Peasants into Soviets: rereading Richard Pipes’ 2004 article

In July 2004, I linked to an article by historian Richard Pipes in Foreign Affairs, What Russians Think and Want (accessible with free registration). The old man overstated his case, perhaps, but as time goes by, I’m starting to think more along the lines he drew, wondering if they can be seen as extensions of Georgy Fedotov’s thought.

Russia’s transformation from an overwhelmingly rural to a mostly urban – with caveats – society happened (a) recently and (b) under the Communist regime. This should explain a lot about the state of late-Soviet and post-Soviet society. The urban population’s share of total was 15% at the turn of the 20th century, 18% in 1926, 33% in 1939, 52% in 1959, 69% in 1979, and 73% in 1989. It has not changed much since.

In addition, Russian rural settlements – mostly small villages – were poorer and more primitive than their German or French counterparts, not to speak of English and American farms. A rough comparison in terms of poverty and human underdevelopment could be drawn between Central Russia and the south of Italy and Spain in the first 20-30 years of the 20th century.

Had the revolution been limited to a general democratization with a land reform, the urban 15% would have largely shaped the way of life of the first- and especially second-generation new urbanites. Yesterday’s peasants would dream of graduating into the petty bourgeoisie; their children, of graduating from universities. Instead, the Bolsheviks started by attacking the upper and middle classes of the cities and continued by destroying the peasantry, driving some rurals into cities as near-free labor for the Communist industrialization, and reducing the rest to serfdom (literally, not in a figurative Hayekian sense: collective farm members had no passports and so were not allowed to travel to cities without permission from farm management). There was no longer a stable, sophisticated urban environment for the newcomers to assimilate into. They created their own, Soviet villages in the brick and cinder apartment buildings.

True, Moscow was called an outsized village long before the revolution but the label referred to its informal, down-home character (as opposed to the buttoned-up, uniformed Petersburg) and to the chaotic city topography outside the Kremlin, with boroughs and neighborhoods dominated by churches and monasteries, often built on hills as if in the countryside. (This church-and-parish principle may have influenced the placement of Stalin’s seven towers.) The Soviet city-village – the Russian word some sociologists prefer is sloboda, settlement – stands out for a different reason. Its residents are political idiots, mistrustful of the world outside their cozy hamlet.

I’m obviously drawing a caricature but I hope it is useful. The “idiocy of rural life” – the famous maxim from The Communist Manifesto likely referring to isolation, not stupidity – was transplanted into the Soviet urban environment, which had replaced an earlier, more sophisticated cultural milieu, always quite thin and, finally, tattered by Bolshevik policies. Eugen Weber‘s famous treatise on the social modernization of France was called Peasants into Frenchmen. What do we have here? Peasants into Russians? No, Peasants into Soviets.

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