The Village of Wide Bounty
A LIGHT snow lay on the wide fields of South Russia, sifting between black upturned clods of winter fallow, and covering the fields of winter rye with a thin coat whose warmth might prove insufficient against the zero cold that was gripping the earth. Our peasantmade sleigh slid smoothly on its runners of bent saplings; too smoothly, in fact, for it slipped as easily sideways as forward, leaving the icy roadway for precarious attempts at occasional ditches.
Of such dangerous spots, however, there were fortunately few. Steadily the wind beat toward us across wide spaces of earth only very slightly rolling, earth which dipped with long curves into spacious valleys and rounded again into hills perceptible only by the fact that they served to hide distant settlements.
After two hours’ sleighing the landscape changed its aspect. Half a dozen deep ravines crossed each other dangerously; we slid perilously down steep hills only to toil laboriously up others. We passed through rows of houses of wood and of mud, with great bales of straw fastened by palings along the walls as a bar to weather, and double windows long since plastered tightly shut for winter. We skirted a sidehill and drew steadily upwards toward an ancient church which, in Russian fashion, dominated the village from its highest hill. But just before reaching this seat of religion we turned past a brand-new hospital and stopped by a battered house bearing the sign ‘Reading Hut.’
We had come to the village of Wide Bounty. Here in the Reading Hut would be, if anywhere, the assembly we were seeking.
The village of Wide Bounty was ‘cleaning its fists.’ Lest this imply to some misguided soul that there exists a Russian village with some strange new devotion to sanitation, let me at once protest. There is no such place; it will take more than one revolution to change the sanitary habits of Russian rural life. Still the same heaps of filth for outhouses; still the same bare dwellings sealed against the fresh air which rushes between them. ‘Cleaning’ in Wide Bounty is a term of politics, not of sanitation. ‘Fists’ is also a political term, meaning well-todo peasants of the ‘hard-boiled,’ individualist type.
A collective farm, or Kolhoz, had been formed in the village of Wide Bounty, and the more prosperous peasants, who had at first opposed it, had at last rushed to join with the rest of the village, rather than be debarred from the use of promised government tractors. But much doubt was felt about the bona fides of these new converts. Had they not always bossed their fellow men, and lent money at usury? Now they would want to boss the Kolhoz, and turn it to their private gain. Let them be tested before public assembly; let them be ‘cleaned,’ and perhaps ‘cleaned out’ of the collective.
‘Cleanings’ of this type are common in Russia, and always they bring heartsearching and terror to their victims. There are cleanings of the Communist Party, and cleanings of the civil service, where each man’s past deeds, and perchance even thoughts, come forth to confront him. Did he once speak roughly to a servant, or keep her over hours to watch the baby while he and his wife went to an important conference? Mayhap that servant, even after three years, will bear a grudge and report in public that Comrade So-and-so is harsh toward underlings. Has he once favored Trotsky, or allowed his wife to retain her ikons? Be sure that for these matters he will be brought to judgment. He may lose his job; he may even be ‘cleaned out’ of the party, which is political death.
But if the Russian cities are long since hardened to cleanings, it is otherwise with the villages. Here life has, till recently, gone on anarchic as ever, and the only weapons against violators of the public will have been the ancient weapons of petty gossip, scandal, boycott, and, in extreme cases, the courts. Now a new weapon to enforce submission to the community is put into the hands of the villagers. They also are having a cleaning.
The one large room of the shabby Reading Hut is crowded to suffocation. Men and women have come to give testimony, or to be examined for their faults, or merely to listen. The usual shouting and loud wrangling of peasant meetings are absent. It is as solemn as a court; it is, in fact, a court, determining the fate not of one but of sixty-seven citizens. Not more than half a dozen are likely to be judged hopeless cases; but sixty-seven men, one by one, are to be tested and cleaned.
