2 The Quest to Banish the Past

As a young girl in the 1900s the writer Nina Berberova used to observe the peasants as they came to consult her grandfather in his study on the family estate near Tver. 'They were of two kinds,' she recalled, 'and it seemed to me that they were two completely different breeds':

Some muzhiks [peasants] were demure, well bred, important-looking, with greasy hair, fat paunches, and shiny faces. They were dressed in embroidered shirts and caftans of fine cloth. These were the ones who were later called kulaks. They . . . felled trees for new homes in the thick woods that only recently had been Grandfather's. They walked in the church with collection trays and placed candles before the Saint-Mary-Appease-My-Grief icon. But what kind of grief could they have? The Peasants' Credit Bank gave them credit. In their houses, which I sometimes visited, there were geraniums on the window sills and the smell of rich buns from the ovens. Their sons grew into energetic and ambitious men, began new lives for themselves, and created a new class in embryo for Russia.

The other muzhiks wore bast sandals, dressed in rags, bowed fawningly, never went further than the doors, and had faces that had lost all human expression . .. They were undersized, and often lay in ditches near the state-owned wine shop. Their children did not grow because they were underfed. Their consumptive wives seemed always to be in the final month of pregnancy, the infants were covered with weeping eczema, and in their homes, which I also visited, broken windows were stopped up with rags, and calves and hens were kept in the corners. There was a sour stench.27

The differences between rich and poor peasants had been widely debated since the 1870s, when the whole issue of rural poverty and its causes had first come to the shocked attention of the Russian public. To Marxists and many liberals it was axiomatic that the peasantry should be divided into two separate classes — the one of entrepreneurial farmers, the other of landless labourers — as capitalism took root in the Russian countryside. But the Populists, who dreamt of a united peasantry leading Russia directly towards socialism, denied this process was taking place at all. Each side produced a library of statistics to prove or disprove that capitalism was leading to the disintegration of the peasantry, and historians today still dispute their significance.

There were, it is true, growing inequalities between the richest and the poorest sections of the peasantry. At one extreme there was a small but growing class of wealthy peasant entrepreneurs; at the other an impoverished peasantry increasingly forced to abandon its farms and join the army of migrant wage-labourers in agriculture, mining, transport and industry. The young Lenin set out to prove in the 1890s that these two extremes were the result of capitalist development. But this is not necessarily true.

The major differences in the living standards of the peasantry were in fact geographic. Commercial farming had taken root in a circular band of regions around the periphery of the old Muscovite centre of Russia during the nineteenth century. In parts of the Baltic the Emancipation of the serfs in 1817 had enabled the local landowners, with access to the Western grain markets, to turn their estates into capitalist farms worked by wage-labourers. In the western Ukraine, too, the nobles had established huge sugar-beet farms. Meanwhile, in the fertile regions of south Russia, the Kuban and the northern Caucasus a wealthy stratum of mixed farmers had emerged from the peasants and the Cossacks. The same was true in western Siberia, where the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway had made it possible for the smallholders to grow rich producing cereals and dairy products for the market. These regions accounted for the national rise in peasant living standards — reflected in their increased spending-power — which recent historians have detected and used to refute the old historical orthodoxy that the peasants were becoming increasingly impoverished before 1917.28 What was emerging, in fact, was a growing divergence in the economic position of the peasantry between the new and relatively affluent areas of commercial farming in the west, the south and the east, on the one hand, and, on the other, the old and increasingly overpopulated central agricultural zone, where the majority of the gentry's estates were located, and where backward farming methods were unable to maintain all of the peasants on the land. It is no coincidence that after 1917 the richer agricultural regions became strongholds of counter-revolution, whereas the impoverished central zone remained loyal to the revolution.

In the central agricultural zone of Russia there were few signs of commercialism and the main inequalities in the living standards of the peasants were explained by local differences in the quality of the soil or by historic legacies stretching back to the days of serfdom. So, for example, villages made up of former state peasants (i.e. peasants settled on state land) tended to be more land-rich than villages of former serfs. The market economy was weak in these regions and most peasants were engaged in a natural system of production. They sold a small amount of produce and perhaps some handicrafts, the product of their winter labours, in order to pay off their taxes and buy a few household goods, but otherwise their production was geared towards the basic food requirements of the family. According to a zemstvo survey of the 1880s, two out of three peasant households in the central Russian province of Tambov were unable to feed themselves without getting into debt. 'In our village', recalled Semenov, 'only five or six families managed to survive the whole year on their own. As for the rest, some got by until the Mikhailov holiday [in early November], some until Christmas, and some until Shrovetide, but then they had to borrow to buy grain.' It was the tragedy of millions of peasants that constant debt and taxes forced them to sell off their grain in the autumn, when supplies were plentiful and prices were low, only to buy it back in the hungry spring, when prices were at their peak. Every volost township had its handful of usurers and merchants — the peasants called them 'kulaks' — who bought up the peasants' grain cheaply in the autumn and, six months later, sold it back to them at twice the price. Theirs was a hard and cruel greed, the sort to be found, as one contemporary put it, in 'a thoroughly uneducated man who has made his way from poverty to wealth and has come to consider money-making, by whatever means, as the only pursuit to which a rational being should devote himself.' Whole villages were indebted to these 'kulaks', and many were forced to sell part of their land to repay them. If this was 'capitalism', as the Bolsheviks insisted, it was of a primitive kind.29

The number of 'capitalist' peasants (those employing permanent wage-labour) was probably no more than I per cent.30 That more of them did not emerge had much to do with the periodic redistribution of the communal allotment land; and with the fact that the richest peasant farms, which also tended to have the most members, customarily divided their property when the adult sons were married and ready to set up new family households of their own.* In other words, the peasants failed to become capitalists because they rarely held on to their property for more than a generation.

