wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Robert Conquest

The Harvest of Sorrow

The Russian intelligentsia had taken two contrary views of the peasantry. On the one hand they were the People incarnate, the soul of the country, suffering, patient, the hope of the future. on the other, they appeared as the 'dark people,' backward, mulish, deaf to argument, an oafish impediment to all progress.

There were elements of truth in both views, and some of the country's clearest minds saw this. Pushkin praised the peasants' many good qualities, such as industry and tolerance. The memoirist Nikitenko called the peasant 'almost a perfect savage' and a drunkard and a thief into the bargain, but added that he was nevertheless 'incomparably superior to the so-called educated and intellectual. The muzhik is sincere. He does not try to seem what he is not.' Herzen held, if rather sanguinely, that inter-muzhik agreements needed no documents, and were rarely broken; in the peasant's relationship to the authorities, on the other hand, his weapon was deceit and subterfuge, the only means available to him—and he continued to use it in Communist times, as can be seen in the work of all schools of Soviet writers from Sholokhov to Solzhenitsyn.

But for the Utopian intellectual it was one or the other, devil or angel. The young radicals of the 1870s, to the number of several thousaand, 'Went to the people'—stayed for months in the villages and tried to enlist the peasants in a socialist and revolutionary programme. This was a complete failure, producing negative effects on both sides. Turgenev's 'Bazarov' gives some of the feeling: 'I felt such hatred for this poorest pe€asant, this Philip or Sidor, for whom I'm to be ready to jump out of my skin, and who won't even thank me for it'—and even Bazarov did not suspect that in the eyes of the peasants he was 'something in the nature of a buffooning clown.'

It would not be true to say that all the intelligentsia suffered this revulsion, and early in the next century the Socialist Revolutionary party took up the peasant cause in a more sophisticated manner. But meanwhile Marxism had won over a large section of the radicals, and they were given ideological reason for dismissing the peasantry as the hope of Russia. This change of view was, of course, little more than a transfer of hopes and illusions from an imaginary peasant to an almost equally imaginary proletarian.

But as regards the 'backward' peasantry, one now finds expressions of hatred and contempt among the Marxist, and especially among the Bolshevik, intellectuals going far beyond Marxist theoretical disdain; and one can hardly dismiss this in accounting for the events which followed the October Revolution.

The townsman, particularly the Marxist townsman, was not even consistent in his view of what was wrong with the peasantry, varying between 'apathetic' and 'stupidly greedy and competitive.' Maxim Gorki, giving a view shared by many, felt that 'the fundamental obstacle in the way of Russian progress towards Westernization and culture' lay in the 'deadweight of illiterate village life which stifles the town'; and he denounced 'the animal-like individualism of the peasantry, and the peasants' almost total lack of social consciousness.' He also expressed the hope that 'the uncivilized, stupid, turgid people in the Russian villages will die out, all those almost terrifying people I spoke of above, and a new race of literate, rational, energetic people will take their place.'

The founder of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov, saw them as 'barbarian tillers of the soil, cruel and merciless, beasts of burden whose life provided no opportunity for the luxury of thought.' Marx had spoken of 'the idiocy of rural life,' a remark much quoted by Lenin. (In its original context it was in praise of capitalism for freeing much of the population from this 'idiocy'). Lenin himself referred to 'rural seclusion, unsociability and savagery'; in general he believed the peasant 'far from being an instinctive or traditional collectivist, is in fact fiercely and meanly
individualistic.' While, of a younger Bolshevik, Khrushchev tells us that 'for Stalin, peasants were scum.'