How the Soviets Work


Winter is not the season to visit a Russian village, and when I went exploring in the Central Provinces it was still winter. The fields were invisible under their veil of snow. The wild creatures were hibernating, and apart from the crows and the sparrows, the only birds were a gay group of golden-crested wrens, chasing each other like wayward sunbeams among the sombre firs.

Life seemed suspended save for the little peasant sledges that had worn a track in the snow. But even in winter one may gather some impression of the change which is slowly following the Revolution.

Central Russia was always a poor region for the peasant. Its soil is hungry sand. Here is none of the fabulous black earth, which fills travellers with envy-though even black earth, one may remark, is no match for science. The Prussian farmer will raise on his poor sandy acres twice the crops that the black earth yields to Russian ignorance.

Year after year, before the Revolution, statistics showed the gradual decline of the Central Russian village. It was rack-rented; it was savagely taxed. The money-lender preyed on it, and every year it raised fewer cattle and more meagre crops. This region could not supply itself with grain. It must import from the rich Volga or the happier South.

The village contrived to live by sending its men to Moscow or its women to the textile factories, which are encountered in the most amazing places in the forest. Why were they there? The coal must travel hundreds, the cotton thousands, of miles. They were there be-cause the soil was hungry and the peasants hungrier still; they were there because labor was cheap.

As I sat among the peasants in the little village of Bogomolova, five versts from Vladimir, and plied them with questions, I realized that the tide had turned. They have begun to think that farming is worth-while.

Before the Revolution each family, on an average, raised grain enough to keep itself in bread for five or six months. Now, among its 140 families, there are only ten which fail to grow sufficient grain for the whole year, and some have a surplus.

Before the Revolution the village had 96 cows; now it has 158. Its horses also show a big increase (4o per-cent) , and it has begun to market butter, eggs, and wool through its Cooperative Society. What is even more noteworthy, it eats its butter-a new social fact in peasant Russia. But, indeed, the peasant's table is now the destiny of much of the food, especially the grain, which used to be exported-an awkward development for the Russian balance of trade. The village now cleans and selects its seed, and maintains a little communal plant for the purpose. It has also its communal water mill, and a communal smithy. It is proud, more-over, that it is beginning to grow clover-a new crop in Russia.

The foundation of this new prosperity was visible enough when the chairman of the village Soviet brought out the plan of its land. Before the Revolution the soil was divided into the usual long, narrow strips. One strip in three lay fallow every year, which meant that it grew a rich crop of thistles. Year after year the same two or three crops grew in rotation on the same soil. To plough was to scratch the surface, and even farm-yard manure was rarely used.

The yield of old-world agriculture in Roman times used to be, we are told, five times the seed sown. In this village their fathers used to reap four-fold. Before the Revolution the average yield had fallen to three-fold. No wonder the conviction grew that farming does not pay. The yield to-day is nine- or ten-fold.

Does Revolution, then, put new heart into the soil? In a sense it does. The soil, to begin with, ceased to pay rent and was at the disposal of the village. At first the old strip system and the three-year rotation survived. Czars might go, and commissars might come, but a peasant does not lightly change his ways.

The Communist Party, however, knows all the devices of propaganda. It issued its newspapers for peasants, teaching them meanwhile to read. It placarded the club and the reading-room, which it had provided for the village, with pictorial posters. It staged an instructive play in the room that serves for theatre. It used the children in the school (wonderful to relate, every child in this village is now at school) to teach their parents. This village, as it happened, had as yet no radio installation, but I saw these incredible innovations in many another village whose aspect had changed in no other respect for countless centuries. Needless to say, the educational possibilities of this invention are fully used. And finally, the Party organized excursions to model farms and pioneering villages which had already adopted the new methods of cultivation.

And so at last conviction came. These may be god-less, new-fangled methods-priests and greybeards might shake their heads-but they triple the yield of the soil. And so, with much effort, the consent of the two-thirds majority, which the revolutionary land code requires, was duly obtained. The strips vanished. Four immense fields took their place. By this innovation alone one-third was added to the land in active service.

