life of the peasants by setting up a co-operative store. Romas was a Populist, a member of the clandestine People's Right group, who had recently returned from twelve years in prison and exile for trying to organize the peasants. Siberia had not made him change his views. At Krasnovidovo he aimed to rescue the villagers from the clutches of the local merchants by selling them cheap manufactured goods and organizing them into a gardeners' cooperative selling fruit and vegetables direct to Kazan.

He took with him Alexei Peshkov, later to become known as the writer Maxim Gorky (1868—1936), who was then, at the age of twenty, already known as an 'old man' (Tolstoy once said of him that he seemed 'to have been born a grown-up'). In his first eight years Gorky had experienced more human suffering than the literary Count would see in the whole of his eight decades. His grandfather's household in Nizhnyi Novgorod where he had been brought up after the death of his father, was, as he described it in My Childhood, a microcosm of provincial Russia — a place of poverty, cruelty and cholera, where the men took to the bottle in a big way and the women found solace in God. By the age of nine, Gorky had already been put out to work, scavenging for rags, bones and nails, and occasionally thieving timber from the banks of the Volga. Then his mother had died and his grandfather had sent him out into the world to fend for himself. Like countless other abandoned orphans, Gorky had roamed around the booming industrial towns of the Volga, a shoeless street urchin dressed in rags. He had worked as a dish washer on a steamboat, as a stevedore, a watchman, a cobbler's assistant, an apprentice draughtsman, an icon painter, and finally as a baker in Kazan, where Romas had found him and taken pity on the lad after he had tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest.

Krasnovidovo was set on a steep hill overlooking the Volga River. At the top of the hill was a church with a light-blue onion dome, and below it a row of log huts stretching down towards the river. Beyond these were the kitchen gardens, the bath-houses and the rickety animal sheds, and then the dark ploughed fields which 'gently rolled away towards the blue ridge of the forest on the horizon'. It was a relatively wealthy village. Its proximity to Kazan had made it a centre of production for the market and its most successful farmers had come to enjoy a modicum of comfort. Their well-built huts had boarded roofs and colourful ornamentation, with animal designs on their wooden shutters and window-frames. Inside them one would find an assortment of factory-made items from Russia's burgeoning industries: iron pots and pans, samovars, curtains, mirrors, bedsteads, kerosene lamps, accordions, and so on. Slowly but surely, like the rest of peasant Russia, Krasnovidovo was being drawn into the market economy.1

This put it in the front line of the Populists' battle for the peasantry. Central to their philosophy was the idea that the egalitarian customs of the peasant commune could serve as a model for the socialist reorganization of society. If the village was protected against the intrusions of capitalism, Russia, they believed, could move directly towards the socialist Utopia without going through the 'bourgeois stage of development' — with all the negative features which that entailed — as had happened in Western Europe. The ancient village commune would be preserved as the basis of Russian communism.

Responding to the calls of the Populist leaders to 'Go to the People', thousands of radical students, Mikhail Romas among them, poured into the countryside during the 1870s in the naive belief that they could win over the peasantry to their revolutionary cause. Finding in the world of the village a reflection of their own romantic aspirations, they convinced themselves that they would find in the ordinary peasants soul-mates and allies in their socialist struggle. Some of them tried to dress and talk like peasants, so much did they identify themselves with their 'simple way of life'. One of them, a Jew, even converted to Orthodoxy in the belief that this would bring him closer to the 'peasant soul'. These romantics conceived of the village as a collective and harmonious community that testified to the basic socialist instincts of the Russian people. Among the peasantry, wrote one of the Populist leaders, 'there is more attentiveness to the worth of the individual man, less indifference to what my neighbour is like and what I appear like to my neighbour'. Such was their idealized view of the peasants that many Populists even contended that in sexual matters they were more moral and celibate than the corrupted urban population. So, for example, they believed that prostitution did not exist among the peasants (even though the majority of urban prostitutes were originally peasant women); that there was no rape or sexual assault in the village (despite the peasant custom of snokhachestvo which gave the household patriarchs a sexual claim on their daughters-in-law in the absence of their husbands); and that whereas syphilis (which was endemic throughout Russia) might have been venereal in the depraved cities, in the villages it was caused more innocently by the peasant custom of sharing wooden spoons and bowls.2

These romantic missionaries were shattered by the reality they encountered in the countryside. Most of the students were met by a cautious suspicion or hostility on the part of the peasantry, and were soon arrested by the police. Looking back on the experience from prison and exile, moderate Populists such as Romas were convinced that the basic problem had been the peasantry's isolation from the rest of society. Through the centuries of serfdom the only outsiders they had met had been the gentry and state officials, so it was hardly surprising that they were wary of the student agitators. What was needed now was years of patient work to build up the bonds of trust between the peasants and the Populist intelligentsia. Hence Romas had come to Krasnovidovo. His efforts were in vain. From the start the villagers were suspicious of

his co-operative. They could not understand why its prices were so much cheaper than the other retail outlets. The richest peasants, who were closely linked with the established merchants, intimidated Romas and his allies. They filled one of his firewood logs with gunpowder, causing a minor explosion. They threatened the poorer peasants who began to show an interest in the co-operative; and brutally murdered one of his assistants, a poor peasant from the village, leaving his horribly mutilated body in several pieces along the river bank. Finally, they blew up the co-operative (along with half the rest of the village) by setting light to the kerosene store. Romas's enemies blamed him and Gorky for the fire, and set the angry peasants on them. But the 'heretics' fought themselves free and fled for their lives.

