When assessing the view that the lives of the peasants did not improve throughout the 1855-1964 period, several key factors must be taken into consideration. These include their living and working conditions, policy towards them, the educational opportunities available to them and the political representation they had under Tsarist and Communist Governments. Once all of these factors have been taken into consideration, it becomes clear that the peasantry did not enjoy a prominent time under Tsarist or Communist Governments, and their lives did not improve in the period.
For the majority of the period, living conditions for the average peasant remained uniformly bleak. Prior to 1917, accommodation was often of a low standard as demand outstripped supply following an influx to the cities, such poor living conditions had a detrimental effect on their quality of life which was also evident under the communists, where living conditions remained in an equally bad, if not worse state compared to the Tsars. Despite Khrushchev continuing Stalin’s efforts to build more social housing and improve the situation, these were often of poor quality and hastily built. This meant that the peasantry did not see any real increase in living conditions between 1855-1964.
In contrast to the lack of interest regarding living conditions, sweeping reforms were introduced under the communists that aimed to improve working conditions for the peasantry. Investment was made in new agricultural techniques with mixed success as Stalin realised that agriculture had to be used in order to boost industry, much like Stolypin before him. In contrast, under the Tsars peasants did not have access to such technology, however they were able to set their own pace as to how they worked, and therefore how much they produced. In most cases, this meant they had to work as hard as possible in order to provide food for their families, as well as the requisition squads which Lenin would later introduce in an attempt to improve productivity.
Conditions under Stalin had severely declined compared with Tsarist Governments. Crops were destroyed in protest, livestock was returned to the collectives and after 1936 the effect of the great purges sunk in. The people who could have helped the peasantry improve their quality of life, such as academics and local officials, had been eliminated, in a similar method to the heavy persecution of the intelligenzi as seen under Alexander III. In terms of living and working conditions the peasants were never truly well off, despite Khrushchev’s sympathy with the farmers the improvements in standard of living were not down to him. Procurement prices rose as the state finally realised that they needed to make more of an effort.
The main issue of poor quality land which began under Alexander II’s emancipation at the start of the period, had also improved under Khrushchev’s Virgin Land Schemes. When Lenin’s NEP is also considered, the peasants were free to sell their excess production and this extra money was designed to help the standard of living, although the low procurement prices and in particular the scissors crisis put pay to that despite the markets being better and taxes being reduced in Lenin’s reign. Lenin and Khrushchev were both making advances in the right direction in terms of helping the peasantry, however when considering communist Governments as a whole the horrific effects of the ‘dekulakisation’, purges and enforced collectivisation under Stalin far outweigh the positive effects of the other communist leaders within the period, resulting in a better, albeit still not great, lifestyle for the peasantry under tsarist governments in terms of living and working conditions. So if anything, the lives of the peasants in Russia had got worse in the 1855-1964 period rather than improved.
Both Tsarist and Communist Governments attempted to widen participation in education, with the exception of Alexander III who sought to prevent the ‘dangerous spread of ideas’ and withheld education to the peasantry, who were largely illiterate under the Tsars. This meant they were still effectively trapped in a life of serfdom, despite Alexander II passing the Emancipation Act they had no opportunities to better themselves. Stolypin under Nicholas II did not share the same view, nor did Lenin and the Bolsheviks who realised not everyone was an academic. There was a significant reduction in illiteracy in this period as 82% of men could read and write under Lenin compared to just 51% in 1897, before Stolypin took over. The peasantry would have a far better quality of life, although still mediocre, with the ability to read. This vast improvement in literacy is one of the most neglected changes within the period.
The peasantry also suffered constantly from famine throughout the period. Often, this occurred for reasons which can be directly traced to Russian Governments, in particular under Stalin where the manmade famine of 1932 to force through collectivisation had devastating effects on the peasantry in much the same way as the famine of 1922, which was also man made. In contrast to this, the famine of 1891 showed that the Russian state did actually pay attention to the peasantry, Alexander III acknowledged there was a problem and provided emergency funding in order to address the situation. Despite the peasantry receiving help from the Government pre 1917, the detrimental effects of communist rule again wiped out any improvement in their quality of life.
