Peasant Russia, Civil War is a pioneering history of the countryside during the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917-1921. It is based on the most extensive research in Soviet archives carried out by a Western historian of the revolutionary period before 1991. Many of its sources are from local archives, records of the village Soviets, which had never been used previously even by Soviet historians.
Orlando Figes reconstructs the revolutionary experience of the peasantry - eighty per cent of the Russian population - in the crucial Volga region, situated immediately behind the Civil War fronts between the Reds and the Whites.
He begins with a detailed description of the revolution in the villages. The destruction of the old agrarian order left the peasantry to reform the entire social life of the countryside through its own autonomous organs, according to traditional peasant notions of social justice. These 'six months of peasant rule' are vividly described by Orlando Figes using the records of the village Soviets, the peasant communes and other ad hoc committees overseeing the revolution on the land.
Extract from the chapter 'Six Months of Peasant Rule':
The first six months of Soviet rule represent a unique period in the history of the Russian peasantry. During these months, from the establishment of the volost'
soviets in the winter of 1917-18 to the outbreak of the civil war at the beginning of the following summer, the countryside was governed by the peasants themselves. The destruction of the state and the decentralization of power, which culminated in the October revolution and the closure of the Constituent Assembly, left the peasantry in a position to complete the social revolution in the villages. How was this social revolution carried out? What did it hope to achieve? And to what extent was it able to solve the problems which had caused the revolution?
The peasantry's relations with the Red and White armies is discussed in depth. The greater ability of the Bolsheviks to win the support of the peasantry is, for the first time, explained in terms of political and social developments at the village level during the Civil War. Orlando Figes emphasizes the key role of younger and more literate peasants, many of them soldiers, in the transformation of the rural Soviets.
Figes explores the impact of War Communism on the countryside. Using the archives of the Bolshevik food procurement agencies in Moscow and the Volga provinces, he proves conclusively, for the first time, that the over-requisitioning of the peasants grain led directly to the famine of 1921, when millions of peasants in the Volga region were left to starve and die.
He also gives a vivid account of the 'peasant wars' that swept across the region - peasant uprisings against the Bolsheviks and their policies of War Communism. Bowing to the pressure of these rebellions, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy in March 1921.
As these last chapters demonstrate, the Civil War left a deep scar on peasant Russia and the peasantry's relations with the Bolsheviks which was to have a profound impact on development of the Soviet regime.
Extract from the closing paragraph:
'But in 1921 the terrors of collectivization were still in the distant future. Once the famine crisis had been overcome and the economy restored to peaceful conditions, the Russian peasantry enjoyed a period of unparalleled freedom and well-being in the 1920s. Although it had amassed a formidable array of means of coercion during the civil war, the new regime was still in the early stages of state formation in the countryside. The village communes remained virtually autonomous in the supervision of land relations, the organization of the agricultural economy and the maintenance of peasant culture. The power of the landowners had been destroyed by the revolution, and the influence of capitalist elements substantially reduced. The extremes of rural poverty had been eliminated, and the social dominance of the middle peasantry strengthened. Favourable market conditions and the improvement of agricultural technology helped to bring about the expansion of peasant commodity expansion. The level of literacy among the rural population, especially the women, rose rapidly. Hospitals, theatres, cinemas, libraries, and the other trappings of urban civilization at last began to appear in the countryside. For the mass of the peasantry, these were the precarious fruits of a revolution gained.'
Peasant Russia, Civil War was published in 1989 to wide acclaim in the academic press. Peter Kenez described it as 'one of the most important books ever published on the Russian Revolution'.