3 The Wager on the Strong

The exiled peasant returned to his village on a cold April morning in 1908. It had taken him nearly three days by train, horse and cart to travel the one hundred miles from Moscow, and as he neared his birthplace his hopes of finding some improvement made during his two years of absence increased. But the village of Andreevskoe had never been a dynamic sort of place. The currents of modern civilization had somehow passed it by, and as he returned to it now, fresh from the sights of England and France, Sergei Semenov saw only familiar signs of backwardness and decay. The black strips of ploughed land seemed narrower and more ragged than ever, the tussocks in the meadow had grown to the size of small bushes, the woods had been cut down, the cattle allowed to roam freely over the gardens, and weeds sprouted in the main village street. Semenov's neighbour, once a hard-working peasant, had taken to the bottle, while his eight children went without shoes. But what depressed Semenov most was to learn that the elders of the village were the same old patriarchs who had been there when he left. For they would now have even more reason to regard his plans for reform with hostility and mistrust.23

Chief among the elders was Grigorii Maliutin, a heavy-built and heavy-drinking septuagenarian, with a big red-blistered face and a long white beard, who had been the dominant elder for as long as anyone could remember. Maliutin was the richest peasant in Andreevskoe, living partly on the profits from his son's soap factory near Moscow, and for his age he was surprisingly strong. Vain and jealous of his power, he was a strict disciplinarian, a village despot of the old school, who still beat his elderly wife and, as the elder of the village, flogged any peasant found guilty of a crime. Most of the villagers lived in fear of him. Maliutin's main ally was another relic from the days of serfdom, Yefim Stepanov, who over the years had made himself rich by scrimping and saving like a miser. He always wore the same old dirty clothes, fed his animals only just enough to keep them alive, and never once gave anything to the beggars outside church. Both men were illiterate Old Believers, and they were united by their fear of change. Their power over the village depended on keeping it sealed off from the modern world. Maliutin made a habit of denouncing every new invention, from the samovar to the sowing machine, as ruinously wasteful. Even to think of them caused him pain.24

What could be worse, then, than for them to see the return of their arch-rival Sergei Semenov. Semenov had been born in 1868 into a poor peasant family in Andreevskoe. Like Semen Kanatchikov, whose village of Gusevo was in the same district of Volokolamsk, he was sent out as a young boy to earn his own living in Moscow. His father, like Kanatchikov's, was an alcoholic, and his mother did most of the work on the farm, which did not yield enough to support him. Between the ages of ten and eighteen Semenov roamed from factory to factory, at first in Moscow and then in Petersburg, Poltava and Ekaterinoslav, sending money home to his family and returning to the village at harvest time. He taught himself to read and at the age of eighteen began to write stories of village life. One day he turned up on Tolstoy's doorstep at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy admired Semenov's tales — here was his ideal of the 'peasant writer' — and the two men became life-long friends. Semenov was a quiet and a modest man. 'Small and thin, with a red goatee beard, a sad intelligent face, and a sensitive, almost child-like, shyness, he always dressed like a peasant in a tunic and', according to one of his Moscow friends, 'looked more like a village clerk than a litterateur.' Unlike Kanatchikov, he never hankered for the bright lights of the city. At the age of twenty he returned to Andreevskoe, married a local village girl, and took over the running of his father's farm. His bitter childhood had turned him into a firm believer in reform. 'I was always driven by a burning desire to improve the life of my village, to end its dark and backward ways,' he later wrote. This belief in progress was the source of his commitment to the revolution and — closely connected — to his own self-improvement. He gave up drink and saved up to buy handbooks on agriculture. The Volokolamsk district was fast becoming a major centre of flax cultivation — perhaps the most important form of intensification on the Russian peasant farm — and handsome profits could be made from it. Semenov was in the forefront of this movement. He rented extra land from a nearby squire and grew not only flax but a variety of other market crops with the latest farming methods. He began to campaign for land reform in Andreevskoe, and so came into bitter conflict with Maliutin.25

