2 The Unconquered Country

Fours years of revolution had not reunited the villagers of Andreevskoe. They remained divided between the two old rivals. On the one side stood Sergei Semenov, progressive farmer and reformer, who dreamt of bringing the trappings of the modern world to this poor and God-forsaken hole. On the other stood Grigorii Maliutin, the heavy-built and heavy-drinking peasant elder, an Old Believer and opponent of all change, who had now resisted Semenov's reform efforts for the best part of thirty years.

The feud between them had begun in the 1890s, when Maliutin's daughter, Vera, had killed her illegitimate baby and buried it in the nearby woods. The police had arrived to investigate, and the rich Maliutin had been forced to buy them off. He accused Semenov of informing the police and began a campaign of intimidation — burning his barn down, killing his livestock, accusing him of sorcery — to drive him from the village. Maliutin finally achieved his aim in 1905 when Semenov established a branch of the Peasant Union in Andreevskoe; this was enough to make him a dangerous revolutionary in the eyes of the local judiciary, and he was sent into exile abroad. But three years later he returned to Andreevskoe as a pioneer of Stolypin's land reforms. He tried to introduce the advanced farming methods he had learned in Western Europe on private plots hived off from the commune. Some of the younger and more progressive peasants joined his enclosure movement. But Maliutin was once again enraged — within the commune he was the boss — and along with the other elders of the village had succeeded in blocking his reforms. All my dreams for a better life', Semenov wrote to a friend in 1916, 'have been destroyed by this obstinate and jealous man.'

The revolution tipped the scales in Semenov's favour. The old power structure upon which Maliutin had depended, of the volost elder, the local police and the gentry land captain, was dismantled overnight. Within the village the voice of the younger and more progressive farmers was also becoming more dominant, while that of the old patriarchal leaders like Maliutin, who saw nothing good in the revolution, was increasingly ignored. As a champion of reform, Semenov became a dominant figure at the village assembly. He always spoke out against the old patriarchal order and the influence of the Church. In 1917 he helped to organize the land redivision in Andreevskoe, cutting down Maliutin's farm to half its size. He was active in both the district Soviet land department and the local co-operatives; established associations for the purchase of advanced tools, market gardening, improved dairy farming and flax cultivation; wrote pamphlets and gave lectures on agronomy; campaigned against alcoholism; set up a school and a library in the village; and even wrote plays for the 'people's theatre' which he had established with his schoolteacher friend in the nearby township of Bukholovo. He even drew up plans on how to cover the villages of Volokolamsk with electric and telephone cables which he sent to the Moscow Soviet. Although Semenov's Tolstoyan beliefs prevented him from taking up office in the village or the volost Soviet, there was no doubt, as one local put it, 'that the peasants, not just of Andreevskoe, but of the whole region as well, saw him as their leader and champion'.

Meanwhile, Maliutin and his fellow elders continued to oppose his every move. They claimed that he was a Communist — and that his reforms in the village had merely brought upon it all the evils of the new regime. The local priest accused him of sorcery, and warned that his 'atheism' would lead to the devil. Archdeacon Tsvetkov of Volokolamsk joined in the denunciations, claiming that Semenov was the Antichrist. The new village school, organized by Semenov in 1919, enraged them especially, since it was built from timber taken from the woods that had belonged to Maliutin and the Church before they had been nationalized. Moreover, the school had no religious instruction. In place of the cross on the classroom wall there was the obligatory portrait of Lenin. One night Semenov's barn was burnt; on another his farm tools were taken and sunk in the lake. Anonymous denunciations were sent to the local Cheka claiming that Semenov was a 'counter-revolutionary' and a 'German spy': on more than one occasion Semenov was hauled in by the Cheka to answer for his actions, although a brief call to Kamenev, the Chairman of the Moscow Soviet, whom Semenov vaguely knew, was always enough to release him. During 1921, when Russia was hit by various cattle epidemics, Maliutin and his allies blamed the death of the livestock in the village on Semenov's 'evil reforms'. It was even claimed that he had 'made the cattle ill by sorcery'. Some of the peasants now became confused. Although they knew that throughout Russia cattle were dying from similar diseases, they wanted explanations for their own losses, and some now became suspicious of Semenov.

