Leon Trotsky



The Peasant Riots

* * *

The decisive events of the revolution took place in the towns. But the countryside was not quiet either. It began to stir noisily, clumsily, stumbling as though awakened from a long sleep; but even its first, uncertain movements made the ruling classes’ hair stand on end.

During the two or three years preceding the revolution, relations between peasants and landowners had become extremely exacerbated. “Misunderstandings” were constantly flaring up, now here, now there. From the spring of 1905 the ferment in the countryside grew in a menacing way, assuming different forms in different parts of the country. In rough outline there were three principal areas of the peasant “revolution”: 1) the north which was distinguished by considerable development of the processing industries; 2) the southeast, relatively rich in land; and 3) the center, where land penury was further aggravated by the piteous state of industry. Thc peasant movement, in turn, developed four main types of struggle: takeover of landowners’ lands accompanied by eviction of the landowners and wrecking of their estates, with the object of extending the lands available to peasants for their own use; seizure of grain, cattle, and hay and felling of forests, for the immediate satisfaction of the needs of famine-stricken villages; a strike and boycott movement aimed either at reduction in land rents or wage increases and, finally, refusal to supply recruits or pay taxes and debts. These forms of struggle, in different combinations, spread over the country, being adapted to the economic conditions of each region. The peasant movement was at its most violent in the underprivileged central region; here, the wrecking of landowners’ homes and property was devastating. Strikes and boycotts were practiced principally in the south; and in the north, where the movement was weakest, the felling of forests was its most common form of expression. Wherever economic discontent began to be mixed with radical political demands, the peasant refused to recognize the administrative authorities and to pay taxes. Let us take a closer look at the peasants’ way of making revolution.

In Samara province the disorders spread to four districts. At first, the peasants would come to farms owned by landowners and take away nothing but cattle food, making a precise count of the cattle belonging to each farm, leaving the exact amount of food necessary to feed it, and removing the rest in their carts. The peasants acted quietly, without violence, trying to reach agreement so that there might be “no unpleasantness.” They explained to the owner that these were new times and people had to live in a new way, more fairly; those who owned a lot should share with those who owned nothing, etc.

Later, groups of “delegates” would appear at the railway stations where large quantities of landowners’ grain were stored. They would ascertain whose grain it was and announce that “by common decision” they were going to take it away with them.

“How do you mean, take it away, brothers?” the stationmaster would protest, and then continue: “I shall be held responsible you know ... have pity on me ...” “That’s true,” the terrible “expropriators” then agreed, “we’ve no wish to get you into trouble. The point is, the railway station’s nearer, we didn’t want to go all the way to the farm, it’s so far. But there’s nothing for it, we’ll have to go to ‘Himself’ and take the grain straight out of his barn.” The grain stored at the station would remain untouched, the peasants would go off to the farm and share out the grain stored there in a fair manner. But soon the arguments about the “new times” began to lose their effect on the landowner; he plucked up courage and tried to send the peasants packing. Then the good-natured peasants reared up – and not a stone would be left standing on the master’s property.

In Kherson province large crowds of peasants walked from one estate to another with carts for taking away “shared-out” property. There was no violence and no killing because the frightened landowners and their stewards fled, opening all bolts and shutters at the first demand from the peasants. In the same province an energetic battle was fought for the lowering of land rent. The prices were fixed by the peasants’ associations on the basis of “justice.” From Bezyukov Monastery alone 15,000 dessyatins were taken without payment on the ground that “monks ought to pray to God, not buy and sell land for profit.”

The most stormy events, however, occurred in Saratov province at the end of 1905. Not a single passive peasant was left in the villages which were drawn into the movement; all were involved in the rising. The landowners and their families were expelled from their homes, all movable property was shared out, the cattle were led away, the laborers and house servants were paid off and, finally, the “red cockerel” was set on the buildings (that is, they were set on fire). Armed detachments headed the peasant “columns” carrying out these raids. The village police and watchmen made themselves scarce, and in certain places were arrested by the armed peasants. The landlord’s buildings were set on fire to make it impossible for the landlord to return to his lands after a certain time but there was no violence.

Having destroyed the entire property the peasants would compose a “verdict” stating that from the following spring the lands would pass to the peasant community. Moneys seized in farm offices, state-owned liquor shops and from collectors of payments for liquor were immediately made communal property; local peasants’ committees or “brotherhoods” were in charge of sharing out the expropriated goods. Estates were sacked almost regardless of the existing relations between peasants and individual landowners: if the estates of reactionary landlords were wrecked, so were those of liberals; political nuances were washed away by the wave of class hatred. The homes of local liberal zemtsy were razed to the ground, old country houses with their valuable libraries and picture galleries were burned down leaving no trace. In certain districts, the landowners’ houses that were left standing could be counted on one’s fingers. The story of this peasants’ crusade was the same everywhere.

