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Peasants in the Proletkult

Artisans and white-collar employees clearly posed a gray area for those who tried to delineate the boundaries of the working class. These groups often had close ties to the industrial proletariat and individuals within them may even once have been workers themselves. However, the case of the peasantry was less ambiguous. Although the central leaders eventually altered their perception of workers who joined the bureaucracy, their stance on the peasantry was quite unyielding. Peasants had no place in a proletarian organization. The national Proletkult central committee tabled a request by Sergei Esenin and others to open a special section for peasant literature in the Proletkult.[56] It threatened to close down organizations in areas where there was evidence of widespread peasant participation. In addition, its members warned continually of the dangers peasants posed to proletarian class consciousness.

The official Proletkult position on this issue was at odds with the Communist Party line, which advocated an alliance between the poor peasantry and the proletariat. Indeed, Bogdanov seemed to be arguing directly with the Bolshevik platform when he insisted that peasants could not share a proletarian worldview, regardless of how poor they were.[57] However, many local groups articulated a position much closer to the party line, one that reflected what appeared to be


an obvious truth to many participants: under capitalism, both workers and peasants, particularly poor peasants, had been oppressed and thus both were entitled to the cultural benefits of the revolution. "The proletariat is an exploited class struggling for its emancipation," wrote one Proletkultist in the small town of Klin, Moscow province. "It has its own form of comradely cooperation to a high degree. But aren't these traits also inherent in the poor peasantry? Don't they also shape the character of the future art of the peasant masses? Of course they do. Therefore it follows that the art of the future will be the same for both classes.[58]

This perception that worker and peasant interests were intertwined encouraged the proliferation of Proletkult organizations in small towns and villages with negligible working-class populations. The phenomenon was so widespread that the fate of "peasant" and "socially mixed" organizations was a recurring topic of debate for the central leaders. To take one example, a Smolensk organization petitioned to register fifty-eight new Proletkult circles in small rural centers (volosti ) during the summer of 1919. The central Proletkult responded with a decision to turn over all groups with a peasant composition to Narkompros.[59] By the following year national leaders claimed to have closed down many nonproletarian Proletkults and reorganized others to conform to their guidelines.[60]

But if the center intended to purge all branches with strong nonproletarian followings, that process was incomplete. According to national records many rural and small town organizations survived through the 1920 congress.[61] The Prolet-


kult in Kologriv, Kostroma province, is an interesting example. It was started in September 1918 by an organizer from the Petrograd Proletkult named Chumbarov-Luchinskii.[62] Kologriv was a very small district center; in 1917 it had a population of only 3,350, and by 1920 it had shrunk to 2,700. The 1923 city census showed that less than 10 percent of the population was workers.[63] Just why the Petrograd organizer picked this small town for his endeavors remains unclear, but he pursued his task with vigor.

From its founding, the Kologriv Proletkult directed its activities to include the "broad masses," a notion that also encompassed the peasantry. Chumbarov-Luchinskii felt that the Proletkult should sponsor literacy schools, peasant reading rooms, and peasant theaters in the surrounding villages.[64] In late 1919 the leadership was taken over by a local man who had just completed a course at the Moscow Proletkult. With aid from Moscow he announced his intention to reorganize the Proletkult "more in the spirit of the central organization."[65] He hoped to put the Kologriv Proletkult on the correct proletarian path. However, even the new leadership could not change the social structure of the town. From the many membership lists sent from Kologriv to Moscow, it is quite clear that the proletarian path in Kologriv was trod mainly by nonworkers. The art studio, for example, had fifty-nine students, mainly from the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie, with a few from a clerical background. Workers were not mentioned on the roster at all.[66]

Despite ample evidence showing the suspect social composition of the Kologriv circle, the central Proletkult made no


effort to close it down. Its demise was the result of other causes. In March 1921 the local Narkompros division took it over, dispatching a terse telegram to inform the central Proletkult that the Kologriv Proletkult branch no longer existed. Rather than welcoming the end of this nonproletarian affiliate, the national organization protested the action.[67]

The center's reluctance to relinquish control of the Kologriv organization illuminates a real tension in its operating procedures. Should it promote a broadly based popular movement, or should it instead attempt to achieve social homogeneity? On the one hand, dedicated Proletkultists were afraid to dilute the movement's proletarian essence with peasant followers. On the other hand, it was appealing for them to watch their organization expand as "a strong young tree, budding everywhere across the boundless expanses of Soviet Russia."[68] Petrograd participants were quite proud of their role as the original supporters of the Kologriv organization. The editors of the radical Petrograd journal The Future (Griadushchee ) declared that the existence of a Proletkult in such a remote corner of Russia showed the vitality of proletarian culture.[69]

Even if all village circles had closed their doors, that would not have rid the Proletkult of its peasant members. Factory organizations in rural areas drew in part on peasant labor, and some offered cultural activities for the peasant population at large. At the Lenin State Sugar Factory in Kursk province the Proletkult sponsored literacy classes together with the local labor school. Its choir was composed of factory workers and peasants alike, and the theater even decided to start evening performances for village youth in the hopes of curbing their rowdy behavior on the street.[70] Such practices be-


came official policy in the Moscow Province Proletkult, which united nineteen different local groups. Delegates at a 1920 conference decided to make greater efforts to include the peasant population living near rural factories. The membership rules made this quite explicit: the organization was open to workers, poor peasants, intellectual laborers in factories, and all party members.[71]

The Proletkult's collaboration with the Red Army opened yet more doors to peasants because soldiers came overwhelmingly from the countryside. At the first Proletkult conference in 1918 the issue of peasant-soldiers was a topic of a heated debate. Some delegates demanded that soldiers be considered part of the proletariat, which was the official party position. Others wanted to exclude them because peasant soldiers' "petty-bourgeois" mentality would undermine the Proletkult's claims to be a pure proletarian movement. As a compromise, delegates voted to open special Red Army clubs, which would be kept separate from the rest of Proletkult activities.[72]

As with so many other resolutions, this one was not followed very closely. Numerous Proletkults included soldiers in their activities; in some soldiers constituted the majority of members. According to one local report, 80 percent of all men in the Archangel organization came from the military.[73] Some groups even merged parts of their operations with Red Army divisions.[74] For Tamboy Proletkultists the soldier took precedence over the worker during the big mobilization of 1919. Military imagery completely eclipsed the factory metaphors so common in Proletkult pronouncements: "On the Red Front with our rifles in our hands we will continue to break a trail to the Culture of the Future."[75]


The movement's official stance on the peasantry reflected the vanguardist visions of the prerevolutionary Bolsheviks, who determined workers' sophistication and consciousness according to their distance from the countryside. However, the revolution and Civil War confused these preconceptions and drastically reformulated class configurations. It was a shift some committed Proletkultists saw quite clearly. Pavel Arskii, a Petrograd leader, proletarian writer, and Red Army soldier, had sympathetic words for the Russian peasantry. "I am your son," he wrote in the 1919 poem "A Worker to a Peasant." "I left my native fields for the kingdom of smoke, iron, and steel." The poem stresses the common interests of the two groups and concludes: "Together we will live as a close and happy family in the new, radiant, and mighty Russia."[76]

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