Resistance in the Soviet Union
During the early years of collectivization (1929 to 1933), peasants living within the Soviet Union unleashed countless attacks against the Bolshevik regime in an attempt to disrupt the effects of collectivized agriculture. Although resistance ultimately proved futile for the Soviet Union’s vast population of peasants, their attacks served as an effective tool for slowing the advance of Stalin’s cadres as they attempted to transform the Soviet countryside into a space that served the needs and wishes of the Bolshevik regime. Through an analysis of the resistance movements that occurred in the late 1920s, this article seeks to determine how historians have differed in their interpretations regarding the strategies that peasants used to resist collectivization. What made peasant revolts possible in the Soviet Union? Did resistance efforts vary depending on region and locality? More specifically, do historians view resistance tactics as more of a universal endeavor, or did revolts stem predominantly from local and regional disputes? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what do historical accounts of peasant resistance in other parts of the world offer to this scholarship? Can an analysis of worldwide revolts help explain the nature of peasant resistance in the Soviet Union?
Pre-1991 Scholarship (Cold War Era)
Scholarship regarding peasant resistance in the Soviet Union is nothing new within the historical community. In the late 1960s, historian Moshe Lewin published a landmark book entitled, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivization that painstakingly detailed the implementation of collectivization into the Soviet countryside, as well as the reaction it generated amongst the peasantry. Lewin argued that the arrival of collectivized agriculture was an unwelcome event across the Soviet interior, as peasants often chose to resist its implementation “in every way that was open to them” (Lewin, 419). While Lewin posits that peasants initially resisted the invasion of Stalin’s cadres in a more passive manner (i.e., through protests and a refusal to join the kolkhoz farms), he argues that “opposition grew more violent and more vociferous” once peasants realized that Stalin’s cadres had no intention of leaving the countryside (Lewin, 419). He sees fighting, unrest, and disorder as being particularly emblematic of the “better-off peasants, for whom the kolkhoz represented a threat” to both their economic and social interests (Lewin, 419). Located in between the kulaks (wealthy peasants) and kolkhoz agents, however, Lewin asserts that poorer peasants – which he dubs the “broad mass of the peasantry” – often “remained hesitant and non-committal, suspicious, and above all afraid” during the early years of collectivization (Lewin, 419-420). Regardless of this hesitancy, Lewin concludes that kulaks eventually succeeded in broadening their conflict with the state through the incorporation of lower-class peasants. Kulaks accomplished this, he argues, through the spreading of rumors that reflected the misconduct of Soviet officials (Lewin, 424). Convincing lower-class peasants to join their cause was made easy, he proclaims, due to the peasantry’s innate “mistrust of the regime and its intentions” that stemmed directly from years of mistreatment under Tsarist rule (Lewin, 423-424).
Due to the politics of the Cold War, Lewin was forced to base his assertions on a limited number of primary sources, since access to Soviet archives remained off-limits to Western scholars at this time. Despite these shortcomings, however, Lewin’s contribution to the field of Soviet history suggests that peasant resistance flowed from a universal effort of the kulaks to dislodge Stalin’s grip over the countryside. Moreover, his work reveals the importance of lower-class peasants for the kulaks, as well as the necessity of social-class cooperation in coordinating attacks against collectivization. To a certain degree, historian Eric Wolf expands on these points in his work, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (1968). Although the focus of Wolf’s book revolves around worldwide peasant revolts (and not on the Soviet Union, specifically), Wolf’s piece makes the argument that peasant rebellions are forged through the cooperation of social -classes against higher echelons of authority. In a manner similar to Lewin, Wolf argues that lower-class peasants “are often merely passive spectators of political struggles” and “are unlikely to pursue the course of rebellion, unless they are able to rely on some external power to challenge the power which constrains them” (Wolf, 290). As such, he argues that “the decisive factor in making a peasant rebellion possible lies in the relation of the peasantry to the field of power which surrounds it” (Wolf, 290). For Soviet peasants, therefore, Wolf’s scholarship seemingly underscores Lewin’s argument by suggesting that this “external power” was fulfilled by the abilities of the kulaks (Wolf, 290).
