A Grim Issue – Krasnaya Niva
This magazine is first-hand evidence of the increasing pressure applied by the USSR government to the peasantry in 1928.
The cover of this edition of the popular newsmagazine, ‘Krasnaya Niva’, could not have been better chosen on purpose. It is one of Cézanne’s studies of peasants. We see a tired, hollow-eyed man sucking on an empty pipe. His left fist is clenched, signifying nervousness. He has a attitude of exhausted defiance.
That was exactly the position of the Soviet peasantry in winter 1928. Some had been bullied and cajoled into selling their 1927 harvest to the government. The majority naturally preferred the higher prices and more flexible conditions offered by the ‘traders’, or ‘middle men’ as they were known. Difficult growing conditions encouraged farmers to preserve as much as they could for next year’s seed. The peasants were living on near starvation rations, but continued to do everything they could to defy the increasingly demanding, still unfamiliar and generally unwanted Moscow government. As a result, a serious imbalance in the amount of grain actually harvested and that reaching the urban centres (particularly Moscow) in the form of edible bread ensued.
1928 was the year when Stalin began to increase the pressure on the handles that would eventually squeeze the blood out of his empire. Miss-management, unclear trading laws, poor harvests and serious under-government in the provinces had meant repeated shortages of basic foodstuffs in the city during the previous years. The centre started to demand that the peasants sell their grain to the state or face punishment.
The frontispiece of this Krasnaya Niva is direct in its message – a large locomotive is there – the locomotive of central Government. A peasant is unloading a sleigh packed with sacks of flour. Another man writes on the side of the wagon in chalk: ‘URGENT GRAIN FOR MOSCOW’
After 1928, collectivisation, de-kulakisation, deportation, industrialisation, famine, epidemic and terror descended on the USSR. It feels as though it should have happened in the Old Testament, when there were plagues of frogs and locusts and people lived until they were 969. Sadly the history of the USSR is not a fanciful digest of existence thousands of years ago. It really happened, during the lifetimes of real people, some still alive as I write this in 2014.
Later in this issue the reader encounters a seemingly humorous cartoon (right). A peasant is driving a sleigh laden with sacks of wheat or flower, towards the distant city. On the other side of the road is a truck, containing ‘manufactured goods’. The two drivers are waving to each other. Superficially it is trying to make the point that the peasants are being rewarded for their grain by deliveries of industrial and consumer goods from the factories in the cities. However, when one looks in detail at the cartoon and reads the caption, the full meaning is revealed.
The cartoon shows small people being crushed and killed under the runners of the sleigh (and the tyres of the truck). In the detail we show here, they are labelled: (Left to right) ‘Speculator, Kulak (rich peasant) and ‘Middle-man’. The caption of the cartoon describes these individuals as ‘filth’. This signifies that those who interfere with the supply of grain to the city or industrial goods to the countryside will be severely dealt with.
Among the many problems and hardships faced by the peasants was an insurmountable obstacle: the unfairness of the Soviet pricing policy, which reflected capitalist concepts of supply and demand, factors communism was supposed to iron out.
The USSR was a predominantly agrarian economy. Over 85% of the population worked on the land. A growing yet still tiny proportion worked in the cities and formed the ‘urban proletariat’ about which Marx, Lenin and their followers regularly became excited. The produce of the supposedly abundant countryside was priced by the state – at very low levels. Conversely, the scarce products of the factories – metal tools, machinery, vehicles, also controlled by the state, were considerably over-priced. This meant that the tools required by the peasants to raise productivity and thus be able to meet the volumes demanded and sell at the low prices dictated by the government were unobtainable due to the pricing policy of that government. Many peasants considered that Moscow was hostile to non-city dwellers. They were right. The old Empire of Muscovy, under a new title, (USSR) continued to treat its own population in the same way the British Empire treated the African slaves in its overseas plantations a hundred years before – i.e. ‘work them to death – no rights’.
However, Moscow turned out to be amateurish at managing its ‘internal’ colonies, even though they could be reached without getting one’s feet wet. The Centre ruled by decrees, the formulations of which were often based on deep (or complete) ignorance of the issues. The regular, irrelevant and self-defeating orders were not enforced by explanation or encouragement. The only tool of ‘Government’ out in the provinces in the late 1920s and early 1930s was direct threat to the homes, livelihoods, animals, families and lives of the peasantry.
It is a wonderful and life-affirming fact that the whilst every megalomaniac eventually perishes, the welcoming, tolerant, laid-back Russian peasant is still there, today, out in the fields, sticking up his finger at the Kremlin.
Young Pioneers must help their mothers (by not electrocuting them)
In complete contrast to the bleak news above, and perhaps illustrating the complete dislocation between the elite in Moscow and the daily lives of normal people, there is an article about an exhibition encouraging children (young pioneers) to find ingenious ways of assisting their mothers with the housework and daily routines. It is a bizarre collection of suggestions and examples of how women can be ‘finally completely freed from the tyranny of the kitchen’.
Some of the items in the exhibition have been made by young pioneers in the workshop of their club. They are terrifying.
There is an oven made from a tin can with electric elements, and even more frightening, a water-boiler that appears to be a piece of metal with mains electricity running through it.
The exhibition also showed other labour-saving devices such as: A knife cleaner, a horseradish grater, lemon squeezer and potato peeler. The article says ‘these ‘weapons’ are not only mechanised but also electrified’. It continues:
‘For an individual’s home these things are expensive luxuries, but they are not designed to be used by only one family. All the appliances are driven by an electric motor, (power – 180W, price- 90 Roubles, energy consumption: 3.5K.) and designed for kitchens serving hundreds of people, guaranteeing speed and cleanliness of food production.
Such a kitchen would be used in a communal block or communal hostel – where, for example, one finds use for a new thing – the electric washing machine, unfortunately absent from the exhibition but very much characteristic of the tendency.
In this machine an electrical current brings water to the boil, and then rotates a drum, mechanically washing and rinsing the washing. After some time the dirty water is replaced by cold fresh water, some alkaline or washing powder is poured in, and so on, as many times as needed.’