The feud between them had begun with a skeleton. Maliutin's daughter, Vera, had given birth to a baby out of wedlock. Out of shame she murdered it and buried its body in the woods. Somehow the authorities found out and the police arrived in the village to investigate. Maliutin managed to buy them off, and the matter was quietly dropped. But for a long time he accused Semenov of having informed the authorities. With his supporters he began a campaign of intimidation to drive Semenov out of the village. They burned down his barn, killed his livestock, took away his tools and accused him of sorcery. The local church added its voice to this charge. Semenov was an atheist. He refused to receive priests in his house, and on Sundays and other holidays was the only peasant to be seen working in the fields. But even worse, he was also a follower of Tolstoy, who had been excommunicated. In 1902 Semenov was finally convicted of sorcery in the ecclesiastical courts and imprisoned for six months.26

On his release, he returned to his village, this time to join the peasant revolutionary struggle. He was among that remarkable group of local peasants, agronomists and teachers, who established the reading clubs, the co-operatives and the peasant unions in Volokolamsk district, culminating in the Markovo Republic of 1905—6 (see pages 183—4-). This gave Maliutin a second chance to strike a blow at his rival, and he now informed the police that the village contained a dangerous revolutionary. Semenov was arrested in July 1906, along with the peasant leaders of Markovo, and imprisoned for two months in Moscow before being sent into exile abroad. With Tolstoy's financial help, Semenov spent the next eighteen months touring the countryside of England and France. Seeing the farming methods practised in the West merely strengthened his conviction of the need for a complete overhaul of the communal system in Russia. It burdened the Russian peasants with an inefficient system of land use and stifled their initiative as individual farmers. Under the communal system, the peasants held their land in dozens of narrow arable strips scattered across the village domain. Semenov's own 10 desyatiny (27 acres) consisted of over 50 different strips in a dozen different locations. The strips were far too narrow — some of them no more than three feet wide — for modern ploughs and harrows; and far too much time was wasted in moving from one to another. The periodic redistribution of the strips left little incentive to improve the soil, since any benefits from this might be lost in the subsequent reallocation of the strips. There was little prospect of introducing advanced crop-rotations because in the open-field system everyone was obliged to follow the same pattern of cultivation so as to allow the cattle to graze on the stubble simultaneously, and, if only by force of numbers, inertia set in. 'It was my dream', Semenov wrote, 'to set up an enclosed farm of my own with a seven-field rotation and no more narrow strips.'27

Having left the village as a revolutionary, he was now returning to it as a pioneer of the government's own policies. His dream had also become that of Stolypin: the dismantling of the commune. But unlike Semenov, who saw this only in agronomic terms, Stolypin also linked it to the creation of a new class of peasant landowners, who, by owning property and growing more wealthy, would learn to respect the rights of the squires and give up their revolutionary aspirations. 'The government', Stolypin told the Duma in 1908, 'has placed its wager, not on the needy and the drunken, but on the sturdy and the strong.'28 Entrepreneurial peasants like Semenov were now encouraged to break away from the commune and set up their own private enclosed farms. By a Law of 9 November 1906 they were given the right to convert their communal strips of land into private property on fully enclosed farms outside the village (khutora) or consolidated holdings within it (otruba). The whole village could make this transformation by a vote of two-thirds majority of the household heads. Further legislation followed to speed up the process of land reorganization and to help the separators purchase additional land from the gentry and the state with low-interest credit from the Peasant Land Bank. There was little doubt of the high priority the government gave to this project. This was the first time it had ever really tried to effect a major change in the everyday life of the peasants and the more intelligent ministers and officials knew that, unless a dramatic improvement was made, it was also likely to be the last. Conscious of its historic powerlessness in the countryside, the government pulled out all the bureaucratic stops to facilitate the enclosure process. Four different ministries, hundreds of provincial and district land commissions and thousands of surveyors, agronomists, statisticians and engineers were employed in its administration. The land captains and the other local officials were bombarded with directives from the centre urging them to encourage the separators, and tens of millions of roubles were earmarked to help them. It was as if the regime realized that its own political survival had come to depend on this 'wager on the strong'.

Stolypin could not have wished for a better pioneer than Sergei Semenov. He embodied the spirit of peasant self-improvement and enterprise upon which Stolypin's reforms relied. Like Stolypin, he took a dim view of his neighbours' ways — their disrespect for property, their fear of books and science, their constant drinking and their fighting — which he blamed on the 'serf-like habits of the commune and the Maliutins of this world'.29

To the Maliutins of Andreevskoe, who saw no need to change the old communal ways, Semenov was nothing but a trouble-maker. They continued to denounce him as an 'arteist' (atheist) and a 'lootinary' (revolutionary) because he attacked the Church and the Tsar. They tried to block him from attending the village assembly on the grounds that his old and alcoholic father, whom Semenov continued to support, was still legally the household head. Maliutin argued that to invest time and money in reforms would be a waste. 'Our grandfathers did it this way — and so shall we.'