Romas accepted defeat philosophically, putting it down to the ignorance of the villagers. He refused to give up his belief in the peasants' socialist potential and when, fifteen years later, Gorky met him again, he had already served another ten-year sentence of exile in Siberia for his involvement in the Populist movement. But for Gorky the experience was a bitter disillusionment. It led him to the conclusion that, however good they may be on their own, the peasants left all that was fine behind them when they 'gathered in one grey mass':

Some dog-like desire to please the strong ones in the village took possession of them, and then it disgusted me to look at them. They would howl wildly at each other, ready for a fight — and they would fight, over any trifle. At these moments they were terrifying and they seemed capable of destroying the very church where only the previous evening they had gathered humbly and submissively, like sheep in a fold.3

The 'noble savage' whom the Populists had seen in the simple peasant was, as Gorky now concluded, no more than a romantic illusion. And the more he experienced the everyday life of the peasants, the more he denounced them as savage and barbaric*

Such misunderstandings were a constant theme in the history of relations between educated and peasant Russia — the 'Two Russias', as Herzen once called them. The Populists, though perhaps the most conspicuous, were not the only people to impose their own ideals on the peasants. Virtually every trend of Russian social thought fell into the same trap. As Dostoevsky wrote:

We, the lovers of 'the people', regard them as part of a theory, and it seems that none us really likes them as they actually are but only as each of us has imagined them. Moreover, should the Russian people, at some future time, turn out to be not what we imagined, then we, despite our love of them, would immediately renounce them without regret.4

Long before the Populists came on to the scene, Slavophile writers had argued for the moral superiority of the 'ancient' peasant commune over modern Western values. A commune', wrote Konstantin Aksakov, 'is a union of the people who have renounced their egoism, their individuality, and who express their common accord; this is an act of love, a noble Christian act.' Similar virtues were attributed to the peasants by the great romantic writers of the nineteenth century. Dostoevsky, for example, claimed that the simple Russian peasant — the 'kitchen muzhik' as he once called him in a famous dispute — lived on a higher moral plane than the more sophisticated citizens of Western Europe. The peasants, he had written in his Diary of a Writer, were truly Christian and long-suffering. It was they who would 'show us a new road, a new way out of all our apparently insoluble difficulties. For it will not be St Petersburg that finally settles the Russian destiny . . . Light and salvation will come from below.' Tolstoy also saw the simple peasant as a natural sage. Thus it is from the peasants that Prince Levin learns how to live in Anna Karenina; just as in War and Peace it is from Karataev, a humble Russian peasant, that Pierre Bezukhov comes to understand the spiritual meaning of life. Karataev's character — spontaneous, direct and unselfconscious — was a projection of Tolstoy's own moral philosophy. He lived in harmony with the world and humanity.5

These romantic visions of the peasantry were constantly undone by contact with reality, often with devastating consequences for their bearers. The Populists, who invested much of themselves in their conception of the peasants, suffered the most in this respect, since the disintegration of that conception threatened to undermine not only their radical beliefs but also their own self-identity. The writer Gleb Uspensky, to cite an extreme and tragic example, drove himself insane after years of trying to reconcile his romantic view of the peasants with the ugly reality of human relations which he was forced to observe in the countryside. Many of the 'realist' writers of the 1860s, who described the darker side of the countryside, ended up as alcoholics. There was a general sense of Angst amongst the liberal educated classes whenever the hard facts of peasant life disturbed their idealized images of it. Witness the storm of debate caused by the unflattering portrait of village life in Chekhov's Peasants (1897), the short story of a sick Moscow waiter who returns with his wife to his native village, only to find that his poverty-stricken family resents him for bringing another set of mouths to feed. Or the even greater public outrage at the publication of Bunin's novella The Village (1910), which spared nothing in its dark portrayal of peasant poverty and cruelty. 'What stunned the Russian reader in this book', a contemporary critic remarked, 'was not the depiction of the [peasants'] material, cultural and legal poverty .. . but the realization that there was no escape from it. . . The most that the Russian peasant, as depicted by Bunin, was capable of achieving . . . was only the awareness of his hopeless savagery, of being doomed.'6

* At the age of twenty-three Gorky was beaten unconscious by a group of peasants when he tried to intervene on behalf of a peasant woman, who had been stripped naked and horsewhipped by her husband and a howling mob after being found guilty of adultery.

Gorky wrote about The Village that it had forced society to think 'seriously not just about the peasant but about the grave question of whether Russia was to be or not to be?'7 The enigma of the peasant stood at the heart of the problem of Russia's national self-identity. The 'Peasant Question' was the starting point of all those interminable debates (they fill the largely unread pages of nineteenth-century Russian novels) about the future of Russia itself.

Russia was still a peasant country at the turn of the twentieth century: 80 per cent of the population was classified as belonging to the peasantry; and most of the rest traced their roots back to it. Scratch a Russian townsman and one found a peasant. Most of the workers in the cities' factories and workshops, laundries and kitchens, bath-houses and shops, were either immigrants from the countryside or the children of such immigrants, who still returned to their farms for harvest and sent money back to their villages. Restaurants employed vast armies of peasant waiters, while the houses of the wealthy relied on peasant domestics in numbers that made European visitors gasp. The vendors on the city streets were mostly peasants by origin, as were the cabmen, doormen, hauliers, builders, gardeners, dustmen, draymen, hawkers, beggars, thieves and prostitutes. Russia's towns and cities all remained essentially 'peasant' in their social composition and character. Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers. And in this mutual incomprehension, in the cultural gulf between the 'Two Russias', lay the roots of the social revolution and its tragic destiny.