Nor did peasant poverty have much to do with the development of capitalism. The basic problem in the central agricultural zone was that the peasantry's egalitarian customs gave them little incentive to produce anything other than babies. The birth-rate in Russia (at about fifty births for every 1,000 people every year) was nearly twice the European average during the second half of the nineteenth century, and the highest rates of all were in the areas of communal tenure where the holding of land was fixed according to family size. The astronomical rise of the peasant population (from 50 to 79 million during 1861—1897) resulted in a growing shortage of land. By the turn of the century 7 per cent of the peasant households had no land at all, while one in five had only a tiny plot of less than one desyatina (2.7 acres). This may seem odd in a country the size of Russia. But in central Russia, where most of the peasantry lived, the density of the population was similar to that of Western Europe. The average peasant allotment, at 2.6 desyatiny in 1900, was comparable in size to the typical smallholding in France or Germany. But Russian peasant farming was much less intensive, with grain yields at barely half the level reached in the rest of Europe. The light wooden scratch plough used by the majority of Russian peasants with a single horse, or a pair of oxen, was similar to the aratrum used in the Roman Empire and vastly inferior to the heavy iron ploughs used in Western Europe with a four- or six-horse team. The small hand sickle was still being used on most peasant farms in Russia on the eve of the First World War, more than a half-century after it had been replaced by the scythe and the heavy reaping hook in the West. Sowing, threshing and winnowing were all done by hand, long after they had been mechanized elsewhere. The application of manure, let alone of chemical fertilizers, was far behind European standards. And the advanced field rotations, root crops alternating with cereals, which had been introduced into Western Europe during the agricultural revolution of the eighteenth century, were still largely unknown in backward peasant Russia.31

* So, for example, a study in Tula province found that 62 per cent of the peasant households with four or more horses had partitioned their property between 1899 and 1911, compared with only 23 per cent of those with one horse (Shanin, Awkward Class, 83). Statisticians such as A. V Chayanov believed that the life-cycle of the peasant household largely explained economic inequalities within the village. The newly partitioned household, consisting of a married couple and one or two children, tended to have only a small plot of land and very little livestock. But as the children grew up and began to contribute as workers to the family economy, the household was able to accumulate more land and livestock, until it partitioned itself. Chayanov argued that the statistical surveys used by the Marxists to show the economic differentiation of the peasantry were in fact no more than 'snapshots' of the peasant households at different stages of this life-cycle.


Under these circumstances, lacking the capital to modernize their farms, the only way for the peasants to feed the growing number of mouths was to bring more land under the plough. The easiest way to achieve this within the three-field system was by reducing the size of the fallow land — and thousands of villages did just that. But the long-term effect was only to make the situation worse, since the soil was exhausted by being overworked, while livestock herds (the main source of fertilizer) were reduced because of the shortage of fallow and other pasture lands. By the turn of the century one in three peasant households did not even have a horse.32 To cultivate their land they had to hire horses or else attach themselves to the plough. There is no sadder symbol of the crippling poverty in which millions of peasants were forced to live than the image of a peasant and his son struggling to drag a plough through the mud.

The most tempting solution to the peasantry's hunger for land could be seen every day from their villages — in the form of the squire's estate. 'Every single peasant', wrote Prince Lvov, 'believed from the very bottom of his soul that one day, sooner or later, the squire's land would belong to him.' One-third of the arable land in Russia was owned by nobles in the 1870s. By 1905 this proportion had declined to 22 per cent, mainly as a result of peasant communal purchases (the peasant share of landownership had increased in these years from 58 per cent to 68 per cent). Moreover, by this time about one-third of the gentry land was rented out to the peasantry. Yet this should not deceive us into thinking, as so many right-wing historians have claimed, that there was no land problem. Most of the peasants who rented land from the gentry did so under the pressure of poverty rather than of wealth: with the rapid rise of the peasant population they had come to depend on renting extra land to feed themselves and their families. For this reason, they were often prepared to pay a much higher rent than the land was worth in strictly economic terms. It was the readiness of the peasant family to work itself into the ground in order to feed itself that fuelled the seven-fold increase in rental values, on which the late-nineteenth-century gentry lived.33

There was a clear geographic pattern in peasant—gentry land relations which helps to explain the distinctive distribution of agrarian violence during the revolution. The peasant war against the squires, both in 1905 and 1917, was concentrated in an arc of provinces around the southern edge of the central agricultural zone (from Samara and Saratov in the south-east, through Tambov, Voronezh, Kursk, Kharkov, Chernigov, Ekaterinoslav, Kherson and Poltava, as far as Kiev and Podolia in the south-west). These were regions of peasant overpopulation and large-scale landownership by the gentry. Land rents were high and wages low. They were also regions where the fertile soil and the relatively long growing season favoured the development of commercial farming in wheat, sugar-beet and other crops suitable for mechanization. In other words, the peasants of these transitional regions were caught in the worst of all possible worlds: between the old pre-capitalist system of agriculture in the centre, and the emergent system of commercial farming at the periphery. As long as the landowners continued to lease out their land to them, albeit at exorbitant prices, then the peasants could just about survive. With the depression of world agricultural prices between 1878 and 1896 most of the landowners had done just that. But then cereal prices rose, freight transportation became cheaper, and, encouraged by the prospect of high profits, many landowners returned to their estates to transform them into commercial farms. Between 1900 and 1914 the amount of arable farmed by the landowning gentry in Russia increased by almost a third, and in these transitional regions the increase was considerably more. In Poltava province, for example, which saw the first wave of real peasant violence in 1902, the amount of land farmed by the squires almost doubled in these years. Land previously leased out to the peasants — and upon which the peasants had relied in order to feed their families — was withdrawn from them, or else rented under even more exploitative conditions. These often involved a switch from money rent to rental payments by labour on the squire's estate (otrabotka) which the peasants saw as a new type of serfdom. Moreover, many of these large-scale commercial farms were mechanized with the introduction of harvesters and threshing machines so that the need for peasant labour — and thus the wage level — was further reduced. Many peasant families dependent on seasonal labour were forced off the land altogether.34

