The Great October Revolution: The Peasants Perish



“[I]n this open step the sheep wander from Asia into Europe, and the Kirgiz shepherd drives them back again into Asia without knowing that he has crossed a geographer’s frontier.”

Thus describes Geroid Tanquary Robinson a part of Russia in Rural Russia under the Old Regime, a History of the Landlord-Peasant World and a Prologue to the Peasant Revolution of 1917. (Chapter I: “Serfdom and the earlier servile wars”, University of California Press, Berkley & Los Angeles, 1960)

And, the vast expanse was part of an empire bigger than the Roman, Ottoman and Mughal empires in different times. An 1831-book from Boston describes the empire’s extent:

“An empire in Europe and Asia […] bounded on the N. [north, and the same style follows] by the Arctic Sea; on the S. by Turkey, the Black Sea, the territory of the Kirguiss Cossaks, and the Chinese dominions; on the E. by the Pacific Ocean; and on the W. by Swedish Lepland, the Gulf of Bothnia, Prussia, and Poland.” (The Modern Traveller, A Popular Description, Geographical, Historical and Topographical, of the Various Countries of the Globe, vol. X: Russia, Lilly and Wait (late Wales and Lilly) and Thomas Wardle, Philadelphia, spellings have not been changed.)

In this empire, serfs-former serfs-the peasants produced prosperity only to be perished after appropriated and extorted. “By the mid 19th century”, writes Tom Barton in an encyclopedia entry, “Russia was the serf capital of the world. It had twenty-three million slaves owned privately and the same number again working on state lands. By comparison the US had four million slaves, the British Empire 770,000 and Brazil 750,000.”

And, in this world of serfs, the “sophisticated” serf-lords were powerful with sharp choices as it’s found: “[T]he Count Sheremetyev [the Sheremetyevs were one of Russia’s largest landholding families] issued a decree in 1843 to say that it had come to his attention that serfs who were in arrears in their quitrent payments also had ‘several changes of the best sorts of clothes.’ In order to discourage such behavior, he asked his bailiff to prohibit serfs in arrears, their wives, and children from having more than two changes of clothes. If such serfs were found to have more than two changes of clothes – or any luxury items such as silk scarves – then these items were to be ‘confiscated and sold and the money put toward their quitrent payments’. (“Decree prohibiting serfs in arrears from having the best sorts of clothing, 1843”, cited in Tracy Dennison & Steven Nafziger, “Micro-perspectives on 19th-century Russian living standards”, November 2007, paper prepared for the 2007 meeting of the Social Science History Association)

And, on top of all these powerful persons, there was the tsar – the mightiest, the blessed, the unaccountable. So, one of the tsar’s proclamations in 1906 read like this: “To the Emperor of All the Russias belongs supreme autocratic power. Submission to His power, not only from fear, but as a matter of conscience, is commanded by God himself.” (Geroid Tanquary Robinson, op. cit., Chapter X: “The revolution of 1905: The ebb”) God was, as the king & co. claimed, on their side. And, there were fear and “conscience”.

But, despotism-tyranny-appropriation is neither liked by nature nor by subjects. With absolutism, ground below the feet of kings and queens and emperors swell to explode in rejection and rebellion. At times, the powerful fail to gauge the force of coming revolt as they reside in rascal-palace, and at times, they, cunningly, don’t fail. In this case, a few of the master-deceivers could comprehend the situation: “[L]ong before Catherine II had said, and Nicholas had repeated, that unless the system of serfdom was modified, the serfs would take matters into their own hands; and Alexander II faced the same alternative when in 1856 he said: ‘It were better that the emancipation came from above, than from below.’” (ibid., Chapter IV: “The manor-lords before the great reform”)

Fearing pressure from below the emperor “emancipated” the slaves; but, the brutal burden increased only as the following paragraphs narrate.

