A History of Russian Thought

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Peasant revolts in Russian thought and literature. John Keep, Emancipation by the axe?

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Contrary to widespread opinion, a continuous thread runs from the 17th- and 18th-century Russian peasant revolts to the agrarian revolutions of and , manifested in the survival of social Utopian myths. The Razin legendary cycle, distorting Christian teaching, presents the "liberator" as an avenging apostle.

Russian writers from Pushkin onward, and later social theorists, took up the theme of agrarian violence but were shocked by the brutal events of Early Soviet writers e. Leonov offered a critical portrait of the peasant revolutionaries, but subsequently this theme has been neglected.

A comparison of two novels on the Razin revolt A. Chapygin, ; S. Zlobin, illustrates changes in the official ideology and Soviet literary taste; popular mythology is today manipulated for mundane political ends.

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Shortly after the emancipation of the serfs in , an estate manager named Krylov was touring Kazan1 province when, as he wrote to his employer, "I heard the peasants talking of stabbing the nobles, hanging them and hacking them to death with axes It is like the time of Pugachev. He foretold that at the "appointed hour" a youth, wearing a gold medal on one shoulder and a silver medal on the other, would appear and lead the people to the "true" freedom which the tsar had granted but the nobles wilfully concealed.

Peasants from the surrounding region flocked to the village of Bezdna to hear his exhilarating message. Anton Petrov, as the prophet was called, assured them that if troops were brought in, their bullets would have no effect. Unfortunately the magic did not work; at least 51 men were killed and 77 wounded when a crowd, armed only with sticks, refused to disperse when called upon to do so and was fired on by the soldiers.

Petrov was publicly executed; but his name lived on among the peasants as a martyr in the struggle for social justice. To the authorities the affair was but one of hundreds of such instances of "disloyalty", symptomatic of the gulf that separated Alexander II' s "enlightened" government and the educated elite in general from the "dark" rural masses, still sunk in ignorance and superstition. Like the bailiff N. Krylov, many upper-class people nervously recalled the Pugachev rising some ninety years earlier, the last and most violent of four great insurrections that shook the Russian state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Despite the emancipation and other measures which significantly alleviated rural misery, peasant unrest continued, although episodically, until the Russo-Japanese war of , when the peasants rose again en masse. This time their movement took a more organized form. The chief aim was the expropriation, not the physical liquidation, of the landowners.

Just 12 years later, in , the communally-minded peasants achieved their age-old dream of a great "black repartition":. This was the most far-reaching of the many changes that took place during that momentous year.

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But the Bolsheviks, skilfully blending repression with promises of reform, consolidated their dictatorship over the countryside and in attempted a "final solution" of Russia's agrarian problem. The smallholders responded with passive resistance, slaughtering their livestock in large numbers, but recognized that active opposition to a totalitarian state would have been suicidal: as it was, millions of them found their way into the Gulag Archipelago. Violence returned to rural Russia in World War II, but this was largely a national and ideological struggle, not one fought specifically to uphold traditional peasant ideals.

The old rural society had been shattered beyond repair. Most historians and other commentators, being by status and inclination far removed from the simple peasant world, have discerned a fundamental difference between the earlier rebellions and the later revolutions.

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Curiously, Stalin himself was among these pundits. In fact, there was a good deal of continuity between the two kinds of uprising, as the more perceptive writers recognize. Even Soviet historians, who as dialectical materialists insist on class conflict as the key factor, have begun to explore the psychological dimensions of the subject.

Emerging from their sanctuaries along the turbulent steppe frontier, these spirited freebooters, many of them fugitives from serfdom, could appeal to the hard-pressed workers of the Urals, to. These insurgencies were wide-ranging popular movements. The rebels' objective was to replace the existing political and social order, which they saw as illegitimate and "unholy", with one that embodied their own ideals. They called it volia, or "liberty": the mighty would be humbled and the righteous elevated; or as we might say, the agents and beneficiaries of power would be changed, but the institutions would remain as before.

A "people's tsar" would rule with justice and mercy, and therefore his people would serve him zealously.


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As in the medieval West, the peasants wanted an easement of their burdens, but did not question the institution of lordship as such. They constructed a belief system which brought solace during the long intervals between periodic bouts of violence.


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We are concerned here not with the course or outcome of Russia's peasant movements but rather with the ways in which they were visualized by those who took part in them or kept the memory of them alive: the protagonists of a very vigorous social myth, held by the underprivileged common folk. These myths and fictions may not greatly advance our understanding of what actually occurred, but they are important in their own right.

The peasants' illiteracy makes it difficult to reconstruct their thought-world. Little confidence can be placed in the testimony of outsiders, even those sympathetic to peasant aspirations Haxthausen, Turgenev , who all too often saw only what they wanted. Folklore sources are abundant, but unfortunately they were collected unsystematically, and the more subversive items could not circulate freely. Nor is it clear how widely held the "just tsar" myth was or what relationship it had to other myths.

We have first of all to realize that the peasant outlook was inherently religious, but that this religion had little in common with that of the upper classes. It should not be confused with piety, which was relatively rare, and had a strong mystical quality, which outsiders often wrote off as mere "superstition". It reflected animistic concepts and practices and was blended with Christian ideas in a system of "dual belief" such as existed elsewhere on the fringes of the civilized world.