In the mid-1980s – following the Soviet policies of Glasnost and Perestroika – scholars gained unprecedented access to Soviet archives that had been inaccessible to the academic community. With the proliferation of new source materials came additional interpretations regarding peasant resistance in the Soviet Union. One such interpretation can be seen with historian Robert Conquest’s book, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. While Conquest’s book focuses primarily on the genocidal aspects of the 1932 Ukraine Famine, his work also sheds light on the resistance strategies of Russian and Ukrainian peasants toward collectivized agriculture in the late 1920s. Reflecting the arguments first espoused by Lewin in the 1960s, Conquest argues that peasant resistance strategies derived from the leadership of kulak farmers who took to “looting, civil disorder, resistance, [and] riots” in the latter half of the 1920s (Conquest, 102). In this kulak-led campaign of resistance, Conquest argues that “the number of ‘registered kulak terrorist acts’ in the Ukraine quadrupled between 1927 and 1929,” as nearly one thousand acts of terrorism were carried out in the year 1929, alone (Conquest, 102). For these acts of terrorism to succeed, Conquest’s findings suggest that the kulaks relied heavily on the incorporation (and participation) of lower-class peasants in their struggle – just as Lewin and Wolf argued in the late 1960s. Conquest posits that cooperative forms of resistance remained a universal theme for kulaks in the Soviet Union, as resistance reports from 1928 to 1929 demonstrate that these strategies were undertaken “all over the country” (Conquest, 102). However, in contrast to Lewin – who stressed the violent nature of these cooperative efforts – Conquest argues that “armed resistance” was sporadic at best, and that “large scale resistance of a more passive type was…[far] more significant” in the Soviet Union (Conquest, 103).
For social historians, understanding the divide between passive and active forms of resistance proved difficult in the 1980s. More importantly for scholars, it remained unclear as to what motivated peasants to choose between active and passive forms of aggression with the Stalinist regime. If Conquest’s theory was correct, then why did peasant resistance often take on a more passive role in the Soviet Union as he proclaimed? In 1989, historian James C. Scott attempted to address some of these questions in his essay, “Everyday Forms of Resistance.” In this work, Scott examined the causative factors behind resistance through a cross-comparison of peasant revolts, worldwide. Scott’s findings suggest that violent (active) rebellions are rarely undertaken since peasants understand the “mortal risks involved in…open confrontation” with government forces (Scott, 22). As such, Scott argues that peasants often resort to more passive forms of insubordination since they “rarely seek to call attention to themselves” (Scott, 24). Instead, Scott points out that peasants favor “everyday forms of resistance” (stealing, pilfering, bribery, etc.) when dealing with “a party of greater formal power” (Scott, 23). As Scott points out, “such resistance is virtually always a stratagem deployed by a weaker party in thwarting the claims of an institutional or class opponent who dominates the public exercise of power” (Scott, 23). For historians of Soviet history, this analysis proved monumental in understanding the intricacies of peasant resistance, and dominated historiographical research in the 1990s.
Post-1991 Scholarship (Post Cold War Era)
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, scholars once again gained tremendous access to new materials as former Soviet archives opened their doors to Western historians. Consequently, the years following the demise of the Soviet Union are one of renewed scholarship and interest in the Soviet peasantry and its struggle against collectivized agriculture. In 1992, historian Lynne Viola capitalized on this newfound opportunity through an analysis of peasant women in both the Ukraine and Russia during collectivization. In her article, “Bab’I Bunty and Peasant Women’s Protest During Collectivization,” Viola focuses her attention on the resistance strategies of women, and the direct role they played in slowing the advance of collectivized agriculture. Building off the interpretations of both Conquest and Scott – which highlighted the passivity of most peasant revolts – Viola argues that peasant women also resorted to passive forms of aggression in both their protests and demonstrations against the Soviet regime. According to Viola, “women were seldom held responsible for their actions” since Soviet officials viewed them as “illiterate…and representative of the ‘most backward part of the peasantry’” (Viola, 196-197). Due to their status as females in a largely patriarchal society, however, Viola argues that women were afforded a unique opportunity to express their discontent and grief in a manner that differed significantly from the resistance strategies of male peasants: often resorting to direct confrontation with Soviet officials and outwardly displaying signs of protest (Viola, 192). Unlike their male counterparts, Viola argues that “women’s protest seems to have served as a comparatively safe outlet for peasant opposition…and as a screen to protect the more politically vulnerable male peasants who could not oppose policy as actively or openly without serious consequence” (Viola, 200).
Offering a gender-based expansion to both Conquest and Lewin’s work, Viola’s findings stress the universal aspects of resistance patterns in the Soviet Union; particularly, the universal nature of female revolts as she argues that their discontent “consumed many Russian and Ukrainian villages during the First Five-Year Plan” (Viola, 201). However, Viola cautions that “the general scale of peasant resistance to the state during collectivization should not be exaggerated” as it would be an overstatement to assume that all peasant women were united in their views (Viola, 201).