* * * The isolation of the peasantry from the rest of society was manifested at almost every level — legal, political, economic, cultural, social and geographic. The peasants inhabited three-quarters of a million rural settlements scattered across one-sixth of the worlds surface. They rarely came across anything beyond the narrow confines of their own village and its fields, the parish church, the squire's manor and the local market. The village community was the centre of this small and isolated world. Indeed, the old peasant term for it (the mir) also carried the meaning in Russian of 'world', 'peace' and 'universe'. The mir was governed by an assembly of peasant elders which, alongside the land commune (obhchina), regulated virtually every aspect of village and agrarian life. Its powers of self-government had been considerably broadened by the Emancipation, when it took over most of the administrative, police and judicial functions of the landlords and became the basic unit of rural administration (obshchestva) subordinate to the rudimentary organs of state administration in the volost township. It controlled the land transferred to the peasants from the landlords during the Emancipation and was made collectively responsible for the payment of redemption dues on the land. In most parts of Russia the arable land was kept in communal tenure and every few years the mir would redistribute the hundreds of arable strips between the peasant households according to the number of workers or 'eaters' in each. It also set the common patterns of cultivation and grazing on the stubble necessitated by the open-field system of strip-farming;* managed the woods and communal pasture lands; hired village watchmen and shepherds; collected taxes; carried out the recruitment of soldiers; saw to the repair of roads, bridges and communal buildings; established charity and other welfare schemes; organized village holidays; maintained public order; arbitrated minor disputes; and administered justice in accordance with local custom.

The mir could engender strong feelings of communal solidarity among the peasants, bound as they were by their common ties to the village and to the land. This was reflected in many peasant sayings: 'What one man can't bear, the mir can'; 'No one is greater than the mir; and so on.8 The existence of such ties can be found in peasant communities throughout the world. They bear witness not so much to the 'natural collectivism' of the Russian people, so beloved by the Slavophiles and the Populists, as to the functional logic of peasant self-organization in the struggle for survival against the harsh realities of nature and powerful external enemies, such as the landlords and the state. Indeed, beneath the cloak of communal solidarity observed by outsiders, fellow villagers continued to struggle between themselves for individual advantage. The village was a hotbed of intrigue, vendettas, greed, dishonesty, meanness, and sometimes gruesome acts of violence by one peasant neighbour against another; it was not the haven of communal harmony that intellectuals from the city imagined it to be. It was simply that the individual interests of the peasants were often best served by collective activity. The brevity of the agricultural season in Russia, from the thaw and the start of the spring ploughing in April to the first snows in early November, made some form of labour co-operation essential so that the major tasks of the agricultural cycle could be completed in brief bursts of intense activity. That is why the traditional peasant household tended to be much larger than its European counterpart, often containing more than a dozen members with the wives and families of two or three brothers living under the same roof as their parents. Statistical studies consistently highlighted the economic advantages of the bigger households (a higher proportion of adult male labourers, more land and livestock per head and so on) and these had much to do with the benefits of labour co-operation. The difficulties of small-scale peasant farming, which in the vast majority of households was carried out with only one horse and a tiny store of seed and tools, also made simple forms of neighbourly co-operation, such as borrowing and lending, advantageous to all parties. Finally, there were many worthwhile projects that could only be done by the village as a whole, such as clearing woods and swamp-lands, constructing barns, building roads and bridges, and organizing irrigation schemes.

* Since there were no hedges between the strips or the fields it was essential for every household to sow the same crops at the same time (e.g. a three-field rotation of winter/spring/fallow), otherwise the cattle left to graze on the stubble of one strip would trample on the crops of the neighbouring strip.

The village assembly, or skhod, where these decisions were taken, was attended by the peasant household elders and usually held on a public holiday in the street or in a meadow, since few villages had a big enough building to accommodate the whole meeting. There was no formal procedure as such. The peasants stood around in loose groups, drinking, smoking and debating different subjects of local interest, until the village elder, having mingled in the crowd and ascertained the feelings of the dominant peasants, called for the meeting to vote on a series of resolutions. Voting was done by shouting, or by standing in groups, and all the resolutions were passed unanimously, for when opinion was divided the minority always submitted to the majority, or, as the peasants put it, to the 'will of the mir. Romantic observers took this self-imposed conformity as a sign of social harmony. In Aksakov's words, the commune expressed its will as one, like a 'moral choir'. But in fact the decision-making was usually dominated by a small clique of the oldest household heads, who were often also the most successful farmers, and the rest of the villagers tended to follow their lead. The unanimity of the mir was not the reflection of some natural peasant harmony, but an imposed conformity set from above by the patriarchal elders of the village.

