Peasant Revolution

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The February Revolution and the collapse of authority that followed it created an opportunity for peasants to fulfill their long-standing aspirations for obtaining land and achieving greater control over their own affairs. Even as they petitioned the Provisional Government and the Soviets’ Central Executive Committee to realize their agenda, peasants elected village and district (volost) committees (also known as soviets) to take over local government functions, seized crop land, implements, and draft animals belonging to landlords, and resisted the government’s attempts to requisition grain. Politically, peasants tended to identify with the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The entry of several SRs into the coalition cabinet on May 4 and especially the appointment of the party’s leader, Viktor Chernov, as Minister of Agriculture therefore raised peasants’ hopes of a speedy resolution in their favor to the land distribution question. In this, though, they would be disappointed, as Chernov met with stiff opposition from other ministers and even members of his own party.

The inefficiency of peasant-based agriculture was one of the chief indications of “backwardness” in pre-revolutionary Russia and a problem that the Bolsheviks, upon coming to power, were dedicated to overcoming. They had little following in the countryside, although many soldiers who self-demobilized and returned to their villages were sympathetic to Bolshevik anti-war propaganda. Moreover, while the Bolsheviks did not call for peasant land seizures (preferring the transfer of property to the state), they did not actively oppose them either. Thus seeing an opportunity to gain support among the peasantry, Lenin composed the Decree on Land, which was passed by the Congress of Soviets on November 8 (October 26), 1917. The decree stipulated that all landed estates would become the property of local land committees pending the meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Based on the 242 peasant “mandates” that had been submitted by delegates to the All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Deputies in May, it also proclaimed that “private ownership of land shall be abolished forever; land shall not be purchased, sold, leased, mortgaged or otherwise alienated” but rather “pass into the use of those who cultivate it.” This, in fact, had been the SR land program. Its adoption by the Bolsheviks was sure to win the support of Left SRs, paving the way for their entry into the Soviet government, and helping to legitimize the government in the eyes of peasants.

Peasants by and large interpreted the Soviet government’s land decree in their own terms, relying on their own institution, the village commune, to negotiate land transfers and other major decisions, rather than participating in a socialist experiment exported from the towns. The peasant revolution soon ran up against the desperate need for food in the cities and the Bolsheviks’ determination not to give into extortion by middlemen. Even before the outbreak of civil war, the attempt by the Bolsheviks to foment class war in the countryside by sponsoring poor peasant committees (kombedy) and the Soviet government’s dispatch of food supply committees to requisition grain and other foodstuffs provoked widespread antagonism. These struggles were but a prelude to the stormy and often violent relationship that peasants had with Soviet power in the decades to come.

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