Maliutin's arguments had much to recommend them to the peasantry, who were by their nature wary of reform. There were profound cultural reasons for the peasants to oppose the break-up of the commune, which had been the focus of their lives for centuries. The basic worry was that giving some peasants the right to own part of the communal land, or to hold it privately in perpetuity, would deprive others of their rights of access to this land as their basic means of livelihood. This fear was strongest amongst the junior members of the family, especially the women, for once a household consolidated its land as private property, family ownership ceased to function and the land became the legal property of the household elder. He could bequeath it to one or more of his sons, or sell it altogether, thus depriving the other household members of their inheritance. 'The peasants', declared one official, 'are very hostile to the Law of 9 November,' because 'they fear that the peasant elders will sell up the land and their children will become paupers. They say no one should sell land — let them trade what they like but not land.'30 Many peasants were afraid that allowing the communal land to become private property would enable the richest members to buy it all up. There was also a widespread fear that the government surveyors, who had been instructed to encourage the process of enclosure, would reward the separators with more than their fair share of the best land.

And indeed the peasants had real cause to wonder just how the old patchwork of strips, which were often intermingled within the commune, could be disentangled at all. On what terms was a good bit of land in one place to be exchanged for a poor one in another? How were they to divide the meadows, the woods and the rivers, which had always been held in common? And if the new enclosed farms were to build their own roads, wouldn't these cut across existing boundaries and private rights of way? The peasants were attached to their land in a very particular sense. Most of them had farmed the same strips for many years, knew their peculiar traits and would not easily be parted from them. No one had ever taught them how to calculate the area of a piece of land by multiplying its width by its length, so they had no reliable means of satisfying themselves that two equal plots were in fact the same size. Their fields were divided 'by eye' or by pacing out the width of the strips and making rough adjustments where their length or the quality of their soil was uneven. They had no doubt that this primitive method, used by their grandfathers, was a good deal more accurate than the complex scientific methods of the government's land surveyors, with their suits, their rulers and their tripods. For one thing, the surveyors could not take into account the detailed variations in the quality of each strip, as the peasants themselves did in endless debates during the land division. Nor could they take into account the various social factors that inevitably influenced the peasants' allocation of the strips: for giving the best land to the most powerful families had become an important means of preserving traditional peasant hierarchies. It was the biggest farmers, with the most to lose from the break-up of the commune, who usually led the campaign against land reform. And it was not hard for them to stir up a general fear of reform among the peasants, for the existing dispensation had become a part of their everyday life, their family histories and the social structure of the village.31

All these factors played their part in Semenov's struggle to separate from the commune. To begin with he and his supporters, who were mostly the younger and more literate peasants, tried to persuade the rest of the village to consolidate all their land together, or at least to carry out a communal redivision of the land to reduce the number of narrow strips. But Maliutin and his supporters raised all sorts of objections, and the rest of the peasants were either too fearful of them, or else too fearful of change, to give Semenov and his supporters the two-thirds majority they required to enforce a general consolidation. So Semenov's group now began to campaign for the right to consolidate their own allotments as otruba. But again they encountered hostile opposition from Maliutin and the other elders. The village broke down into two warring minority camps — one trying to break away from the commune and the other trying to stop them — whilst the majority of the peasants did not know what to think but tried, like sheep, to stay with the largest group. To frighten Semenov, the elders barred his children from the village school and deprived him of access to the communal pastures and woods. Maliutin's followers beat up his wife, killed his livestock and burned the houses of his supporters. They even threatened to kill the land surveyors when they came to the village; and for eighteen months no surveyor dared re-appear.

Such intimidation was by no means unusual (in many villages troops had to be brought in and martial law imposed to end the violence). It was certainly effective in putting off many potential peasant pioneers. Of the six million individual applications for land consolidation received before 1915, over one-third were subsequently withdrawn by the applicants themselves, largely because of pressure from their neighbours. Of those that were completed (about one million individual consolidations in all), two-thirds had to be forced through by the authorities against the opposition of the commune.32 And yet, as Semenov was to learn, even with the state on their side, it would need considerable determination by the separators to see the thing through to the end.