Each field grows one crop, and the crops follow each other in a seven-years rotation.(1) Nature has proved herself no counter-revolutionary. The nine-fold yield is a fact, and henceforth only a very lazy or a very unlucky family need buy bread. Not content with intensifying its agriculture, Bogomolova had also added nearly one-fifth to its cultivated estate by bringing waste land, which had once been forest, under the plough. What has happened in this village has happened already over one-third of the area of the province, and the pace of innovation quickens.

As I listened to this story, I had been turning over in my mind how I should test the political sentiments of the village. Did they sigh for the old days when they paid rent out of a third of their present crops? I asked if a free vote would show a majority for Czardom. For answer the chairman, who was not a Communist, read out a resolution passed unanimously at the recent election meeting. It pledged the village to accept the leadership of the Party "on the road to Socialism."

Was it spontaneous? Was it sincere? Why not? If a revolution can cause three ears of corn to grow where one grew before, why should peasants hanker to undo it?

This brief sketch of life and progress since the Revolution in the village of Bogomolova may serve as a companion picture to our study of the Three Hills Factory. But the facts of village history are more difficult to unify. Each peasant led his own life, working on his own fields in isolation. Each, it is true, was affected by the same economic and political conditions. But they had never been fused, as the mill hands were, into a battalion which felt and acted as one man. Over great parts of Russia (though not, as it happened in this village) they twice rose in a savage jacquerie to assail their landlords and seize the land. The rising after the Japanese war was easily suppressed, for the peasants then had no arms; in the revolt of 1917 the landlords, for the most part, were driven to the towns, whence they usually fled abroad. But these experiences, vivid and passionate though they were, did not avail to knit the peasants into a solid mass, such as the continuous organized struggle in the factory made of the town workers. Partly for this reason, partly because of their intellectual backwardness and illiteracy, and also by reason of the great distances which separate the villages from each other and from the towns, the peasants were in the main sleeping partners in the Revolution. It happened to them, but the town workers made it. It has had to consider them and to humor them, but it was never their work.

None the less, a glance at the social history of any typical village would show social contrasts which recall the more dramatic transformation in the mill. Here, too, the central fact is the disappearance of the superior class, whose pretensions degraded, as their claims impoverished the village. The landlord is gone, which means not merely that the payments of land-purchase installments on rent have ceased, but also that the peasants' self-respect is no longer depressed by the arrogant manners of "their betters." Those who have read Tolstoy's terrible description of the descent of a body of troops upon a village to assist in collecting arrears of taxes, will realize that the peasants, also, had felt the whips of the autocracy on their bare backs. The peasant, moreover, has been relieved of all the terror and of most of the burden of military service. In the old days (one recalls the poignant verses of Nekrasof) the village wailed over the departure of a conscript almost as it might lament a death. It dreaded not merely the long absence of its sons; it shrank from the degradations and the savage punishments of the old army. The Red Army, on the contrary, is popular-to enter it means opportunity, promotion, and education. Its term of service, moreover, has been reduced to two years, and its numbers cut down by two-thirds. A million peasants' sons work in the village, who before the Revolution would have been in barracks.

The village, moreover, like the factory, has won self-government. In the old days authority was represented by a police official, whose morals were often as low as his manners were harsh. To-day the village manages its own affairs through its elected Soviet. There are nine persons in this Soviet, of whom four are women, one for every hundred inhabitants. The village reckons 140 families (737 persons) and with it is grouped a hamlet containing 44 families (229 persons). As in the factory, there are preliminary meetings of unofficial groups to discuss the nomination of candidates, and thereafter their records and opinions are publicly debated at meetings of the whole village, before it finally assembles to vote.

I was too late to witness any village elections, but I gathered that the contest is hotter than in the towns. There is here a real struggle, not, indeed, between organized parties, but between clashing interests and sections of the peasant class. In many villages a sharp line divides the richer peasants, who possess some capital in live-stock, machinery, and hoarded money, from the poorer peasants, who live from hand to mouth. The public debates at the election meeting are often heated, and racy with rustic humor. The Communist Party, of course, does its utmost by preliminary propaganda to influence the elections, but it cannot be accused of pressing the claims of its own members unduly. It had nineteen full members in this village and thirteen members of its League of Youth. But none of the former and only two of the latter sat on the soviet. Even the Chairman, a man of notable energy and ability, who had been the leader in agricultural progress in the village, was not a Communist member, though he obviously was in general sympathy with the Party.