During the last decades of the old regime millions of peasants were gradually driven off the land by poverty or by some other misfortune, such as a fire or the death of an adult worker, which to the poor family, up to its neck in debt, was enough to make all the difference between survival and catastrophe. Drink was also a growing cause of peasant debt and ruination. Semenov described a whole class of heavy drinkers in Andreevskoe: 'The adults were always thin and looked down and out; the children were rickety, with swollen necks from scrofula, big frightened eyes in pale anaemic faces, and inflated bellies on spindly legs.'35

Some of these poor peasants managed to scrape a living through local trades, such as weaving, carpentry, pottery, shoe-making, timber-felling and carting, although many of these handicrafts were being squeezed out by factory competition. Others migrated to Siberia, where land was made available to the colonists. Over a million peasants, especially from the Ukraine, made this trek during the decade following the famine of 1891. But the vast majority joined the army of migrant labourers who every spring made their way along the country's muddy roads by foot or in carts, sailed down its swollen rivers in home-made rowing-boats or stowed away on steamers, and travelled across Russia by rail in unheated carriages or clinging to the roofs of trains. This nomadic host, some nine million strong by the turn of the century,36 headed for the Easter holiday markets where men were hired for ploughing on the large commercial estates. Later in the summer they were followed by reinforcements for the harvest. And then they dispersed throughout Russia in search of winter work on the railways, in dockyards, mines, construction sites, workshops and factories, only to repeat the whole cycle the following spring.

Every year, in body and spirit, these peasant migrants were taken further away from their villages and drawn into the new world of Russia's industrial revolution. In the last half-century of the old regime the Empire's urban population quadrupled, from 7 to 28 million. Most of the increase was accounted for by peasants flooding into the cities in search of work. First came the young peasant men, many of them no more than boys, followed by the married men, then unmarried girls, and finally married women and children. By 1914 three out of four people living in St Petersburg were registered as peasants by birth, compared with less than one-third fifty years before. Half the city's population of 2.2 million people had arrived in the previous twenty years.37 The effect of this massive peasant in-migration was even more pronounced in Moscow. The crowds of peasants in the streets, the numerous outdoor markets (there was even one on Red Square), the unpaved streets, the wooden housing, and the livestock that roamed freely around the workers' quarters, gave large sections of the city a rural feel. Moscow is still nicknamed the 'Big Village'.

* * * Semen Kanatchikov (1879—1940) was just one of the millions of peasants to make this transition from the village to the city during the industrial boom of the 1890s. Many years later, as a minor grandee in the Bolshevik government, he recalled the experience in his memoirs. He was born to a poor peasant family in the village of Gusevo in the Volokolamsk district of Moscow province. His father had been born a serf and, although he had tried to improve his lot by renting land, dabbling in trade and teaching himself to read, he had lived on the margins of poverty like most of the peasants in his district. Every winter he left the village to work as a labourer in the city, leaving his sick and feeble wife, who had lost all but four of her eighteen children, to run the farm on her own. Years of disappointment had turned him into a heavy drinker, and when he was drunk he would beat his wife and children. And yet, like many Russians, he mixed heavy drinking with a deep fear of God; and wanted nothing more than for his son to become a 'good peasant'. The young Kanatchikov found life unbearable. After his mother's premature death, for which he blamed his father, he resolved to run away. 'I wanted to rid myself of the monotony of village life as quickly as possible,' he later wrote, 'to free myself from my father's despotism and tutelage, to begin to live a self-reliant and independent life.'38 It was not long before poverty forced his father to give in to his requests. At the age of sixteen Kanatchikov finally left for Moscow, where his father had arranged for him to work as an apprentice in the Gustav List metal factory. There, like thousands of other peasant immigrants, he would begin to redefine himself both as a worker and as a 'comrade' in the revolutionary movement.

Kanatchikov's motives for wanting to leave the village were typical of his generation. The dull routines of peasant life and the isolation of the village were a heavy burden for young men like him. It became even more difficult once they had learned to read, for the stories of city life in newspapers and pamphlets could only strengthen their awareness of these restrictions. Virtually any employment in the city seemed exciting and desirable compared with the hardships of peasant life. All the healthy and able young men ran away from our village to Moscow and took whatever jobs they could find,' recalled Semenov. 'We eagerly awaited the time when we would be old enough to find something in Moscow and could leave our native village.' Andreevskoe, Semenov's village, was, like Gusevo, close to Moscow, and the city was a magnet for the young peasants. 'The proximity of our village to Moscow', Semenov wrote to a friend in 1888, 'has made our peasants sick of the land. The desire for a social life, for fashionable dress, for drinking, for the pursuit of an easier life — all this weighs very heavily on them. They do not care any longer for farming. Everyone is trying as hard as he can to liberate himself from it and find an easier means of existence.'39

The desire for social betterment was very often synonymous with the desire to leave the village and find a job outside agriculture. Becoming a clerk or a shop assistant was seen by the younger peasants as a move up in the world. For young peasant women, in particular, who found themselves at the bottom of the patriarchal pile, working as a domestic servant in the city (which is what most of them did) offered them a better and more independent life. Many social commentators noted such aspirations. A study of rural schoolchildren in the 1900s, for example, found that nearly half of them wanted to pursue an 'educated profession' in the city, whereas less than 2 per cent wanted to follow in the footsteps of their peasant parents. 'I want to be a shop assistant', remarked one village schoolboy, 'because I do not like to walk in the mud. I want to be like those people who are cleanly dressed and work as shop assistants.'40 Parents and educators became alarmed that many peasant boys, in particular, once they learned how to read and write, refused to do agricultural work and tried to distinguish themselves from the rest of the village by swaggering around in raffish city clothes.