In the end, Maliutin organized his old rival's murder. On the night of 15 December 1922, as he was walking to Bukholovo, Semenov was ambushed by several men, including two of Maliutin's sons, who suddenly appeared from their sister Vera's house on the edge of the village. One of them shot Semenov in the back. As he turned to face his attackers they fired several more shots, and then, as he lay dead on the ground, blew off his face. They cut the blood-red sign of a cross into his chest.

It had been a cowardly murder. Semenov had always faced his rivals openly and had been fair to their points of view; yet they maligned him and shot him in the back. Later, when the murderers were arrested, they claimed that Semenov had been 'working for the devil' and that he had conjured up the cattle plague. They also confessed that Grigorii Maliutin and the Archdeacon Tsvetkov had ordered them to kill Semenov — 'in the name of God', as the latter had told them. They were all convicted of conspiring to murder and sentenced to ten years of hard labour each in the Arctic north.

Semenov was buried on his own beloved plot of land in Andreevskoe: he became a part of the soil for which he had lived and struggled all these years. Thousands of people from the surrounding villages attended the funeral, including hundreds of schoolchildren whom Semenov had personally taught. 'It is tragic to lose such a life', his friend Belousov said in his address, 'just at the moment when his work and teachings have become so badly needed by the people.' To commemorate Semenov's achievements, the village school was named after him, while his farm was preserved by the state, and run by his son until 1929, as a model farm to show the peasants the benefits of the latest agricultural innovations. Semenov would have been deeply touched: it was something he had dreamed of all his life.21

Never known to miss an opportunity for party propaganda, Pravda focused on this small provincial tale. It portrayed Maliutin as the evil 'kulak' and Semenov as the poor but politically conscious peasant. All of which was of course nonsense — Semenov was no more poor than Maliutin was a 'kulak', and in any case it was not class that had divided them. What the murder really showed was that less than a hundred miles from Moscow there were villages, such as Andreevskoe, which modern civilization had not yet reached — a world apart where the people still believed in witchcraft and lived as if they were trapped in the Middle Ages. The Bolsheviks had yet to conquer this unknown country. They looked at it with misapprehension, like an army in a foreign land. Early Soviet ethnographers, who set out for the countryside around Moscow like explorers for the Amazon forests, found that many of their fellow Russians still believed the earth was flat, that angels lived in clouds, and that the sun went around the earth. They discovered a strange village culture steeped in archaic and patriarchal ways, a world where time was still measured by the seasons and religious holidays as opposed to months, a world full of pagan rituals and superstitions, of wife-beating, mob law, fist fights and bouts of drinking that went on for days.

The Bolsheviks were unable to understand this world — Marx had said nothing about sorcery — let alone to govern it. Their state infrastructure had only got as far as the volost townships. Most of the villages were still governed by their own commune, whose smallholding 'peasant' nature had been greatly strengthened by the revolution and the civil war. Indeed, Russia as a whole had become much more 'peasant' in the previous few years. The great urban populations had largely disintegrated, industry had been virtually destroyed and the thin veneer of provincial civilization had been swept away by the revolution. The smallholding peasants were all that was left. No wonder so many Bolsheviks felt threatened by the peasant mass. Gorky, who was just as hostile to the 'barbaric peasants', expressed their fears. 'The immense peasant tide will end by engulfing everything,' he told a foreign visitor shortly before his departure for Berlin. 'The peasant will become the master of Russia by sheer force of numbers. And it will be a disaster for our future.'22 This fear of the peasant was the great unresolved tension of the 1920s — one that led inexorably towards the tragedy of collectivization.

True, rural life was not all dark. Under the NEP some of the trappings of the modern world began to trickle down to the villages. Electric power came. Even Andreevskoe had its first electric cables in 1927, thus finally realizing Semenov's dream. Lenin had extolled the new technology as a panacea for Russia's backwardness. 'Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country,' his famous slogan went. He seemed to equate it with magical powers, once even prophesying that the light bulb — or the 'little Ilich lamps', as they became known — would replace the icon in the peasants' huts. In Soviet propaganda the light bulb became a symbol for the torch of enlightenment: light was a metaphor for everything good, just as darkness was for poverty and evil. Photographs showed the peasants marvelling in almost religious wonderment at the new electric spheres of light. As Lenin saw it, a national grid would integrate the remote village world into the modern culture of the cities. Backward peasant Russia would be led out of darkness by the light of industry, and would come to enjoy a bright new future of rapid economic progress, mass education and liberation from the drudgery of manual labour. Much of this was fantasy: centuries of backwardness could not be overcome by a simple switch. Lenin, for so long the critic of utopianism, had at last succumbed, as H. G. Wells put it, to this 'utopia of the electricians' and, in contravention of all Marxist doctrine, had placed his faith in technology to overcome Russia's deep-rooted social problems.23

