The Police and the Peasantry
Historian explores misunderstood relationship during post-revolutionary Russia
By Jeremy Craig
The history of the former Soviet Union is marred with stories about the brutality of secret police forces against the country's peasants. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, brutality against the peasantry was particularly high.
However, for a brief period, the local secret police in the countryside stood not as persecutors for the Soviet state, but as advocates for bridging differences between the peasantry and the government.
Hugh Hudson, professor of history, has detailed this advocacy in his book, "Peasants, Political Police, and the Early Soviet State: Surveillance and Accommodation under the New Economic Policy" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
"The most interesting thing that I discovered was that the organization pushing the hardest for compromise with the peasantry and for finding a means to meet peasant demand within the needs for government was the secret police," Hudson says. "It wasn't exactly the mythology of the secret police that dominates the literature."
Reports of the local secret police during the period between the death of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin's takeover showed an effort to tell the central, urban government that the peasants were not looking to overthrow it, but had legitimate grievances that could be dealt with without the need for harsh measures, Hudson says.
"They reported that there was a basis for creating some sort of positive relationship between the country and the city — between peasant society and the communists," he says, "and that the communists could, in fact, carry out these reforms and not do anything to harm the existence of the Soviet regime."
The local secret police found that their pleas would be ignored, Hudson says. Around 1927, there were failures to requisition grain from European Russia that led to hunger and, in some cases, famine in the cities. Stalin was sent by the government to Siberia and found a way to mobilize the poorest peasants along with local radicals and communists to force wealthier peasants to give up their grain.
The brutal "Siberian Method," as it came to be known, would yield grain once, but it failed in the long run.
"Of course the local police in European Russia kept reporting that this was a dumb idea," Hudson says.
"All you're doing is creating greater antagonism between the countryside and the city."
It would take 50 years for the Soviet government to create better relations with the peasantry, Hudson says. Pensions began to be offered in the 1970s, television was brought to the rural areas and internal passports — allowing some freedom of movement within the country — were returned to the people.
"All of the sudden, life looked pretty good," he says. "Meeting those peasant needs and addressing their economic wants was really the argument being made in the 1920s. It just took the central government 50 years to figure it out again."