April 28, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 17

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    'Stalin's Peasants': Present reflects past

    The current inertia in Russian society has its origins in the forced collectivization of agriculture during the 1930s, contends Sheila Fitzpatrick, Professor in History, in a book that is the first scholarly work to draw on peasants' personal accounts of the pre-war Russian village. "Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization" was published this month by Oxford University Press.

    Understanding the patterns of behavior established during the Stalin era is crucial to explaining the behavior of today's Russians, according to Fitzpatrick. "There is no work ethic in Russia, no assumption on the part of the population that people ought to work at their jobs," she said. "But there is a kind of dependency ethic, an assumption that people have the right to a job, regardless of their contribution or performance.

    "There is also another set of assumptions and behaviors from the Stalin period that is very important, in particular the assumption that profit is bad and that those who trade are doing something demeaning," she explained.

    Attitudes toward democracy are also influenced by experiences during the Stalin era, she said. Peasants were told to sacrifice under Stalin to help bring about improvements possible through socialism, and the same kind of response is now being sought from them to make democracy work.

    "Russians think that 'democracy' and 'market reforms' are just the latest foreign ideas that 'they' -- the leaders -- have fallen in love with," Fitzpatrick said. " 'They' say they will make life better, but based on past experiences the people know that the opposite is likely to be true."

    Overcoming these attitudes will be more difficult than is generally realized in the West, she said.

    Russian peasants saw the collectivization of agriculture at the beginning of the 1930s as the imposition of a new serfdom, Fitzpatrick said. In response to being forced to work without receiving adequate compensation and at the will of arbitrary local leaders, many of the workers on collective farms found ways to avoid their obligations, she said.

    Russian society now reflects what the peasantry had become as a result of collectivization: "inert, heavy and passively resistant to change -- a society whose members were for the most part contemptuous of any notion of public good, suspicious of energetic and successful neighbors, endlessly aggrieved at what 'they' (the bosses) were doing, but virtually immovable in their determination not to do anything for themselves," Fitzpatrick writes.

    Fitzpatrick began her research for the book by studying letters sent to Krest'ianskaia gazeta, a national newspaper with a circulation of more than one million that was widely read in the rural areas of the Soviet Union. The letters are in the archives of the former Soviet state, a resource newly opened to Western researchers.

    The book demonstrates that the peasants had little use for Stalin, whom they blamed for their status as providers of poorly compensated labor to the state. They were particularly resentful toward the state for taking away their horses, which were both their means of transportation and their draft animals. Although Stalin was sometimes the subject of hero worship elsewhere, there was no Stalin cult in the farming villages, Fitzpatrick found.

    The collectivization impoverished rural society and encouraged many people to move to the cities where they could get better pay in the industrial sector. But when the farm workers went to the cities, they carried with them their indifference to state-run economic enterprises and accordingly were sluggish workers in the new factories, Fitzpatrick said.

    The post-Stalin era brought several improvements for the peasants. Under Khrushchev, farm income improved, and in 1964 old-age pensions were introduced for collective farm workers.

    Ironically, this new security perpetuated the attitudes of serflike dependency created by collectivization, Fitzpatrick said. This dependency has made it difficult for peasants to adjust to reforms that encourage free-market activity, she contends.

    "It is little wonder, then, that when the call finally came for peasants to leave the shackles of the kolkhoz [collective farm] and strike out for the brave new world of independent capitalist farming, the response was a dull silence," she writes. "With an aging population and the security afforded by guaranteed minimum wage, pensions, and health insurance, it is not surprising that kolkhozniks [residents of collective farms] viewed the changes of the late Soviet era and early post-Soviet era with misgivings."

    Entrepreneurs who tried to leave the collective farms and others who entered the rural communities as independent farmers are now viewed with suspicion, despite the calls for economic reform from the hierarchy, she said.

    Russia's heritage as a communist nation, shaped by its experiences with Stalin, will have an impact on the future of the nation, Fitzpatrick believes. Democracy will have a difficult time taking hold in a nation where people have viewed central government as something remote and alien, and where the population has adopted a passive attitude toward civic responsibilities, she said.

    -- William Harms