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Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization.

In this pathbreaking study, Sheila Fitzpatrick portrays collective farm life in the 1930s from the perspective of the peasantry. While most of the literature published so far on the rural 1930s concentrates on political and organizational questions, this work seeks to understand how peasants perceived, reacted to and helped build the Stalinist order. The book builds on Fitzpatrick's work in Soviet social and cultural history, including her studies of the Commissariat of Enlightenment and the Cultural Revolution of 1928-1931 and, most recently, her collection of essays entitled The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia (Cornell, 1992).

Though focused the one decade of collectivization, the book casts light on the entire Soviet experiment. A chapter on the 1920s and an epilogue covering the years from the Second World War to post-Soviet decollectivization fill in the bleak history of the Soviet peasantry, which serves in turn as a "synecdoche for Soviet society as a whole" (p. 320). Even urban society, argues Fitzpatrick, acquired the mentality molded in the villages:

inert, heavy, passively resistant to change - a society whose members were for the most part contemptuous of any notion of public good, suspicious of energetic or successful neighbors, endlessly aggrieved at what "they" (the bosses) were doing, but virtually immovable in their determination not to do anything themselves (p. 320).

She shows how the contours of the collective farm system were formed by the struggle between state and peasantry. Sapped and demoralized by collectivization and dekulakization, by the 1933 famine and by the out-migration of their most energetic members, peasants largely abandoned active resistance. By the mid-1930s they had settled into a less risky form of struggle with state officials to define elements of the collective farms such as the size of private garden plots or the use of collective farm horses for personal reasons.

Peasant strategies included passive resistance, through foot-dragging and pilfering; passive accommodation, through "acceptance, however grudging, of the new rules of the game associated with the kolkhoz, and an effort to use them to one's own best advantage" (p. 10); and active accommodation, through becoming a rural activist, Stakhanovite or officeholder. Many such "activists," especially women, suffered persecution by fellow-villagers; for example, one woman's farmyard gates were spattered with tar, a public shaming traditionally used against adulteresses.

Indeed, in every situation, peasants' strategies vis-a-vis the state could not be separated from social relations and norms within the village. This is visible in the thousands of complaints peasants wrote to officials in the Party, the government and the press. Drawing on archival complaints files, Fitzpatrick analyzes peasant complainants' strategic use of official jargon to assure a quick response. However, her categorization of the letters reveals the complex relationship between peasant strategies toward the state and interactions with each other. She divides the writers into three groups based on their motives: "petitioners," who sought legal redress of specific grievances; "plaintiffs," who "saw themselves as powerless victims of local officials and were appealing to powerful people 'up there' to right their wrongs"; and "politicians," those who used denunciations to oust rural incumbents (p. 258). Such a categorization is useful but not foolproof. A complainant might, in the same letter, cite Soviet legislation and then claim to be an ignorant peasant; and pitiful plaintiffs sometimes turned out to be contenders in village power struggles. Many peasants were so good at adopting officially acceptable language that their motives cannot always be deduced from their letters.

Peasant denunciations "functioned as an important subaltern strategy of Russian peasants," writes Fitzpatrick,

not a strategy of resistance, but one of manipulation of the state, which could be induced by the mechanism not only to protect peasants from abusive local bosses (which was probably in the interest of the state as well as the peasant) but also to intervene in village feuds (which was only in the interest of the peasant complainant)." (p. 16).

Indeed, Fitzpatrick finds that "village society was factious and contentious in the 1930s" (246). She suggests that collectivization probably exacerbated mutual envy and competition and weakened peasant communities' control over their members. Against this background of "resentment, malice and lethargy" (p. 14), the peasant delegates who praised Stalin at official congresses were acting in a fairytale "Potemkin" world - "not life as it was, but life as good Soviet citizens hoped it was becoming" (p. 262).

Fitzpatrick's final chapter, "The Mice Bury the Cat,"(1) draws together her analysis of the intersection of peasant grievances with state politics. The title comes from satirical woodcuts depicting the funeral of Peter the Great, produced by victims of his heavy-handed reforms. This theme of the triumph of little people over powerful ones, according to Fitzpatrick, was the "master plot" of a series of district show trials held in 1937 and orchestrated from Moscow (p. 298-299). According to this scenario, the prosecution of corrupt and incompetent officials was a vindication for the honest peasants, whose protests had been stifled by the local officials' mutual protection rings. The central authorities did not have to fabricate the material for this "master plot": they had plenty of spontaneous testimony in their complaints files. Apparently intended to divert peasant discontent onto local officials, as Stalin's "Dizzy with Success" article of 1930 had done, the trials may have functioned as a sort of Rabelaisian carnival where the status quo is turned upside down - but only for a day (p. 311). Indeed, the precarious balance of populism and coercion that characterized the 1930s tipped toward the latter by the end of the decade.

Fitzpatrick's work thus contributes to the debate, which she herself helped articulate, on the interactions of Soviet society with the Party-state. Stalin's Peasants also lays the groundwork for future research. For example, more work needs to be done on village gender relations and women's strategies. She notes that the regime almost seemed to favor women over men, because "women were powerless, therefore nonthreatening and possibly even, as an exploited group, cooptable" (182). Further research would show which women tended to be coopted and to what extent they traded the oppressive security of the patriarchal family for the dubious benefits of activism. How did women's and men's individual survival strategies intertwine with household strategies? Had families ceased to be the predominant economic and social unit, and if so, had collective farmers ceased to be peasants? Secondly, Fitzpatrick's general arguments could be refined by close study of particular regions and ethnic groups. For example, did peasants in the large collective farms of southern Russia and Ukraine interact differently with their farm chairmen than in regions where smaller farms predominated? A series of micro-histories will elucidate social dynamics in particular communities.

Like Fitzpatrick's other work, this book suggests possibilities for future research by scholars of the Soviet peasantry. For them as well as for non-specialist readers, Stalin's Peasants is an accessible and fascinating glimpse into the Soviet countryside.

Nellie Hauke Ohr Vassar College


1. Previously published in The Russian Review 52:3 (July 1993).
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Author:Ohr, Nellie Hauke
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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