Like Bread, They Rise.

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Gazeta Kopeika 08-09 | May 1916

Born in an era of shortage and turmoil was a revolutionary peasantry, for when once they were well fed, now they lack even their bread. Due to the breakout of the first World War, the economy of the Russian Empire began to falter. Cut off from imports on which the country to heavily relied brought Russia to an incredibly weakened state. While Russia was rich with food resources, the peasantry lacked the imported machinery to truly capitalize upon it. Also relied on was the importation of things like coal, matches, metal for saws and spades and other necessities. Without these, agricultural production suffered dearly and so did those who relied upon it. Lacking proper equipment to farm and having nothing to gain from trading it, necessary supplies of daily life dwindled into non-existence.

Townsfolk are starving, and in winter, cold. People living in rooms in a flat, complete strangers to each other, by general agreement bring all their beds into the kitchen. In the kitchen soup is made once a day. There is a little warmth there beside the natural warmth of several human beings in a small room. There it is possible to sleep.”  – Arthur Ransome 

The political cartoon above dates from May of 1916 and was published in a newspaper known as Gazeta Kopeika to reflect the starvation of an unheard peasant class. In the first image, a family sits around a beautifully set table, surrounded by an extravagant excess of food. They look well-fed and nearly ravenous; ready to devour their meal. The second image, however, shows a family with sunken faces and an empty table. They do not feast nor do they eat at all; their life is one of deprivation and hardship. They live the life of a peasantry devoid of resources necessary to the continuation of a semblance of abundance. In the immediate sense, these people did not have the liberty to livelihood and thus emerges the resentment between these have-nots and those who have too much.

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Novi Satirikon 1916 vol.12 p.10

 

Just as the Russian peasant lacked the access to necessary goods, the bourgeoisie of the same nation engaged in frivolously spending and useless attempts at assisting these classes. Surrounded by a different understanding and experience of life, perhaps it was merely an ignorance that fanned these flames, or perhaps it was a feeling of innate superiority that led to the disparity between these two classes.

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As one may see, though, the disconnect between the lives of the two groups was too vast a gap to be bridged. And the peasants became restless. While they sat, sallow-faced, around a bare table, they remained aware of how the life they lived differed from those of noble blood. Tensions and blood both stewed as 1916 came to pass. It was in February of 1917 that this stew finally boiled over.

Civilisation has made the peasantry its pack animal. The bourgeoisie in the long run only changed the form of the pack. Barely tolerated on the threshold of the national life, the peasant stands essentially outside the threshold of science.” – Leon Trotsky

Merely two months into 1917, the Russian society and government would undergo an alteration that would change the fate of the Empire. This change was triggered by the event known as the February Revolution. This revolution began on International Women’s Day and starred working-class women who could no longer afford to provide food for themselves nor their families. The culprit: the rising prices of bread and its lack of affordability to the peasant class. Over the next few days, underground revolutionaries joined in and soldiers mutinied. Within mere weeks, the tsar had abdicated and the Provisional Government became the watchful eyes over this country in flames.

Almost like watching “The Office,” just when you thought it was bad, things got much worse. Expecting change but with little relief, in late March of 1917, peasants began to burn down the farms of big landlords and seize the crops they had produced. Lack of food resources and other resources needed to survive triggered these huge bouts of unrest. When the tsar had been overthrown, peasants had seen the chance for an agrarian revolution. The chance never came. Throughout the summer, leading up to the event some call “Bloody October,” unrest and tensions even still rose. This new government was failing at providing even the most basic of needs to its citizens. And, thus, on the 25th of October in 1917, the Bolsheviks seized their chance and overthrew the provisional government. The rest, as they say, is history.

The role of the peasantry in this discourse is much indebted to the bourgeoisie. While the peasants suffered and struggled, they found themselves to be gluttonous. It is an act as simple as pouring gasoline on a blazing fire. If the resources were available to manufacture cars, could resources not also be spared for the revitalization of the agricultural class? If food was abundant for some, could those not perhaps be tempted to share some of their portions? Perhaps it was this withholding of life’s necessities that inspired the idea of a Marxist revolution. If in a socialist society the resources would be shared among the masses and no one would be found without. It is the utopia of people who may call themselves those who have and the “have-nots” would be a mere fiction of a painful past.

Sources

Dement, Sidney Eric, and Keah Cunningham. “War and Laughter: Political Cartoons in Russia’s Liberal Press, 1914-1918.” War and Laughter: Political Cartoons in Russia’s Liberal Press, 1914-1918. Accessed February 08, 2018. http://russiasgreatwar.org/media/culture/war_and_laughter.shtml.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “February Revolution.” February Revolution. December 28, 2015. Accessed February 08, 2018. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/february-revolution/.

“The peasantry and the Soviet State (1917-1932): From Class Alliance to Split.” Accessed February 08, 2018. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ca.secondwave/is-ussr-peasants.htm.

Proletarian Unity No. 23 (vol 5 no 1), January-February-March 1981

Trotsky, Leon. “Chapter 38 The Peasantry Before October.” Leon Trotsky: The History of the Russian Revolution (3.38 The Peasantry Before October). Accessed February 08, 2018. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch38.htm.

 

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The Generation Gap: The Visualization of Western Influence

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Three Generations, 1910. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03952 (24)

This photograph at first appears simple. After all, it merely depicts three generations of a Russian family.

