Collectivism: What is the Government’s to take?

With the birth of the Soviet Union and the beginning of communist rule, the new government had to establish socialist norms for those living in the country. The All- Russian Central Executive Committee established these new rules, as on March 21, 1921 the committee addressed NEP in the Countryside, The Tax in Kind. In this document, the committee established collectivism norms for peasants in the form of taxing for the needs of the government and overall Soviet State. A little more than a year later, on May 22, 1922, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee spoke again, this time on the Right of Private Property in Commerce and Industry. This document clears confusion around the rights to private property in the Soviet Union, however also states that the decree is not retroactive, and does not return the right to property confiscated by the Soviet Union back to previous owners.

Both documents exemplify the complexity involved in changing the kind of government in a nation. Moving from Tsarist rule to communist rule involved a complete transformation of government and therefore laws and societal norms. Ideas that once did not need clarification, such as what is considered one’s private property or crops, suddenly needed vast explanation. The committee does seem to at least attempt to protect the rights of peasants and farmers within the confusion of the documents.

In my opinion, both decrees were confusing and somewhat contradictory. The first decree on NEP in the Countryside is hard to understand what rights exactly the government had to farmers’ crops and supplies. The second decree on the Rights to Private Property was a bit easier to follow, however at the end stated that the decree does not act retroactively in returning past confiscated property. With that being said, and considering how much property and land the Soviet Union confiscated at this point already, the second decree seems somewhat useless. Also, the wording of the documents and idea flow throughout the documents is hard to follow and was most likely not understood by the typically uneducated peasants. With that, the government most likely was able to get away with not following these laws as most of the people they applied to, the peasants and farmers, did not understand them. It seems that the government released these decrees just as a means to cover up any possible accusations of abuse of power.



Russia and Ukrainian (In)Dependence

It is clear that the revolutions that occurred in Russia in 1917 did not only affect Russia, but also its neighboring nation, Ukraine. The Revolutions may have even inspired the people to host their own rebellions. On June 10, 1917 the First Declaration of the Rada took place. In this Declaration, the congress explained their responsibilities to protect the rights and freedoms of the Ukrainian land and its wish to have a free Ukraine without separating from all of Russia. However, the declaration then explains how the Russian Provisional Government ignored demands by Rada delegates and did not wish to work with the Rada to build a new regime. With that, the Rada declared that they would work to reach autonomy in the Ukraine. On December 12, 1917, just about six months after the First Declaration of the Rada, was the Self-determination of the Ukraine. This all-Ukraine Congress of Soviets, like in the Declaration of the Rada, declared goals for bettering Ukrainian life. However, in the Self-determination, the congress rejected the Rada and claimed them to have a counter- revolutionary nature. The Self- determination focused on workers and peasants, the lower classes, and their rights and freedoms. Also, this congress chose to recognize Ukraine as a federal part of the Russian Republic and was far more focused on protecting worker’s rights than on Ukrainian independence.

Both congresses expressed a want for freedom from Russia but also seemed to have some anxiety about complete independence. The First Declaration only declared a want for autonomy after explaining how its original request to work with the Russian Provisional Government was rejected. The Self-determination of the Ukraine did not outwardly state a want for independence from Russia but did express Ukrainian pride and independence by stating the congress’s job to fight for the self-determination of the Ukraine in the interests of the workers and peasants. However, the Self-determination does outwardly recognize the Ukrainian Republic as a federal part of the Russian Republic and did not express a desire to change that. The declarations differed in that the Self-determination of the Ukraine was concerned mostly with workers and peasants and their rights and overall quality of life whereas the Central Rada expressed more general goals of independence from Russia. It seemed even that if the Central Rada was more concerned with the lives of workers and peasants and less so with independence form Russia, that the Congress of Soviets would not have rejected them in their Self-determination of the Ukraine.

Both congresses were simply looking for a better quality of life; the Central Rada believed that this could only happen after independence from Russia and the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets seemed to believe unity with Russia would bring the best benefits, at least for the lower classes. Possibly the revolutions in Russia at the time confused the Ukrainians on where Ukraine stood in relation to Russia and what would be more beneficial to the people of the country, autonomy or unity.

Ulozhenie: Difference Maker or Part of a Trend?

In Chapter Twelve of Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s, Daniel Kaiser and Gary Marker decide to include the perspective of an author (Richard Hellie) who thought of the Ulozhenie as the defining moment in the history of serfs in Russia. Hellie’s perspective, while interesting, leaves me with additional questions.