Sitting at the presiding table, a calm, shrewd man in his late thirties leans forward — a former farm hand, now the president of the village collective farm. ‘Our task,’ he says, ‘is to strengthen our Kolhoz by ridding it of those elements which are enemies, unable to work in a collective; and second, to strengthen and discipline those persons who have faults but can be restored; and third, to make clear through discussion to the minds of the village what is demanded of a Kolhoz member.’
So placidly authoritative sound the words of the president that at first I suspect him of being an emissary of higher authority sent to conduct the cleaning. His intimate personal comments, however, reveal that he is a native of Wide Bounty, a laborer on the big estate before the Revolution. With him at the presiding table sit three others, also local villagers — the president of the village soviet, the head of the Combined Collective Farms which centre here, and a representative of the Young Folks League. Here also should sit a delegate from the women; she has been elected, but chooses shyly to remain in the audience. However, she will participate when the commission goes behind closed doors for its final summing up of fate.
Here surely is a strange reversal of orderly tradition, that former farm laborers and the representatives of young folks and women still so unused to public appearance that they fear to sit at the presiding table should decide the destinies of reverend heads of families, one-time village elders. For it is destiny they decide, no less. How shall the individual farmer, bending under taxation from government and boycott from associate villagers, continue to till the soil in competition with the tractor column that is coming, backed by state credits and collective enthusiasm? Yet this strange reversal is but the logical sequence of that other reversal of fate, when the peasants of Wide Bounty, and of other villages, threw out the landlords.
Long ago, — nobody here knows whether it counts in generations or centuries, — when the lords of Russia moved southward and eastward extending their sway, they brought to the rich black lands of the Lower Volga gangs of serfs from the settled parts of Russia. Most of the peasants in Wide Bounty came originally from Voronezh — a certain Ukrainian twang in dialect still bears witness. They set forth, not as hopeful pioneers to set up new homesteads, but driven as the other livestock was driven. The rich black earth was the lord’s and not their own.
Some generations later, but still so far beyond the memory of the oldest villager that he cannot say in what century it happened, the lady of the big estate made a gift to her peasants. Land of their own they should have, besides their rough and easily transferred shacks of wood and clay. From her tens of thousands of rich black acres she picked the spot where several ravines ran together, and where the seepage of water through centuries had drained away fertility, leaving a salty soil.
Thus, like a true philanthropist, giving away what she did not want for herself, she gained a reputation; and the village acres were known thereafter as ‘Wide Bounty,’ carrying down into history the record of her deed. Of its checkered soil, some good, some bad, the humble dwellers owned a ‘norm’ of twenty square sazhenes to a working adult. This, in plain English, is a garden plot, twenty by fifty feet in measurement. Yet through the years, as the peasant families grew, even this ‘norm’ was cut by many mouths.
Two generations back, when serfs were freed, many Russian landlords began the sale of land to their former slaves. But not where the land was so fertile and black as here. Wide Bounty remained, serfs by birth and breeding, and now free peasants, but without a grain field of their own. The garden plots barely sufficed for potatoes; to gain their bread they worked on the landlord’s farm.
‘Early every spring,’ says the youthful president of the district combined Kolhoz, in telling me of those days, ‘I saw the windows battened down with boards in one hut after another. This meant that the entire family had moved over to the landlord’s, to live in his barracks and till his soil. I also worked in his fields along with my father. From the summer’s work we would return with perhaps one hundred or one hundred and fifty rubles, for the family to live on for a year. Since we were a large family and ate more than this, my father also fed livestock in winter for the lord — a heavy job, working in blizzards to carry fodder.
‘These were war-time prices,’ continued the president. ‘One hundred and fifty rubles we made in the year of 1915. Formerly, they say, peasants got only half as much, but I am too young to remember those days.’ He is too young also to remember the revolution of 1905, when the peasants burned barns and buildings and stole landlords’ livestock to butcher themselves a meal. But he well remembers the Cossacks and Ossetinian guards, a heritage of that revolution, since ever afterward they guarded the lord’s estate and pleasure park near the village. ‘If we young folks wanted to stroll in the grove with a girl, for the shade in hot days, they flogged us back from the bridge. Yet the lord himself lived three versts away from this picnic grove, which flaunted its empty spaces under our eyes.’