If social ambition was often the primary motive of those peasants who went to the towns, more commonly, as in Kanatchikov s case, it was an unexpected consequence of a move enforced by poverty. But either way the experience of the city transformed the way most peasants thought — of the world, of themselves, and of the village life they had left behind. On the whole, it had the effect of making them think in secular, more rational and more humanistic terms, which brought them closer to the socialist intelligentsia, and to reject and even despise village culture, with its superstitions and its dark and backward ways. That was the Russia of 'icons and cockroaches', to cite Trotsky's phrase, whereas the city, and (for many of them) the urban culture of the revolutionary movement, stood for progress, enlightenment and human liberation. The rank and file of the Bolshevik Party were recruited from peasants, like Kanatchikov. The mistrust and indeed contempt which they were to show for the peasantry, once in power, can be explained by this social fact. For they associated the dismal peasant world with their own unhappy past, and it was a vital impulse of their own emerging personal and class identity, as well as of their commitment to the revolution, that this world should be abolished.

Kanatchikov's father had arranged an apprenticeship for him at the Gustav List factory through a neighbour from Gusevo who had gone to work there several years before. Most immigrants relied on such contacts to get themselves settled in the city. The peasants of one village or region would form an association (either an artel' or a zemliachestvo) to secure factory jobs and living quarters for their countrymen. Whole factories and areas of the city were 'colonized' by the peasants of one locality or another, especially if they all shared some valuable regional craft, and it was not unusual for employers to use such organizations to recruit workers. The industrial suburb of Sormovo near Nizhnyi Novgorod, for example, where one of the country's largest engineering works was located, recruited all its workers from a handful of surrounding villages, where metal-working was an established handicraft. Through such associations the peasant immigrants were able to maintain ties with their native villages. Most of them supplemented their factory incomes by holding on to their land allotment in the commune and returning to their village in the summer to help their families with the harvest. The factories suffered much disruption at harvest time.* Other peasants regularly sent home money to their families. In this way they were able to keep one foot in the village, whilst their economic position in the city was still insecure. Indeed in some industrial regions, such as the Urals and the mining areas of the south, it was common for the workers to live in their villages, where their families kept a vegetable plot, and commute to the factories and mines.

* According to a survey of 1881, over 90 per cent of the workforce in textiles and 71 per cent of all industrial workers returned to their villages during the summer. The proportion declined towards the turn of the century as the urban workforce became more settled. Factories adapted to the situation by stopping work during the agricultural season, or by moving to the countryside. The government encouraged the latter, fearing the build-up of an urban working class. Only 40 per cent of the Empire's industrial workers lived in the cities at the turn of the century.


Many of these immigrants continued to see themselves as essentially peasants, and looked on industrial work as a means of 'raiding' the cash economy to support their family farms. They maintained their peasant appearance — wearing their traditional home-made cotton-print blouses rather than manufactured ones, having their hair cut 'under a bowl' rather than in the new urban styles, and refusing to shave off their beards. 'They lived in crowded, dirty conditions and behaved stingily, denying themselves everything in order to accumulate more money for the village,' Kanatchikov recalled. 'On holidays they attended mass and visited their countrymen, and their conversations were mostly about grain, land, the harvest and livestock.' When they had saved up enough money they would go back to their village and buy up a small piece of land. Others, however, like Kanatchikov, preferred to see their future as urban workers. They regarded their land in the village as a temporary fall-back whilst they set themselves up in the city.41

It was through an artel' of fifteen immigrant workers that Kanatchikov found a 'corner' of a room in a 'large, smelly house inhabited by all kinds of poor folk'. The fifteen men who shared the room bought food and paid for a cook collectively. Every day at noon they hurried home from the factory to eat cabbage soup — just as the peasants did, 'from a common bowl with wooden spoons'. Kanatchikov slept in a small cot with another apprentice. His windowless 'corner' was dirty and full of 'bed bugs and fleas and the stench of "humanity" '. But in fact he was lucky to be in a private room at all. Many workers had to make do with a narrow plank-bed in the factory barracks, where hundreds of men, women and children slept together in rows, with nothing but their own dirty clothes for bedding. In these barracks, which Gorky compared with the 'dwellings of a prehistoric people', there were neither washing nor cooking facilities, so the workers had to visit the bath-house and eat in canteens. There were whole families living in such conditions. They tried as best they could to get a little privacy by hanging a curtain around their plank-beds. Others, even less fortunate, were forced to live in the flophouse or eat and sleep by the sides of their machines. Such was the demand for accommodation that workers thought nothing of spending half their income on rent. Landlords divided rooms, hallways, cellars and kitchens to maximize their profits. Speculative developers rushed to build high tenements, which in turn were quickly sub-divided. Sixteen people lived in the average apartment in St Petersburg, six in every room, according to a survey of 1904. In the workers' districts the figures were higher. The city council could have relieved the housing crisis by building suburbs and developing cheap transportation, but pressure from the landlords in the centre blocked all such plans.42

