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Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution (1917-1921)

INTERVIEWER: When did you do the research for Peasant Russia, Civil War?
ORLANDO FIGES: I was in Moscow from 1984 to 1987 and it was my dissertation for the PhD. I was registered as a graduate student at Moscow University and had a Soviet supervisor - a ninety-year-old professor who had had fought in the Civil War himself, so you can imagine I avoided him - he was very orthodox in his Soviet views and would not have liked what I was doing at all. My real supervisor in Moscow was Viktor Danilov, a wonderful man and a real authority on the Soviet peasantry who had revealed a bit too much about the true nature of collectivization during the period of Khrushchev thaw and been pushed to the margins of the Soviet Academy, a semi-dissident I suppose you might say in some ways, though he had good connections with the archivists, who respected his work, and that helped me get set up in the archives. Without Danilov it would have been impossible for a foreign scholar like myself to study such a sensitive subject in the archives.

INTERVIEWER: I was going to say, it must have been difficult to get access to the archives in such a sensitive topic. How did you succeed?
ORLANDO FIGES: With great difficulty. Foreign scholars had to work in a separate room of the archive - TsGAOR, the archive of the October Revolution, as it was then called. The room was managed by a KGB agent who vetted all our applications for materials. The main problem was that we did not have access to the catalogues - hard to imagine, I know! We had to work from the footnotes of Soviet publications or rely on what the archivists brought us. In the archive we could not use the canteen because Soviet historians would eat there and might help us find out the numbers of the files. But the system had a flaw - there was only one toilet. In those days I was a smoker. So I would hang out in the toilet and share my Western cigarettes with the archivists and historians who came there to smoke. Once I got to know them they would help with my research and find out the file numbers I needed. Sometimes my applications would be rejected but generally the system worked on the basis of not denying the existence of these files - only controlling their access to Soviet historians first. If I had ordered them they must have thought I had found out about their existence from Soviet publications, meaning it was alright to let me see them.

INTERVIEWER: Did you use only archives in Moscow or in the Volga region too?
ORLANDO FIGES: I worked mainly in the Moscow archives with the papers of the village and rural district (volost') Soviets from the three main Volga provinces - Samara, Saratov and Simbirsk. But I also managed to get them to deliver some materials from the archives in these provinces. It took 6 months to arrange the first delivery, and when the files arrived they were the wrong ones, so I went back the next year.

INTERVIEWER: What were you able to learn from using the records of the village Soviets?
ORLANDO FIGES: They were very revealing - much more so than one would have thought from seeing how they had been used by Soviet historians, such as E.G. Gimpel'son. In the early days of the Revolution, in 1917 and 1918, the village Soviets were really no more than the old communal assemblies, village committees made up of peasants, and their discussions covered every aspect of rural life in the agrarian revolution - the division of the gentry land, general principles of social justice, the place of outsiders in the village, what to do about the Church, etc. With these materials it was possible to write a history of the Revolution from inside the village. That had not been done before.

INTERVIEWER: You emphasized the autonomous nature of the agrarian revolution. Was that view something new to the literature at the time?
ORLANDO FIGES: It wasn't new of course. The idea that the peasants had their own revolution - independent of the Bolsheviks or any other urban-based party - had been said in general terms. But there was no detailed study of the revolution in the countryside. Nobody had really looked before at the way the village worked in the revolutionary period - I mean in terms of village politics and social relations.

How did the Soviets change between 1917 and the end of the Civil War?
ORLANDO FIGES: That was one of the main findings of my research. I think I showed that they gradually lost their democratic character - ceasing to play the role of peasant organizations directing the revolution on the land and becoming increasingly bureaucratic in their functioning. I tried to show that this was related to the influx of outsiders - townsmen, workers, commissars and soldiers - into the countryside as a result of the Civil War. Younger and more literate peasant men - many of them recently returned from the army to their villages - took the place of peasant elders in the Soviets. The Soviet executives in turn became organs of the state, often with a Party member as the executive chairman, whose main role was to collect taxes, conscript soldiers for the Red Army, and so on. The farming peasantry withdrew from Soviet meetings as a consequence.

INTERVIEWER: The book ends with the Volga famine. How do you explain its origins? Wasn't that a controversial subject to be working on?
ORLANDO FIGES: That was a controversial issue at the time. Soviet historians argued that the famine had been caused by drought. But the archives showed that it was man-made. The Bolsheviks went on taking grain by force, requisitioning, until they were taking not just surpluses but basic stocks of food and seed. Some of the local Bolsheviks tired to warn Moscow that famine would be the result. But Moscow ignored them. They needed grain for the Red Army and the cities, and they had got into that mindset of disbelieving local evidence that there was no grain - assuming that it meant the 'kulaks' were hiding it.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have much trouble with the Soviet authorities?
ORLANDO FIGES: There were a couple of occasions when they tried to ease me out of the archives by saying there were no more materials for me. But I would manage to talk my way back in - once by requesting one more meeting with the archivist and scheduling it for 8 march - International Women's Day. I turned up with a large bunch of flowers and asked her to give me one more chance. The tactic worked.

INTERVIEWER: How did working in the Soviet archives change in the period you were working there?
ORLANDO FIGES: By 1987, perhaps the end of 1986, they started giving us the catalogues. That made all the difference of course. Then they gradually loosened up on what files they would give out. Archives that had previously been closed to Western researchers began to open their doors - I remember working in the Red Army archive from about 1988 and in the Party Archive from about the same time. It was exciting to be in Moscow at that time. Revelations from the archives were being printed in the Soviet press, and you had the sense that working in the archives could actually change the world.

INTERVIEWER: Looking back on your first book, how do you think it shaped the rest of your career?
ORLANDO FIGES: I think it laid the foundation. You can see a lot of it in A People's Tragedy. And of course the subject was important because the peasantry is so fundamental to Russian history. If you have not studied the peasantry in depth, it's difficult to write with any real conviction about Russian social history.

© 2011 Orlando Figes | All Rights Reserved