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Change and Continuity in Russian History

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Submitted By marx1
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Introduction
In the past hundred years Russian history has been littered with Revolutions, from the 1905 Revolution to the fall of Communism in 1991. Throughout this time Tsars, Communists and Democrats have exercised different systems of government in order to stay in power or gain power by offering huge economic reforms in order to appease the masses or to keep most important sectors of society prosperous and content. Although historians would argue that in many of these cases change occurred for political reasons, it is equally as easy to argue, if not more so, that at the heart of every issue that caused or had the potential to cause revolution were underlying economic motives, either for the common man or the ruling elite.
This on-going theme of economic concessions can be seen at various points throughout the past hundred years and proved a key factor to the longevity of the regimes in charge. The first such example of this post-1900 occurred after the 1905 Revolution. Despite The October Manifesto in 1905 which granted political freedoms, little of which benefitted the peasantry, It was Stolypin’s reforms as Prime Minister for Nicholas II that achieved most after the 1905 revolution, quelling the peasant threat that had emerged prior to the revolution and afterwards, much more so than the introduction of the Dumas - representative assemblies granted in the October Manifesto. Similarly Lenin’s New Economic Plan dealt with the ever increasing militant peasantry created during the civil war. These huge reforms to a more capitalist economy were at the cost of political objectives, but were vital in sustaining the Bolsheviks newly found power. As Lenin himself said the policy was:
“Two steps forward and one step back”, referring to the advance of Communist ideals being side-lined by the need to stay in power, an objective achieved by economic rather than political reforms. During Stalin’s reign the key importance of economic concessions remained but the area of society that needed to be pacified differed. Stalin required both to keep with Marxist theory and sustain the party power base he had created on his rise to power, building a strong proletariat within the party at the expense of the peasantry who had benefited so much from the NEP. It was his policies of Collectivisation and rapid industrial growth in the form of the Five Year Plans that would offer the best economic future for the working class at the expense of the peasant’s support, thus the party became the best system of social mobility for the average worker.
The prosperity that the regime could offer through this upward mobility, undoubtedly reinforced by Stalin’s ruthless police state, meant the party was able to grow and stay in control.
Equally just as delivering such prosperity to the masses had prolonged the rule of The Tsars and Communist Party alike, the failure to grant such reforms had proved disastrous for those in power. This point was illustrated by the expulsion of the Provisional Government in November 1917. It was due to its inability to implement the changes it had promised, principally land re-distribution and Soviet power that it ultimately failed. It is a fair assumption that had the government been able to deliver on these economic promises there may have not been the support for its overthrow. Equally it was the Bolshevik Party and Lenin’s ability to offer these promises that proved the turning point in their fortunes.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th Century the Tsars struggled with the “peasant problem”. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had simply made things worse for the peasantry; redemption payments and population growth by the start of the 20th Century caused waves of unrest to emerge starting in 1902. A variety of protests, ranging from illegal pasturing, timber cutting, labour and rent strikes occurred and calls for boycotts of tax, conscription and redemption payments continued throughout this time. It is clear by these actions that the peasantry demanded economic reforms and were less concerned with the issues pressed by newly founded political groups hoping to liberalise Russia. This can be seen from a Newspaper report of the rural disturbances at the time of attacks to all parties land, even those pushing for land reforms: “The farms of… well-known zemstvo liberals.. have suffered along with the rest.”
This is perhaps evidence of the peasantry’s passive attitude to the political calls for reforms and their more urgent requirement for economic change. Arguably that this is why the peasantry joined protests and therefore explains why only such reforms to their land could quell the threat they now posed to the Tsar and his government. Due to the need to pacify the peasantry, the process of devolution began in 1906. This was necessary as the peasants who had joined the 1905 Revolution and the events of Bloody Sunday had done so fearing government seizures of mortgage holders land. The man given the job of strengthening the much weakened position of the Tsar was Peter Stolypin, appointed president of the Council of Ministers, he understood that once again Russia’s most pressing issue was how to feed herself. As Michael Lynch states: “The peasants were the essential problem. Their grievances and sense of insecurity both inhibited them from being efficient food-producers and made them a dangerous social force – as illustrated by their involvement in the 1905 revolution”
Stolypin decided to take a “wager on the strong”. From 1906 measures were brought into place which reduced the authority of the village mir, and peasants were encouraged to abandon the strip system for a more modern consolidated way of farming. The most noted of these policies was the ‘Land Bank’ he established. This Bank aimed to allocate funds to assist the average peasant into owning his own land. His “wager” was that these reforms would create a prosperous peasantry that would both become more efficient and would form a natural support group for the power that provided this new found wealth. This policy proved successful at first with the number of independent households increasing tenfold from 1907 to 1909. However the plan required time to work, unfortunately for Stolypin the time was not available for him. His untimely assassination in 1909 halted any co-operation between the newly created Dumas and the Tsar and the subsequent war that was to follow took its toll on the project. Ultimately the deeply conservative peasantry were unwilling to embrace such changes and by 1914 only 10% had moved into independent farm holdings. However, these attempted reforms though their achievements did not match their aims, did delay any revolutionary movements prior to and following the events of 1905 by granting economic reforms to those who posed the biggest immediate threat.
However Russian history is not a story of a succession of ruling elites spanning the centuries, five revolutions in the space of the past century alone emphasize this. Evidence that it was economic rather than political reasons that drove reform can be seen just as much in the failures of a regime as they can be in the success and the promises made in order to gain power. A prime example of this would be the failure of the Provisional Government and the subsequent rise to power of the Bolshevik Party in October 1917. The Provisional Government, lacking a real mandate and any absolute power and control, was seen as representing virtually nobody and was often vilified by the left as a “bourgeois government”. Though it’s first few months brought about great changes, introducing the 8 hour day, freedom of the press and freedom of speech, the key changes that people wanted an end to the war, elections, land distribution and freedom were not granted. The fact an end to the war was never promised proved crucial as these key changes could only take place once the war had ended. It also insisted on waiting for a Constituent Assembly to be in place before it was willing to make any reforms to the peasantry. As Graham Darby noted: “There is much truth in Lenin’s oft-quoted parody of Provisional Government Policy: ‘Wait until the Constituent Assembly for land. Wait until the end of the war for the Constituent Assembly. Wait until victory for the end of the war’.
This effectively meant The Provisional Government could not provide the economic relief that the population needed during the war years, efforts to deal with the two main issues of food shortages and inflation simply failed. But so often is the case in history, one man’s loss is another man’s gain. In this case it was to be the gain of Lenin and the Bolshevik party. From his arrival in April 1917 Lenin set out his fundamental position that would secure support of the people and providing the Bolshevik party with a distinctive party line. This made the party unique compared to the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks in league with the Provisional Government, seemingly supporting all government programmes. It was to be “Peace, Bread and Land”, meaning ending the war, providing much needed food to the cities and giving the land back to the peasantry would become the simple Bolshevik slogan that would also define their manifesto. As Darby notes : “They [the Bolsheviks] did not create the peoples programme they merely articulated it”. Lenin’s key policy was ending the war, the Provisional Government refused to end the war perhaps to avoid such radical reforms due to its vested interests in the status quo or because of the potential humiliation Russia faced by pulling out of the war. Ending the war could finally enable such radical reforms to take place and the improvement economically that the population so badly desired. The Bolsheviks’ subsequent massive increase of support and thereafter eventual takeover of power has its roots in these promises of economic promises in light of the Provisional Governments failure.