There were other signs of rural civilization in the 1920s. Hospitals, theatres, cinemas and libraries began to appear in the countryside. The period of the NEP witnessed a whole range of agronomic improvements which amounted to nothing less than an agricultural revolution. The narrow and intermingled arable strips that had made communal farming so inefficient were rearranged or broadened on nearly a hundred million hectares of allotment land. Multi-field crop rotations such as those of Western Europe were introduced on nearly one-fifth of all communal land. Chemical fertilizers, graded seed and advanced tools were used by the peasants in growing numbers. Dairy farming was modernized; and many peasants turned to market crops, such as vegetables, flax and sugar beet, which before the revolution had been grown exclusively by the commercial farms of the gentry. Semenov, who in his own times had pioneered such reforms, would have been no less pleased by the rural co-operatives — both for commodity exchange with the towns and for credit to purchase tools and livestock — which grew impressively in the 1920s. By 1927, 50 per cent of all peasant households belonged to an agricultural co-operative. As a result of these improvements, there was a steady rise in productivity. The 1913 levels of agricultural production were regained by 1926, and surpassed in the next two years. The harvest yields of the mid-1920s were 17 per cent higher than those of the 1900s, the so-called 'golden age' of Russian agriculture.24

There were also real gains in literacy, resuming the trend of the 1900s, as more village schools were built in the 1920s. By 1926, 51 per cent of the Soviet population was considered literate (compared with 43 per cent in 1917, and 35 per cent in 1907). The biggest gains were among village youth: peasant sons in their early twenties were more than twice as likely to be literate than their fathers' generation; while young peasant women of the same age were five times more likely to be literate than their mothers'. This growing generation gap was both demographic and cultural. By 1926, more than half the rural population was under the age of twenty, and over two-thirds under thirty. These were by and large the literate peasants. Many of them were acquainted with the world outside the village through their service in the army. They challenged the authority of their peasant elders, rarely went to church and displayed a strong individualist striving reflected in a sharp increase of household partitioning during the 1920s, as these sons broke away from their fathers and set up nuclear households of their own. Peasant sons were also increasingly ousting their fathers as the head of the household and gaining a greater say in the running of the farm.25 The Russian village was much less split between rich and poor, as the Bolsheviks had mistakenly believed, than it was divided between fathers and sons.

This generational conflict helped the Bolsheviks to build up their influence in the countryside through the organization of its restless youth. The Komsomol grew much more rapidly than the party in the countryside — from 80,000 members in 1922 to well over half a million, three times the number of rural Bolsheviks, by 1925. The Komsomol was a social club for the bored teenagers of the village. It organized them in a crusade against the Church and the old patriarchal order. Its aim was 'to turn the village upside down'. Through its recruitment for the party it also offered these ambitious youths the chance to advance themselves and leave the backward village, which so many of them had come to despise, for the bright lights of the urban world. A survey of the Komsomol in one of the most agricultural districts of Voronezh province during the mid-1920s found that 85 per cent of its members came from peasant families; yet only 3 per cent said that they wanted to work in agriculture. In 1923 a young student of ethnography summarized the attitudes of his contemporaries in his village in Volokolamsk, not far from Semenov's Andreevskoe:


This is what the young people say about their elders: 'The old people are fools. They work themselves to exhaustion and get nothing from it. They don't know anything except how to plough — which is to say they don't know anything . .. Give up the farm. It is not profitable and does not justify the labour spent on it'. . . [The young people want] to get away, to get away as quickly as possible. Anywhere, if one can only get away — to the factory, to the army, to study, or become an officer — it doesn't matter.26

Semenov and Kanatchikov had noted the same attitudes thirty years before. The rejection of the village by its youth was, it seems, a constant source of Bolshevik recruitment.