“Under the emancipation, the Russian serfs received their freedom: no longer did the lord of the land exercise direct authority over the peasants, who could now own property and marry without obtaining their master’s permission; no longer were they bought or sold at will; no longer could the master order them to work, send them off to the army to meet draft quota, or banish them to Siberia for acts of subordination. Nevertheless, the serfs’ new found freedom was constrained by their duty to pay a head tax and their continued subjection to customary rather than statutory law.

“Much to the displeasure of the serfs, they did not receive all the land to which they thought they were entitled. Rather, in order to provide for the nobility who served as the backbone of the regime, the emancipation statute allowed the landholders to retain approximately 50 percent of the land. Moreover, that portion of the land allocated to the nobility tended to be best portion. Whenever a dispute arose over the division of the land, the nobility usually prevailed. Frequently, they also retained pasture, water, and forest rights at the expense of the newly emancipated serfs.

“Not only did the serfs fail to receive all the land, but they also had to pay a heavy price for the portion that they did acquire. In order to compensate the gentry for its loss of land and serf labor, the emancipation statute granted to the nobility interest bearing notes from the state equal to approximately 75 percent of the value of the land given to the peasants. The statute then required the peasants to pay the remaining 25 percent of the land’s value directly to the nobility. Furthermore, the state saddled the peasants with a mortgage of the land they received, compelling the emancipated serfs to submit annual payments to the state over a 48-year period. Although the specific arrangements tended to vary from province to province and region to region, the guiding principle was that of protecting the gentry at the expense of the peasantry.

“The emancipation statute also reflected the government’s fear and mistrust of the serfs. The prospect of hordes of serfs now free to do as they pleased alarmed the state, and it took additional steps to limit peasant freedom. To begin with, title of the land was not given to individual serfs or to serf-families; rather, title was vested in the mir, or village commune, the ancient peasant body presided over by the village elders. The government counted on the hide-bound, differential, and conservative commune to rein on rambunctious, independent, ‘uppity’ peasants. It was the commune that worked out the division of the estates with the nobility, and it was the commune that assigned landholdings to the former serfs and decided for everyone in the village such basic questions as to what to sow and when to plant and harvest. Moreover, the commune periodically reassigned landholdings to its members, a process called repartition that simultaneously strengthened the hold of the commune over its members and inhibited peasant individualism.

“[….] In addition to shouldering responsibility for assessing and collecting the mortgage payments owed to the government, the commune also applied traditional peasant law, issued internal passports (an ex-serf could not move about Russia without an internal passport), and supplied recruits for the army.” (Frank W Thackeray, ed., Events that Changed Russia since 1855)

To the bourgeois-liberal theoreticians, the situation with the decree on clothing, and the arrangement for “emancipated” serfs’ movement with internal passport is neither regimentation nor autocracy nor slavery, which they find all the time in political system whenever the working people struggle to build up. Is not the decree on clothing a manifestation of regimentation the powerful impose on lives of the powerless all the time?

The learned theoreticians thoughtfully deny mentioning the process initiated by the “emancipation”: “compensate the gentry” by granting “the nobility interest bearing notes from the state equal to approximately 75 percent of the value of the land given to the peasants”, and, then, “the peasants to pay the remaining 25 percent of the land’s value directly to the nobility”, and then, “compelling the emancipated serfs to submit annual payments to the state”. Does it stand like this: the “emancipated” serfs pay all the amount of price, ultimately? How do they pay? Isn’t that fertilizing soil with their sweat? And, the design of these scholars’ denial leads them to further fallacies while they engage their heads in evaluating the Revolution.

However, instead of waiting for these scholars, the peasantry stood on a “manumitted” ground with all the “prospects for prosperity” as the following information, only a few from scores, from the mainstream unwrap.

