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Egalitarianism and Communalism

"Gorbachev Factor"
Harvesting. By A. Venetsianov

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. Russias 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 125130 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.

Poor 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.

The 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 Stalins 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.

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