It implied continued respect for, and even. Landlords and officials were obvious candidates for the role of "devils". Hating and fearing these immediate foes, standing before them helplessly and uncomprehendingly, conscious of their isolation and weakness, the "Orthodox folk" looked for assistance to more distant and exalted spheres: to Almighty God and to his earthly representative, the Great Sovereign, the sacred ruler.

The Russian concept of monarchy was of Byzantine origin and was absolute in a way unknown in the West: the tsar was a patriarchal figure, the batiushka or "little father" of his people; his power derived from God alone, unfettered by any human agency; his will was law. Identified with moral absolutes of Truth and Righteousness pravda , he was a sacred being entitled to worship and propitiation - whatever the established Church might say!

If there was misery and oppression among those entrusted to his care, this could be explained only by the intervention of the forces of evil: either news of their plight had not reached him, having been obstructed by ambitious self-seeking individuals in high places; or else he had indeed ordered the wrongs to be righted, but his decree had been concealed by such wicked and powerful persons - as at Bezdna.

If petitions brought no result, and grievances persisted, it was tempting to conclude that the tsar had lost his sanctity; and the rightful ruler must then be sought elsewhere, among the people. At the "appointed hour" such an individual would appear among his loyal subjects, display his royal stigmata, tell how he had miraculously escaped his assailants and wandered in distant lands, and then lead his people against those who had misappropriated his power; once restored to his throne, he would punish the evildoers and reward his loyal servants.

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Despite its many variants the myth remained remarkably consistent from its origins in the early 's to the 's. The "liberator" was conceived of as a male member of the ruling dynasty, the tsar himself or more often his son, the tsarevich. It did not matter whether the subject's real character suited the role here assigned him: disciplinarians like Peter III, Paul I and the Grand Duke Constantine were acceptable, whereas the reformist Alexander I, though an object of legend, was not associated with a social Utopia.

The peasants usually gave a new ruler several years in which to prove himself before pretenders appeared. One reason why Pugachev failed, it was believed, was that he had revealed himself before his "appointed hour". This was when the myth probably achieved maximum. Back in the seventeenth century Bolotnikov and Razin had portrayed themselves merely as assistants of the just tsar Dmitrii II and the tsarevich Aleksei respectively , and Bulavin in Peter I's reign had not utilized the Pretender myth at all; but Pugachev claimed that he himself was Peter III, who had miraculously survived his wife's assassins.

It seems that most of his followers saw through his playacting and were attracted rather by his charismatic personality and the promise of material gain. Pugachev was a rough-hewn illiterate, and could not project a credible image of a rightful tsar; moreover, he created a counter-administration in which his associates assumed the names and titles of real personages at court, were granted estates and so on - all of which went against the average rebel's egalitarian instincts. In the long run the Pretender myth was counterproductive, although it would be wrong to say that this was the principal reason why the revolt collapsed.

Pugachev' s name lived on: in the ' s Pushkin was told by one rustic that "for me he is still the emperor Petr Fedorovich"; 14 nevertheless his reputation never superseded that of Razin, who embodied much better the popular ideal of the dashing bandit chieftain and was less pretentious, more obviously intent on the vengeance for which the dispossessed so avidly yearned.

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Some of the or so songs in the Razin legendary cycle have a critical ring: he is called a rebel vor or a dog, who takes the advice of his intimates from the poorer cossack strata instead of consulting the whole assembly, and behaves in a cruel, arbitrary fashion. His men, called falcons or eagles, perform miraculous feats; Razin is physically immune to danger "the bullet does not touch me, the shell does not strike me" , and is lucky in love as well. The bards concentrated on details of his appearance or behaviour, saying little about his deeds or programme.

But here is one hint of it: Razin has been summoned to the assembly to be punished at the tsar's order:. Now Stenka stands amidst our throng To make a speech, not sing a song. They're written by those damned boyars! Nothing is said about the peasants as distinct from the cossacks, 17 which suggests how subordinate their role really was. After his death which few songs mention his "good work" is carried on by his son. The use or abuse of religious imagery is plain here, although many learned commentators have overlooked it. Razin' s son, an invented personage sometimes called Vaniusha Johnny , represents social justice triumphant.

He brings to fulfilment Stenka' s promise of freedom. As the spring flowers began to bloom His father came back from his doom. He pulled down the prison stone by stone And sent the convicts safely home. In his second coming the Messiah brings ultimate redemption to a desolate and desperate world. But in marked contrast to Christian teaching salvation is accompanied by violence and terror against the ungodly.

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The liberator is not a saviour, not a Prince of Peace but an apostle of vengeance. The wicked governor who stands for earthly authority in general is put on trial, in a parody of that of Christ, flayed alive, chopped into pieces, or impaled on a bayonet. In some variants Razin's son spares the governor's wife, while in others he shoots her and hangs their little children by the feet. To be sure, there is also a positive side to the liberator's conduct: he hobnobs with the poor, the "passportless ones", calling them "brothers"; he buys them drinks in the tavern although at times he is shown as an abstainer!