A newspaper wrote:

“It begins, and the sky is lit up by fires all night long. It is a terrible picture. In the morning you see long lines of horse carriages filled with people fleeing from the estates; as soon as night falls, it is as though the horizon wore a necklace of fires. Some nights you could count up to sixteen fires ... The landowners flee in panic, and panic spreads everywhere along their path.”

Within a short time more than 2,000 landowners’ estates were wrecked and burned all over the country, including 272 in Saratov province alone. The landowners’ losses, according to official data for the ten worst-hit provinces, amounted to 29 million roubles, including approximately 10 million for Saratov province.

* * *

If it is generally true that the course of class struggle is not determined by political ideology, this truth applies three times over to the peasantry. The Saratov muzhik must of course have had weighty reasons – concrete ones within his own homestead, his threshing-floor and village – for throwing a lighted bundle of straw on the landowner’s roof. Yet it would be a mistake to ignore completely the effect of political agitation. Confused and chaotic as the peasant rising was, it nevertheless contained the unmistakable elements of an attempt at political generalization; and these elements had been introduced by the work of the parties. In 1905 even the liberal zemtsy tried to bring oppositional enlightenment to the peasants. Semi-official peasant representation was introduced in a number of rural councils, and questions of a general nature were put up for discussion. The employees of the rural councils – statisticians, teachers, agronomists, nurses – were incomparably more active than the landed liberals. Many of these people belonged to the social democrats or social revolutionaries; the majority were non-party radicals, for whom private land ownership was by no means a sacred institution.

For a number of years prior to 1905 the socialist parties had organized, through rural employees, revolutionary groups among the peasants and had disseminated illegal political literature. In 1905 the political agitation assumed mass proportions and emerged from underground. The absurd ukase of February 18, which established something like the right of petitioning, played an important role in this development. Taking advantage of this right, or rather of the confusion among local authorities created by the ukase, political agitators organized village meetings and encouraged the peasants to adopt resolutions on the abolition of private ownership of the land and the introduction of popular representation. In many places, peasants who had signed such a resolution regarded themselves as members of a “peasants’ union” and elected committees from among their own ranks, who in many cases completely thrust aside the legal village authorities.

This is what happened, for example, among the cossack population of the Don region. Meetings of 600 or 700 people assembled in the cossack villages. “A curious gathering,” one of the agitators wrote. “Behind the table sits the cossack ataman (head man), fully armed. Men with and without sabers are standing and sitting everywhere. We have become accustomed to seeing such men as a somewhat disagreeable climax to our meetings and assemblies; now, it is strange to look into their eyes as they slowly light up with anger against the landlords and officials. What an incredible difference there is between the cossack on military duty and the cossack at the plow!” Agitators were enthusiastically welcomed, parties of cossacks rode to fetch them over distances of dozens of miles and carefully guarded them from the police. But many peasants in the remoter areas had only a confused idea of their own role. “These are kind gentlemen,” many a muzhik would say after signing his name under a resolution, “they’ll get us a bit of land of our own.”

The first peasants’ congress took place near Moscow in August 1905. More than 100 representatives from twenty-two provinces met for two days in a large old barn well off the road. At this congress the idea of the All-Russian Peasants’ Union, which was to unite many party and non-party peasants and intellectuals, first took shape.

The Manifesto of October 17 opened up still wider horizons for political agitation in the countryside. Even Count Hezden, now deceased, an extremely moderate member of the zemstvo of Pskov province, began organizing local meetings to explain the “new system.” At first the peasants took little interest, but eventually they were aroused and decided that it was time to pass from words to deeds; for a start, they would “strike” a privately owned forest. [1] The liberal Count had not reckoned with anything like that. Thus the landed liberals only burned their fingers in their attempts to establish class harmony on the basis of the Tsar’s manifesto; but the revolutionary intelligentsia enjoyed a tremendous success.

Peasant congresses were held in individual provinces, political agitation became feverish, mountains of revolutionary literature were deposited in the villages, the peasants’ union grew in strength and size. A congress of 200 peasants’ deputies was held in remote Vyatka province; three companies of the local army battalion also sent their delegates, expressing sympathy and promising support. A similar declaration was made by the representatives of local workers. The authorities, taken by surprise, gave permission to the congress to organize meetings in the towns and villages. Meetings went on continuously for a fortnight, and a congress resolution to refuse to pay taxes was energetically followed.

For all the diversity of its forms, the peasant movement produced mass phenomena throughout the country. Near the frontiers it immediately assumed a clearly defined revolutionary character. The Lithuanian peasantry, acting in accordance with a decision adopted by a congress at Vilno attended by more than 2,000 representatives, used revolutionary means to replace village clerks, elders, and elementary-school teachers, sacked gendarmes and rural district commandants, and introduced elective courts and district executive committees. The Georgian peasantry in the Caucasus took even more drastic forms of action.