The Red Army, along with the Komsomol, was a means of organizing this restless village youth. Young men who had returned from the army often took the lead in the rural Soviets and in die Komsomol crusade against the old rural order. One group of veterans held a 'congress' in their village to discuss ways to organize a 'struggle against darkness, religion, moonshine and other evils'. Having grown accustomed to the army life, these young veterans soon became bored with the life of the village, where, as one of them put it, 'there are no cultures of any kind'. They despised the old rural ways of the village and, if they did not leave it altogether, sought in every way to set themselves apart by adopting urban and military dress. One source noted that all 'former soldiers, rural activists, and Komsomols — that is all those who counted themselves progressive people — went around in military and semi-military uniforms'. Many of these youths later played an active role in Stalin's campaign of collectivization. They joined the grain-requisitioning squads which resumed the civil war against the village after 1927; set up 'initiative groups' to organize collective farms; took part in the renewed attacks on the Church; helped to suppress peasant resistance; and later became officials or machine operators in the new collective farms.27

And yet the fact remained that within the village the Bolsheviks were without real authority. This was the root cause of the failure of the NEP. Unable to govern the countryside by peaceable means, the Bolsheviks resorted to terrorizing it, ending up in collectivization. The events of 1918—21 had left a deep scar on peasant—state relations. Although the civil war between them had come to an end, the two sides faced each other with deep suspicion and mistrust during the uneasy truce of the 1920s. Through passive and everyday forms of resistance — foot-dragging, habitual failure to understand instructions, apathy and inertia — the peasants hoped to keep the Bolsheviks at bay. As the party took over the Soviet administration in the volost townships, the peasants withdrew from the Soviets altogether and regrouped politically in their village communes. The resurrection of the absolutist state thus recreated the ancient division between the volost as the seat of state or gentry power — 'interested only in collecting taxes', as one peasant put it — and the village as the domain of the peasants. Outside the volost townships the Bolsheviks had no authority. Nearly all their members were concentrated there, where they were needed to run the fledgling organs of the state. Very few rural Bolsheviks lived in the villages or had any real ties with the peasantry. Only 15 per cent of the rural party members were engaged in farming; while less than 10 per cent came from the region to which they were assigned. As for the rural party meetings, they were concerned mainly with state policy, international events and even sexual ethics — but very rarely with agricultural matters.

The rural Soviets were just as powerless. Although technically subordinated to the volost administration, their mainly peasant members were reluctant to go against the interests of the village communes, upon whose taxes they depended for their budgets. Indeed the villagers often elected a simpleton or an alcoholic, or perhaps some poor peasant in debt to the village elders, in order to sabotage the Soviet's work. It was an old trick of the peasants and had been applied to the volost administration before 1917. The Bolsheviks, in their usual inept manner, responded by centralizing power, cutting down the number of rural Soviets; yet this made matters worse, for it left the vast majority of the villages without a Soviet at all. By 1929, the average rural Soviet was trying to rule nine separate villages with a combined population of 1,500 people. Without telephones, and sometimes even without transport, the Soviet officials were rendered impotent. Taxes could not be properly collected, Soviet laws could not be enforced. As for the rural police force, it was minuscule, with each policeman on average responsible for 20,000 people in eighteen or even twenty villages.28 A decade after 1917 the vast majority of the countryside had yet to experience Soviet power.

There was a common assumption among those Bolsheviks who wrote about the NEP — Bukharin was a classic example — that the growing affluence and cultural advancement of the countryside would somehow dissolve this political problem. This was mistaken. Under the smallholding system of the NEP the political culture of the village became even more distinctly 'peasant', in fundamental opposition to the state, and no amount of propaganda or education could ever hope to bridge this gap. Why, after all, should a better-educated peasant be more susceptible to Communist control or indoctrination? The rural intelligentsia, who alone could have played an intermediary role between the peasantry and the regime, was a tiny island in this peasant ocean, with its own distinct urban culture and, by all accounts, increasingly mistrusted by the peasants.29 The longer the NEP went on, the greater the disjunction became between the ambitions of the Soviet regime and its impotence in the countryside. Militant Bolsheviks were increasingly afraid that the revolution would degenerate, that it would sink in the 'kulak' mud, unless a new civil war was launched to subjugate the village to the town. Here were the roots of Stalin's civil war against the village, the civil war of collectivization. Without the means to govern the village, let alone to transform it on socialist lines, the Bolsheviks sought to abolish it instead.

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