Chapter 10

Chapter 10

At the Department of Agriculture

Since Russia is an overwhelmingly agrarian country, we were especially interested in getting acquainted with the operations of this department, and even more than its operations, we wanted to know what results were obtained by the revolution in the countryside. Our wishes were only satisfied in the most cursory way.

Not being able to speak the language and convinced that we would not be able to find a reliable French interpreter in every Governmental Department we visited, we requested an interpreter from the commandant of the hotel. At this time none was available. Then, comrade Borghi, from the “Unione Sindicale Italiana”, and myself, who were the delegates that were most eager to go to the Department of Agriculture, had resort to an unofficial interpreter, and I believe this is why our visit to this department was almost entirely fruitless.

Despite the efforts of Sasha Kropotkin, who was our interpreter, the reports that we obtained from the employees of the department were very incomplete. We immediately noted that, almost as soon as we began to ask our questions, our interlocutor made an effort to avoid answering them or answered with evasive responses. This bad faith was most disconcerting, since it was entirely unjustified.

However, among the reports we obtained and others that were obtained by a few other delegates, we may draw an overall picture of our experience in the Department of Agriculture.

On the other hand, we must point out, because it is obviously so important, that this Department was unaware of seventy percent of the matters that arose in Russia as a result of the land problem.

Data were scarce and incomplete. Russia’s most decisive problem, the problem of the land, and the problem of the relations of the peasants with the Government, evolved at the margins of the Department that was responsible for their solution.

Whoever has read anything about the situation of the peasant in Russia during the Czarist regime, will concur with us with regard to the great interest aroused by knowledge of what was going on with the land.

In the old regime, the surviving instances of primitive communism were evident. No matter how many attempts to destroy these survivals were made by the great landlords, the small landowners and the authorities, they all failed.

The Mir (a communistic organization of labor) and the Artel (a collectivist organization of labor) had survived every attempt to absorb them. With this in mind, we were most interested to learn more about these organizations. But no one could tell us much about them.

Already during our excursion down the Volga, we reached the conclusion that the land problem in Russia actually was not a problem at all, at least with regard to the characteristics that this problem usually assumed in the rest of Europe. In almost every European country the land problem is one of scarcity; in Russia this is not the case. In Russia the problem was, and still is, rather than anything else, a problem of means of communication. There are, in the heart of Russia, almost entirely virgin lands. Man, due to the lack of means of communication and transport, has almost had no chance to settle there.

This is why the data that the Department of Agriculture could provide had for us a signal importance.

We have already pointed out that the Soviet Government declared the land to be national property and distributed it in the form of individual and collective allotments. The collectives came to represent the transformation of the former Mir into communist estates.

But as interesting as this was, this was not what concerned us most.

We knew, and the Bolsheviks themselves had confirmed it, that the decree nationalizing the land more or less conformed to the terms of the decree issued by the All-Russian Peasants Congress held at the end of July, 1917, while Kerensky was still in power.

From the reports we compiled in our investigations, we drew the conclusion that the real distribution of the land had already taken place prior to the promulgation of the Bolshevik decree.

When we asked our official informant whether our information was correct, he confirmed that it was, but nonetheless objected that the first distribution, in many regions, had been a ploy on the part of the landowners in an attempt to exempt themselves from the impact of the official decree issued by the Bolsheviks.

It often happened, he said, that the landowners reached an agreement with their former workers, declaring before the local Soviets that the lands of the former had been distributed among the latter.

The workers, gullible and afraid that the new conditions would not last, granted their acquiescence to this trick, and the landowner continued to enjoy the full proceeds of his estates, although clandestinely.

Once the fraud was discovered, the Committees of the Poor Peasants were formed, that is, committees of those who never had any property at all and who left the cities in droves for the countryside to participate in the distribution of land.

The members of these Committees, since they had made no agreements of any kind with the landowners and, in addition, understood the scope of the revolution better than the peasants, discovered the deception and proceeded, with the agreement of the local Soviets, to carry out a new distribution of the land.