Like most of Russia's industrial cities, St Petersburg had developed without any proper planning. Factories had been built in the central residential districts and allowed to discharge their industrial waste into rivers and canals. The domestic water supply was a breeding ground for typhus and cholera, as the Tsar's own daughter, the Grand Duchess Tatyana Nikolaevna, discovered to her cost when she contracted it during the tercentenary celebrations in the capital. The death rate in this City of Tsars was the highest of any European capital, including Constantinople, with a cholera epidemic on average once in every three years. In the workers' districts fewer than one in three apartments had a toilet or running water. Excrement piled high in the back yards until wooden carts came to collect it at night. Water was fetched in buckets from street pumps and wells and had to be boiled before it was safe to drink. Throughout the city — on house-fronts, inside tramcars, and in hundreds of public places — there were placards in bold red letters warning people not to drink the water, though thirsty workers, and especially those who had recently arrived from the countryside, paid very little attention to them. Nothing of any real consequence was done to improve the city's water and sewage systems, which remained a national scandal even after 30,000 residents had been struck down by cholera in 1908—9. There was a good deal of talk about building a pipeline to Lake Lagoda, but the project remained on the drawing board until I9I7.43

From his first day at the factory the young Kanatchikov was acutely conscious of his awkward and rustic appearance: 'The skilled workers looked down on me with scorn, pinched me by the ear, pulled me by the hair, called me a "green country bumpkin" and other insulting names.' These labour aristocrats became a model for Kanatchikov as he sought to assimilate himself into this new working-class culture. He envied their fashionable dress, with their trouser cuffs left out over their shiny leather boots, their white 'fantasia' shirts tucked into their trousers, and their collars fastened with lace. They smelt of soap and eau de Cologne, cut their hair 'in the Polish style' (i.e. with a parting down one side rather than in the middle as the peasants wore their hair), and on Sundays dressed in suits and bowler hats. The pride which they took in their physical appearance seemed to convey 'their consciousness of their own worth'; and it was precisely this sense of dignity that Kanatchikov set out to achieve.44

But for the moment, he found himself at the bottom of the factory hierarchy, an unskilled worker, labouring for six days every week, from 6 a.m. to 7p.m., for a measly wage of 1.5 roubles a week. Russia's late-flowering industrial revolution depended on cheap labourers from the countryside like Kanatchikov. This was its principal advantage over the older industrial powers, in which organized labour had won better pay and working conditions. As Count Witte put it in 1900, the Russian worker, 'raised in the frugal habits of rural life', was 'much more easily satisfied' than his counterpart in Europe or North America, so that 'low wages appeared as a fortunate gift to Russian enterprise'. Indeed, as the factories became more mechanized, employers were able to exploit the even cheaper labour of women and children. By 1914 women represented 33 per cent of the industrial workforce in Russia, compared to 20 per cent in 1885, and in certain sectors, such as textiles and food processing, women workers were in the majority. The factory took a heavy toll on their health, additionally burdened, as so many of them were, with bawling babies and alcoholic husbands. 'One cannot help but note the premature decrepitude of the factory women,' a senior doctor wrote in 1913. 'A woman worker of fifty sees and hears poorly, her head trembles, her shoulders are sharply hunched over. She looks about seventy. It is obvious that only dire need keeps her at the factory, forcing her to work beyond her strength. While in the West, elderly workers have pensions, our women workers can expect nothing better than to live out their last days as lavatory attendants.'45

The tsarist government was reluctant to better the lot of the workers through factory legislation. This was one of its biggest mistakes, for the buildup of a large and discontented working class in the cities was to be one of the principal causes of its downfall. Part of the problem was that influential reactionaries, like Pobedonostsev, the Procurator-General of the Holy Synod and close adviser to the last two tsars, refused to recognize the labour question' at all, since in their view Russia was still (and should remain) an agrarian society. In other words the workers should be treated as no more than peasants. Others feared that passing such reforms would only raise the workers' expectations. But the main concern was that so much of Russian industry remained in the hands of foreign owners,* and, if their labour costs were to rise, they might take their capital elsewhere. The gains made by British workers in the 1840s, and by German workers in the 1880s, remained out of reach of Russian workers at the turn of the century. The two most important factory laws — one in 1885 prohibiting the night-time employment of women and children, and the other in 1897 restricting the working day to eleven and a half hours — had to be wrenched from the government, after major strikes. But even these reforms left major loopholes. The small artisanal trades and sweatshops, which probably employed the majority of the country's workers, were excluded from all such protective legislation. The inspectorates, charged with ensuring that the factories complied with the regulations, lacked effective powers, and employers ignored them with impunity. Working areas were filled with noxious fumes and left unventilated. Shopfloors were crammed with dangerous machinery, so that accidents occurred frequently. Yet most workers were denied a legal right to insurance and, if they lost an eye or a limb, could expect no more than a few roubles' compensation.

* The percentage of foreign shareholding in joint-stock companies rose from 25 per cent in 1890 to about 40 per cent on the eve of the First World War.


'The factory owner is an absolute sovereign and legislator whom no laws constrain,' declared Professor Yanzhul, a leading proponent of factory regulation during the 1880s. Indeed, by hiring workers on private contracts, employers could bypass most of the government's labour legislation. All sorts of clauses were inserted into workers' contracts, depriving them of legal rights. Long after such fines had been outlawed, many workers continued to have their pay docked for low productivity, breakages and petty infringements of the factory rules (sometimes amounting to no more than going to the toilet during working hours). Some employers had their workers degradingly searched for stolen goods whenever they left the factory gates, while others had them flogged for misdemeanours. Others forbade their workers to wear hats, or to turn up for work in their best clothes, as a way of teaching them their proper place. This sort of 'serf regime' was bitterly resented by the workers as an affront to their personal dignity. 'We are not even recognized as people,' one complained, 'but we are considered as things which can be thrown out at any moment.' Another lamented that 'outside Russia even horses get to rest. But our workers' existence is worse than a horse's.'46 As they developed their own sense of self-worth, these workers demanded more respectful treatment by their employers. They wanted them to call them by the polite 'you' (vyi) instead of the familiar one (tyi), which they associated with the old serf regime. They wanted to be treated as 'citizens'. It was often this issue of respectful treatment, rather than the bread-and-butter question of wages, which fuelled workers' strikes and demonstrations.