Some observers of peasant life (and this was to include the Bolsheviks) described these dominant patriarchs as 'commune-eaters' (miroyeiy) or 'kulaks'.* These were the so-called 'rich' and 'cunning' peasants, 'petty-capitalist entrepreneurs', 'usurers', 'parasites' and 'strongmen', whom the rest of the villagers feared and whose greed and individualism would eventually lead to the commune's destruction. 'At the village assemblies', wrote one jurist in the early 1900s, 'the only people to participate are the loud-mouths and the lackeys of the rich. The honest working peasants do not attend, realising that their presence is useless.'9

But this too was by and large the outcome of looking at the peasants not for what they were but for the proof of some abstract theory, in this case the Marxist one. The dominant peasants within the village were, on the whole, the oldest patriarchs, who were often but not necessarily the heads of the richest households too. The late nineteenth-century Russian village still retained many of the features of what anthropologists would call a 'traditional society'. Although capitalism was certainly developing in Russia as a whole, apart from in a few specific regions it had yet to penetrate the village, where indeed the purpose of the commune was to limit its effects. The domination of the peasant patriarchs was not based on capitalist exploitation but on the fact that, by and large, this was still an oral culture, where the customs of the past, passed down through the generations, served as a model for the collective actions of the village in the present and the future: 'Our grandfathers did it this way, and so shall we.' In this sort of culture the old men were invariably deemed to be the most important people in the village — they had the most experience of farming and knew the most about the land — and their opinion was usually decisive. Old women, too, were respected for their expertise in handicrafts, medicine and magic. This was by and large a conservative culture. True, as the social anthropologist Jack Goody's many works have shown, there are ways in which an oral culture may produce an informal dynamism: since no one knew for sure what their grandfathers did, the peasant elders could remake tradition in every gener-

* The term 'kulak', derived from the word for a 'fist', was originally used by the peasants to delineate exploitative elements (usurers, sub-renters of land, wheeler-dealers and so on) from the farming peasantry. An entrepreneurial peasant farmer, in their view, could not be a kulak, even if he hired labour. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, misused the term in a Marxist sense to describe any wealthy peasant. They made it synonymous with 'capitalist' on the false assumption that die use of hired labour in peasant farming was a form of 'capitalism'. Under Stalin, the term 'kulak' was employed against the smallholding peasantry as a whole. Through collectivization die regime set about the 'destruction of the kulaks as a class'.

ation to fit in with their changing needs. But on the whole the peasant patriarchs had an inbred mistrust of any ideas from the world outside their own experience. They aimed to preserve the village traditions and to defend them against progress. The 'old way of life' was always deemed to be better than the new. There was, they believed, a peasant Utopia in the distant past, long before the gentry and the state had imposed their domination on the village.

Of course, it was true that there were broader forces leading to the decline of this patriarchal world. The money economy was slowly penetrating into remote rural areas. Urban manufactures were replacing the old peasant handicrafts. New technologies were becoming available to the enterprising peasant. Railways, roads, postal services and telegraphs were opening up the village to the outside world. Hospitals and schools, reading clubs and libraries, local government and political parties, were all moving closer to the peasantry. The growth of rural schooling, in particular, was giving rise to a new generation of 'conscious' peasant men and women — young and literate, thrifty and sober, self-improving and individualistic — who sought to overturn the old village world.

We can see it first in the fragmentation of the patriarchal household during the later nineteenth century. There was a sharp rise in the rate of household partitions following the Emancipation. Between 1861 and 1884 the annual rate of partitions rose from 82,000 to 140,000 households. Over 40 per cent of all peasant households were divided in these years. As a result, the average household size in central Russia declined from 9.5 members to 6.8. The peasants were moving from the traditional extended family to the modern nuclear one. Such partitions made little economic sense — the newly partitioned households, like the ones from which they had split, were left with much less livestock, tools and labour than before — and this was a cause of considerable anxiety to the tsarist government, which for moral and social reasons as much as for economic ones saw the peasantry's livelihood as dependent upon the survival of the patriarchal family. But it was the individualistic aspirations of the younger peasants that maintained the pressure for these partitions, in spite of their economic costs. Peasant sons and their young wives, fed up with the tyranny of the household elder, were breaking away to set up their own farms rather than wait until his death (when they themselves might be forty or fifty) to take his place at the household head. Their new farms might be small and weak but at least they were working for themselves. 'In the small family', explained one young peasant in the 1880s, 'everyone works for himself, everyone earns for himself; but if the family is large, then he doesn't end up with anything for himself.' The rate of partitioning was directly related to the involvement of the peasantry in off-farm employment as labourers. Once the younger peasants were earning wages there was a marked increase in disputes between them and their household elders over money and property. Peasant sons would refuse to send their wages home, or would set up their own farm rather than share their earnings in the household fund. They made the distinction between their own private earnings off the farm and the family's common property from its collective labour on it.10 It was a sign of their own growing sense of individual worth: 'I earn money therefore I am.'

The growing literacy of the younger peasants was another source of their aspiring individualism. Literacy in Russia rose from 21 per cent of the Empire's population in 1897 to 40 per cent on the eve of the First World War. The highest rural rates were among young men in those regions closest to the cities. Nine out of ten peasant recruits into the imperial army from the two provinces of Petersburg and Moscow were considered literate by 1904. These peasant youths were the main beneficiaries of the boom in rural schooling during the last decades of the old regime. The number of primary schools quadrupled (from 25,000 to 100,000) between 1878 and 1911; and well over half the peasant children of school age (eight to eleven) were enrolled in primary schools by the latter date.11

The link between literacy and revolutions is a well-known historical phenomenon. The three great revolutions of modern European history — the English, the French and the Russian — all took place in societies where the rate of literacy was approaching 50 per cent. The local activists of the Russian Revolution were drawn mainly from this newly literate generation. Ironically, in its belated efforts to educate the common people, the tsarist regime was helping to dig its own grave.