These actions on the part of the Committees and the new distribution of land that they were attempting to implement resulted in the first bloody clashes in Russia after the revolution.

The former landowners, along with the workers who had benefited from the first distribution of land, resolutely opposed the distributions made by the Committees of the Poor Peasants, and the Government had to intervene to settle their disputes.

But the conflicts became more acute. Those who were dispossessed by the Committees of the Poor Peasants organized resistance, which assumed the features of a civil war. The Government, however, could not abandon the Committees of the Poor Peasants, since it had formed them and granted them almost omnipotent powers, and was faced with a conflict that endangered its own security and very existence.

Then, our informant continued, came the decree issued in 1919 dissolving the Committees of the Poor Peasants. This decree constituted one of Lenin’s most important victories in the Communist Party.

The opposition to this decree was extremely powerful; but Lenin succeeded in making his opponents see the dangers to which Russia was exposed by the risk of a veritable civil war, one that was a thousand times more dangerous than the coup attempts of Yudenitch, Deniken and the other lackeys of the world bourgeoisie.

It took all of his authority as leader to overcome the opposition.

From that moment on, the functions performed by the Committees of the Poor Peasants were transferred to the local Soviets, thus averting one of the greatest threats ever encountered by the Soviet Government.

“And the small landowners, those who already owned a few hectares of land under the Czarist regime that allowed them and their families to live decently without exploiting the labor of others; how have they been treated by the revolution? What measures were taken by the Government to dispossess them of their land?”

“None. They have continued as before. Only, once the harvest has been brought in, and the part that corresponds to their ration according to the official statistics has been set aside, they must deliver the rest to the employees of the Commissariat of Provisions. With regard to how they cultivate their land, nothing has changed; in all other respects they are subject to the regulations dictated by the Government.”

“Yes,” we responded, “something like that happens to the owners of a small house. They are still the owners of the house, but they cannot do what they want with it. It is a circumscribed right of ownership; more imaginary than real; something quite different from the way the right to property is understood by the world bourgeoisie and the legal codes of all the nations.”

“It has to be that way,” our informant responded.

“Is it true,” we asked, “that in very many cases, the peasants abandon the land that they were given by the distribution of lands and join groups of other peasants that move to another location to work fallow lands regardless of any official approval?”

“Yes,” our informant responded, “many such cases can be cited, especially in Central Russia and the Ukraine.”

“In these regions, the peasants follow their natural impulses and pool their labors and move from one place to another to cultivate lands that have been abandoned. But the Government has always opposed these procedures.”

“And why do you think the peasants obey this impulse?”

“To avoid the official taxes and confiscations of the Government. Since we cannot pay for their products in kind, whether with machinery, clothing or other household articles, they do not want to give up their surplus. They consider the Russian ruble to be without value. Until quite recently the Czarist ruble had more value among the peasants than the Soviet ruble. Now that is changing. The stability of the Government is contributing to this transformation.”

“Is there any fear that there may be a possible return to the regime of private property in the land?”

“That is impossible as long as the communists are in power. The land has been declared to be national patrimony, and no one may sell it, inherit it or alienate it in any way; anyone who ceases to cultivate the land, or dies, loses all rights to its usufruct; because the right to dispose of the parcel under these conditions reverts to the State, the individual cannot acquire any property rights at all. Therefore, private ownership of the land cannot return.”

“We agree with what you have told us. But then,” we continued, “the small landowner, who still occupies the parcel of land he owned under the old regime without having been affected by any official regulations except for the requisition of his surplus products after harvest; can he or can he not sell, transfer, devise by will or alienate land that he owns under all the power of the law?”

“We cannot say anything about such an individual case, since nothing has been legislated in that regard. Although it may be assumed that his property rights are precarious, since all the Russian territory has been proclaimed to be State property.”