Historians have searched exhaustively for the roots of this labour militancy. The size of the factories, the levels of skill and literacy, the movement of wages and prices, the number of years spent living in the city, and the influence of the revolutionary intelligentsia — all these factors have been examined in microscopic detail in countless monographs, each hoping to discover the crucial mix that explained the take-off of the 'workers' revolution'. The main argument among historians concerns the effects of urbanization. Some have argued that it was the most urbanized workers, those with the highest levels of skill and literacy, who became the foot soldiers of the revolution.47 But others have argued that the recent immigrants — those who had been 'snatched from the plough and hurled straight into the factory furnace', as Trotsky once put it — tended to be the most violent, often adapting the spontaneous forms of rebellion associated with the countryside (buntarstvo) to the new and hostile industrial environment in which they found themselves.48


Now there is no doubt that the peasant immigrants added a volatile and often belligerent element to the urban working class. Labour unrest during the early decades of industrialization tended to take the form of spontaneous outbreaks of violence, such as riots, pogroms, looting and machine-breaking, the sort of actions one might expect from an uprooted but disorganized peasant mass struggling to adapt to the new world of the city and the discipline of the factory. Some of these 'pre-industrial' forms of violence became permanent features of the landscape of labour unrest. A good example is the common workers' practice during strikes and demonstrations of 'carting out' their factory boss or foreman in a wheelbarrow and dumping him in a cesspool or a canal. Nevertheless, it is going too far to suggest that such 'primitive' forms of industrial protest, or the raw recruits behind them, were the crucial factor in the rise of labour militancy.49 During the 1890s strikes became the principal form of industrial protest and they required the sort of disciplined organization that only the most urbanized workers, with their higher levels of skills and literacy, could provide. In this context, the peasant immigrants were unlikely to play a leading role. Indeed, they were often reluctant to join strikes at all. With a piece of land in the village, to which they could return when times got hard, they had less inclination to take the risks which a strike entailed, compared with those workers who had broken their ties with the village and depended exclusively on their factory wage. The latter stood at the forefront of the labour movement.

Here Russia stood in stark contrast to Europe, where the most skilled and literate workers tended to be the least revolutionary and were being integrated into the wider democratic movement. There were few signs of such a moderate 'labour aristocracy' emerging in Russia. The print workers, with their high rates of pay and their close ties with the intelligentsia, were the most likely candidates for such a role. Yet even they stood firmly behind the Marxist and Social Revolutionary parties. Had they been able to develop their own legal trade unions, then these workers might have made enough gains from the status quo not to demand its overthrow. They might then have gone down the path of moderate reform taken by the European labour movements. But the Russian political situation naturally pushed them towards extremes. Unable to develop their own independent organizations, they were forced to rely upon the leadership of the revolutionary underground. To a large extent, then, the workers' revolutionary movement was created by the tsarist regime.

Militancy is nothing if not a set of attitudes and emotions. And as Kanatchikov's story illustrates, the roots of the workers' militancy were essentially psychological. His personality changed as he adapted himself to the lifestyle of the city and acquired new skills. Mastering the precision techniques of the pattern-makers, the elite machine-construction workers who drafted and moulded the metal parts, gave him confidence in his own powers. It also paid him more money, which gave him a greater sense of his own worth. Learning to read and talking to the other workers exposed him to the secular modes of thought and new 'scientific' theories, such as Darwinism and Marxism, which weakened his belief in religion. In other ways, too, the young Kanatchikov was struggling to break free from the influence of the village. He was repelled by the 'hooliganism' of his co-inhabitants in the artel', by their heavy drinking, their fighting and their rough peasant manners. He moved into a room on his own, swore a solemn oath never to drink anything stronger than tea, and set out on a rigorous course of self-improvement to wipe out all traces of his humble peasant roots. He sought to make a new image for himself, to emulate 'those young urban metalworkers', as he put it, 'who earned an independent living and didn't ruin themselves with vodka'. He saved up to get his hair cut in the Polish style and to buy a stylish jacket with mother-of-pearl buttons, and a cap with a velvet band, such as the labour aristocrats wore. He bought a suit, with a watch for the waistcoat pocket, a straw hat and a pair of fancy shoes, for Sundays. For fifteen kopecks, he even bought a Self-Teacher of Dance and Good Manners, which warned him not to wipe his nose with his napkin and told him how to eat such delicacies as artichoke and asparagus, although, as he later admitted, he 'did not even know if these things belonged to the animal, vegetable, or mineral world'.50

Self-improvement was a natural enough aspiration among skilled workers, like Kanatchikov, who were anxious to rise above their peasant origins and attain the status in society which their growing sense of dignity made them feel they deserved. Many harboured dreams of marrying into the petty-bourgeoisie and of setting themselves up in a small shop or business. They read the boulevard dailies, such as the Petersburg Sheet (Peterburgskii listok), which espoused the Victorian ideals of self-help, guided its readers in questions of good taste and decorum, and entertained them with sensational stories about the glamorous and the rich.

