The Soviet Peasant

on the World Today

ALTHOUGH some 20 million Soviet citizens moved from the country to the city between 1929 and 1939, as part of the government’s program of rapid industrialization, Russia is still predominantly an agricultural country. Only about one third of its 200 million people live in cities. Over half live by farming, forestry, and fishing. Moreover, most of the city-dwellers have close connections with peasant life. A very large proportion of them have themselves worked as peasants; many still go back to the villages to help with the harvest; many cultivate vegetable plots and raise poultry and livestock in their free time.

Peasant life is notoriously conservative, in Russia as elsewhere. Relying on nature, the peasant is accustomed to a slow rhythm both of thought and action. He is also mentally and physically less accessible than his urban brother to governmental pressures. Only by what Stalin himself called “a second revolution,” “a revolution from above,” did the Bolshevik regime succeed in uprooting the traditions of the Russian peasantry and creating a new form of agricultural economy: the collective farm.

Between 1929 and 1932, some 20 million small peasant landholdings were consolidated into about 240,000 collective farms. Millions who resisted collectivization were sent to labor camps, exiled to remote regions, or otherwise “liquidated.” Millions who finally joined the collectives, first slaughtered their horses and other livestock.

In theory the new collective farms were voluntary associations of farmers who pooled their resources to form a large coöperative enterprise; in fact, they were formed by compulsion exerted chiefly by the Communist Party, against the tremendous resistance of the peasant population. The results were violence, illegal slaughter of horses and other livestock, illegal disposal of crops, graft, waste, refusal to work — and famine. In 1944 Stalin told Churchill that the suffering of the collectivization period surpassed even that of World War II.

The peasant’s no did not force the Soviet state to abandon the collectivization program, but it did cause it to make important modifications of the original objectives of that program. The original idea of collectivization was the ultimate conversion of the peasantry into a rural proletariat, working for wages on giant, state-owned “factories in the fields.” By 1935 this idea was largely spent, although some so-called state farms, on which peasants work for wages, were organized and continue to exist.

The principal concessions won by the 97 per cent of the peasants on the “collective” farms were: first, the right to keep for themselves what remained after heavy government levies; and second, the right of each peasant household to maintain its own house-and-garden plot and its cow and other animals.

These concessions have not deprived the government of what from its point of view is perhaps the chief benefit of collectivization: the ability to collect what it wants from the farms for delivery to the cities. Further, the state controls the collective farms through about 7000 Machine Tractor Stations, which furnish both machinery and operators, and which have made Soviet agriculture almost as highly mechanized as that of the United States. The MTS charges very dearly for its services, not in money but in kind.

The Soviet peasant continues to pay a high price, in poverty and regimentation, for Russia’s industrialization. Nevertheless he has kept his identity and his individualism to a surprising extent.

Piece rates on the farm

The individual peasant on a Soviet collective farm is not paid wages, strictly speaking, but a share of the profits of the collective, his share being calculated on the basis of what he has produced. Shares are measured in terms of so-called labor days. Under a law of 1948 there are nine different labor-day rates, ranging from one-half labor day for the least skilled work to two and one-half labor days for the most skilled and most difficult. A worker who weeds an acre of onions may be credited with one-half labor day, while a worker who picks two acres of cotton may receive twro and one-half labor days.

A labor day is only a percentage share of the total income of the collective farm. At the end of the fiscal year, each collective divides its total net product (after taxes and reserves) by the total number of labor days earned by the members.

The larger the product, the greater the value of a labor day — and the richer the peasants of the particular collective farm. Inequalities of net income of different collective farms may be considerable, though they are somewhat lessened by taxation, which is based on potential production determined according to total arable acreage. Soviet literature refers proudly to “millionaire collective farms.”

Bonuses and other incentives

As in the factory, piece-rate payments are part of a larger system of incentives. Orders, medals, titles, and bonuses are given to peasants who exceed the indices established for production of different crops, for breeding of cattle, for milking, and for other tasks. The peasants work chiefly in brigades consisting usually of 30 to 60 members, each brigade cultivating a certain area for one or several seasons. Bonuses consisting of a percentage of beyond-plan production are paid to individual brigades and to individual squads within a brigade.

A sense of “socialist competition” is encouraged by special rewards for breaking of records. “Shock brigadiers ” and “ model workers ” are given trips to Moscow, get their pictures in the papers, and are hailed at public meetings. The more promising and industrious are given the opportunity to study to become agronomists, teachers, engineers, doctors.

The equality of peasant women, who now comprise a sizable majority of the peasant working population, and whose position before the revolution was one of marked inferiority, is in general protected. They do not have to turn over their pay to their husbands. They may rise to positions of leadership, though relatively few are collective farm chairmen. However, they probably comprise 70 per cent of all squad leaders.

As in the factory, rewards for success are matched by punishments for failure. For disciplinary violations, such as failure to report to work without adequate reason, or refusal to obey orders, peasants may be warned, reprimanded, rebuked at the general meeting of the collective farm; they may have their names placed on a blackboard; they may be fined up to five labor days, demoted, suspended, or even expelled.

Keeping the farmers in line

In contrast to the industrial enterprise, which both in theory and in practice is run by the manager (under state and Party controls, to be sure), and to the so-called state farm, the collective farm is in theory — though not in practice — run by the general membership meeting. It is not easy to understand why the fiction is maintained that the general meeting elects and controls the collective farm chairman, when — as the Soviet press and even Soviet legislatures periodically complain — the chairman is in fact sent in from outside, and has complete power over the collective.