“Romanov [not one of the tsars] in the northeastern province of Viatka, V E Postnikov in Ekaterinoslav to the south and V N Grigiriev in the north-central province of Kursk documented the plight of peasants whose poverty forced them to sell their allotments. In three uezdy (uezd = district) of Saratov Province, the statistician Romanov found peasant death rates to be twice the level found among Swedish peasants of the 1870s and 1880s. Statistical investigations of village life which presented evidence […] invariably included data indicating that mounting financial burdens were threatening the peasantry as a whole with economic disaster.” (Esther Kingston-Mann & Timothy Mixter, ed., Peasant Economy, Culture, and Politics of European Russia, 1800-1921, Esther Kingston-Mann, Chapter 1: “Peasant communes and economic innovation: A preliminary inquiry”, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1991)

“[S]tate officials […] vigorously pursued the collection of taxes and arrears […] [T]hey endowed peasant communal institutions with powerful sanctions for expropriating those obligations from community members. These sanctions were listed in article 188 of the Emancipation statute: (1) compensate for arrears through the seizure of the delinquent’s personal immovable property; (2) hire out the delinquent, or his family members, for work, deducting the wages for communal use; (3) designate a guardian for the delinquent household; (4) sell the delinquent’s movable property, which is not considered to be essential to the farmstead; (5) seize the delinquent’s allotment.” (ibid., Jeffrey Burds, Chapter 2: “The social control of peasant labor in Russia […]”)

N K Brzheskii, a leading contemporary authority on peasant taxation in Russia wrote in 1837: “[…] once police have started to act, the sternest measures are employed, quite often at a time when peasants have no money for paying taxes.” (ibid., cited in Jeffrey Burds, ibid.)

The reality included: “pressure […] on migrants’ families as a means of extorting earnings from absent members”, “absent delinquent’s family was subjected to arrest”, “movable property […] distrained […] – seizure of peasant property pending payment of taxes or arrears – one of the most common mechanisms for coercing villagers to fulfill obligations”. Under the threat of distraint, the first step, households raised money either by “selling off property” or “borrowing from relatives, neighbors, or local tradesman.” The second step included distraint of samovar, holiday or town clothing, watches, livestock, sheds, farm equipment. (ibid., ibid.)

“For most peasants, the prevailing issue was that of finding alternative sources of local credit. A Ministry of Finance study noted in 1894: ‘There is for the large mass of population no other means for […] satisfying their urgent needs, if they do not have any resources on hand, other than turning to the kulaks, lenders and various-lender-benefactors […] The power of the money-lenders is founded precisely on the fact that except for them, poor people frequently have nowhere else to turn.’ […] Usurious rates from private sources often reached as much as 60-100 percent per year! […] [C]ommunes managed to get low-interest loans through nearby banks and lending cooperatives, at an average of 8 percent per year, then re-lending the money to communal members, sometimes at higher rates. Just as common were loan from private sources – in particular, well-to-do fellow villagers and rich peasants, but also local taverns and storekeepers, tradesmen, rural priests and monasteries, and local merchant-industrial interests and their agents. In some cases, the lenders were rural officials […] Intended by the debtor to be a short-term expedient during a moment of particular need, opponents charged that instead such loans formed the basis for a new form of debt servitude: ‘Once made, the debt is usually passed on year after year’, with the principal growing at an enormous rate, eventually dwarfing the size of the initial loan.” (ibid., ibid.)

Tax and financial burdens, debt, micro in size as the muzhiks had no capacity to construct macro-level enterprise, gradually increasing debt, higher death-rate, seizure of micro-movable-“property” including samovars and clothing, creditors including priests, tradesmen, officials, monasteries and taverns, 100 percent interest rate, extortion, police and arrest – all are there in the world of private property. Does this sound unfamiliar in many lands today? And, doesn’t it sound interesting as monasteries and taverns turn into credit institutions? Developments followed.

In 1912, Lenin, with parts of whose methodology and conclusion a part of the mainstream differs as those stand against the propertied interests, wrote:

“Again famine […] Crops may fail anywhere, but only in Russia do they lead to such grave calamities, to the starvation of millions of peasants. The present disaster, as even the supporters of the government and the landowners are compelled to admit, surpasses in extent the famine of 1891.