The most intriguing part of Hellie’s point-of-view was that his words seem to create a sharp division in Russian history, a division between pre-1649 and post-1649 (since 1649 was the year that the Ulozhenie was written). He did not view the law code as part of a pattern of regressing rights for peasants, but as something which all seemed to happen at once (Kaiser and Marker 181). His view is certainly different from some thoughts on the reduction in peasant rights over time; Kaiser and Marker even said that one school of thought on the disappearance of peasant rights was that it was a long process which began long before 1649 with actions such as the restriction of travel outside of St. George’s Day (Kaiser and Marker 180).

Also interesting was how Kaiser and Marker did not include any documents which introduced the point-of-view that the events over many decades was a bigger factor than any governmental law code. They had a document which addressed how the institution of slavery developed in Muscovy over the course of many decades (namely, during the “Time of Troubles”), but they didn’t do the same with serfdom and how that gradually developed in the decades leading up to the Ulozhenie in 1649.

I am indeed left with multiple questions. Here are the questions I have:

Do you believe that the restrictions on serfdom were a gradual process, or was it something that mostly came out of the Ulozhenie in 1649?

Why would Kaiser and Marker not give more time to the point-of-view that serfdom was an institution which developed over many years, and not mostly from one law code?

On a note unrelated to my response here, how were these masters able to keep control of their peasants when they were so outnumbered by peasants? According to the reading, ninety percent of the Russian population consisted of peasants at one point; this is a percentage so high that it must have been hard to control all of them.


Kaiser, Daniel H. and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

The Emancipation Manifesto, 1861

The Emancipation Manifesto of March 3, 1861 released serfs from their serfdom. However, this improvement of the peasant condition was emphasized as gradual, leading to the establishment of many temporary measures and statuses to ensure the process of serfdom abolishment went smoothly. For example, the peasants were still required to fulfill obligations to the nobles, so much so that they were “temporarily bound” to their nobles, which hardly seems different from their situation previously. Language regarding the nobility was extremely courteous, praising the nobility for their generous hearts in voluntarily renouncing serfdom, implying that the renouncement may not have been as “voluntary” as it was portrayed to be. Furthermore, the nobles were given the task of much of the reorganization of land, meaning it unlikely that these land allotments would be decided in the benefit of the peasants.  The repetition of words such as “sacrifice”, “greater good”, and “obligation” seek to remind the nobles that their first priority is to the Russian state, and, accordingly, to the abolishment of serfdom as being in the best interests of the Russian state.

How effective was this document in promoting change? Were the peasant’s lives improved within two years or made worse?

Studying Peasant Life in the Late 19th Century

Shanskaia’s Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia, an ethnographic study of peasant life in the late 19th century. Yesterday, we discussed some of the book’s major themes, namely, gender, marriage, and childhood.

Here, I want to focus on religion. Semyonova writes, “Among the mass of peasants, there is nothing mystical about their relationship to the tsar or to God, just as there is nothing mystical about their idea of an afterlife. They simply give no thought to an afterlife, just as they give no thought to the coming year. It is amazing how essentially irreligious they are! …Can they really be considered Russian Orthodox? Not at all” (136). This observation does, it certain respects, derive from Semyonova’s observations of peasants. She writes that they do not worry about the future, and nor do they think about God. Moreover, peasant religious rituals vary greatly from the nobility and clergy ones to which Semyonova is likely accustomed.

However, I think that Semyonova’s claim that peasants are “irreligious” and not Russian Orthodox is too simplistic. Earlier in the book, she explains how all baby girls and boys are baptized, a process which is grossly expensive for families which have virtually no income. Baptisms must have been important. Although one could argue that all children are baptized simply because of tradition, I think it’s impossible to claim that those baptisms had absolutely no faith backing them up. Rather, peasants simply regarded religion and God different from the nobles. Their lives were much harder; therefore, they could not devote as much time to daily rituals or even just “faithful thoughts.” Possibly, Semyonova did not recognize their religiousness because it differed so much from the precise rituals which she witnessed among the nobility. She writes that “heaven and hell are understood purely in material terms”; however, those “material terms” do not make the understanding of heaven and hell irreligious. The peasants understood these concepts based on the world which they saw every day. Semyonova over-simplifies peasant life when she claims that they cannot be considered Russian Orthodox.

Dizzy with Success

In the late 1920s the Soviet government began to collectivize agriculture within the country. In this document Stalin boasts about the rapid success of this newly implemented program in regards to agricultural output. Since the program has had such a swift and unexpected success, Stalin attempts to dissuade the public from being lured into feeling of contentment and complacency. He wishes to promote further advancement of the the country’s agricultural potential in order to obtain the “full victory of socialism.”