Another change than the Cossack guards came after 1905, which was fated to leave more lasting traces in village life. To build up a second defense of loyal peasantry, the lord adopted the ‘Stolypin policy’ of land sales. Loyal and energetic peasants might buy from him good soil, no longer the tiny garden plots of salty earth, paying for them yearly through a generation. Thus ten years later, when the great Revolution broke, there were among Wide Bounty’s four hundred families some forty which counted as ‘strong households,’ with lands of a hundred hectares and twenty or thirty horses, and two or three farm hands working for them continuously.
What type of man thus rose under the grinding conditions of tsardom, to gain a competence in a brief ten years? A hard-bitten, industrious man, who slaved himself and made his wife and sons and daughters slave also, denying his family all comforts and putting every kopek into getting ahead. Thus he gained his first savings, supplemented, perchance, by his lord’s good will in return for loyalty in times of trouble, or for information given to gendarmes of malcontents. Thus saving and buying land, he was able soon to hire others, working his farm hands even more mercilessly than his family — starving them, driving them, getting the last ounce out of them. He was an individualist far more brutally persistent than the old soft-living landlord knew how to be. He was a success story — American pattern.
Such a man came to be called a ‘fist,’ or ‘kulak,’ respected and feared and hated by his neighbors. Sometimes respect was strongest, sometimes hate. His equals, or near-equals, who hoped to emulate him, admired his dogged will and iron tenacity. These qualities seemed less charming to his farm hands, and to those unfortunates who borrowed seed or implements from him at usurious interest. There is no doubt whatever that he ground the face of the poor; he had to, if he would survive. There is also no doubt that he fought for the old régime, and for the secondrate privilege it had given.
To-day he hates the Soviet Government, and evades its laws; he cheats and even murders its officials. He does this openly, blatantly — a man who cannot change. Hard-bitten survivor of a hard past, he is driven to desperation by these new policies, and by this new world where his old virtues are seen as vices. The land and livestock which cost the sweat and blood of his wife and sons and hired help, and thus became dearer to him than all of these, are slowly pried from his grasp by a ruthless government. His pitiless passion to get ahead once made him first; and now for that very reason he is last.
Such were the men who fought the collective farm at first, warning peasants against that ‘devil machine,’ the tractor; crying: ‘The Bolsheviks will socialize your babies. In the collective farm you will have wives in rotation.’ But in spite of warnings and fears, sheer need drove the villagers of Wide Bounty to make combinations. Not every peasant had even a single horse; and it took three horses to plough deep and well in the heavy soil. Ten or twenty households, combining, found that they could work better with their few implements; the coöperatives gave them credit more freely. These little productive groups, known as ‘artels,’ came from a long past in Russia; now they proved easy channels for selected seed and scientific information. By the autumn of 1928 there were six such artels in Wide Bounty, and their harvests averaged better than those of their neighbors.
During that winter began the combination of these six artels into one. ‘The whole village as one Kolhoz; the whole village operating one farm,’ became the slogan. The kulaks changed their attack. ‘You will be serfs again and toil for a master,’ they jeered. ‘What is your village farm but the landlord over again?’
‘We learned indeed from the landlord that one big farm is better,’ answered the undaunted Kolhoz advocates. ‘On a big farm we can have machinery, which cannot be used on our small holdings. But now this farm will be ours together, and not a master’s.’
Then came October 1929, and the Week of Collectivization. The growing Kolhoz had obtained ten tractors during the summer; it was a proud organization. During October its numbers swept from one hundred and fifty to three hundred and sixty-eight households. Most of the village had entered — even some kulaks. Who can stand aside from such a movement of masses? Then, just when the goal seemed reached, with the village as one large farm, operated together, a new idea arrived that was still more thrilling. In a general meeting it was proposed and carried to unite with twenty villages into one giant collective farming region, strong enough to set up creameries, and cheese factories, and brick kilns. Strong enough, indeed, to employ scientists and veterinary doctors, and build a balanced life based on farming.