Literacy has a profound effect on the peasant mind and community. It promotes abstract thought and enables the peasant to master new skills and technologies, which in turn help him to accept the concept of progress that fuels change in the modern world. It also weakens the village's patriarchal order by breaking down the barriers between it and the outside world, and by shifting power within the village to those with access to the written word. The young and literate peasant was much better equipped than his father to deal with the new agricultural technologies of the late nineteenth century; with the accounting methods of the money system; with written contracts, land deeds and loan agreements; and with the whole new world of administration — from the simple recording of clock-time and dates, to the reading of official documents and the formulation of village resolutions and petitions to the higher authorities — into which they entered after 1861. The status of the young and literate peasant rose as the market and bureaucracy filtered down to the village level and the peasant community relied more upon leaders with the skills which this new society demanded.

The written word divided the village into two generational groups. The older and illiterate generation feared and mistrusted too much education ('You can't eat books') and tried to limit its corrosive effects on the traditional culture of the village. They were worried by the urban-individualistic ways — the fashions and haircuts, the growing disrespect for peasant elders, and the dangerous political ideas — which the young picked up from their reading. As an inspector of church schools — who was clearly sympathetic to these concerns — wrote in I9II:

The only thing observed [as a result of schooling] is a heightened interest in tasteless and useless dandyism. In many areas, the normal peasant dress is being replaced by urban styles, which cut deeply into the peasants' skimpy budget, hindering major improvements to other, far more important sides of peasant life . .. Family ties, the very foundation of the well-being of state and society, have been deeply shaken. Complaints about insubordination to parents and elders are ubiquitous. Young men and adolescents often verbally abuse their elders and even beat them; they file complaints in the courts and remove from the home whatever [possessions] they can. It seems that parents have lost all authority over their children.12

On the other hand, the younger peasants — and with the explosion of the rural population they were fast becoming the majority (65 per cent of the rural population was aged under thirty by I897)u — placed education at the top of their list of priorities. It was the key to their social betterment. This cultural divide was to be a major feature of the peasant revolution. One part of it was progressive and reforming: it sought to bring the village closer to the influences of the modern urban world. But another part of the peasant revolution was restorationist: it tried to defend the traditional village against these very influences. We shall see how these two conflicting forces affected the life of a single village when we turn to the story of Sergei Semenov and the revolution in Andreevskoe.

Nevertheless, despite these modernizing forces, the basic structure of peasant politics remained essentially patriarchal. Indeed the upholders of the patriarchal order had a whole range of social controls with which to stem the tide of modernity. In every aspect of the peasants' lives, from their material culture to their legal customs, there was a relentless conformity. The peasants all wore the same basic clothes. Even their hairstyles were the same — the men with their hair parted down the middle and cut underneath a bowl, the women's hair plaited, until they were married, and then covered with a scarf. The peasants in the traditional village were not supposed to assert their individual identity, as the people of the city did, by a particular fashion of dress. They had very little sense of privacy. All household members ate their meals from a common pot and slept together in one room. Lack of private spaces, not to speak of fertility rites, dictated that the sexual act was kept at least partly in the public domain. It was still a common practice in some parts of Russia for a peasant bride to be deflowered before the whole village; and if the groom proved impotent, his place could be taken by an older man, or by the finger of the matchmaker. Modesty had very little place in the peasant world. Toilets were in the open air. Peasant women were constantly baring their breasts, either to inspect and fondle them or to nurse their babies, while peasant men were quite unselfconscious about playing with their genitals. Urban doctors were shocked by the peasant customs of spitting into a persons eye to get rid of sties, of feeding children mouth to mouth, and of calming baby boys by sucking on their penis.14

The huts of the peasants, both in their external aspect and in their internal layout and furnishings, conformed to the same rigid pattern that governed the rest of their lives. Throughout Russia, in fact, there were only three basic types of peasant housing: the northern izba, or log hut, with the living quarters and outbuildings all contained under one roof around a quadrangle; the southern izba, with the outbuildings separate from the living quarters; and the Ukrainian khata, again a separate building made of wood or clay, but with a thatched roof. Every hut contained the same basic elements: a cooking space, where the stove was located, upon which the peasants (despite the cockroaches) liked to sleep; a 'red'* or 'holy' corner, where the icons were hung, guests were entertained, and the family ate around a whitewashed table; and a sleeping area, where in winter it was common to find goats, foals and calves bedded down in the straw alongside the humans. The moist warmth and smell of the animals, the black fumes of the kerosene lamps, and the pungent odour of the home-cured tobacco, which the peasants smoked rolled up in newspaper, combined to create a unique, noxious atmosphere. 'The doors are kept vigorously closed, windows are hermetically sealed and the atmosphere cannot be described,' wrote an English Quaker from one Volga village. 'Its poisonous quality can only be realised by experience.' Given such unsanitary conditions, it is hardly surprising that even as late as the 1900s one in four peasant babies died before the age of one. Those who survived could expect to live in poor health for an average of about thirty-five years.15 Peasant life in Russia really was nasty, brutish and short.

It was also cramped by strict conformity to the social mores of the village. Dissident behaviour brought upon its perpetrators various punishments, such as village fines, ostracism, or some sort of public humiliation. The most common form of humiliation was 'rough music', or charivari, as it was known in southern Europe, where the villagers made a rumpus outside the house of the guilty person until he or she appeared and surrendered to the crowd, who would then subject him or her to public shame or even violent punishment. Adulterous wives and horse-thieves suffered the most brutal punishments. It was not uncommon for cheating wives to be stripped naked and beaten by their husbands, or tied to the end of a wagon and dragged naked through the village. Horse-thieves could be castrated, beaten, branded with hot irons, or hacked to death with sickles. Other transgressors were known to have had their eyes pulled out, nails hammered into their body, legs and arms cut off, or stakes driven down their throat. A favourite punishment was to raise the victim on a pulley with his feet and hands tied together and to drop him so that the vertebrae in his back were broken; this was repeated several times until he was reduced to a spineless sack. In another form of torture the naked victim was wrapped in a wet sack, a pillow was tied around his torso, and his stomach beaten with hammers, logs and stones, so that his internal organs were crushed without leaving any external marks on his body.16

* The Russian word for red (krasnyi) is connected with the word for beautiful (krasivyt), a fact of powerful symbolic significance for the revolutionary movement.

