Russian Peasants and Revolutionary Freedom


“The Victory of the Revolution is in the Cooperation of Workers and Peasants.”

By Jacob Hensh

When we consider early twentieth century peasants in Russia, what are the typical stereotypes that come to mind? They own land, they farm that land, they worry about only that land, and that’s it. They lack patriotism and are not focused on political concerns. As described through the Russian language, they are concerned only with their volya, or freedom of will. This view predominated for years among scholars and students alike when thinking about the Russian peasantry before and during World War I.  However, recent research into the peasantry of the Viatka region forces us to rethink this vision of a backwards Russian peasantry.

On Monday, October 23 Dr. Aaron Retish of Wayne State University provided a captivating lecture in the fifth installment of the Havighurst Colloquia series on “Russia in War and Revolution.” Above all, he hoped to convince those in attendance of one very important thing: the Russian peasantry actually acted in ways that mattered during the First World War. Turning many preconceived notions on their heads, Retish provided compelling evidence that the peasantry had aspirations for the revolution: they had a vested interest in the new political experiment and they wanted to play an active role in it.

When war began in the Russian countryside in July 1914, the peasants were not solely worried about themselves; Retish argued that they were enveloped in a new national project. He stated that, “The argument is nuts that peasants only looked after their locale. They saw themselves as a part of the project.” As those in the Colloquium now know from a previous lecture by  Dr. Melissa Stockdale, “All for the Motherland!”, the war relief effort formed rather quickly. Retish confirmed Stockdale’s theories, as he illustrated that the peasants took part in large prayer groups for the soldiers, and took the consequences of the war as their own burden. The state attempted to promote a national agenda by mobilizing the countryside, and sent state actors to lead discussions about duty and sacrifice. The support from the peasantry was extensive for the first part of the war; however, as Retish notes in his monograph Russia’s Peasants in Revolution and Civil War, “Initially, it helped Russia’s government utilize the country’s resources… When food supplies dwindled, casualties mounted… peasants felt connected to their nation and not to their tsar. The war laid the necessary foundations for a revolutionary regime.” (63) The tipping point would come in February 1917, as the tsar’s abdication would make the Russian peasants, for the first time, full legal citizens.

In the aftermath of the revolution in March 1917, the state began to promulgate the use of the Russian word svoboda rather than volya to describe freedom. For those that understand the Russian language, this change in rhetoric is actually very crucial, as it denotes a shift to a much more politicized form of freedom. This idea was attractive to the peasantry, and by 1918, they had entered into what Retish deemed their “honeymoon phase” by seeing many of their aspirations for freedom and land being realized. He insisted that the new Soviet ideology that was being established after the October revolution was, to the peasants, the lesser of two evils, and so the Bolsheviks largely gained their support. Furthermore, although the Soviets continued the practice of forced grain requisition, the peasants sought a moral and economic relationship over food, in that they would be willing to give it up if state would provide for them.

Unfortunately, when we look ahead in Soviet history, the potentiality of a positive outcome for the peasants in the forming of the Stalinist system was nonexistent. However, through Dr. Retish’s lecture, it becomes obvious that the peasantry played a large role in both the war effort and the revolution. In fact, by 1922, he insisted that the countryside still saw the Soviet state as “fulfilling their dreams of being part of a decision.” The famine of 1921 and 1922 actually brought the peasantry and the state together, and it can then be posited that the war served as the foundation point of a new sense of unity and identity for the Russian peasantry.

Jacob Hensh is a first-year M.A. student in Political Science.


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