In 1994, historian Sheila Fitzpatrick continued to explore the intricacies of peasant resistance with her book, Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization. In her study, Fitzpatrick’s analysis echoes the sentiments of historian James Scott and his focus on the passive nature of peasant revolts. As Fitzpatrick states: “among the strategies Russian peasants used to cope with collectivization were those forms of ‘everyday resistance’ (in James C. Scott’s phrase) that are standard for unfree and coerced labor all over the world” (Fitzpatrick, 5). According to Fitzpatrick, passivity formed the backbone of peasant resistance strategies, and “was a behavioral repertoire” learned from their years under serfdom and tsarist rule (Fitzpatrick, 5). As such, Fitzpatrick concludes that “violent uprisings against collectivization were comparatively rare in the Russian heartland” due to the strength and repressive power of the Soviet state (Fitzpatrick, 5). In order to survive the harsh realities of collectivized agriculture, Fitzpatrick’s work argues that peasants relied on a universal set of strategies that helped alleviate the vast suffering that surrounded them; stressing that peasants often manipulated policies and structures of the kolkhoz (collective farm) in a manner that “served their [own] purposes as well as the state’s” [sic] (Fitzpatrick, 4).
Fitzpatrick’s work differs significantly from that of earlier historians such as Moshe Lewin in that it challenges the implication that kulaks served an important role (as leaders) in peasant revolts. According to Fitzpatrick, the term “kulak” possessed no real meaning since government officials often applied it to “any [so called] troublemaker” in the Soviet Union (Fitzpatrick, 5). As a result, Fitzpatrick’s work highlights the high-level of coordination and cohesion of the peasantry, and its ability to function without the “external” influence of the kulaks, as Eric Wolf argued in the late 1960s (Wolf, 290).
Post-1991 Scholarship Continued...
As additional documents became available from the former Soviet archives, historiographical interpretations once again shifted in the mid-1990s for mounting evidence suggested new ways to interpret the strategies of peasant resistance toward collectivization. In 1996, historian Lynne Viola published a monumental work entitled, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance, that served as a counterpoint to the studies of both Scott and Fitzpatrick. In her assessment of Soviet records, Viola’s findings suggest that resistance strategies were not strictly limited to passive forms of aggression. Instead, Viola asserts that peasant revolts often incorporated active and violent forms of resistance that openly challenged the Soviet regime. As she states: within the USSR, “universal strategies of peasant resistance” emerged which “amounted to a virtual civil war between state and peasantry” (Viola, viii). According to Viola’s new findings:
“For them [peasants], collectivization was apocalypse, a war between the forces of evil and the forces of good. Soviet power, incarnate in the state, the town, and the urban cadres of collectivization, was Antichrist, with the collective farm as his lair. To peasants, collectivization was vastly more than a struggle for grain or the construction of that amorphous abstraction, socialism. They understood it as a battle over their culture and way of life, as pillage, injustice, and wrong. It was a struggle for power and control…collectivization was a clash of cultures, a civil war” (Viola, 14).
While Viola’s argument challenged Fitzpatrick’s analysis, their interpretations accept the basic premise that peasant resistance reflected a unified and universal struggle against collectivized agriculture. Moreover, Viola’s rendition also supports Fitzpatrick’s position on kulaks, and argues that wealthy peasants played no significant role in radicalizing the poorer peasants to action. As she states, “all peasants could be enemies of the people [kulaks] if they acted contrary to the policies of the party” (Viola, 16). As such, Viola asserts that the term “kulak” possessed little value when attempting to distinguish between peasant classes; just as Fitzpatrick argued two years earlier.
Reflecting the sentiments of Viola, historian Andrea Graziosi’s work, The Great Soviet Peasant War also argues that conflict between the Stalinist regime and the Soviet peasantry took on the form of a war effort in the 1920s (Graziosi, 2). In tracing the development of hostilities between the state and peasantry, Graziosi argues that the conflict represented quite “possibly the greatest peasant war in European history,” as nearly fifteen million individuals lost their lives as a result of state-sponsored attacks on their culture and way of life (Graziosi, 2). In contrast to Viola’s interpretation, however, Graziosi’s work attempts to showcase the causative factors that propelled active forms of rebellion in the Soviet Union. According to Graziosi, peasant resistance to the state emanated from the peasantry’s sense of disfranchisement with the state, as they “felt to be second-class citizens and deeply resented the way they were treated by local bosses” (Graziosi, 42). In conjunction with these feelings of inferiority, Graziosi also adds that “nationalist” sentiment served to fuel animosity between the peasantry and state as well; particularly in the Ukraine “and in other non-Russian areas” of the Soviet Union (Graziosi, 54). Consequently, Graziosi argues that nationalist aspirations served to broaden repressive measures against the peasantry, as Stalin came to view the countryside as a “natural reservoir and breeding ground of nationalism,” and a direct challenge to his authority and power (Graziosi, 54). Although Graziosi rejects Viola’s assertion that peasant resistance represented a unified and cohesive national effort, he argues that active resistance, nevertheless, did showcase “a surprising homogeneity” amongst the peasantry; albeit, one with “strong regional and national variations” Graziosi, 24).