It is difficult to say where this barbarism came from — whether it was the culture of the Russian peasants, or the harsh environment in which they lived. During the revolution and civil war the peasantry developed even more gruesome forms of killing and torture. They mutilated the bodies of their victims, cut off their heads and disgorged their internal organs. Revolution and civil war are extreme situations, and there is no guarantee that anyone else, regardless of their nationality, would not act in a similar fashion given the same circumstances. But it is surely right to ask, as Gorky did in his famous essay 'On the Russian Peasantry' (1922), whether in fact the revolution had not merely brought out, as he put it, 'the exceptional cruelty of the Russian people'? This was a cruelty made by history. Long after serfdom had been abolished the land captains exercised their right to flog the peasants for petty crimes. Liberals rightly warned about the psychological effects of this brutality. One physician, addressing the Kazan Medical Society in 1895, said that it 'not only debases but even hardens and brutalizes human nature'. Chekhov, who was also a practising physician, denounced corporal punishment, adding that 'it coarsens and brutalizes not only the offenders but also those who execute the punishments and those who are present at it'.17 The violence and cruelty which the old regime inflicted on the peasant was transformed into a peasant violence which not only disfigured daily village life, but which also rebounded against the regime in the terrible violence of the revolution.

If the Russian village was a violent place, the peasant household was even worse. For centuries the peasants had claimed the right to beat their wives. Russian peasant proverbs were full of advice on the wisdom of such beatings:

'Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she's breathing. If she is, she's shamming and wants some more.'

'The more you beat the old woman, the tastier the soup will be.'

'Beat your wife like a fur coat, then there'll be less noise.'

A wife is nice twice: when she's brought into the house [as a bride] and when she's carried out of it to her grave.'

Popular proverbs also put a high value on the beating of men: 'For a man that has been beaten you have to offer two unbeaten ones, and even then you may not clinch the bargain.' There were even peasant sayings to suggest that a good life was not complete without violence: 'Oh, it's a jolly life, only there's no one to beat.' Fighting was a favourite pastime of the peasants. At Christmas, Epiphany and Shrovetide there were huge and often fatal fist-fights between different sections of the village, sometimes even between villages, the women and children included, accompanied by heavy bouts of drinking. Petty village disputes frequently ended in fights. 'Just because of a broken earthenware pot, worth about 12 kopecks,' Gorky wrote from his time at Krasnovidovo, 'three families fought with sticks, an old woman's arm got broken and a young boy had his skull cracked. Quarrels like this happened every week.'18 This was a culture in which life was cheap and, however one explains the origins of this violence, it was to play a major part in the revolution.

Many people explained the violence of the peasant world by the weakness of the legal order and the general lawlessness of the state. The Emancipation had liberated the serfs from the judicial tyranny of their landlords but it had not incorporated them in the world ruled by law, which included the rest of society. Excluded from the written law administered through the civil courts, the newly liberated peasants were kept in a sort of legal apartheid after 1861. The tsarist regime looked upon them as a cross between savages and children, and subjected them to magistrates appointed from the gentry. Their legal rights were confined to the peasant-class courts, which operated on the basis of local custom. The peasants were deprived of many civil rights taken for granted by the members of other social estates. Until 1906, they did not have the right to own their allotments. Legal restrictions severely limited their mobility. Peasants could not leave the village commune without paying off their share of the collective tax burden or of the redemption payments on the land gained from the nobles during the Emancipation. For a household to separate from the commune, a complex bureaucratic procedure was necessary, requiring the consent of at least two-thirds of the village assembly, and this was difficult to obtain.* Even a peasant wanting to leave the village for a few weeks on migrant labour could not do so without first obtaining an internal passport from the commune's elders (who were usually opposed to such migration on the grounds that it weakened the patriarchal household and increased the tax burden on the rest of the village). Statistics show that the issuing of passports was heavily restricted, despite the demands of industrialization and commercial agriculture for such migrant labour.19 The peasants remained tied to the land and, although serfdom had been abolished, it enjoyed a vigorous afterlife in the regulation of the peasant. Deprived of the consciousness and the legal rights of citizenship, it is hardly surprising that the peasants respected neither the state's law nor its authority when its coercive power over them was removed in 1905 and again in 1917.

* * * It is mistaken to suppose, as so many historians do, that the Russian peasantry had no moral order or ideology at all to substitute for the tsarist state. Richard Pipes, for example, in his recent history of the revolution, portrays the peasants as primitive and ignorant people who could only play a destructive role in the revolution and who were therefore ripe for manipulation by the Bolsheviks. Yet, as we shall see, during 1917—18 the peasants proved themselves quite capable of restructuring the whole of rural society, from the system of land relations and local trade to education and justice, and in so doing they often revealed a remarkable political sophistication, which did not well up from a moral vacuum. The ideals of the peasant revolution had their roots in a long tradition of peasant dreaming and Utopian philosophy. Through peasant proverbs, myths, tales, songs and customary law, a distinctive ideology emerges which expressed itself in the peasants' actions throughout the revolutionary years from 1902 to 1921. That ideology had been shaped by centuries of opposition to the tsarist state. As Herzen put it, for hundreds of years the peasant's 'whole life has been one long, dumb, passive opposition to the existing order of things: he has endured oppression, he has groaned under it; but he has never accepted anything that goes on outside the life of the commune'.20 It was in this cultural confrontation, in the way that the peasant looked at the world outside his village, that the revolution had its roots.