“A. P. Kalganov poses with his son and granddaughter for a portrait in the industrial town of Zlatoust in the Ural Mountain region of Russia. The son and granddaughter are employed at the Zlatoust Arms Plant—a major supplier of armaments to the Russian military since the early 1800s. Kalganov displays traditional Russian dress and beard styles, while the two younger generations have more Westernized, modern dress and hair styles.”

What significance does this photograph provide? Everyone has a family, this is not a unique concept. However, it is not simply the family but the cultural transition visible in this photograph that makes it unique. The son and granddaughter, names unknown, are visual embodiments of a shifting culture. While the grandfather finds himself quite literally swathed in tradition, in both his clothing and physical appearance, his descending lineage is embracing a more westernized culture. This visual shift and the mention of their occupation in the photographer’s description poses an important question: Was the generational gap that emerged at this time largely influenced by the presence of western-inspired workplaces such as the Zlatoust Arms Plant? And how did this taste of Western influence fare among the older generations and their fierce nationalism?

Based in the metallurgical center of Russia, the Zlatoust Arms Plant was located in the town of Zaltoust, nestled among the Ural Mountains. Facing conflict in the early 19th century with not nearly enough weapon-making factories to meet the demand of gun production, the Zlatoust Arms Plant was built with the intention of carrying on the skill of swordcraft. The factory itself was built on a foundation of Western advice regarding both its practice and its aesthetic design. And it thrived! After struggling to make any noteworthy profits from its opening in 1815, business took a 180 in 1930 and the Zlatoust Arms Plant found itself monopolizing the market. These delicately and masterfully crafted swords became something of a collector’s item. Used as ceremonial gifts with elaborate carvings and gorgeous designs, to own a Zlatoust weapon was to own a piece of art. It was such that this popularity found its roots in a Western style of production that other aspects of Western life began to infiltrate Russian society.

This photograph, taken in 1910, visually exemplifies just how far this infiltration has come. Prokudin-Gorskii notes that the son and granddaughter are employees of the plant; perhaps a trait which sets them apart from the grandfather, in his emerald robes. But perhaps all three of them have once been employed by the plant and it is his age, having come to adulthood in a time where Russian nationalism was so fiercely defended, that he holds onto the tangible affirmations of his devotion to his country. Caught in the turmoil of an always-changing country, the individuals in this photograph do not appear to be poor-off. They are all fully clothed, and despite the slightly sour appearances on their faces, they seem to appear healthy.

 

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Andrei Petrov Kalganov. Former Master in the Plant. Seventy-Two Years Old, Has Worked at the Plant for Fifty-Five Years. He Was Fortunate to Present Bread and Salt* to His Imperial Majesty, the Sovereign Emperor Nicholas II. Zlatoust.

Upon further investigation, the grandfather, identified as Andrei Petrov Kalganov, is no ordinary old man but rather the retired master of the plant, having been in its service for fifty-five years. So how is it that he maintained his loyalty to the traditions of Russia while so engulfed in a western-inspired facility? Is it merely the nationalistic era in which he was raised? Or is the drift towards a more Western style a rebellion of the youth perhaps sparked by unfair work practices?

If this shift can be attributed to a disillusionment with Russian nationalism in favor of the apparent opportunity of the west, it is important to examine the circumstance that would cause such disillusionment. In 1912, merely two years after the photo was taken, there was a large surge of labor unrest triggered by the death of three workers due to injuries caused by machinery. After these deaths, the workers went on strike and demanded that it was their right to have safety precautions while working with machinery and it was their right to be paid a fair wage for the work they did. Nicholas II saw that this strike was ended. Only it did not end in peace but rather in violence and bloodshed. One can only speculate on the thoughts of these workers but perhaps it is the memorable examples of a government’s disinterest in listening to its people that caused the youth to reject their nationalism. And perhaps the difference between the young and the old is the old learned to settle for that they could get, knowing that miles could turn to inches, while the young persisted forward, demanding that inches become miles. After all, progress is progress but people tend to prefer it works quickly.

This photograph appears simple on the surface, this is certain. But the underlying implications of such a photo cannot be ignored. While it raises more questions than it will ever definitively answer, it is worth pondering the way in which Russia progresses: the love and hate relationship with the West and the generational gap that emerges from the turmoil. For now, it surely seems that progressive action is a game for the youth and those bold enough to roll the die.

 

*The presentation of bread and salt is a Russian custom which expresses hospitality.

Sources

AGAT Factory. “Zlatoust.” Accessed January 17, 2018. http://www.agatfactory.de/about/zlatoust

Library of Congress: World Digital Library. “Andrei Petrov Kalganov. Former Master in the Plant. Seventy-Two Years Old, Has Worked at the Plant for Fifty-Five Years. He Was Fortunate to Present Bread and Salt to His Imperial Majesty, the Sovereign Emperor Nicholas II. Zlatoust.” Last updated September 28, 2016. https://www.wdl.org/en/item/5292/

Marxist International Archive. “Metalworkers’ Strikes in 1912.” Published August 24, September 18, and October 25, 1913. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/oct/25.htm

Vershinin, Alexander. Russia Beyond. “Zlatoust: The cutting edge of Russia’s steel arms production.” Published July 6, 2015. https://www.rbth.com/defence/2015/07/06/zlatoust_the_cutting_edge_of_russias_steel_arms_production_47503.html