Such was the dream that had come to the peasants of Wide Bounty, as it came to millions of souls that autumn in the Lower Volga Valley. It thrilled through the hearts of the young; it turned the prosaic Kolhoz into a great evangel. A thousand horses out in the field together; whole villages ploughing together; whole townships planning together. It was like soldiers in war; it was like workers in factory; it was like anything else but the ancient backward peasant of Russia. Men talked no longer in terms of routine gain, counting the worth of the Kolhoz in bushels per acre. They talked as men do in war: ‘If one goes hungry, let all go hungry. If one has felt boots, let all have them. Let us build one great farm from Volsk to Astrakhan.’
Into this great farm also the kulaks now entered. Not all; some still were scoffers, standing aloof. But others came, wishing their share of the coming tractors, willing even to pool their horses along with the others. Had they not always been strong to control in the village? Would they not still control?
And this, it seems, was exactly what worried the others. So it came to the cleaning that day in the Reading Hut.
A red-faced, choleric man in his late twenties was standing before the assembled group as I entered, concluding the tale of his life. Dergachef was his name, the youngest of three brothers, sons of Old Man Dergachef, a landowner under the Stolypin plan. The family Dergachef, it was shown, had owned a creamery, which later became the property of a Credit Coöperative. One day when a long line of peasants waited in vain to enter, young Dergachef remarked tauntingly: ‘When it was ours, we ran it; when it goes to the Coöperative, it stands still.'
A minor incident, yet it is brought up against him. Docs this show Citizen Dergachef’s real view of coöperatives? On another occasion, it seems, he spoke of ‘that damned Kolhoz.’ Still again he swore because the Kolhoz, which he had joined, had ‘too many damn lazy farm hands.’ Was it perhaps true that he cherished a sense of superiority, due to his father’s long position as an employer of laborers?
A sharp, morose inquisitor brings up a question: ‘Did you say in 1928, when asked for bread for the poor, that you would feed your dogs before you would feed those lazy drunks?’ Dergachef denies the charge, and finds a sudden and undesired confirmation. A woman cries: ’No, he said something different — that he would rather feed it to dogs than sell to the cursed Bolsheviks.’ The young man’s face grows redder; he begins to look beaten and sullen; he is ready, almost, to burst forth in a fit of angry despair.
The president of the Kolhoz watches him, and suddenly begins speaking — just in time, perhaps, to save young Dergachef from some fatal explosion. It seems, as he speaks, that the young man is not quite hopeless. ‘Many serious faults have been found,’ he says, ‘which injure him as a member of our Kolhoz. But the chief blame for the past attaches to the head of the family and not to its youngest member. This young man has left his father and is living alone. True, he left for no reason of principle, but in a quarrel over the girl he married. None the less, he is no longer under the old man’s control. Nor has he himself much property. He worked this autumn in the Kolhoz as a good farmer and a hard toiler, though he loses his temper too readily.
‘If this family again had a chance to run a creamery and employ laborers, no doubt they would all again become fists and anti-Soviet people, including this youngest son. But such a condition will not occur to him; his surroundings will be those of a collective farm. He is still young and can rid himself of faults. Who among us, indeed, is free of them? My view is that he should be allowed to remain in the Kolhoz, provided he gives guarantees that he will sincerely work for its welfare and stop his slanders of fellow members. If he will give all his livestock and inventory to be part of the “undivided capital” of the Kolhoz, this will be such a guarantee. What do you say, Citizen Dergachef?’
Such is the test proposed for doubtful members. It is hard, yet not so bad as the young man feared. Ordinary members of the collective farm, if they wish to leave, may receive back the capital of horses and ploughs they have put in. But Dergachef must stake his whole future on the Kolhoz’s success. If it succeeds, he will cat and live; if it fails, he loses all. If he cannot live with his fellow members, he is finished.
‘I always said,’ answers Dergachef, swallowing hard to hold down some emotion, whether of loss or relief, ‘that a man should not join a Kolhoz till he is ready to go in fully. I always said that was the trouble with Kolhozes — people who were half in, half out. I was against them till this summer; then I joined. You can have all my stuff, if that’s your rule.'
