The Russian Village

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Longing for what no longer was, and perhaps had never been, writers and nationalist intellectuals looked to the Russian village to recapture the heart of Russian life in the midst of spiritual degradation. Citing values such as community responsibility, collective work ethic, and family cohesion centered on the matriarch, these thinkers bemoaned the ruin of village life by the socialist state and its policies. Many shared certain values with the ruling Communist Party, including patriotism and subordination to authority, and a distaste for western-oriented dissidents, so much so that outsiders often labeled them conservatives; yet the mood captured such disparate thinkers as Valentin Rasputin and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Popular Russian nationalism, which was very significant, was perhaps most clearly, if ambiguously embodied by actors such as Vasilii Shukshin and Vladimir Vysotskii, who maintained a tenuous relationship with official values.

While intellectuals and other city folk were praising the benefits of rural life, peasants were abandoning the kolkhoz in droves. Most worrisome was the fact that migration was concentrated on the young and the skilled, who had the wherewithal to reach the city, leaving the old and unskilled to stay on unproductive farms. Lack of opportunity, lack of entertainment, lack of amenities and lack of consumer goods all contributed to the rise in migration. The party leadership attempted to improve peasant lives by easing harsh regulations first imposed under Stalin. Where once peasants received social welfare benefits from the collective farm, and were paid in “trudodni” (labor days), representing a portion of their farm’s production, their bondage was loosened by becoming eligible for pensions and other social benefits and receiving a guaranteed wage. The state also provided huge subsidies to the agricultural economy. Yet peasant families were inspired to send their young people to cities by the very measure designed to keep them in the village, the deprivation of passports, which made it virtually impossible for rural folk to reside in cities. Called “the second serfdom” because it tied peasants to the land as serfdom had, the lack of passports made the village a future to be avoided.

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