"A commune is a union of the people who have renounced their egoism, their individuality and who express their common accord; this is an act of love, a noble Christian act."
~ Konstantin Aksakov
Slavophilic writers of the 19th century filled their pages with edifying stories on the noble existence of the Russian peasantry. Their virtues unimpeachable; their productivity unsurpassed; their embodyment of Russia's greatest values, absolute. This "noble savage" need only be taught about the causes of his misery and he would rise up to overthrow the Tzarist state, said the Populists.
Most of the above was just plain wrong. There was a wide and growing gap between the Russian peasantry and the liberal1 intelligentsia, brought about by the gap in education. This led to a wide gulf in the intelligentsia's conception of the Russian peasantry, and the actual reality of the mir2. In the 'Mad Summer' of 1874 Populists poured into the countryside in their attempt to take Populism - and the revolutionary spirit - to the people. In the peasant commune they saw what they took to be the natural spirit of collectivism in the Russian people, but contact with reality would come to destroy the notions of the Slavophile Romantics.
The Populists wanted to adopt the peasant lifestyle which they admired so much and take manual jobs among their new soulmates. Some tried to set up co-operative stores to offer goods at a much lower price than the local gentry did. From the start the peasants were suspicious of these outsiders and their motives, not out of any basic conservatism (as we shall see, peasants were by no means happy with the current order) but the Romantics just couldn't appeal to them on the level required. Some of the richer peasants (what would later be called kulaks by the Bolsheviks, although in the eyes of the peasants it was impossible for a fellow peasant to be a kulak) conspired with the established merchants to drive the Populists away. Some became the victims of the violent peasant way of life - the famous revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky3 was beaten senseless by a mob of peasants when trying to stop them whipping a naked adulteress. This was a far cry from the Romantics' notion that the peasants were more sexually moral than the proletariat.
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Russia was predominantly a peasant country before the Revolution. 80% of its population was classed as being a part of the peasantry and they were spread over 750,000 settlements and a sixth of the World's surface. Especially before the Serf Emancipation of the 1860s the Tzarist state failed to bring the peasantry into its political orbit, and their exclusion from all parts of national life meant they had little concept of themselves as Russians or citizens of a Russian state (as indeed they weren't before the 1860s). Russian townsfolk, apart from the intelligentsia and some petty bourgeois, all had peasant roots. Indeed, like the townsfolk of Early Modern Europe, many of them still had "one foot in the countryside", and would return home in harvest season to work in the village commune. They would also send part of their wages home so they would still be welcome there if the city work floundered.
Life in peasant Russia was essentially backwards and conservative. Although capitalism was penetrating Russia it never really made it to the village, and life continued as it had done for centuries. Oral culture was the main way of communicating because literacy was not high and among the tales passed down was one of the old peasant utopia. It was believed that the "Christian peasant folk" used to live a prosperous and just life before the encroachment of the gentry and the State on them. It was said that a land like this still existed far to the North, and many peasant tried to get to this utopia.
The less adventurous ones that stayed in their place for the thirty-five years of their lives endured horrible living and working conditions. Before the Emancipation the typical size of a peasant household was 9.5 - two brothers and their families might live under the same roof, for instance. In Russia, this made economic sense because intense bursts of collective activity were needed during the brief agricultural season. The more land and labour that was concentrated in one house the better. Thus the Russian people's "natural collectivism" was born from economic necessity. Beyond the household this spread up to the mir level, where co-operation was needed on wider issues. The village assembly, the skhod, met in holidays. Decisions on wider issues were taken at the skhod by standing around in a meadow having a chin-wag. The village elder would wander between the different groups, ascertaining the mood, and then call for voting to be performed. Usually the losers of the vote would submit to the 'will of the mir', which Romantics took to show their self-sacrificing virtue. Actually, the fact was the village partriarchs dominated the assembly. Everyone else followed suit because age was venerated and the feeling of conservatism in the village instinctively trusted the elders.
Whilst the peasants co-operated on matters of the mir, life was often violent. Alcoholism was a massive problem, especially among men, and the women were forced to seek solace in the Church from their often-violent husbands. Fighting was common and barbaric behaviour often arbitrary. The mob would turn against perceived transgressors and inflict horrible tortures on them (nails were driven into bodies, eyes gouged out, stakes driven down throats). When the Revolution started the violent peasantry turned their savagery against their "class enemies". It would be wrong to suppose that the peasants had no guiding moral or legal principles when investigating criminals - it was just a rather subjective one. For instance, murdering a State official was clearly, to them, a lesser crime than murdering a fellow peasant. They placed a lot of value in the principle of household ownership (and, should a household split into two, an egalitarian split of its property) and membership of a household was often nothing more than a result of working on that household's land, which gave you a right to the fruits of your labours. They did not believe land could be owned, as it belonged to God, but it could be worked, and the fruit of this work belonged to the worker.
So life in rural Russia was brutish and short. It involved hard work for both men and women and the violent conditions brought out the worse of violence among the peasants. The ruling elite really had no idea what life was like in the countryside and it was the opinion of the Tzarina that it didn't matter what they thought or how they lived: the cult of the Tzar and ancient Muscovy would keep them loyal. The intelligentsia looked on them with pity more than anything else, and the Populists became disillusioned with them after their failed 'To The People' movement in 1870s and 1880s. They cursed them from the prisons of Siberia (in many cases the peasants tipped off the State police about the Populists!) as essentially reactionary and looked to the new and emerging class - the urban proletariat, which was struggling to develop itself into a different class differentiated from its peasant past - to aid the revolution.
1. Forget your modern conceptions of "liberal" and "conservative" when you read about the Russian Revolution. By conservative it is meant literally to wish to "conserve" the existing order, and by "liberal" it is meant to oppose this order and seek change.
2. A mir was a village commune, but the word literally meant "world" or "peace" also.
3. This was a pseudonym, his real name being Alexei Peshkov. Gor'kii means "bitter" in Russian.
Mostly stuff I remembered (and later fact-checked) from A People's Tragedy
by Orlando Figes (Pimlico, 1996).