Peasants were political game changers in 1917. They defined politicians’ responses to national challenges; they produced, controlled, and dictated food supplies; armed and uniformed peasants served as soldiers, making and breaking political power; and, as the majority of Russia’s urban residents, they played key roles in urban uprisings.
Yet when we talk about peasant revolutions, we usually mean the rural battles over land use and ownership. And, though more than 80 percent of Russia’s population lived in non-urban areas in 1917, scholars often marginalize peasants’ experience of, and participation in, the Russian revolution, focusing instead on urban labor and the intelligentsia.
The diversity and complexity of rural uprisings dispel any assumptions we might have about the nature of peasant action. They also reveal the revolution’s extraordinary creativity and transformative nature.
Peasant uprisings defy easy definition. As they spread across 1917 temporally and geographically, they took forms as diverse as the Russian Empire’s vast territory.
Often, the quality of the land and the local culture determined the shape of these uprisings. While most people imagine violent attacks on landowners and the forcible seizure of estates, many rural struggles unfolded peacefully. Violent confrontation attracts the most attention but entails huge risks for its participants. Most of Russia’s peasants undertook quiet and measured action, although it probably did not feel that way for those whose property was redistributed.
Some peasants engaged in surreptitious revolt by simply opening a gate and allowing the village livestock to graze on a landowner’s meadows. Some communities produced official looking documents that granted them the use of local resources in perpetuity. More brazen uprisings saw villagers working together to clear timber from a neighboring forest.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a full account of all the ways that rural workers contributed to that revolutionary year. What we know demonstrates a range of tactics, actors, and goals, all of which would play a decisive role in Russia’s post-revolutionary state.
Russian peasants in the early 1900s