It was only to be expected that this search for respectability should be accompanied by a certain priggishness on the part of the labour elite, a fussy concern to set themselves apart from the 'dark' mass of the peasant-workers by conducting themselves in a sober and 'cultured' way.* But among those peasant-workers, like Kanatchikov, who would later join the Bolsheviks, this prudishness was often reflected in an extreme form. Their sobriety became a militant puritanism, as if by their prim and ascetic manners, by their tea-drinking and self-discipline, they could banish their peasant past completely. 'We were of the

* Here lay the roots of that peculiar Russian concept of kul'turnost', the state of having good manners, rather than being well educated, as in the Western concept of the term 'cultured', from which it is derived. This etymological twist could only have happened in a country like Russia, which was struggling to rid itself of its peasant past and attain the external trappings, if not the deeper moral sensibilities, of Western civilization.


opinion that no conscious Socialist should ever drink vodka,' recalled one such Bolshevik. 'We even condemned smoking. We propagated morality in the strictest sense of the word.' It was for this reason that so many rank-and-file Bolsheviks abstained from romantic attachments, although in Kanatchikov's case this may have had more to do with his own dismal failure with women. The worker-revolutionaries, he later admitted, 'developed a negative attitude toward the family, toward marriage, and even toward women'. They saw themselves as 'doomed' men, their fate tied wholly to the cause of the revolution, which could only be compromised by 'contact with girls'. So strait-laced were these pioneering proletarians that people often mistook them for the Pashkovites, a pious Bible sect. Even the police sometimes became confused when they were instructed to increase their surveillance of 'revolutionary' workers who drank only tea.51

* * * It was through his tea-drinking friends that the young Kanatchikov first became involved in the underground 'study circles' (kruzhki) devoted to the reading of socialist tracts and the education of the workers. In the early days most of these circles had been organized by Populist students, but by the late 1890s, when Kanatchikov moved to St Petersburg and joined a circle there, the Marxists were making the running. For him, as for many other 'conscious' workers, the circle's main attraction was the opening it gave him to a new world of learning. Through it he was introduced to the writings of Pushkin and Nekrasov, to books on science, history, arithmetic and grammar, to the theatre and to serious concerts, as well as to the popular Marxist tracts of the day. All this gave him the sense of being raised to a higher cultural level than most workers, who spent their leisure time in the tavern. But he and his comrades were still ill at ease in the company of the liberal middle classes who patronized their groups. Occasionally, as Kanatchikov recalls, they would be taken 'for display' to fashionable bourgeois homes:                                   

Our intelligentsia guide would introduce us in a loud voice, emphasizing the words: 'conscious workers'. Then we were regaled with tea and all manner of strange snacks that we were afraid to touch, lest we make some embarrassing blunder. Our conversations with such liberals had a very strained character. They would interrogate us about this or that book we had read, question us about how the mass of workers lived, what they thought, whether they were interested in a constitution. Some would ask us if we'd read Marx. Any stupidity that we uttered in our confusion would be met with condescending approval.

On leaving these parties, Kanatchikov and his friends 'would breathe a sigh of relief and laugh at our hosts' lack of understanding about our lives'. While on the surface they agreed with their student mentors that the liberals might be useful to the revolutionary cause, 'a kind of hostility toward them, a feeling of distrust, was constantly growing inside us'.52 It was precisely this feeling of distrust, the workers' awareness that their own aspirations were not the same as the liberals', that hastened the downfall of the Provisional Government in 1917.

Kanatchikov's conception of socialism was extremely malleable at this stage. And the same was true of most workers. They found it difficult to take on board complex or abstract ideas, but they were receptive to propaganda in the form of simple pamphlet stories highlighting the exploitation of the workers in their daily lives. Gorky's stories were very popular. Since escaping from Krasnovidovo, he had roamed across the country doing various casual jobs, until he had met the novelist and critic V G. Korolenko, who had encouraged him to write. By the mid-1890s Gorky had become a national celebrity, the first real writer of any quality to emerge from the urban underworld of migratory labourers, vagabonds and thieves, which his stories represented with vividness and compassion. Dressed like a simple worker, with his walrus moustache and his strongly chiselled face, Gorky was received as a phenomenon in the salons of the radical intelligentsia. The workers could easily identify themselves with his stories, because they drew on the concerns that filled their everyday lives and, like the writer's pseudonym, captured their own spirit of defiance and revolt (gor'kii means 'bitter' in Russian). Moreover, Gorky's obvious sympathy for the industrial worker, and his equal antipathy to the 'backward' peasant Russia of the past, gave workers like Kanatchikov, who were trying to break free from their own roots, a new set of moral values and ideals. In a famous passage in My Childhood (1913), for example, Gorky asked himself why he had recorded all the incidents of cruelty and suffering which had filled his early years; and he gave an answer with which many workers, like Kanatchikov, would have sympathized:

When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worth while recording them? And with ever stronger conviction I find the answer is yes, because that was the real loathsome truth and to this day it is still valid. It is that truth which must be known down to the very roots, so that by tearing them up it can be completely erased from the memory, from the soul of man, from our whole oppressive and shameful life.

All the characters in Gorky's stories were divided into good or bad — both defined in terms of their social class — with little shading or variation. This moral absolutism also appealed to the workers' growing class and revolutionary consciousness. But, perhaps above all, it was the spirit of revolt in Gorky's writing that made it so inspiring. 'The Stormy Petrel' (1895), his bombastic eulogy to the romantic revolutionary hero, disguised in the form of a falcon flying above the foamy waves, became the revolutionaries' hymn and was circulated through the underground in hundreds of printed, typed and hand-written copies. Like most workers, Kanatchikov had learned it by heart:

Intrepid petrel, even though you die,

Yet in the song of the bold and firm in spirit,

You'll always live as an example,

A proud summons — to freedom and light!53

The workers also liked to read stories about the popular struggle for liberation in foreign lands. 'Whether it was the Albigenses battling against the Inquisition, the Garibaldians, or the Bulgarian nationalists, we saw them all as our kindred spirits,' wrote Kanatchikov. It did not matter that these foreign heroes had fought very different battles from their own, since the workers were quick to reinterpret these stories in the Russian context. Indeed the censorship of literature about Russia's own historic 'revolutionaries', such as Pugachev or the Decembrists, obliged them to look abroad for inspiration. In that good old Russian tradition of reading between the lines they seized upon the Netherland-ers' struggle against the Inquisition as a stirring example of the spirit and organization they would need in their own struggle against the police. It was the stories' emotional content, their romantic depiction of the rebel as a fighter for freedom and justice, that made them so inspiring. From them, Kanatchikov wrote, 'we learned the meaning of selflessness, the capacity to sacrifice oneself in the name of the common good'.54 By identifying themselves with the fearless champions of human emancipation everywhere, they became converted to the revolution.