“Thirty million people have been reduced to the direst straits. Peasants are selling their allotments, their live stock, everything saleable, for next to nothing. They are selling their girls — a reversion to the worst conditions of slavery. The national calamity reveals at a glance the true essence of our allegedly ‘civilized’ social order. In different forms, in a different setting, and with a different ‘civilization’, this system is the old slavery, it is the slavery of millions of toilers for the sake of the wealth, luxury and parasitism of the ‘upper’ ten thousand. On the one hand there is hard labor, always the lot of slaves, and on the other the absolute indifference of the rich to the fate of the slaves. [….] In our day, the peasants have been robbed — by means of all the tricks and achievements, all the progress of civilization — robbed to such an extent that they are starving, eating goosefoot, eating lumps of dirt in lieu of bread, suffering from scurvy, and dying in agony. At the same time the Russian landlords, with Nicholas II at their head, and the Russian capitalists are raking in money wholesale — the proprietors of places of amusement in the capital say that business has never been so good. Such barefaced, unbridled luxury as that now flaunted in the big cities has not been seen for many years.

“Why is it that in Russia alone, of all countries, we still witness these medieval spells of famine alongside of the progress of modern civilization? Because in the conditions under which the new vampire, capital, is stealing upon the Russian peasants the latter are bound hand and foot by the feudal landowners, by the feudal, landowning, tsarist autocracy. Robbed by the landowner, crushed by the tyranny of officials, entangled in the net of police restrictions, harassed and persecuted, and placed under the surveillance of village policemen, priests, and rural superintendents, the peasants are just as defenseless in the face of the elements and of capital, as the savages of Africa.” (“Famine”, CW, vol. XVII, 1974, emphasis in the original)

It was a reality of poverty, hunger, despotism and capitalism, a reality dominated by exploiters bent on expropriating the working classes,  a reality devoid of fundamental and human rights, a reality of an immense mass laboring and languishing in inhuman condition, a reality of gradual political radicalization of the people, a reality of ripening of conditions for social change, and a reality missed by a group of theoreticians engaged with evaluating the Revolution. Revolts of the pauperized and hungry followed, which was repressed with death and banishment as the following information indicate.

“The number of civilians executed during the next eight months by the new field-courts has been officially reported as 683, while the ordinary courts-martial are officially credited with the execution of 10 civilians in 1905, 144 in 1906, 456 in 1907, and 825 in 1908. These figures do not include the numbers of persons executed upon administrative order, without the formality of a trial, and an unofficial tabulation places the number of such executions at 376 in 1905, 864 in 1906, 59 in 1907, and 32 for the first ten months of 1908. The total number of executions here listed is therefore more than three thousand four hundred. The word ‘execution’ is to be understood literally, since no account is taken here of the unknown number of persons who were shot down during the actual disturbances without first being captured by the authorities.

“In addition to all these, the Department of Police reported that during the year ending 1 November 1906, the following results had been accomplished by ‘administrative process’: seven thousand persons fined, two thousand prohibited from living in regions which had been placed under extraordinary law, and twenty-one thousand banished – most of them to the northern guberniias or to Siberia.” (Geroid Tanquary Robinson, op. cit.)

Smeared with blood and brutality the ruling system faced a speedy shifty situation as further forces of the working people were there, and, when the forces stepped on the theater of political action, they emerged as one of the most decisive factors in world politics. It was an alliance of workers and peasants seizing political power through the Great October Revolution.

The article is the 2nd section of the 5th part, in abridged form, of a series composed on the occasion of the Great October Revolution Centenary. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 1st section of 5th, and 6th parts of the series were originally carried by, and the series is now being carried by the web site of Frontier, an independent, radical weekly from Kolkata.

A few sources referred in earlier parts have been mentioned briefly in this part. In the 6th part, the source ‘“Soviet power”, J V Works, vol. 3, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, USSR, 1953’ cited is actually ‘“Soviet power”, J V Stalin Works, vol. 3, …’.

Farooque Chowdhury, a Dhaka-based freelancer, has not authored/edited any book in English other than Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis and What Next, The Great Financial Crisis (ed.), and he doesn’t operate any blog/web site.


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