On freeing the serfs ... again. Gorbachev wills, but will today's workers follow?
In Moscow this past week a great revolution was trying to be born - the third great revolution in the collective history of the Russian peoples (if it succeeds). The first was the freeing of the serfs - in 1861.Skip to next paragraph
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The second was the reimposition of a new form of serfdom upon both industrial and agricultural workers by Stalin's collectivization programs. Those programs were launched in 1928 after Lenin had died, and Stalin had gained absolute control of the Communist Party. They were consolidated in a series of ``purge trials'' which lasted from 1929 to the beginning of World War II.
This week, in Moscow, at a conference of the party, Mikhail Gorbachev was trying to tear down the fabric Stalin had imposed on the Soviet peoples. If he succeeds it would amount to the second emancipation of the serfs and another new beginning for the peoples ruled from Moscow.
Serfdom in Czarist Russia dated from about the time Christopher Columbus was discovering the Americas. It grew up gradually from about 1450 to 1550 out of a need to develop agriculture. The land area was vast. Population was limited. The system was designed to settle a maximum number of workers on the land, and keep them there. Serfdom in Russia evolved into a system of life which had pluses as well as minuses for the peasant. He had job security, housing, and a primitive form of social security in return for being tied to the land.
It is to be noted that when Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom, the emancipated peasants were not all happy about the change. They gained freedom of movement, but lost job security and all that went with such security. The revolutionary movement that finally overthrew the Czarist autocracy in 1917 dates from the emancipation of the serfs, not from that act.
Mikhail Gorbachev faces precisely the same problem Czar Nicholas II faced in 1861. He can achieve his reforms only if he can break the political power of the party apparatus which has since Stalin's day controlled the lives of every worker and peasant throughout the Soviet Union and provided party workers a good livelihood from detailed control over the output of every factory and every field.
The peasantry was bitterly disappointed by the results of the emancipation of 1861. Many felt they had lost more than they had gained. Today many a Soviet worker and peasant is worried about losing job security and the certainty of the paycheck regardless of whether truly earned.
There is no way of knowing whether this revolution will succeed better than did the emancipation of 1861.
But it is an attempt at true revolution. It is being pushed by the most energetic and reform-minded leader Moscow has had since Lenin. Lenin was a reformer; Stalin was not. Stalin recreated a tyranny, one of the worst in modern history. Khrushchev was a mild reformer, but didn't oppose the collective system Stalin had built. He merely tried to make the Stalin system more humane and law-abiding.
Gorbachev is a true reformer in that he wants not just to undo Stalin's collectivism and its domination over the daily lives of the individuals. He even wants to break the power of the party at the top and substitute for this Stalinist autocracy a system based on democratic elections from the bottom up.
But, like most previous great revolutionary or reformist changes in Russia, this one is being imposed from the top, not welling up from below. There is no evidence that the mass of Soviet people has been wishing for change. There has been discontent with constant shortages of food and consumer goods, but not to the point of agitating for great changes in the system.
The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 was generated by Western intellectuals around the Czar, but not from among the serfs themselves. Stalin's collectivization was imposed from the top, by brutal force. It was not a response to widespread public demand.
The only genuine revolutionary movement arising among the Russian masses was in 1917. War weariness, fearsome war casualties and privations generated a bona fide demand for change. The incompetence of the Czarist regime triggered a mass revolution. But it was eventually captured by Stalin.
This new Russian revolution was generated among intellectuals. Now we are going to find out whether the mass of people want it, and will accept it.