The Chairman of the village soviet is its Executive Officer, and he receives a salary for filling this responsible post. The weak point in the political education of this, and, indeed, of most villages, is that the women are only slowly gaining an interest in public affairs. While 76 percent of all the electors voted, only 40 percent of the women did so. The persons disfranchised in this village under the Soviet constitution numbered only nine out of the 966 inhabitants, and included a former Czarist policeman, the local priests, and some persons who offend against Socialist morality by dealing in horses.

The Soviet, in a small compact village like this, has two chief functions. It elects the members (in this case three) who sit on the more important soviet of the parish (volost) . It also administers the social institutions of the village, the school, the club, and the rest. But all important matters are in practice referred by the Soviet to the village Meeting, which every elector may attend. A new bridge had to be built, when I visited Bogomolova, and a meeting was about to be held to decide whether the men should go with their horses to the forest to fell the necessary timber in the traditional way, or accept the offers of a cooperative group (artel) which was willing to do the work under contract. I gathered that the decision was likely to be in favor of employing the expert artel, a notable step in economic progress.

A village which governs itself in this way by mass meetings is realizing the earliest and simplest conception of democracy. A peasant who talks with a foreign visitor about life since the Revolution is sure to say at some point of the conversation, "Now we are free." That is not the accepted view outside Russia. In the village, as in the factory, one learns to understand it. And village and factory are the foundation of the whole structure. At its head, as every peasant is proud to remember, is the President of the Russian Republic, Kalinin, himself a peasant by birth, and half-peasant, half-smith by trade. They travel by the thousands to present their petitions to him in Moscow. When one has watched this simple, genial, little greybeard, in his shabby suit of blue serge, moving with his winning air and twinkling eyes from group to group of these petitioners, a peasant among peasants, one comes to share their instinctive confidence.(2)

There are, however, some hard facts to face before one may venture to draw even a cautious augury from the progress which Bogomolova has realized. For it was obviously a more than usually go-a-head village, in one of the more progressive counties of Russia. The Vladimir Government is relatively poor. Its soil is wretched, and the textile industry is not, even yet, one of the better-paid trades. But it is an intelligent and ambitious region, and the mingling of industry with agriculture has quickened the brains of the peasants. But, even in this county, only one-third of the villages have as yet adopted the system of the four big fields and the seven-year rotation of crops. Considering the whole area of Russia, including the vast regions in the North where agriculture can never be more than a subsidiary occupation, not more than one-tenth of the whole area has yet adopted any modern form of cultivation. Many a year will pass before even half of the whole country comes near to European standards.

The fact is, of course, that the War, the Civil War, and the Revolution very nearly ruined Russian agriculture. The War took the cultivators from the soil, and led to an alarming reduction of acreage, livestock, and, above all, horses. Still more disastrous was the system of requisitioning crops for civilian as well as military needs, which prevailed up to the adoption of the New Economic Policy in 1921. The output of industry had undergone a catastrophic fall, and what it did produce was required for the needs of the Red Army.

When the peasants found that, in return for the grain which they must surrender, they could procure only trivial quantities of cloth and lamp oil, they retaliated by cultivating only just enough land to satisfy their own demand for grain. With the new policy (which Russians always call N.E.P.) a slow revival of agriculture began, and production is now about ninety-five percent of the pre-war figure. Some part of the decline was due to the breaking up of the estates of the gentry, for many of those employed expert stewards and cultivated scientifically. Their disappearance was for a time an economic loss, as it was also in Roumania and the Baltic provinces, where the big estates were distributed among the peasants as a precaution to ward off revolution.