While Graziosi stressed the importance of nationalist sentiment in rousing peasant resistance against the state, historian William Husband (in 1998) directly challenged this notion with his article, “Soviet Atheism and Russian Orthodox Strategies of Resistance, 1917-1932.” Although Husband agrees with Graziosi’s assessment that national identity served as an important component to peasant solidarity and aggression, Husband posits that the role of religion should not be overlooked when examining resistance patterns since the customs and norms of peasants often dictated their overall behavior (Husband, 76).
As the Soviet leadership consolidated its power in the 1920s, Husband argues that the Bolsheviks sought to impose vast political, social, and economic changes into the countryside in an attempt to build socialism from the ground up (Husband, 75). According to Husband, one of the changes that the Bolshevik leadership hoped to implement was the fundamental replacement of “religious views with secular values,” since atheism served as a critical component to the dream of a communist utopia (Husband, 75). Such pronouncements, however, proved problematic for the Soviets since Husband argues that nearly all peasants adhered strongly to Orthodox religious beliefs and doctrines. As a result of this cultural attack, Husband argues that “Russian workers and peasants [often] employed resistance and circumvention to protect [their] traditional beliefs and practices,” switching between both violent and passive forms of resistance to safeguard their customs (Husband, 77). These forms of resistance, according to Husband, were acquired over a period of several centuries, as the repressive nature of tsarist rule led many peasants to devise “elaborate methods of resisting unwanted outside intrusions and pressures” (Husband, 76). While Husband agrees with prior historians (such as Viola and Fitzpatrick) that these efforts reflect a universal response of the peasantry, his interpretation ignores the dichotomy established between both active and passive forms of rebellion. Instead, Husband chooses to focus on the causative factors that drove peasant revolts rather than the strategies of resistance; signifying a need for change in the traditional focus of historiographical accounts.
“All peasants could be enemies of the people [kulaks] if they acted contrary to the policies of the party."— Lynne Viola
Current Scholarship (2000s Era)
In the early 2000s, Tracy McDonald – a social and cultural historian of Russian and Soviet history – attempted to reinvigorate studies on peasant resistance through an approach that incorporated local case-studies. In her work, “A Peasant Rebellion in Stalin’s Russia,” McDonald rejects the broad generalizations proposed by past historians (such as Viola and Fitzpatrick), and argues instead that peasant resistance should be understood in the context of its localized and regional efforts (not as a universal, cohesive, and nationally-organized movement against collectivization).
In her local analysis of the Pitelinskii district of Riazan, McDonald argues that peasant resistance can be understood as a reaction to individuals (or groups) that threatened the safety of peasant villages (McDonald, 135). In the case of Pitelinskii, McDonald argues that peasants often avoided resistance altogether, unless the “moral economy” of their village was violated by Soviet officials (i.e., when “excesses” such as murder, starvation tactics, extreme violence, and the degradation of women took place) (McDonald, 135). When such actions occurred against their villages, McDonald argues that peasants actively engaged Soviet officials with a “high degree of solidarity,” as they “worked together, uniting against the outsiders over and above any rivalries that may have existed prior to the rebellion” (McDonald, 135). As such, McDonald’s research demonstrates the sporadic nature of peasant revolts in the Soviet Union, and the role that external stimuli played in motivating collective resistance toward authority. Moreover, her work also reflects the argument presented by William Husband, since McDonald stresses that resistance often revolved around the peasantry’s desire to return to “the ‘old ways,’ of tradition, the church, and the priest,” as they sought to “explicitly” reject “the new Soviet order” (McDonald, 135).