Bureaucratically, the fate of Stolypin's reforms was in the hands of the local land captains. They were charged with explaining to the peasants the advantages of the new mode of farming and with approving their petitions to the land commission, the Peasant Land Bank, and other sources of financial support. Semenov's land captain, Makarov, was a liberal and educated noble driven to this relatively humble office by bankruptcy and a tragic love affair. Like the provincial governor, he was quite sympathetic to the enclosure movement. This was unusual. The majority of their colleagues in the provincial bureaucracy were opponents of reform. They saw the enclosures as part of a general campaign by Stolypin to undermine the gentry's domination of the countryside, and tried to block their implementation through inaction and delay. The need to involve the land captain turned out in itself to be a major deterrent to potential separators. For in many areas the captain had played the key role in putting down the agrarian disorders of 1905—7 and peasant mistrust of the captain, as of all government officials, still ran very deep.33

But there was still not much that even Makarov could or would do to help Semenov. The Marshal of the Nobility and the other land captains in Volokolamsk were strongly opposed to the reforms, and Makarov was not prepared to step out of line for fear of losing his job. Nor was he brave enough to use his coercive powers and force through Semenov's rights in the face of hostile opposition from his fellow villagers. Indeed he never once came to the village for fear of his life. All this played into the hands of Semenov's opponents, who now stepped up their resistance. Led by Maliutin, they bombarded the local authorities with petty complaints against Semenov. These complaints were cleverly planned to give the authorities an excuse for endless bureaucratic delays over the land reform. They denounced Semenov to the district police for defiling a portrait of the Tsar, so that a detailed investigation had to be carried out before Semenov was deemed worthy enough to own a private plot. They took the question of whether Semenov or his father was to have rights at the village assembly to the volost court, and, when it failed to reach a decision, they took it to the district courts. All of this took up nearly two years. Maliutin also dragged him through the courts with a bogus claim to his allotment land, so that while the case was sub judice he would be unable to enclose his strips since he had no clear legal right to them.

Semenov's determination to cut through all these obstacles was quite extraordinary. Most peasants were deterred by far less difficulty, and the enclosure movement lost much of its impetus as a result. The rate of consolidations, after a strong initial spurt, fell sharply after 1909—10. Between 1906 and the eve of the revolution something in the region of 15 per cent of all the peasant households in European Russia consolidated their land as private plots, either in groups or individually, bringing the total of peasant farms in hereditary tenure to somewhere between 27 and 33 per cent.34 Yet for every household that enclosed its land there was another that had tried and failed, either because of communal resistance or bureaucratic delays, with the result that they lost interest. Most of the separations took place in the west, the south and south-east of the country, where the market was most developed. The separators tended to be either the more market-oriented farmers or, conversely, the poorest peasants, who quickly sold up their private plots and often moved into the cities. The mass of the peasants in the central region of Russia — precisely those who would lead the agrarian revolution of 1917 — were not affected. Stolypin's reform had failed to alter their communal way of life.

In the end, after more than two years of wrangling, the land surveyors arrived in Andreevskoe with armed bodyguards and the final details of the land consolidation were completed. Of the forty-five households which had originally applied to consolidate their strips along with Semenov, only eight remained. To appease their opponents they were forced to make do with a piece of poor scrubland on the edge of the village. Since it had no suitable pasture, they remained dependent on the village commune's permission to graze their cattle on its land. Such compromises were a fact of life. Most of the peasant separators preferred to keep one foot in the village, as they could do if they held an otrub (which gave them rights of access to the communal pastures and the woods), rather than run the risks of setting up an enclosed but dangerously isolated khutor on their own. The vast majority of Stolypin's land enclosures were consolidations of otruba; and the government, despite its preference for khutora, had little choice but to give them its blessing.

Despite the continued opposition of the communal peasants, who occasionally vandalized their property, Semenov and his fellow separators gradually turned their scrubland into model private farms. They introduced big square fields with advanced crop rotations, sorted seed, chemical fertilizers and modern tools. Their cereal and flax yields increased by nearly half. They built winter sheds for their cows, imported better livestock breeds from Europe, exported milk to Moscow and established a dairy farmers' union. They also grew fruit and vegetables, which they took by train for sale in Moscow every Saturday. 'My experience over the past three years', Semenov wrote in 1913, 'has convinced me that a bright new future lies ahead of the peasants.'35 And these newly enclosed farmers were the pioneers of a brief agricultural revolution in Russia before the First World War. To a large extent it was they who accounted for the marked rise in peasant living standards noted by recent historians. The khutor farmers, who were generally the strongest of the strong, had three or four horses and perhaps a dozen cows, compared with one of each for most of the communal peasants. They hired labour, bought more land from the gentry and began to set up in business. Here were the winners of the 'wager on the strong'.