The special attraction of Marxism stemmed from the importance it gave to the role of the working class and to the idea of progress. The popular Marxist pamphlets of the late 1890s, which for the first time attracted large numbers of workers like Kanatchikov to the cause, drove home the lessons of the famine crisis of 1891: that the peasants were doomed to die out as a result of economic progress; that they were a relic of Russia's backward past who would be swept away by industry; and that the Populists' belief in the commune (to which many of the peasant-workers still adhered) was no longer tenable. Only Marxism could explain to workers why their peasant parents had become so poor, and why they had been forced into the cities. There was thus a close link between Kanatchikov's attachment to the Marxist exaltation of industrialization and progress and his own psychological rejection of his peasant past. Like many workers from the countryside, Kanatchikov invested much of his own personality in the ideal of liberation through industry. He found 'poetry' in 'the rumblings and the puffings' of the factory. To workers like him Marxism appeared as a modern 'science' that explained in simple black-and-white terms why their world was structured the way that it was, and how it could be transformed.

Many people have argued that Marxism acted like a religion, at least in its popular form. But workers like Kanatchikov believed with the utmost seriousness that the teachings of Marx were a science, on a par with the natural sciences; and to claim that their belief was really nothing more than a form of religious faith is unfair to them. There was, however, an obvious dogmatism in the outlook of many such workers, which could easily be mistaken for religious zealotry. It manifested itself in that air of disdain which many workers, having reached the uplands of Marxist understanding, showed towards those who had not yet ascended to such heights. One 'comrade', for example, arrogantly told a police officer, who was in the process of arresting him, that he was a 'fool' because he had 'never read Marx' and did 'not even know what politics and economics [were]'.55 This dogmatism had much to do with the relative scarcity of alternative political ideas, which might at least have caused the workers to regard the Marxist doctrine with a little more reserve and scepticism. But it also had its roots in the way most of these workers had been educated in philosophy. When people learn as adults what children are normally taught in schools, they often find it difficult to progress beyond the simplest abstract ideas. These tend to lodge deep in their minds, making them resistant to the subsequent absorption of knowledge on a more sophisticated level. They see the world in black-and-white terms because their narrow learning obscures any other coloration. Marxism had much the same effect on workers like Kanatchikov. It gave them a simple solution to the problems of 'capitalism' and backwardness without requiring that they think independently.

For a worker to commit himself to the militant labour movement was to invite persecution. Once the local police got wind of his activities he would soon find himself dismissed from his factory as a troublemaker. Yet because of the huge demand for skilled labour during the industrial boom, workers like Kanatchikov were easily able to find jobs again. They roamed from factory to factory, organizing illegal workers' clubs and associations, until the police caught up with them and again forced them to move on. Faced with a life on the run, the weak-willed militant might have chosen to return to the security of his native village. But for workers like Kanatchikov this was unthinkable. They had already committed themselves to the revolutionary movement, and their identity was invested in it. To return to the backwardness of the village would undermine their hard-won sense of themselves. The only alternative was to join the revolutionary movement underground. The comradeship which they found there partly compensated for the rootlessness which many of them must have felt as they moved from town to town. The party organization became the workers 'family home and hearth', as Kanatchikov put it. His 'comrades in struggle' took 'the place of his brothers, sisters, father and mother'. Belonging to this secret community, moreover, had its own romantic appeal, as another Bolshevik worker explained: 'The constant danger of arrest, the secrecy of our meetings and the awareness that I was no longer just a grain of sand, no longer just another one of the workers, but a member of an organization that was dangerous and threatening to the government and to the rich — all this was new and exciting.'56

This sense of belonging to the party and of being a part of its historic mission acted as a solvent on the social divisions between the workers and the Marxist intelligentsia. Comradeship was, initially, more powerful than class. Yet increasingly the relationship between the two was marked by tension and distrust. The workers were beginning to organize themselves. The strikes of the mid-1890s were the first real breakthrough by the independent labour movement. Most of them were led by the skilled workers themselves, though the Marxist intelligentsia in the Social Democratic Party played an important subsidiary role in spreading the propaganda that helped to make the strikes so widespread and effective. At this stage the Marxists were still committed to the idea of mass agitation for strikes. But towards the end of the decade many began to claim that the labour movement, with its narrow focus on bread-and-butter issues, was not strong enough by itself to bring down the tsarist regime. They demanded a broader political movement, in which the discipline and organization of the Social Democrats, rather than the workers themselves, would play the leading role. Here was the root of the conflict between the economic goals of the labour movement and the political ambitions of the revolutionary intelligentsia, a conflict that would split the whole Marxist movement in Russia.

With one foot in the factory and the other in the revolutionary underground, Kanatchikov now had to choose between them. On the eve of the 1905 Revolution, as we learn from the last proud sentence of his memoirs, he left the factory and became a full-time 'professional revolutionary' in the Bolshevik Party.

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