Let us look more closely at this peasant world-view as expressed in customary law. Contrary to the view of some historians, peasant customary law contained a fairly comprehensive set of moral concepts. True, these were not always applied uniformly. The peasant-class courts often functioned in a random manner, deciding cases on the basis of the litigants' reputations and connections, or on the basis of which side was prepared to bribe the elected judges with the most vodka. Yet, amidst all this chaos, there could be discerned some pragmatic concepts of justice, arising from the peasants' daily lives, which had crystallized into more-or-less universal legal norms, albeit with minor regional variations.

* Even in communes with hereditary tenure (mainly in the north-west and the Ukraine) it was hardly easier. There the household wishing to separate had either to pay off its share of the communal tax debt in full (a near-impossible task for the vast majority of the peasants) or find another household willing to take over the tax burden in return for its land allotment. Since the taxes usually exceeded the cost of rented land outside the commune, it was difficult to find a household willing to do this.


1 St Petersburg illuminated for the Romanov tercentenary in 1913. This electric display of state power was the biggest light show in tsarist history.

2 The imperial family rides from the Winter Palace to the Kazan Cathedral for the opening ceremony of the tercentenary.

3 Nicholas II rides in public view for the first time since the 1905 Revolution.

4 The famous Yeliseev store on Nevsky Prospekt is decorated for the tercentenary.

5 Guards officers greeting the imperial family at the Kazan Cathedral. Note the icons, the religious banners, and the crosses of the onlookers.

6 Townspeople and peasants come to see the Tsar in Kostroma during the tercentenary provincial tour.

7 The court ball of 1903 was a landmark in the cult of ancient Muscovy. Each guest dressed in the seventeenth-century costume of his twentieth-century rank. The Tsar and Tsarina are standing in the centre of the front row.

8 The Temple of Christ's Resurrection on the Catherine Canal - a hideous example of the last tsars' efforts to 'Muscovitize' St Petersburg.

9 Trubetskoi's bronze statue of Alexander III on Znamenskaia Square in St Petersburg. The workers called it 'the hippopotamus'.

10 The Moscow statue of Alexander III - with its back to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - at its opening ceremony in 1913.

11 The imperial family (right to left): Olga, Tatyana, Nicholas, Alexandra, Maria, Alexis and Anastasia.

12 Rasputin with his admirers. Anna Vyrubova, the closest friend of both Rasputin and the Empress, is standing fifth from left.

13 The Tsarevich Alexis with his playmate and protector, the sailor Derevenko. After the February Revolution Derevenko joined the Bolsheviks.

Three legal ideas, in particular, shaped the peasant revolutionary mind. The first was the concept of family ownership. The assets of the peasant household (the livestock, the tools, the crops, the buildings and their contents, but not the land beneath them) were regarded as the common property of the family.* Every member of the household was deemed to have an equal right to use these assets, including those not yet born. The patriarch of the household, the bol'shak, it is true, had an authoritarian influence over the running of the farm and the disposal of its assets. But customary law made it clear that he was expected to act with the consent of the other adult members of the family and that, on his death, he could not bequeath any part of the household property, which was to remain in the common ownership of the family under a new bol'shak (usually the eldest son). If the bol'shak mismanaged the family farm, or was too often drunk and violent, the commune could replace him under customary law with another household member. The only way the family property could be divided was through the partition of an extended household into smaller units, according to the methods set out by local customary law. In all regions of Russia this stipulated that the property was to be divided on an equal basis between all the adult males, with provision being made for the elderly and unmarried women.21 The principles of family ownership and egalitarian partition were deeply ingrained in Russian peasant culture. This helps to explain the failure of the Stolypin land reforms (1906—17), which, as part of their programme to create a stratum of well-to-do capitalist farmers, attempted to convert the family property of the peasant household into the private property of the bol'shak, thus enabling him to bequeath it to one or more of his sons.f The peasant revolution of 1917 made a clean sweep of these reforms, returning to the traditional legal principles of family ownership.

The peasant family farm was organized and defined according to the labour principle, the second major peasant legal concept. Membership of the household was defined by active participation in the life of the farm (or, as the peasants put it, 'eating from the common pot') rather than by blood or kinship ties. An outsider adopted by the family who lived and worked on the farm was usually viewed as a full member of the household with equal rights to those of the blood relatives, whereas a son of the family who left the village to earn his living elsewhere eventually ceased to be seen as a household member. This same attachment of rights to labour could be seen on the land as well.* The peasants believed in a sacred link between land and labour. The land belonged to no one but God, and could not be bought or sold. But every family had the right to support itself from the land on the basis of its own labour, and the commune was there to ensure its equal distribution between them.22 On this basis — that the land should be in the hands of those who tilled it — the squires did not hold their land rightfully and the hungry peasants were justified in their struggle to take it from them. A constant battle was fought between the written law of the state, framed to defend the property rights of the landowners, and the customary law of the peasants, used by them to defend their own transgressions of those property rights. Under customary law, for example, no one thought it wrong when a peasant stole wood from the landlord's forest, since the landlord had more wood than he could personally use and, as the proverb said, 'God grew the forest for everyone.' The state categorized as 'crimes' a whole range of activities which peasant custom did not: poaching and grazing livestock on the squire's land; gathering mushrooms and berries from his forest; picking fruit from his orchards; fishing in his ponds, and so on. Customary law was a tool which the peasants used to subvert a legal order that in their view maintained the unjust domination of the landowners and the biggest landowner of all: the state.f It is no coincidence that the revolutionary land legislation of 1917—18 based itself on the labour principles found in customary law.