This loss can be made up only as the Soviet Government succeeds in its tireless efforts to educate the peas-ants in modern methods of cultivation. The resistance of their inertia is now in great measure overcome. Every young man who passes through the Red Army returns to his village a missionary of the new ideas, for instruction in the elements of agricultural theory and practice is given to every soldier. But there are material as well as intellectual difficulties in the way. One may grasp the fact that deep ploughing is desirable, but one must have a suitable plough, and that plough cannot be drawn by the undersized horses which one usually sees in a poor village. The State gives credit (by no means extended) to villages or cooperative groups which aspire to purchase a tractor, but there were at the opening of the year 1926 only 6,945 of these in Russia proper, and the annual increase seems to be only some machines. Again, though great efforts are made to stimulate the interest of peasants in new crops, it is not easy to supply seed in the requisite quantities. At last the peasants are crying out for clover seed, and the demand far exceeds the supply. For it would be useless to import foreign varieties which would not thrive in the Russian climate. Two modified varieties have been evolved at experimental stations which suit Russian conditions, but another year will pass before every peasant can be supplied with this new seed. These illustrations serve, in some degree, to explain what seems slow progress, when one compares the national record with that of a village which was fortunate in discovering an intelligent leader. The growth of peasant prosperity is not everywhere so striking as it has been in Bogomolova, nor is every village so near contentment with its economic lot. Villages which produce grain for the market have a heavy grievance, for, while the Russian price index for agricultural produce stands at 209 as compared with 100 in 1913, the index for manufactured goods was last autumn at 240. After a battle royal within the Communist Party, the decision has been taken to bring down the latter index by ten percent before June, 1927. The peasants understood perfectly well that they were being wronged by this unequal exchange, and in the long run their resentment might have made a political danger.

But in spite of the slowness of technical progress and the grievance of relatively low prices for his produce, the peasant has reason to congratulate himself on the material gains of the Revolution. He has achieved what had been for centuries his ideal and his spur in a series of bloody insurrections. He has got the land. For, al-though the legal ownership is vested in the State, he is for all practical purposes in secure possession of his holding, and reckons with certainty that his children will enjoy it after him. That is the gain which makes him, even when he grumbles, a loyal supporter of the new order against all attacks which aim at its overthrow. The tax, payable no longer in kind but in money, which is levied on his harvests, has been adjusted with much consideration to his habits and his income, and the poorest category of the peasants (about one-quarter of the whole number) goes entirely free. In the old days, the peasants' average burden, taking taxation and land-purchase installments together, was 16 roubles per annum; he now pays on an average 9 1/2 roubles. These figures, however, understate his gain, for the real value of the roubles which he must pay, has been more than halved in the interval. Neither sum seems large, but these-primitive peasants produce most of what they need with their own hands and handle little money in the course of one year; to them even 16 roubles ($8) seemed a vast sum. The salt tax, moreover, has been abolished -an imposition which peasants at all times and in all countries (notably in India and in pre-revolutionary France) have resented with a peculiar and disproportionate bitterness. Further, from year to year, considerable sums are advanced to enable the poorer peasants to acquire livestock and other forms of agricultural capital. The State is taking permanent measures (for example, the development of drought-resisting crops, reforestation, and the planting of barriers of brush-wood to check sand-storms) to cope with the recurrent drought which scourges certain regions, notably the Volga Valley. Slowly, too, the condition of the poorer regions in White Russia and the North, which one can only call over-population, given the present low level of cultivation, is being remedied by migration to the rich plains of Siberia or to the Urals and the North Caucasus.(3)

The Revolution has, on the whole, obeyed Lenin's teaching; the workers, who are the ruling power in the Republic, regard themselves as trustees for the peasants' interests. The peasants, though with less exultation and a less conscious pride in their new status, have tasted in their turn the self-respect that comes with self-government and social freedom.

Next: Chapter 5: The Soviet System

(1) These big fields are not as yet cultivated collectively. That may well happen, however, if the village should become prosperous enough to acquire a tractor. At present each family cultivates its own patch in the big field, but must grow the prescribed crop according to the system adopted by the village meeting. The size of each holding varies with the number in the family, but the unit for each inhabitant is the same.

(2) This right of individual petition is a relic of traditional habits, of which the Soviets have wisely made the most. Forty thousand petitions were presented last year, and after investigation, 35,000 of them obtained satisfaction in some degree.

(3) As many as 250,000 persons will be transferred in the course of the present year to Siberia at a cost of twenty-four million roubles, and six millions were spent on other regions. The system is that each group of five intending migrants selects a pioneer, who goes in advance to prospect and prepare roads, wells, and the like. These colonists are freed for many years from military service and taxation, and enjoy long-term credit on easy terms for the purchase of machinery. As the colonization proceeds, a parallel industrial development goes on in the towns of the new country.