Although the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union did succeed in several regards, it was a highly controversial program as well. Stalin wrote that “even our enemies are forced to admit that the successes are substantial,” in order to make opponents of the policy reevaluate their criticisms. He needed to defend the collectivization program because it was met by heavy opposition from propertied individuals who would be required to forfeit their lands. Many peasants  knew that the state would benefit from having large quantities of cheap grain continually available, but these same peasants also realized that this same policy would have a negative impact on them as individuals because they would be forced to sell their grain at cheap, state dictated prices.

Did the impressive immediate results of collectivization effectively dissuade many of the programs critics? Or did most of them realize that it was merely a short run phenomena that would be difficult to expand and sustain?

Bread and Wine and Italy’s Past

Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine, is an honest work about the totalitarian regime’s in Italy. It follows the character of Pietro Spina, a communist party leader who has returned from hiding to revolutionize the peasant population. In the pages, Silone writes a fascinating story about several different populations in both North and South Italy and how the are reacting to the Fascist regime and living their lives.

A major theme of the Fascist movement is the rebirth of Italy’s greatness. Mussolini desired to bring Italy back to it’s glory days of the Roman empire. The Fascist Manifesto by Mussolini himself states that expansion and war are the most fundamental and important ways to progress. Silone does a great job of portraying this in Bread and Wine. On page 195 in Zabaglione’s speech, he addressed the people: “descendants of eternal Rome…..who carried civilization to the Mediterranean and to Africa.” Here, it is understood the fascism glorifies the past as a means to the future. The people are perhaps mobilized with the promise of greatness. There also seems to be strong themes of nationalism, especially in regards to their imperialist claims.

Why did the Fascists want to return back to the greatness of ancient Rome, instead of forging their own path to greatness?


Symbolism in The Cherry Orchard

The nobles in The Cherry Orchard are Anya, Madame Ranevsky, Barbara, Gayef, and Pishticik.  The nobility of the play has fallen drastically, the two families out of money but trying to cling on to a previous way of life in the wake of change.  Anya and Barbara are the two nobles that seem to recognize and accept the new order.  Anya is fascinated by the ideas of Peter and Barbara acknowledges her affection for Lopkhin despite his family history.

Firs, Yasha, Dunyasha, and are all peasants, but have different outlooks on change of social construction.  When the Liberation occurred, Firs refused to leave his master and laments the complexity of social interaction now that the peasants are freed from their masters, calling the Liberation a “great misfortune” (25).  Yasha is an opposition to Firs because he has travelled the continent and seen how to live in civilized freedom, which is better than the Russian “barbarism.”

Lopakhin, Trophimof, and Ephikhodof all represent the emerging class of “others” at the end of tsarist Russia because they are those born of humble origins who raised their status through education.  Lopakhin’s father was a serf of the estate and now his son is a wealthy landowner in his own right, even suggested to be married to the daughter of a noblewoman.  This new class seeks some kind of personal retribution for the enslavement of their ancestors by replacing the symbols of noble authority, like the cherry orchard, with symbols of the middle class, such as the villas.

In The Cherry Orchard, wood represents to the characters a connection with past memory and the grandeur of an older time.  Gayef discovers that a cupboard in the home is over a hundred years old and proceeds to laud it for upholding “the courage of succeeding generations” and “faith in a better future” as well as the riches of the past (10).  This characterization of the cupboard could be interpreted as a reflection of the glory of tsarist Russia contrasted against its place in the modernizing world in which it exists.  It is an attempt of the nobles to hold on to their legacy.

The cherry orchard itself serves the same purpose.  It brings back memories of the estate when it was in its prime, contrasting with the current state of the family that has squandered the money.  The act of destroying the orchard is reminiscent of the destruction of the old social structure, particularly since it is carried out by a man of the new middling class that rose from a family of peasants to become a wealthy neighbor of the Ranevsky estate.  Despite his age and connection to the past, Firs acknowledges the idea because no one alive knows how to make they cherry jam, and therefore it cannot provide the economic support of its past.  As she comes to understand the changing social climate through her relationship with Trophimof, Anya remarks that she no longer loved the orchard as she once did, in effect symbolizing her transition from old to new ways of thinking.  The wood of the orchard contains “human spirits” that were contained in the estate during the time of serfs, and the new freedom offered to humans is echoed through the orchard’s path.  The suffering that Madame Ranevsky experiences at the thought of the orchard being destroyed is a way to “redeem the past” in the mind of Trophimof (27).