There is a very heavy turnover of chairmen. Also there is a very complex system of controls over a particular collective farm: its production quotas are assigned by the Ministry of Agriculture; its work methods are to an important degree controlled by the Machine Tractor Station; its deliveries to the state and its general operations are supervised by local and district government organs. There are, of course, Communist Party agencies standing behind each of these state and economic bodies, and at the same time the Party has its own agricultural organization. There have been official complaints that Party agencies have tried to displace the local offices of the Ministry of Agriculture.

The collective farms are under almost continual fire for so-called bureaucratism. A statute of September, 1946, inveighed against “the undue increase of executive and service personnel in the collective farms and the exceedingly high waste of labor days and money for the cost of administration. . . . Grafters and parasites frequently hide themselves in useless, artificially invented jobs.”

Similarly, there have been complaints against the peasants’ habit of underestimating their production in order to evade government collections. “In the Bashkir Autonomous Republic,” one writer stated in 1946, “the state production quotas have not been met. The explanation given is shortage of fuel, which is untrue. It is not because of lack of fuel but because of the anti-government attitudes which exist in the region.”

Difficulties of administrative and political control have been intensified by the smallness of the collective farms. In 1949 there were about 2.53,000, averaging about 7.5 families and about 1200 acres under cultivation. Only one out of three or four collective farms contained a Party organization. During 19,50, through administrative mergers of the smaller collectives, the total number was reduced to 123,000, and by 1952 the number was down to about 97,000.

In the Moscow region, for example, 6000 collective farms were consolidated into about 1700, averaging about 1800 acres and 2.50 able-bodied farmers apiece. In one province of the Ukraine 866 collective farms were merged into 342, averaging 7400 acres each. It is now reported that a majority of collectives have their own Party units.

The drive to consolidate the collectives was accompanied by a revival of the controversy of the thirties regarding a “rural proletariat.”A member of the Politburo, Khrushchev, advocated not only an administrative consolidation but a physical amalgamation of collectives, and the formation of agro-towns in which the peasants would live in apartment houses. To an outsider who knows something of Soviet means of transportation and Soviet peasant housing, the idea seems — and seemed — fantastic. It was propagated for some months, implemented in a few places, then criticized, then dropped like a hot potato.

The peasant household survives

While the administrative merger of collective farms does not seem to have altered seriously the pattern of peasant life established in the mid-1930s, the transfer of peasants to agro-towns would have deprived the Russian peasant of the one thing he cherishes most: the peasant household. In the early days of collectivization Soviet radicals proclaimed that “the peasant household as a separate unit is doomed.”In 193-5 the recognition of the rights of the peasant household was perhaps the most important means of’ reconciling the peasantry to collectivization.

Centuries of Russian history are embodied in the institution of the Soviet peasant household. Originating in ancient times, it has survived many different forms of agricultural organization. Defined by the Soviet Land Code as “a family-labor association of persons jointly engaged in agriculture,” it may consist of any number of persons (today it rarely exceeds fifteen), related by blood or by marriage or by adoption into the household, who carry on a. joint domestic economy.

Under Soviet law, the land that may belong to a peasant household is restricted to an area between five eighths of an acre to two and one-half acres, depending on the type of collective farm. Peasant household land comprises only about 5 per cent of the total area under cultivation. Nevertheless, owing to the time and effort spent on it by the peasants, household land has in some years accounted for about 20 per cent of the total agricultural production.

Soviet law permits a peasant household to own one cow, two calves, one sow with sucklings, ten sheep and goats, an unlimited number of fowls and rabbits, and twenty beehives. In nomadic and seminomadic areas some other animals may also be owned. Despite these limitations, peasant households owned before the war about 65 per cent of the cows and calves in the Soviet Union, and over half the pigs and sheep; they provide a large proportion of Soviet meat, vegetables, fruits, poultry, dairy products, and honey.

The peasant would like to devote his energies as much as possible his household plot. In order to secure the deliveries which it desires, the government has passed laws requiring that a certain minimum amount of labor days be earned in the collective fields and combating the illegal encroachment of households onto collective fields. Also the peasant households are taxed. Nevertheless, the income from their plots probably remains at least as large a source of income to the peasants as their income from the collectives.

The peasant takes the produce of his household plot, as well as his payments in kind for work on the collective fields, to the so-called collective farm market. Here prices are free — and high, despite some competition from state foodshops. There are said to be some 4500 such local free markets in the Soviet Union—over a thousand more than the total number of cities and towns. In 1939 they accounted for over 15 per cent of the total volume of trade, as measured in rubles.

However, the peasants now suffer from the shortage of consumers’ goods which they must buy in the State-owned village shops or else at exorbitant prices in the black market ; and this situation is aggravated by the decline in home industries such as weaving and shoemaking which played an important part before collectivization.

The family colletive

The members of the peasant household are bound by the closest ties. The right to manage, use, and dispose of all household property belongs to the members as a whole; in the absence of unanimity, decisions are by majority vote of the adult members.

The members select a head of the household to administer its affairs. The powers of the head are governed by local tradition and custom. Occasionally cases get into the courts involving the rights of the peasant household—such as the right of the members not to have the head of the household sell a household building without their consent, or the right, of a member to his share in the property of a household that has been dissolved, or the right of a household to recover damages from the “parent" collective farm for illegal withdrawal of the household plot.

At least as important as the economic and legal aspects of the peasant household, however, is its social aspect as an institution for transmitting the tradition of peasant life from generation to generation. Soviet collectivization of agriculture has been superimposed on an older family collectivism.

It is impossible to measure in quantitative terms the significance to Soviet society of the peasant way of life; it is also impossible to doubt that its significance is tremendous.