POLICY, RESISTANCE AND REBELLION UNDER SOVIET POLICY

Despite the soviet government’s attempt to portray society as cohesive and progressive in the 1920s and 1930s, their claims could not be further from the truth.  In two informative and influential works, authors Lynne Viola and Wendy Goldman shine a light on the often-ignored side of soviet history, highlighting the fractures between the party and the citizens it claimed to represent.  More than that, however, both Goldman and Viola show how effective these forms of resistance could be in altering official state policy and in changing the way that ordinary citizens interacted with their government.  Whether the focus was on soviet family policy and the ‘withering away’ of both the law and the familial unit as explored by Goldman or the resistance against collectivism described by Viola, both of these works paint an alternative picture to the official party line presented to the country and the rest of the world.  Additionally, both of these books preset a masterful case for revisionist soviet history, showing definitively that although everyday people were often victimized by Stalin’s regime, they were neither powerless nor voiceless, demonstrating time and time again that both active and passive forms of resistance could affect real, lasting change in official state policy.

Women, The State and Revolution by Wendy Goldman focuses primarily on family and social law, beginning with the 1918 Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship and continues on to discuss the unforeseen consequences the code created and its impact upon the people it strived to govern.  The code was rewritten in 1926 amidst massive debate and controversy over the role of the family, the inequality facing women in the workforce, divorce and homeless children.  Goldman chronicles those debates and highlights the problems facing the many women and children throughout the country.  Finally, in 1936, the soviet government shifted their position in an abrupt about-face and made efforts to stabilize rather than dismantle the family – a reversal of the original code of 1918.[1]

The 1918 code in theory was both progressive and revolutionary and it focused on gender equality and claims of liberation.[2]  The state saw the family unit as eventually obsolete, removing both women and men from the restrictions of traditional marriage and allowing both partners to participate equally in the workforce and in politics.[3]  Along with the concept of making the importance of the family irrelevant, the state saw the law as temporary and that the appearance of a true proletarian revolution would make the necessity of law superfluous.[4]  The increase of socialism would move the majority of the housework typically reserved for wives and shift it to the public sphere, allowing for an advance in female education and employment – a liberation of soviet women from the chains which had traditionally bound them to the home and out of public and political life.  The socialist ideal, therefore, was a nation of individuals who were equal in choosing their own partnerships in which the government would not interfere.[5]  The state was about to discover, however, that ideologies did not necessarily comport with reality and the best laid plans did not always work out the way that they were supposed to.

As women increasingly left the home to pursue employment, several problems inadvertently presented themselves.  The first issue facing the state was that of Besprizornost – orphaned, abandoned or runaway children that flocked to the cities in search of food and shelter.[6]  Children’s advocates originally advanced the idea of socialized child-rearing, claiming that these children belonged to the state and were the state’s responsibility.  This adopted the language of liberation, freeing them from the confines of the family and allowing them the opportunity to realize their potential.[7]  In 1926, the soviet government retreated from the ideology of socialized child-rearing, removing the sanction on adoption.[8]  Although a socialized system of raising children was attractive, it was simply infeasible under the country’s current economic conditions.[9]

The other large problem that became quickly apparent after the family code of 1918 went into effect was two-fold.  First, the concept of free love was designed to create a society of equality, but the ease of divorce caused economic catastrophe for single mothers across the country.[10]  Secondly, the economic conditions created by the NEP made it incredibly difficult for women to obtain employment, and wages and opportunities were anything but equal for women in the workforce.[11]  Women became increasingly dependent upon men as a result in order to survive in an economy that favored men, providing few support services to the increasing number of single women.[12]  These disadvantages forced many women, like female Besprizornost, to turn to prostitution in order to feed their dependents and themselves.[13]

The revisionist scholarship Goldman employs in her work is often over-shadowed by its seemingly totalitarian policies.  Yet Goldman displays a keen sense of explaining the multitude of ways that women were able to become their own advocates in the burgeoning soviet government, asserting their voices effectively and with a unity that produced lasting and impactful results.  Although the original policies passed down in the family code of 1918 and its revision in 1926 were totalitarian and nature and negatively affected the overwhelming majority of the population, these affects did not go unnoticed, and women were able to speak out in their own interests and affect change.  Ultimately this resulted in a reversal of policy after 1926 in regards to male responsibility, the importance of the family and the family’s role in raising children effectively.