Similarly in 1921 Lenin faced the task of cementing his new found power in a country torn apart by civil war, and most importantly finding a solution to Russia’s urgent requirement for food. War Communism had provided food for the army during the Civil War but in doing so had alienated the peasantry who, as a result, had lost control of their lands. As Peter Gatrell argues: “An unpalatable mixture of economic, social and diplomatic conditions forced the Bolshevik leadership to change direction in 1921”. Lenin decided to change his tack from coercion to persuasion. His speech at the 10th Party Congress in 1921 highlighted this: “We must try to satisfy the demands of the peasants who are dissatisfied, discounted, and cannot be otherwise. In essence the small farmer can be satisfied with two things. First of all, there must be a certain amount of freedom for the small private proprietor; and, secondly, commodities and products must be provided”
The Tax In Kind would not only give the peasants incentive to increase production, but it also gave them the freedom to sell what they produced on the market for profit, something that would not have been allowed under War Communism. The New Economic Policy, although not entirely popular with the party, received backing on the grounds it was only a temporary measure, a measure to have capitalism in place until the economy was strong enough to achieve socialism. The NEP essentially paved the way for an alliance between the peasantry and the working class, with the industrialisation process taking second place to the prosperity and hence support of the peasantry. During Lenin’s life time the NEP brought a wave of prosperity for the peasantry and for the country as a whole; by 1923 cereal production was up 23% and factory output had increased by 200% (though it must be noted the increase was from a low base). The Policy hugely benefited the entrepreneurial peasant, the majority of whom were small scale traders, selling in remote villages, fulfilling a role that the state could not meet. In 1925 one in four villages lacked any kind of store, so the Nepmen as they came to be known, provided not only for themselves but for the village communities, though inevitably they would later be demonised by Stalin’s regime as Kulaks and class enemies. During the early 1920’s especially, the Nepmen were a prime example of the NEP working for the peasantry. Evidence the reforms were successful can be seen clearly in the comparison between events prior to the NEP and during .Between the start of the NEP and it’s end towards 1928 there was not a single peasant uprising, despite both a terrible harvest in 1921-22 and the scissors crisis of 1923 where the widening gap between industrial and agricultural prices were likened to scissor blades opening by Trotsky. This in comparison to the countless peasant revolts against the Bolshevik rule after October 1917 and through the War Communism years. This highlights the success of the NEP in dealing with peasantry dissatisfaction with the party.
Also, important as it is to note the economic benefits the peasantry received because of the policy i.e. the re-opening of small businesses, removing the ban on private trade and an end to grain requisitioning, It is equally as important to note the lack of political benefits offered. This was a deliberate ploy by the party as Bukharin puts it: “We are making economic concessions to avoid political concessions”, a strategy that has repeated extensively by Russian policy makers. However successful the NEP was as a whole for the Country, the policy certainly steered the Russian economy into calmer waters, and have calmed potential opposition also.

