Egalitarianism and communalism are often cited as examples of
archetypal characteristics of the Russian traditional political
culture. They take their root in the communal foundations of village
life in tsarist Russia. The collectivist ethos was itself
conditioned by the influence of the ecological environment. Russia’s
harsh and inhospitable climate accounts for the fundamental
difference in farming conditions between Russia and Western Europe.
In central Russia the annual cycle of agricultural work was
unusually short: just 125–130 working days from mid-April to
mid-September. The soil was poor and required careful cultivation,
for which there was not enough time.
Time, weather, and primitive agricultural methods were the
constraints that forced peasants to work day and night with little
sleep or rest, using the labor of all available members of their
families, including children, women, and the elderly. Even in the
best of times the soil yielded a harvest that barely covered the
basics. By contrast, farmers in Western Europe enjoyed the advantage
of a much longer growing season. The winter break in farming in some
countries of Western Europe was fairly short (December and January);
consequently, the arable land could be cultivated more thoroughly.
crop yields and the dependence of peasant labor on the weather
conditioned the extraordinary tenacity of communal institutions in
the Russian countryside. The peasant commune provided a collectivist
safety net and a guarantee of survival for the mass of the rural
population. Centuries-long experience of life and work in such
adverse conditions had taught peasants to devise a whole set of
measures to help those members of the community who were on the
brink of ruin.
Together, as a community, it was easier to find
protection from natural calamities or to meet obligations imposed by
the squire and the state. It was advantageous for the village to
have common pasture and woodland, a common place for watering the
cattle. The village community looked after orphans and childless old
people. At regular intervals the land was redistributed among the
peasant households in the village to ensure that each family had an
amount of land commensurate with its size. Collective responsibility
for periodic redistribution of land encouraged communal values and
egalitarianism and reinforced conformity to group norms.
measures of collectivist relief survived in the countryside into the
early twentieth century. They outlived the tsarist regime that
collapsed in 1917. Rural egalitarian traditions still existed in the
1920s and up to the start of Stalin’s forced collectivization of
agriculture at the end of that decade. The imposition of the
collective- and state-farm system itself was achieved partly due to
state terror but also partly due to the vestiges of communal
traditions and egalitarian attitudes of peasants in the countryside.
Indeed, the type of socialism built in the Soviet Union had much in
common with the primitive egalitarianism of Russian traditional
rural communities. The Soviet system achieved equality in poverty by
keeping living standards at a subsistence level for the majority of
the populace. The Soviet system is sometimes referred to as
“barracks-style socialism” to convey the idea of a regime that
treats its subjects as conscripts, enforcing strict regimentation
and the equality of servitude.