“It would seem,” we objected, “that this would be the spirit and the letter of the law. But we know that there is currently a great deal of speculation in land and in these properties in particular; that private contracts are being entered into between the actual possessors and the new distributees; that a significant traffic in these properties is being carried on, which it would appear do not conform with the letter of the law as we understand it.”

“It is possible that this kind of private trade exists, a new aspect of speculation; but this has no affect on Soviet policy, and cannot be the cause of a return to the past.”

“However,” we objected, “the confidence and boldness with which these people are carrying on their work gives no reason for being optimistic about the future.”

“Could you provide us,” we asked, “with some statistical data regarding the communist organizations, Communes or farms, which the Soviet State or individuals cultivate and under what conditions they maintain relations with one another, and if the amount of land under cultivation has increased or diminished?”

“With pleasure. The figures that we shall provide with reference to the Farms and Communes are official data. Besides these institutions there are many other organizations, but we can only provide statistics on those that are officially recognized by the Government. Statistics regarding the lands distributed to individuals cannot be provided, because we have been unable to obtain them.”

“Not even approximately?”

“No; we are only given vague estimates about them.”

“In that case, what we want to know is whether the amount of land under cultivation is increasing or diminishing and why.”

“The amount of land under cultivation has decreased since the revolution by almost forty percent, according to the data we have in this Department. The reasons for this decrease are quite complex and varied; they respond to different phenomena.”

“There are, for example, regions where the peasants cannot cultivate the land because they do not have the tools to do so. There is a shortage of seeds, which are consumed due to a general shortage of food; rather than starve the peasants eat the seed corn. There is also a shortage of animals for traction. The horse, without which the Russian peasant would be unable to cultivate the land, has experienced a significant decline. In some regions there are almost no horses at all.”

“We do not need to point out that, with regard to machinery and other manufactured appurtenances for farming, including fertilizer, an absolute scarcity prevails.”

“Before the war, Russia imported such farm inputs from Europe; the blockade has completely cut us off from these supplies and from the necessary replacement parts and additional imports that would provide for expansion.”

“Another cause, and perhaps the most serious one, is the passive resistance of the peasants in their refusal to cultivate the land. They work, but only enough for their own subsistence.”

“The peasants are hostile to compulsory requisition, and do everything they can to prevent it. It is far from an isolated case—indeed it is quite frequent—for peasants to construct underground granaries in the forest, in secret places separated from their homesteads and barns in order to conceal their grain from the requisition. Since they cultivate just enough food to feed their families, if they did not adopt such precautions they would starve; because by taking its share, the Government would make it impossible for them to survive from one harvest to the next.”

“Why is it that, despite the fact that the Soviet Government ratified the land seizures carried out by the peasants during the course of the revolution, the peasants now refuse to help the Soviet Government?”

“Because of egoism and speculation. The peasant wants to enjoy the freedom to sell his products to whomever he wants and when he wants. To exchange them or offer them for sale at the price he sets. What he does not want, what he rejects and detests with all his might is government interference in his affairs. This is a manifestation of the petit bourgeois state of mind.”

“Is it not instead the desire to live in full freedom, to arrange matters according to one’s own opinions, to organize production and consumption on the basis of free communism rather than the state communism like the one that is being imposed on him?”

“No; what he wants is to make money. To get the most advantage possible out of his labor. To obtain the maximum profit from what he produces, and nothing else. You forget that the Russian peasant is illiterate and very ignorant. His life consists almost entirely of instinctive, rudimentary and animal feelings, without hardly a trace of idealism.”

“Immersed in the barbarism of slavery and tyranny for many centuries; having witnessed how his exploiters expended on untrammeled luxury and scandalous orgies the means that he considered indispensable for living; degraded, mocked and scorned, the fear of starvation and the misery of the past has awakened in him the emotion of greed.”

“Anxious to have more and more; the more the better to be in a situation to ride out the times of scarcity.”