However by 1928 it was clear the NEP could last no longer, the food shortages that had forced Lenin’s hand had started to reappear as peasants held onto their produce to increase the grains worth; the “workers party” was failing to deliver jobs and prosperity for the workers it supposedly represented. Stalin, like his predecessors, needed to quash any potential opposition not only to satisfy the Bolsheviks increasing insistence on its proletarian identity (as shown by the party’s huge recruitment drive in the early 1920’s) but also to satisfy Marxist Theoreticians who believed socialism could only be created in a highly industrialised state, where the majority of the population are workers. Once again it would be the economic needs of the potential threat that would be met with reforms and not any political needs, for Stalin this meant putting the worker’s interests first ahead of the peasant. Collectivisation was necessary so that the more important industrialisation drive could take place and for Russia to once take its place on the worlds stage. Unreliable grain procurements jeopardized plans for large-scale grain export to balance the import of foreign machinery and it was hoped that this mechanised agriculture would require fewer peasants to work the land, thus releasing labour to the new industries. The only feasible alternative to collectivisation - paying higher grain prices in order to secure the harvest - would reduce funds available for the industrial drive and perhaps make the targets set by the first 5 Year Plan almost impossible. Also the benefactors of higher grain prices would in fact be the regimes class enemies the kulaks rather than the peasantry as a whole. Therefore it was hoped that collectivisation would make farming more effective, destroy the kulaks and increase the parties hold on the countryside. The peasant certainly did not gain from the reforms but they were not intended to, it was to be the worker that benefitted the most. The urban worker had struggled during the NEP: high unemployment persisted, it took until 1928 for wages to return to pre-war levels, living conditions were poor and crime rates were increasing. Due to these reasons it was important to the party to unite the working class by offering social mobility through the party system and the idea of class warfare, utilizing the growing discontent with the peasantry’s ability to produce a reliable harvest and the idea of the Kulaks taking advantage of the previous system. Stalin solved both these issues using a combination of opportunities for the workers and repression of the peasantry. Stalin himself said that in collectivising agriculture, he was: “Making the two unequal legs of socialism even”. The party became the only way in which social mobility became possible for the proletariat. As Fitzpatrick states: “The regimes commitment to the working class had much less to do with workers in situ than with working class upward mobility”
The party would pull workers from the factories and “fast track” them to high status, responsible jobs, many others were promoted to white collar jobs never having to work in the factories again. It was the case in fact, that so many were promoted during the 1920’s that the party had to create a new category of workers named: “workers by social position” in order to justify the new elite they had effectively created. As well as higher level administration jobs, Stalin’s first Five Year Plan created vast amounts of construction and production jobs for the masses as huge projects such as the Magnitogorska Steel Works and various others across the country gave thousands the opportunity of work, solving the unemployment problem that had been growing during the 1920’s. Workers who stayed in their jobs and kept discipline could do well during the plans. Training courses meant they could improve their qualifications position, pay and prospects. Those who exceeded their targets were rewarded with higher pay, better working conditions and better living conditions. This became an effective means of motivating the masses by making the prospect of personal prosperity possible by working hard for the state. The prime example of this would be the Stakhanov movement starting in 1935. Stakhanov became a celebrity over night by producing twice the amount eight miners could produce in a single shift, the state made an example of his record breaking productivity and covered his exploits extensively in the press he was dubbed the ‘Soviet Hercules’. This inspired a surge of competitiveness within workers with records being broken regularly. Party membership became less about political ideals and more about personal development, Trotsky described these new members as “Radishes” – White on the inside but Red on the outside, perhaps the most apt description of how the average worker viewed the party. Once again the party was able to exploit economic need and maintain political control by making key sections of the population successful and prosperous in order to secure its position in power.
In conclusion, whether it is the autocratic rule of the Tsars or the supposedly Communist rule of Bolshevik party and Stalin, it has always been the imperative of Russian rulers to bolster their power base with insurance of a strong economy. The economic policies created have either supported one section (i.e Stalin’s Five Year Plan) or suppressed another (i.e Collectivisation) but have always been a test of longevity. The economy is often the deciding factor in any system of government and has proven to be the catalyst of unrest throughout Russia’s history.

Bibliography

The Russian Revolution 1917-1932 – Shelia Fitzpatrick
Lenin’s New Economic Policy – Peter Gatrell
Reactions and Revolutions Russia 1881-1924 – Michael Lynch
Communist Russia Under Lenin and Stalin – Chris Corin and Terry Fiehn
Russia 1855-1991 From Tsars to Commissars – Peter Oxley Russia and its Rulers 1855-1964 – Andy Holland

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