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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10 thoughts on “Like Bread, They Rise.

  1. This analysis of the class tensions between the bourgeoisie and the peasantry really resonates with me! (And that’s a very punny title you’ve got there also ;-)). The images from the popular press that you found on the Russia and the Great War Site are so telling. I think it’s important to consider that the popular press, was geared more toward “liberal” audiences, rather than the peasantry. So, with that in mind, how do we think about the depiction of class tensions (around food!) in these images?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s actually something I hadn’t considered before, so I think that can change a bit of the intention. Maybe designed to be more inflammatory than commentary. I think these cartoons make a point of establishing the development of a peasantry without and a bourgeoisie that has much more than they need.

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  2. I loved the comics and quotes that you used, they really helped your post.There were very apparent differences between the peasantry and aristocratic classes. These differences created a hotbed for conflict that would take the form of revolutions. Great job examining these differences and how they contributed to future conflicts!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very entertaining post, this kind of ties in with my own research. I did some research on the formation of the red army and learned that it was completely made up of peasants and not just a few peasants but a lot of peasants, and it begged the question “why did so many peasants join the revolution armies” did they all have a hyper patriotic spirit? I believe the storages that you talk about is the reason that so many men joined the army. I learned that if you joined the army not only did you get fed, but your whole family got fed as well. Now I believe that a lot of those soldiers were not just fighting for the soviet cause but, were actually fighting to keep their families alive and fed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s definitely interesting! I had no idea that they could also feed their families by joining the army. Perhaps it was the presence of the peasant-soldiers that inspired the wide mutinies during the February Revolution? Definitely a lot of conflicting and intersecting topics here but that’s why Russian history is so fascinating!

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  4. I like how the focus of your blog revolves around these political cartoons. They ones with contrasting images served to show the reality for the people of the “State” versus those aristocrats of the “Society” as Freeze calls it. Your presentation of class struggle combined with the stressors of this time really bring together the story of the fall of the Tsarist regime. Also, your post was very entertaining to read through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it! As Dr. Nelson commented above, these were directed towards the more liberal members of society so I believe that perhaps these comics were made with the intention of being inflammatory. Another comment made by @edinerjim noted that many of the peasants joined the army as a way of providing for their families and I wonder if that was cause for the ease with which they seemed to mutiny. These topics all weave together in an incredibly complex way which I think is part of the difficulty and beauty in Russian history.

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  5. Great use of primary sources to really give us a firsthand look at the attitudes of the time. I was not aware that the bourgeoisie lived so extravagantly and would love to learn more about how they lived around the time of the revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

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