Russian rulers throughout the period shared a common goal, to industrialise. When passing the Emancipation Act, Alexander II held a view shared by anti serfdom critics that a modern state with developed agriculture and industry was the way forward. A similar desire was held by Stalin in introducing collectivisation, and also by Stolypin in abolishing the Mir in the hope of creating a new, enterprising class of peasant. Boosting agriculture was key to this so one would assume that the peasantry would benefit from agricultural reforms. However, this was not the case. Despite its importance, agriculture was always second fiddle to industry in much the same way that the peasantry were a second class citizen. As reforms were introduced, their voice was repeatedly neglected in order for the Russian state to achieve its shared common goal to industrialise and compare with the West.
Even following Emancipation, the peasantry did not see improvements in their quality of life. Redemption payments were often so high that they struggled to earn enough from the poor land they had been given, and much like the requisition squads and collectives would later go on to do, the Mir dominated many aspects of their lives. The peasantry were still effectively serfs who were being used for the benefit of industry, this was an important feature of war communism and similarly in the ‘dekulakisation’ of Stalin, as in both cases the peasantry had falsely been accused of hoarding. This had again demonstrated that the peasantry were often used as a scapegoat and neglected in favour of industry throughout the period. In contrast, the agrarian reforms under Stolypin brought real improvement and some argue that this was the most prosperous time for the peasantry within the period. Stolypin had succeeded in creating an enterprising class of peasants, however they would be heavily persecuted under Stalin and any improvement to their lives had been undone by the communists.
The peasantry also faced a high level of repression and persecution throughout the period. The peasantry were consistent opponents of Russian Government throughout the period, yet were rarely successful in doing so. One reason for this is the continuing role which the army played in limiting opposition from the peasantry, with military force frequently being deployed throughout the period. Lenin used it in the Civil War against the Green armies and Stalin used a similar style of brute force during the collectivisation process, albeit on a much grander scale. Tsars had also used military force in containing the peasantry, with Stolypin’s necktie under Nicholas II and Alexander II continually employing military force prior to the Emancipation Act. The army was very important to the state, as the 1905 revolution demonstrated, and their continuing use of force against the peasantry is one reason why peasant opposition was rarely successful in improving their quality of life in the period.
High taxation and brutality was another common feature, the Mir were very brutal in their grain collections and this brutality is a continuing theme under communist Governments. The state bore down heavily on the rural population under the Tsars, paying a low procurement price for requisitioned goods which affected their income. In much the same way as the peasantry had been poorly treated under the Land Captains and the Mir, discipline was also severe. Lenin’s NEP outlined a tax in kind where a percentage of production was taken, in contrast to the requisitioning of Stalin who forced through Lenin’s collectivisation model. High taxes were commonplace under the Tsars despite the axing of redemption payments in 1905, however in contrast Lenin’s NEP ensured that such a heavy burden would not be repeated. Despite this advancement, the most heavy restrictions were seen under Stalin where the relentless use of power, paranoia and hostility led to an unprecedented scale of death and destruction. In 1929 a 30,000 strong army led a campaign against the peasantry to take grain, collectivise farming and destroy the kulaks, defined as party policy under Stalin in 1930.
Even though the peasantry had been violently repressed under the Tsars, there was nothing remotely close to Stalin’s determined campaign against the peasantry. By eliminating the kulaks, Stalin had destroyed the most competent farmers and the new peasantry were not strong enough to step up. This had effectively undone the work of Lenin where peasant farms had been more equal than at any point under the crown, even when Stolypin was reforming, and the achievements of the peasantry who had achieved ambition and land, despite requisitioning and taxation from the state, was taken away by the introduction of the Kolkhoz. Despite heavy repression and persecution under the Mir, and poor treatment under the land captains, this is nothing in comparison to Stalin’s forced collectivisation. The greatest change to all of Russia had taken place with an unprecedented level of violence, fear and disruption, which meant that the lives of the peasantry did not improve in the 1855-1964 period in terms of freedom. Alexander II could never really create a free peasantry and Nicholas II did little following Stolypin’s assassination and still heavily restricted political freedom despite the introduction of the Duma. Despite Lenin’s best efforts, Stalin’s obliteration of the peasantry undone most of this work.
In conclusion, the peasantry were poorly treated by both Tsarist and Communist Governments in the 1855-1964 period which meant that their lives did not improve. Following the Emancipation Act, the peasantry had to endure among other things, high taxation, requisition, repression and restriction on movement and poor quality land. Both regimes treated the peasantry with disdain and despite some benefits such as initially seen under war communism, and also Stolypin, ultimately the lives of the peasantry did not improve in the 1855-1964 period.