‘Any questions?’ demands the chair, but there seem to be no more. Dergachefs test is over; he steps to the rear. There follows him a smoother man, not sullen and choleric, but poised and sly. Zaitsef, accused of speculating and trading, and hence of being a nonproducer. One sees quite well that he will never swear at the Kolhoz; he weighs his words too shrewdly, seeking a good impression.
Zaitsef informs us that he is a loyal soul, who served in the Red Army two years of civil war. He is charged with disorganizing the Kolhoz; but he is innocence itself. ‘I wasn’t even a member of the Kolhoz then,’ he smiles. ‘So how could I have been a disorganizer?’ He admits that he sold thirteen poods of grain to a private speculator; but that was last year, in 1928, when ‘everyone was doing it.’ This year he claims to have sold only to the State. Horses? Well, yes, it is true he had swapped a horse now and then. But never as many as four at a time, as charged. Certainly not. Is he a wealthy man, to trade four horses at once? . . . Well, he might have once traded four foals — which all told were worth less than a single good horse.
Zaitsef’s barn? Why did he sell his barn? And just before he applied to enter the Kolhoz? Was it not, perhaps, to have private means of his own, and give as little equipment as possible to the collective farm ? Too many peasants are trying to eat their cake and have it by such means; the Kolhoz puts swift penalties of exclusion in such case. But Zaitsef protests that he needed the money to live. And to pay his taxes — all peasants are sympathetic about taxes.
Interruption comes from a man in the hall. ‘Didn’t I hear you say, when you sold your barn: “If the Kolhoz comes, then the devil knows who gets it”?’ Zaitsef tries to deny it, but he is n’t believed. The village knows him well, with his smooth talk. The president sums him up: ‘A speculator type. But a hard worker, who has done no heavy crime. In the collective farm he will have no chance to barter. Let him come in, on the same terms as Dergachef.’
Here, however, are some more serious cases. Citizen Penchelin, who owned before the war two hundred acres of land, and traded in livestock by the thousand head. He owned a mill with an engine; he hired many workers. Some women workers have never yet been paid the wages he owed in 1914. Penchelin worked them so hard that they left the first week, whereupon he declared all wages forfeited. To-day he lives like a ‘middle’ peasant, with only one horse and one cow. But at any time he will evade any decree.
And now a serious charge, brought down to date. Penchelin is alleged to have said, referring to the SovietChinese war: ‘If the power changes, then we’ll show you.’ . . . Yes — counter-revolution! Citizen Penchelin swiftly denies this charge. He demands investigation by the Political Police to prove his innocence. To them, indeed, the matter is referred; meanwhile he is shut out of the Kolhoz.
Citizen Korkhof next, who had nearly three hundred acres before the war. Thirty horses toiled in his fields; three farm hands worked for him all the year. ‘Starshinoi’ was he of the volost in those days — head man of the township; many drinking bouts he held with the priest and the local gendarme. During the civil war, his son was member of a ‘band,’ which looted and terrorized with political intent. Korkhof himself, in a quieter way, worked against the new government. ‘Plant only for your own food,’ he urged. ‘The Government takes all the rest, anyway.’ And now, has Citizen Korkhof come to this, that he should be member of a collective farm? To what end? Disruption? They do not trust him: put him out.
It is all done so crassly, so openly. No dignified black balls dropping privately into a box to refuse a new member; but rude discussion of character right in meeting. Nor are the only rejected ones those who were one time wealthy. There comes a former farm hand who has gone wrong. Alexinko, once honest laborer, fought in the Red Army and rose to be commissar in 1918 and 1919. The honor went to his illiterate head. He demanded gifts of chickens as his official right. When sent to collect grain, he took bribes and withheld his hand. Yet for many years he still held office under the Soviets. Feeling himself untouchable, he became acquainted with former gendarmes, and rented to them some public land for one hundred and fifty rubles, of which he turned only one hundred into the treasury. This time he was caught, and came to trial. For these offenses he is refused admission. But a hope is held out by the president’s final word: —
‘Once you were an honest laborer, Citizen Alexinko. Show yourself such once more, and come back to us in a year.’