“He is a communist; but he is so by instinct, but not by any higher reasoning. He knows, by experience, that labor in common yields more than individual labor, and hence his communism. Now, when he has obtained the freedom to work on his own account, he also wants to enjoy the freedom to dispose of what he produces in order to derive the most benefit from it.”

“It is true that all of this is very complex.”

We were told that there were at that time fifteen thousand Communes and Artels scattered throughout the provinces of central Russia.

There were 17 Communes and 123 Artels in Nizhny Novgorod. In Astrakhan there were 19 Communes, 591 Artels, and 15 affinity groups.

In Saratov, there were 66 Communes and 226 Artels.

In the Smolensk district there were 200 affinity groups, 98 Artels and 33 Communes.

The quantity of arable land assigned to each Commune or Artel, as well as to the affinity groups, varied considerably.

The Government appropriates all of the products of the Communes and Artels. The rationing and distribution of each individual member’s share is conducted by special government institutions created specifically for this purpose.

It was surprising to note that, in view of the centralist and uniform standards that prevail throughout the entire Bolshevik apparatus, not all of the Communes and Artels were subject to the Department of Agriculture. 2,800 of them were subject to the Department of Agriculture, while the rest were subject to the Council of National Economy.

In order to coordinate the daily activities and overall development of the Communes and Artels, there are, besides the Department of Agriculture in Moscow and the appropriate Section of the Council of National Economy, also Commissions in each province that inspect and exercise surveillance over the conduct of these farm enterprises.

The distribution of fertilizers, as well as that of agricultural machinery, is carried out in accordance with a strictly delimited set of priorities.

Requests for fertilizers first have to be submitted to the provincial Agricultural Committee, which then puts them in order of priority. Then, when the distribution is ready to begin, they are classified; first of all the State Farms, then the Communes, then the Artels, and finally the affinity groups.

Another typical case, which is illustrative of the slight enthusiasm with which the peasants receive the Bolshevik decrees that affect them, is the continuous state of dereliction of the official institutions—Communes, State Farms and Artels—and the emigration of their workers to work independently.

The individual who gave us the information we have been relating, also confirmed what we were told by the people we had spoken to privately: that groups of peasants were abandoning the official institutions, or the lands that they had obtained in the initial distributions, and were jointly cultivating waste lands or lands that no one owned or claimed. This was the real communism rising above all official obstacles.

It is from these groups that the affinity groups are formed which, in some provinces, such as the District of Smolensk, numbered as many as two hundred according to official statistics.

And you must also consider that Siberia and the Ukraine, the two regions of Russia that are most favorable to the affinity group as a system of organization, are not covered by the official statistics.

The case of the Chuvash Republic is quite typical in this regard, and fully confirms what we have said.

The decrees of the ruling party, rather than improving or stimulating the development of the communist institutions and spirit of the Russian peasant, have become a hindrance, an impediment and an obstacle that stands in the way of his full development and evolution.

The Russian peasant did not yearn for a barracks or monastic communism, such as the Bolsheviks were imposing from their position in the Government; he yearned for a free, autonomous and independent communism, one that grew from his own will and his fecund and creative efforts. And because he was denied this right, struggle ensued, a struggle that has cost thousands of lives and rivers of blood.

Communist soldiers and delegates responsible for carrying out the requisitions were killed and barbarously mutilated, villages burned to the ground and children, women and the elderly hunted down like wild animals and used for target practice by death-dealing machine gunners: this is the balance sheet of Bolshevik policy.

When the Russian peasant was compelled to work under onerous conditions, and saw that all his traditional institutions, such as the Artels and the Mirs, were transformed according to the caprice and the whim of a Government that took them over and appropriated by force all the products that he harvested, he rebelled and pursued his protest and his resistance as far as acts of violence.

The Bolsheviks are very fond of statistics and graphs; they have a real weakness for this kind of explanation; however, we may be very much mistaken, but we believe that they will never produce the statistics for all the murders committed, for all the villages laid waste and burned and all the victims who were sacrificed to this erroneous policy. Only time will tell.