Like Goldman, Lynne Viola highlights the effectiveness that ordinary people could have upon government policy and practice.  Her work, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin focuses on the problems of forced collectivization in the countryside and does an amazing job of showing just how widespread and effective peasant rebellion could be under a brutal and often violent regime.  She painstakingly describes the varied means of rebellion employed by peasants that made up the majority of the USSR’s population and the real danger these rebellions posed to soviet authority.  From passive resistance to more direct and confrontational forms, Viola describes what life was like as collectivism was forced upon an unwilling majority and details the threat that it posed not only to peasant culture but its livelihood as well.[14]

Viola describes peasant resistance as a civil war, framing her work from the very beginning as a revolution within a revolution with a culture that found itself at odds with the authority of the state.[15]  The fight took many forms, from the female led revolts of the Bab’i bunty to letter writing and the protection of villagers in danger of being labeled kulaks.  Many of these peasants eagerly took matters into their own hands, imposing self-dekulakization to reframe their own social status, or razbazarivanie – destroying or selling off their property to remove the potential kulak label before it could be applied.[16]  Due to the insistence of the state to label peasant as dark, backwards, uncultured and uneducated individuals, many of these methods had surprisingly effective results.[17]  Women, who were usually immune from prosecution as they were denied agency and thereby incapable of political protest were often the first to protest church closings, and often acted to protect their village priests and the kulaks within their midst.[18]  Unable to assign responsibility to these female results, kulaks were often blamed for their actions.[19]

The majority of peasant resistance, however, was passive in nature, knowing full well that if violence began, retaliation by the state would be overpowering.[20]  Although letter-writing was common before collectivism was widespread, the main form of resistance after the spread of collectivization was simply tikhaia sapa – on the sly.[21]  The most common form of this was simply not showing up to work, known as a lack of labor discipline.[22]  Theft of food, supplies, and labor days were also common as peasants became desperate to feed themselves and their family among an unreasonable percentage of governmental grain requisitions pushed many towards starvation.[23]

Like Goldman, Viola takes a revisionist approach to soviet history.  Although the peasants were unable to fend off collectivization on massive scale, they were able to gain rights for themselves under the socialist system that could at least provide some measure of sustenance in the form of private plots.  These plots also produced surpluses which could be sold or traded for necessary items throughout the village.  The peasants under soviet collectivization were certainly victims of the system, but they did not take their impending victimization laying down – they fought back with every tool at their disposal, from letter writing, to female led rebellion, to refusing to work and focusing their attention instead away from the collective farms and towards their own private plots.  In these ways, these ‘simple-minded’ and backwards Russian people were able to affect real, lasting change.

While easy to demonize the soviet regime for all of its problems and violent reprisals, these works combined show the effectiveness of rebellion carried out by everyday people in the course of their daily lives.  In response, soviet party policy was faced with the choice of change or death – forced to evolve to the reality of their population or to lose power over the nation almost before their power had begun.  The state’s willingness to acquiesce to pressures asserted by both women and peasants illustrated by both Viola and Goldman shows a different perspective from the totalitarian school of historiographical thought, and creates an alternative narrative to the typical top-down approach often taken when studying the Soviet Union.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Goldman, Wendy Z.  Women, The State and Revolution.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

 

Viola, Lynne.  Peasant Rebels Under Stalin.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

 

 

[1] Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 296.

[2] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 1.

[3] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 1.

[4] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 1.

[5] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 3.

[6] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 59.

[7] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 63.

[8] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 90.

[9] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 100.

[10] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 101.

[11] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 103.

[12] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 109.

[13] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 119.

[14] Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), vii.

[15] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 3.

[16] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 69.

[17] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 69.

[18] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 189.

[19] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 189.

[20] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 157.

[21] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 205.

[22] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 211.

[23] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 227.

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