Thus one by one the doubtful members come up before the bar of village judgment. Old scandals are unearthed, and old rumors of scandal. Sometimes, indeed, they collapse, and discredit the man who starts them. Sometimes they stick, condemning their victim to censure or even, most dreaded of all, to boycott and isolation.
It is not vengeance the peasants seek in these brutally probing tests. Gradually, through the afternoon, this becomes very clear. They seek for men who conform, who fit; men out of whom a collective organism can be built. They are afraid of the hard man, accustomed to rule; and of the grafter, who has abused public trust. Are they afraid also of all leaders except those who seem only to sum up the common thought? Such a man is, indeed, the president of the Kolhoz; his statements are less rulings than a chairman’s summary of what has been said.
Was this the reason, then, that they rejected the priest? Kurishef, with that look of bewildered idealism in his face? Unusual and very significant, was the story that he told. No training in theology had ever warped his mind; Kurishef was a simple farm hand once, who fell in love with the daughter of the psalm-chanter. The father of the girl explained the terms on which alone his daughter’s hand might be given. The office of psalm-chanter is passed from father to son; and he who has no son takes a son-in-law. Kurishef accepted the terms for love of the girl; he followed the old man as chanter of psalms.
It was an office of prestige in tsarist days, and, as the church declined under the infidel Bolsheviks, Kurishef found new outlets for his musical skill. He organized a chorus among the revolutionary youth; he organized a dramatic circle and himself took part in plays. He became for a brief time secretary of the village soviet, in those early days when few in the village could read. Then the old priest died, and the congregation unanimously asked Kurishef to take his place. He was quite clearly a very popular man.
Two years Kurishef served the people who chose him as their priest. A Bolshevik in the audience sneered with disgust at this. Are priests not made by God, at least in claim? Then how could the people vote to make a priest? Kurishefs act seemed to him a new deceit added to the old. Apparently in some moods Kurishef thought so too. In the August of his second year he suddenly resigned, saying: ‘In the Soviet land a robe is a disgrace. I will return to labor on the soil.’
Kurishef cut his hair and shaved his beard. He took off his priest’s gown and donned the old clothes of a farm hand. He worked on the soil of which he had a share. Then in Collectivization Week he tried to enter the Kolhoz. He was refused. Together with the grafter and the rich exploiter, he was ‘cleaned out.’ His social work in the drama club and the local chorus merely added to the distrust they seemed to feel. This man was a leader; he was dangerous. He was popular; more dangerous. He had idealism, of an odd, wavering, uncertain kind; most dangerous of all. It was said in meeting: ‘Maybe, some day! If he prints and publishes in the press his past deceits, and tells how he misled the people through the church; if he repents. Then — then — perhaps in a year, when we are strong enough, we can offer him a job as artist with our collective farm.’ The possibility that Kurishef, renouncing the priesthood, might still believe in God apparently occurred to no one. Only two alternatives were offered: full orthodoxy, hating the Bolsheviks and the collective; full atheism, denouncing all religion as deceit.
Not punishment it was, but clearly fear. Fear of an alien idealism which might cloud the sharp brightness of their will. Even the more because he had been so liked; even the more because he seemed sincere.
‘Perhaps in a year, when we are strong enough.’ . . . Till then let no one enter whose presence raises doubt. For we have chosen our dogma, the gospel according to Marx. Only for full conformers is there room!
So does Wide Bounty build its Main Street, unlike and yet so like all Main Streets of the past. Like them at least in this, that all are doomed who differ. The older Main Streets learned to grant one dubious gift, hypocrisy, whereby a man may sell his soul and gain acceptance by outwardly conforming to their will. This mercy Wide Bounty also offers to Kurishef; let him deny his God and he may join them. Better men than he have done so, on all the Main Streets of the world.