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Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance.

Lynne Viola's new book provides a welcome addition to the growing literature on Soviet collectivization and the Russian (Soviet) peasantry in the 1930s. Like other recent work, Viola's main sources are newly opened Soviet archives, whose contents are particularly illuminating on the issue of peasant revolt in 1930 with which this book is primarily concerned. Viola sees the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union as a clash of two cultures, Communist and peasant. The onslaught of the state's collectivization drive, which included the expropriation of part of the peasantry ("dekulakization") and an anti-religious drive that closed many village churches, produced a variety of types of peasant protest including murders and assaults on officials and local activists, arson, and riots and disturbances in which over two million peasants participated nationwide in 1930. Viola characterizes this as a "peasant revolt" against collectivization that "was the most serious episode in popular resistance experienced by the Soviet state after the Russian civil war." (p. 4)

The core of this study lies in chapters 3-5, which deal with the range of peasant protest responses to collectivization in 1930. Chapter 3, on "peasant Luddism, evasion, and self-help," discusses non-violent responses: slaughter of livestock, flight, and petitioning. The discussion of collective petitions - a characteristic form in the collectivization period, though increasingly rare thereafter - is particularly interesting. Chapter 4 deals with violent responses of the type classified by the authorities as "terrorist acts," namely murder and assaults on officials and activists and arson. Chapter 5 focuses on disturbances and riots in the countryside during collectivization.

Among the most interesting archival sources on which Viola draws in chapters 4 and 5 is an OGPU (secret police) memorandum on "forms of class war in the countryside in 1930" which covers both "terrorist acts" committed by individuals (murder, assault, arson) and collective disturbances (protests, riots, armed uprisings). The OGPU reported almost 14,000 terrorist acts in the Soviet Union in 1930, of which 1,198 were murders, 5,720 were attempted murders and assaults, and 6,324 were cases of arson. The largest number of acts came from the Ukraine (2,779) and Russia's Central Black earth region (1,088), with the Urals, Siberia, and the North Caucasus (all regions of the Russian Republic) not far behind. (The significance of these figures would be easier to judge if Viola had supplied population figures for the various regions.) In mass disturbances, the OGPU's other recording category, Ukraine again led the field in 1930, with over four thousand incidents with a total of almost one million participants, followed by the North Caucasus, the Central Black Earth region, the Volga, and Central Asia. Nationwide, according to the OGPU's figures, almost two and a half million peasants participated in some form of collective protest in 1930.

The book also contains two chapters incorporating previously published work. The first of these, ch. 2 on rumors, is a reworking of Viola's article "The Peasant Nightmare: Visions of Apocalypse in the Soviet Countryside," which appeared in The Journal of Modern History 62:4 (1990). (Curiously, this article is neither listed in the Bibliography nor fully identified in the Acknowledgements). Ch. 6 on women's revolt draws on an article of Viola's that has been extremely widely read and justly acclaimed, "Bab'i Bunty and the Peasant Women's Protest During Collectivization," originally published in Russian Review (1986). The book is rounded out by a brief final chapter on the post-1930 transition from violent to "everyday" resistance.

The book's basic claim that peasant revolt against collectivization was much more serious and widespread than has hitherto been thought is persuasively argued and supported by an impressive array of data. (Here I should declare a personal interest: my book Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization [New York: Oxford University Press, 1994], which deals with "everyday" forms of resistance, is one of those criticized by Viola for underestimating the importance of peasant revolt in 1930.) Nevertheless, there are several weaknesses in the analysis. First, there is the vexing problem of regional variation. Viola does convincingly show that violent resistance to collectivization was not confined to the non-Russian peripheries of the Soviet Union: not only the Ukraine but also the Central Black Earth and Central Volga regions of the Russian Republic experienced serious and large-scale disturbances and a high incidence of peasant "terrorist acts." But it remains unclear whether there was a basic difference of response between different regions of the Soviet Union, notably between regions with Slavic and Muslim populations, and whether the most violent range of peasant responses to collectivization - murder of officials, large-scale armed peasant revolts that had to be put down with troops - was characteristic of the whole of the Soviet Union, albeit at different levels of incidence in different regions, or was confined to a relatively small number of regions. Similarly, one would like to know more about the regional distribution of milder forms of protest such as arson and the "women's revolts." If, for example, as the OGPU figures cited by Viola imply, the Muslim peasants of Central Asia were much more likely than Russian peasants to murder collectivization officials and activists, but much less likely to resort to arson, these are differences that deserve discussion and explanation.

Second, "the peasantry" with which Viola is concerned has a disconcertingly global and non-local quality. The Introduction does not clearly identify it as Russian (though a passing reference on p. 160 states that the Russian republic - which of course included substantial non-Russian populations - is "the primary focus" of the study), and sometimes refers to it as "the Soviet peasantry." (e.g., p. 5) But is this "Soviet peasantry," comprising everything from Muslims in Uzbekistan to Orthodox Slavic in Western Russia, a meaningful category? This question is particularly salient because Viola's argument rests on the premise that a basic cultural confrontation - "Communist" versus "peasant" culture - produced the anti-collectivization revolts of 1930. The "Communist" culture manifest in collectivization may have been monolithic, identical in all regions (though that remains to be demonstrated by empirical research), but the implicit claim that "peasant" culture in the Soviet Union was monolithic is much less plausible. It would be unreasonable to demand of a pioneering study like Viola's that it provide detailed coverage of the whole range of anti-collectivization protests' responses among different ethnic and regional peasant communities of the Soviet Union. But the author might at least have acknowledged the problem by referring to "peasant cultures" in the plural, rather than consistently using the singular form.

A third difficulty with Viola's argument is how, if the peasant disturbances of 1930 were really so threatening, the regime managed to suppress them so quickly (with the exception of some peripheral areas, notably Central Asia) and effectively. Viola says this was a "virtual civil war," (p. 3) but the fact it did not become an actual civil war is noteworthy. How was this outcome avoided? Viola dismisses the problem with the remark that "like most other peasant rebellions, this one was destined to fail," (p. 234) but that only begs the question. She never attempts to consider in detail the ways in which the state responded administratively and militarily and why these responses worked.

The book has a useful and impressively detailed Bibliography but, unfortunately, there is no discussion of sources (which would have been particularly useful in the case of the new archival material). Scholars in the Soviet field will regret the lack of an exact archival location for one of the key documents used, the OGPU memorandum mentioned above. This document is listed in the archives section of the Bibliography, but the only location given is a not-yet-published collection of documents on collectivization edited by V. P. Danilov, Roberta Manning, and Viola. The fact that a key segment of the OGPU document (its statistical tables) has already been published by Danilov and A. Berelowitch in Cahiers du monde russe 25:3 (1994) is acknowledged only in passing, without mention of authors and title; and by some oversight, this publication - along with Andrea Graziosi's equally important publication of Ukrainian GPU reports on collectivization in the same issue of Cahiers - has been omitted from the Bibliography.

This is an impressively researched and well written study that will surely become a standard work on Soviet collectivization and peasant revolt. It is a book steeped in the comparative literature of peasant studies as well as in Soviet archival materials, and social historians outside the Russian field should find it no less engrossing and valuable than their colleagues in Russian/Soviet history.

Sheila Fitzpatrick University of Chicago
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Author:Fitzpatrick, Sheila
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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