* The one major exception was the peasant wife's dowry and other personal effects (e.g. clothing and domestic utensils), which were regarded as her private property and could be passed on to her daughter.

Whereas the partitioning of household property was entirely controlled by local customary law, Stolypin's new laws of inheritance came under the Civil Code. Cases concerning peasant inheritance of land were thus heard in the civil (i.e. non-peasant) courts — the first major instance of the peasantry being integrated into the national legal system.

The subjective approach to the law — judging the merits of a case according to the social and economic position of the parties concerned — was the third specific aspect of the peasantry's legal thinking which had an affinity with the revolution. It was echoed in the Bolshevik concept of 'revolutionary justice', the guiding principle of the People's Courts of 1917—18, according to which a man's social class was taken as the decisive factor in determining his guilt or innocence. The peasants considered stealing from a rich man, especially by the poor, a much less serious offence than stealing from a man who could barely feed himself and his family.* In the peasants' view it was even justified, as we have seen, to kill someone guilty of a serious offence against the community. And to murder a stranger from outside the village was clearly not as bad as killing a fellow villager. Similarly, whereas deceiving a neighbour was seen by the peasants as obviously immoral, cheating on a landlord or a government official was not subject to any moral censure; such 'cunning' was just one of the many everyday forms of passive resistance used by peasants to subvert an unjust established order.23 Within the context of peasant society this subjective approach was not without its own logic, since the peasants viewed justice in terms of its direct practical effects on their own communities rather than in general or abstract terms. But it could often result in the sort of muddled thinking that made people call the peasants 'dark'. In The Criminal for example, Chekhov tells the true story of a peasant who was brought to court for stealing a bolt from the railway tracks to use as a weight on his fishing tackle. He fails to understand his guilt and in trying to justify himself repeatedly talks of 'we' (the peasants of his village): 'Bah! Look how many years we have been removing bolts, and God preserve us, and here you are talking about a crash, people killed. We do not remove all of them — we always leave some. We do not act without thinking. We do understand.'

* For example, under customary law a peasant found guilty of tilling another man's land was always compensated for his labour, though the bulk of the harvest went to the land's rightful holder. The peasants, in the words of one observer, 'looked on the right to own the product of one's own labour on the land with an almost religious respect' and by custom this had to be balanced against the formal right of land tenure (Efimenko, Isshdovaniia, 2, 143).

This was partly the reason why peasants had so few scruples about perjuring themselves in court and, indeed, why they tended to sympathize with convicted criminals. It was common for peasants to give away food to gangs of prisoners as they passed through the villages on their way to Siberia.

Here, in this moral subjectivity, was the root of the peasant's instinctive anarchism. He lived outside the realm of the states laws — and that is where he chose to stay. Centuries of serfdom had bred within the peasant a profound mistrust of all authority outside his own village. What he wanted was volia, the ancient peasant concept of freedom and autonomy without restraints from the powers that be. 'For hundreds of years', wrote Gorky, 'the Russian peasant has dreamt of a state with no right to influence the will of the individual and his freedom of action, a state without power over man.' That peasant dream was kept alive by subversive tales of Stenka Razin and Emelian Pugachev, those peasant revolutionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, whose mythical images continued as late as the 1900s to be seen by the peasants flying as ravens across the Volga announcing the advent of Utopia. And there were equally fabulous tales of a 'Kingdom of Opona', somewhere on the edge of the flat earth, where the peasants lived happily, undisturbed by gentry or state. Groups of peasants even set out on expeditions in the far north in the hope of finding this arcadia.24

* This was connected with the religious belief of the peasants that to be poor was to be virtuous.

As the state attempted to extend its bureaucratic control into the countryside during the late nineteenth century, the peasants sought to defend their autonomy by developing ever more subtle forms of passive resistance to it. What they did, in effect, was to set up a dual structure of administration in the villages: a formal one, with its face to the state, which remained inactive and inefficient; and an informal one, with its face to the peasants, which was quite the opposite. The village elders and tax collectors elected to serve in the organs of state administration in the villages (obshchestva) and the volost townships (upravy) were, in the words of one frustrated official, 'highly unreliable and unsatisfactory', many of them having been deliberately chosen for their incompetence in order to sabotage government work. There were even cases where the peasants elected the village idiot as their elder.25 Meanwhile, the real centre of power remained in the mir, in the old village assembly dominated by the patriarchs. The power of the tsarist state never really penetrated the village, and this remained its fundamental weakness until 1917, when the power of the state was removed altogether and the village gained its volia.

The educated classes had always feared that a peasant volia would soon degenerate into anarchic licence and violent revenge against figures of authority. Belinsky wrote in 1837: 'Our people understand freedom as volia, and volia for the people means to make mischief. The liberated Russian nation will not head for the parliament but will run for the tavern to drink liquor, smash glasses, and hang the nobility, whose only guilt is to shave their beards and wear a frock-coat instead of a peasant tunic.'26 The revolution would, in all too many ways, fulfil Belinsky's prophecy.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!