The second congress of the peasants’ union opened in Moscow on November 6 without any attempt at secrecy. It was attended by 187 delegates from twenty-seven provinces, 105 of whom were accredited by village and district communities and the rest by provincial and area committees and local groups of the union. The delegates included 145 peasants, the remainder being intellectuals closely associated with the peasantry, such as men and women schoolteachers, rural council employees, doctors, etc. In a folkloric sense this was one of the revolution’s most interesting gatherings; one saw many picturesque characters, provincial “naturals,” spontaneous revolutionaries who had “thought it all out for themselves,” village politicians with passionate temperaments and even more passionate hopes, but with rather confused ideas.

Here are a few profile sketches drawn by one of the participants in the congress:

Anton Sheherbak, a cossack “father,” tall, gray-haired, with a short mustache and piercing eyes, looking as if he had walked straight out of the canvas of Repin’s Zaporozhtsy; he described himself, however, as a farmer from both hemispheres, having spent twenty years in America and owning a well-equipped farm with his Russian family in California ... The priest Miretsky, a delegate from Voronezh province, submitted five “verdicts” passed by district communities. In one of his speeches Father Miretsly described Jesus Christ as the first socialist. “If Christ were alive today, he would be on our side.” ... Two peasant women wearing cotton blouses, woolen shawls and goatskin shoes attended as delegates from the women of a village in the same Voronezh province.

Captain Pereleshin came as delegate from the cottage craftsmen of the same province. He turned up in uniform and carrying a saber, and caused quite a stir. Someone in the hall shouted: “Out with the police!” Then the captain rose to his feet and declared, to universal applause: “I’m Captain Pereleshin from Voronezh province, I’ve never concealed my convictions and have acted completely openly, that’s why I’m wearing my uniform.”

The central discussion was about tactics. Some of the delegates were in favor of peaceful struggle – meetings, “verdicts,” “peaceful” boycotting of authorities, creation of revolutionary self-government, “peaceful” takeover of arable land, “peaceful” refusal to pay taxes and supply recruits. Others, especially those from Saratov province, called for armed struggle and immediate support of any uprisings wherever they flared up. In the end a compromise decision was adopted.

“The people’s grievous troubles due to land penury,” the resolution read, “can only be ended by the transfer of all land into the communal property of the entire people, on condition that land is used only by those who work it themselves, assisted only by their families or in free association with others.” The establishment of a just agrarian system was entrusted to the Constituent Assembly, which was to be convened on the basis of the purest democratic principles “not later than in February next (!).” To achieve this end, “the peasants union will enter into agreement with its brother workers, with municipal, factory, works, and railway unions etc., and also with all other organizations defending the interests of working people ... In the event that the people’s demands are not satisfied, the peasants’ union will resort to a general agrarian (!) strike, that is, it will withhold its labor from the owners of agrarian enterprises of all descriptions and will thus close down those enterprises. As for the organization of a general strike, this will be decided by agreement with the working class.”

Having further resolved to discontinue the consumption of liquor, the resolution finally stated “on the basis of information received from all corners of the Russian countryside that failure to satisfy the people’s demands would cause great troubles in our country and inevitably lead to a universal peasant uprising, for the cup of the peasants’ patience has spilled over.” Naive though this resolution was in certain of its passages, it nevertheless showed that the progressive peasantry was adopting a revolutionary course. From the meetings of this peasants’ parliament the specter of land expropriation rose before the eyes of the government and the nobility in all its cruel reality. The reaction sounded the alarm – and it had every reason to do so.

On November 3, that is, only a few days before the congress, the government published a manifesto proclaiming the gradual abolition of redemption payments for land allocations and the enlargement of the peasant bank funds. The manifesto expressed the hope that the government, in alliance with the Duma, would succeed in satisfying the essential needs of the peasants – “without detriment to any other owners of land.” The resolution of the peasants’ congress did not appear to correspond with these hopes. But the actual local practice of the “peasant population so dear to Our heart” was even less satisfactory. Wreckings and burnings, “peaceful” takeovers of private arable land, the unilateral fixing of wage rates and land rents caused the landowners to exert furious pressure on the government. Demands for the sending of troops came from all corners of the land. The government shook itself awake and realized that the time for sentimental effusions was past and the moment had come for ’’business.

The peasants’ congress closed on November 12; on the fourteenth the Moscow officers of the union were already under arrest. That was the beginning. Two or three weeks later, in reply to inquiries concerning further peasant unrest, the Minister for Home Affairs issued the following instructions, which we reproduce verbatim: “Rioters to be exterminated immediately by force of arms, their dwellings to be burned down in the event of resistance. Arbitrary self-rule must be eradicated once and for all – now. Arrests would not serve any purpose at present and anyway it is impossible to try hundreds and thousands of persons. It is essential that the troops should fully understand the above instructions. P. Durnovo

This cannibalistic order opened a new phase in the counterrevolution’s infernal saturnalia. This new phase first developed in the towns, and only then spread to the countryside.



1. The term “striker” came to be synonymous with “revolutionary” among the peasants and the broad masses of the population. “To strike” meant to perform any revolutionary action. “To strike the district police officer” meant to arrest or kill him. This curious use of the word testifies to the tremendous revolutionary influence of the workers and their methods of struggle.

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Last updated on: 25.11.2006