Russian Peasants - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Economic activity traditionally varied widely but fell into several rather well-defined categories. In the "Black Earth" regions in the central and southern parts of the country, large-scale grain farming was practiced, with the use of horse-drawn and, later, motorized equipment and large contingents of hired labor. Under the Soviet regime, these same territories were occupied by large collective and state farms. In recent years, conversion of collective farms to state farms has been widespread in many areas. In the non-Black Earth regions, in the northern and northeastern parts of the country and along the Volga, the farms were smaller, and the emphasis was on root crops, vegetables, dairying, and relatively small amounts of grain, chiefly rye. In many places, the fertility of the soil and the length of the growing season did not permit the production of enough grain to ensure a year-round food supply, and a large proportion of the male population was employed in seasonal migrant labor—mining, lumbering, barge hauling, factory work (especially from the mid-nineteenth century on), and various migrant crafts. In addition, market-gardening operations existed near the cities; fishing in lakes and rivers and year-round lumbering and rafting of timber in the northern forests either supplemented agricultural activity or replaced it entirely.


Industrial Arts. Traditionally, Russian peasants engaged in a large number of crafts, producing both utilitarian articles (small wooden and metal tools and utensils) and objects of art (carved rock crystal, lacquer work, wood carving, embroidery, decorated metal trays, and the like). The more artistic branches were centered in specific villages and small towns, such as Palekh and Gus'-Khrustal'nyi, northeast of Moscow. The utilitarian articles were produced by peripatetic craftsmen on a part-time basis. Most of these crafts have now died out, although the artistic varieties have been organized into cooperatives under state sponsorship, with the fully accredited master artisans belonging to the national union of artists.


Trade. Historically, trade in agricultural produce, lumber, industrial raw materials, and other categories of goods was handled by merchants who were organized into "guilds," according to the amount of capital they commanded. In some parts of the country—chiefly the grain-producing areas and the Volga region—this system was well developed from the mid-nineteenth century on and handled large volumes of goods. On the other hand, many areas produced little if any surplus and supported only individual pedlars traveling on foot or with a horse and cart. Agricultural surpluses were often sold in market towns by the producers themselves. Under the Soviet regime, agricultural products were bought by state purchasing agencies from collective farms and individual farmers and distributed through the trade network. This distribution system operated inefficiently, however, and shortages of foodstuffs were frequent throughout the Soviet period, sometimes because of crop failures but sometimes independently of such events. Lack of the necessary infrastructure—roads, transport, well-sited storage and processing facilities—and anti-quated equipment are also responsible for many of the shortages in particular places. A large proportion of the foodstuffs reaching consumers comes from the private plots of collective-farm members and state-farm workers. The marketing of foodstuffs resulting from private production can be expected to increase with the full implementation of reforms that are now planned to move the country toward a market economy.

Division of Labor. In the traditional rural community, each peasant was able to carry out all of the functions necessary to maintain a fanning operation. Only a few crafts, such as the building of the traditional clay stove, were entrusted to specialists. On the other hand, there was a sharp division of labor by gender, domestic tasks within the farm enclosure being regarded as specifically female. Women were entitled to the proceeds of all such activities, which were inherited in the female line separately from the farm itself and the rights to land. Small domestic animals such as poultry and rabbits were managed by women, who generally were also in charge of the marketing of agricultural goods. This division of labor by gender appears to have persisted more or less unchanged, despite the creation of new female occupations—schoolteacher, bookkeeper, cultural worker, physician or physican's assistant, agricultural technician, and administrator—in the countryside.

Land Tenure. The system of land tenure characteristic of the Russian peasantry passed through a complex historical evolution. Traditionally, the basic iandholding unit was the peasant commune, within which land allotments were periodically redistributed in strips. Membership in the commune was vested in households, each of which was represented in the governing body of the commune by its senior male member; in most places, women had no voice in this gathering. In some villages, where there were or had once been both serfs (belonging to individual landlords) and state peasants, two communes existed side by side. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the czarist government made a conscious attempt to break up the commune and set up individual family farms. This program, known as the Stolypin land reform, after a prime minister of the period, was rescinded after the 1917 Revolution. The land code of 1922 provided for what was called "laboring tenure": each peasant household was entitled to as much land as it could work with its members and working stock. Some of the more prosperous peasants employed hired labor, at least seasonally, but this was actively discouraged and, by the end of the 1920s, entirely forbidden. From the early 1930s, the rural population was organized into collective farms—juridically independent cooperatives that owned the means of production and paid their members for labor, in cash or in kind (predominantly the latter until recently)—and state farms, in which the state conducted the entire operation, assumed all risks, and paid the workers money wages. The land itself is entirely owned by the state. Each collective-farm household was entitled to a plot of land for its own use (the size of which varied from one area to another) and could own livestock within certain limits. This system of land tenure remained basically unchanged until the reforms introduced in the late 1980s. The structure of the countryside is now in a state of flux, and its ultimate form cannot be predicted at this time, although the proposed new land code envisages permanent rental of land by household units, with inheritance of rights to the use of private plots.


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