But there were others, especially among the otrubniki, who failed to make it on their own. Many of their otruba were actually smaller than the neighbouring communal allotments, suggesting that they belonged to the weaker peasant households. No doubt some of them had set up on their own with the aim of selling the land and moving into the cities: over one million peasants did just that between 1908 and 1915. But others did attempt to cultivate their enclosed plots, believing that once they were free of the commune they too could become successful farmers. The truth was, of course, that farming an enclosed plot entailed many more costs and risks than the peasants had faced within the village commune, and that trying to do it with inadequate means was bound to end in disaster. The separators had to pay interest on loans from the bank and invest in roads, fencing and water. They also had to provide their own means of transport, tools, timber, pasture and stocks of seed and grain, some of which they would previously have shared with their communal neighbours. The range of communal services which had always made the village the centre of the peasant's life — the church, the school, the shops and small trades, as well as the personal networks between neighbours — was now closed to them, at least partly. By 1917, many of the private farmers had fallen into desperate poverty and were only too ready to liquidate their farms in order to rejoin the commune and share in the division of spoils as it renewed its war on the gentry's estates.

The majority of Western historians have tended to assume — often more on the basis of their own ideological prejudices than empirical evidence — that Stolypin's land reform 'must have been' a success. It is argued that were it not for the First World War, which brought the separations to a halt, the reform might have averted the agrarian revolution by converting the peasants into a class of yeoman landowners. This fits with the view of those historians who stress that tsarist Russia after 1905 was becoming stabilized and strengthened as a result of its evolution towards a modern society and that, if it had not been for the war, the revolution would never have happened. The bad old days of autocracy were receding, a parliamentary order was taking shape, and Russia, so the argument goes, was fast becoming a real industrial power with a peasantry that not merely fed itself but, thanks to Stolypin's reforms, was able to export food as well.

In fact, long before 1914, Stolypin's land reforms had ground to a halt. Stolypin had claimed that they would need at least twenty years to transform rural Russia. But even if they had continued at the same rate as they had been progressing before the First World War, it would have taken the best part of a century for the regime to create the strong agrarian bourgeoisie on which it had evidently decided to stake its future. The land enclosure movement, like every other reform of the tsarist regime, came too late.

Part of the problem was the lack of an adequate bureaucratic structure to implement the reforms, so that they suffered endless delays. The government was attempting to transform the peasantry's way of life without any real political leverage in the countryside. Most of the gentry, from the provincial governors down to the local land captains, opposed the reforms and did their best to stop them. Meanwhile, at village level there was no state administration at all, although Stolypin, to be fair, had tried to create a volost zemstvo dominated by the new peasant landowners and it was only the political opposition of the gentry, defending their traditional hegemony over local government, which buried his proposals. The peasant pioneers, like Semenov, thus had no political authority of their own to which they could turn in their uphill struggle to break away from the commune and unless, like him, they showed extraordinary perseverance they had very little hope of succeeding. Without the democratization of local government Stolypin's reforms were doomed to fail.

Perhaps above all the reforms were fated by their sheer ambition. It turned out to be much harder to impose foreign capitalist ways on the backward Russian countryside than the senior bureaucrats, sitting in their offices in St Petersburg, had been prepared to acknowledge. The village commune was an old institution, in many ways quite defunct, but in others still responsive to the basic needs of the peasants, living as they did on the margins of poverty, afraid of taking risks, suspicious of change and hostile to outsiders. Stolypin assumed that the peasants were poor because they had the commune: by getting them to break from it he could improve their lives. But the reverse was closer to the truth: the commune existed because the peasants were poor, it served to distribute the burden of their poverty, and as long as they were poor there would be little incentive for them to leave it. For better or worse, the commune's egalitarian customs had come to embody the peasantry's basic notions of social justice and, as the events of 1917 would prove, these were ideals for which they would fight long and hard.

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