In an attempt to once again shift the field of peasant studies, revisionist historian Mark Tauger (in 2004) published a landmark study entitled “Soviet Peasants and Collectivization, 1930-39” that effectively challenged the notion that resistance played a significant role in the peasantry’s reaction to collectivized agriculture. Using newly acquired documents from the former Soviet archives, Tauger’s study argues that the “resistance interpretation” – put forth by historians such as Viola, Fitzpatrick, and Graziosi – was not supported by evidence, and that peasants “more often…adapted to the new system” instead of fighting it (Tauger, 427). While Tauger admits that some peasants (particularly in the early 1930s) resorted to using “weapons of the weak” – as originally coined by historian James C. Scott – he argues that resistance was a vain and useless strategy that offered little chance for success against the powerful Soviet regime; something the peasantry clearly understood and accepted, according to Tauger’s findings (Tauger, 450). As he states, only through adaptation to collectivization could peasants feed “the growing population of the USSR” and “produce harvests that ended famines” (Tauger, 450). For Tauger, “the resistance interpretation” developed by leading historians of the 1990s, therefore, was simply an expression of “their hostility to the Soviet regime,” that disregarded factual evidence (Tauger, 450).
In a dismissal of Tauger’s work, however, historian Benjamin Loring (in 2008) returned the historiographical focus back to contributions made by Tracy McDonald in 2001. In his article, “Rural Dynamics and Peasant Resistance in Southern Kyrgyzstan,” Loring examines peasant resistance toward collectivization in a regional context – just as McDonald did with the Riazan countryside in years prior. In his analysis of peasant revolts in Kyrgyzstan, Loring argues that “resistance varied and bore the imprint of local economic and social dynamics” (Loring, 184). Loring explains this variation through the fact that “policy [often] reflected lower-level officials’ interpretations of state priorities and their capacity for implementing them” (Loring, 184). Consequently, Loring suggests that the peasantry’s adoption of resistance strategies here (whether active or passive) stemmed directly from the actions of cadres that often ignored regional interests, or “antagonized” local needs (Loring, 209-210). In a manner similar to McDonald, therefore, Loring’s findings suggest that active peasant rebellions in Kyrgyzstan were a direct result of external forces attempting to impose their will on local populations. In the case of Kyrgyzstan’s peasantry, Loring argues that the “onerous policies” of Stalin and his regime is what led “large segments of the agrarian population to open rebellion” by 1930; a region that had remained largely peaceful in years past (Loring, 185).
In closing, the issue of peasant resistance in the Soviet Union is a topic that encompasses a wide array of viewpoints and opinions within the historical community. As such, it is doubtful that historians will ever reach a consensus on the causes, strategies, and nature of peasant revolts. However, it is evident from the scholarship presented here that historiographical shifts often correspond to the arrival of new source materials (as seen with the end of the Cold War, and the opening of former Soviet archives). With new materials being uncovered every day, it is likely that historiographical research will continue to evolve in the years to come; offering exciting new opportunities for historians and researchers, alike.
As later trends in the historiography suggest, however, it is evident that local case-studies in the Soviet Union offer the best prospect for researchers to test their theories regarding peasant resistance strategies. As Loring and McDonald’s studies on Kyrgyzstan and Riazan demonstrate, local peasant rebellions often differed significantly from the generalized accounts of prior historians (such as Viola, Fitzpatrick, and Lewin) that stressed the uniformity and cohesive nature of peasant rebels. As such, additional research should be conducted in regard to the local and regional variations of peasant resistance.
Before reading this article, were you aware that peasant resistance played a huge role in early Soviet politics?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York, New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2017.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, New York: Basic Books, 2012.
Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Graziosi, Andrea. The Great Peasant War: Bolsheviks and Peasants, 1917-1933. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Husband, William. “Soviet Atheism and Russian Orthodox Strategies of Resistance, 1917-1932.” The Journal of Modern History. 70:1 (1998): 74-107.
Lewin, Moshe. Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivization. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968.
Loring, Benjamin. “Rural Dynamics and Peasant Resistance in Southern Kyrgyzstan, 1929-1930.” Cahiers du Monde russe. 49:1 (2008): 183-210.
McDonald, Tracy. “A Peasant Rebellion in Stalin’s Russia: The Pitelinskii Uprising, Riazan 1930.” Journal of Social History. 35:1 (2001): 125-146.
Scott, James. “Everyday Forms of Resistance.” In Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, edited by Forrest D. Colburn, 3-33. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1989.
Tauger, Mark. “Soviet Peasants and Collectivization, 1930-39: Resistance and Adaptation.” The Journal of Peasant Studies. 31 (2004): 427-456.
Viola, Lynne. “Bab’I Bunty and Peasant Women’s Protest During Collectivization.” In Russian Peasant Women, edited by Beatrice Farnsworth and Lynne Viola, 189-205. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Viola, Lynne. Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Wolf, Eric. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Larry Slawson