Book Review: Russia's Peasants in Revolution and Civil War

By Aaron B. Retish

This is an exceptional account of the Russian countryside during the years of war and revolution between 1914 and 1922. Aaron Retish’s book takes the province of Viatka, located some 800 kilometres north east of Moscow, as the centre of his analysis and focuses on how the peasantry interacted with the wider processes of war and social turmoil that gripped Russia early in the twentieth century. Viatka was different from much of central Russia because its farmers had overwhelmingly been state peasants, rather than privately-owned serfs, the land that they worked was generally poor, and they were ethnically diverse, with nearly a quarter of the population coming from the Udmurt, Mari and Tatar groups. But, the province was typical of much of the Russian empire and the experience of its people gives, as Retish demonstrates, substantial insight into the wider experience of the Russian state.

Price: £23.00
Publication Date: 2008
ISBN: 978-1107404724
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The central argument of the book is that the sustained experience of war and revolution made the peasant a much more central participant in the polity at both local and national levels. Retish shows how the experience of conscription and military service was crucial in integrating the peasantry into the national state for the first time. The great majority of the Russian population acquired real political awareness as their men-folk headed off to war, refugees and prisoners of war arrived in the Russian countryside, and their villages were drawn into the military conflict. By 1917, this enabled the peasantry to take a full part in the process of revolution: initial subservience to elites was quickly replaced by the emergence of independent opinions. The peasantry quickly developed their own political agenda, expressed through elections to the Peasant Union and the zemstvo, showing their desire for land reform and a proper grain policy, as well as for real democratic political reform.

Retish demonstrates how the Provisional Government failed to achieve national unity and how it was unable to bring about any real reconciliation between the interests of the state and those of the peasant population. It was the Bolshevik revolution that transformed the situation of the peasantry by enacting land reform and Retish suggests that this was instrumental in closing the gap between the rural population and the state. Yet, peasant satisfaction with the Bolsheviks was short-lived and the outbreak of civil war during 1918 plunged Viatka into the heart of the conflict. The Bolsheviks were unable easily to assert their authority over the peasantry and their forces resorted to acts of random violence in a desperate attempt to hold on to power.

During 1919, Soviet power was re-asserted in Viatka and the Soviets were able to regain some support from the peasantry, but the Bolsheviks were only able to acquire real influence in the countryside when they were able to spread their ideology across Russia. The peasantry created new identities, often identifying themselves as socialists, even though their perception of what this entailed was often far from the official view of rural socialism. By 1922, even though much of traditional peasant culture remained in place, the peasantry had embraced national politics and had consciously participated in the process of revolution, accepting Bolshevism as they believed that the new regime would further their own interests. Retish’s book offers a rich picture of Viatka during these crucial years.

Based on extensive use of archival materials, his analysis of peasant behaviour extends far beyond the confines of Viatka itself. The book suggests that the peasantry were able to shape the revolutionary state in its early years, as the Bolsheviks conceded land reform. Russia’s peasants were politicized by the experience of war and the Bolsheviks recognized that they had to gain the approbation – at least tacitly – of the peasantry if they were to stand any chance of holding on to power. Nevertheless, this apparent engagement of the state and the peasantry was to be short-lived. The golden years of the New Economic Policy provided Russian peasants with a prosperity that they had never before enjoyed, but the process of collectivization at the end of the 1920s was to return the peasantry to the position of subservience to the state which they had endured before the cataclysmic years of war and revolution. Retish’s outstanding book gives great insight into the ways in which Russia’s peasantry had a short taste of political power and involvement, before the Stalinist machine again excluded them from real participation in the life of the state.