Land reform was very important to the Bolsheviks. Support from the peasants was needed if the fragile Bolshevik government was going to survive - hence why they agreed that they would hand over control of the land to the peasants in the form of state collective farms. The Provisional Government had failed to do address the land issue and what the Bolsheviks offered to the peasants, while not completely acceptable, was better than having no input on what land could be used for. The peasants wanted land divided up into millions of small holdings while the Bolsheviks put their faith in collective farms worked on by the peasants on behalf of the people.
By the time of the Russian Revolution more than 80% of Russia's population lived on the land. Equipment was still medieval and inefficient as horse-pulled ploughs were commonly used. The amount of crops produced barely covered what was needed by the families producing it in the countryside let alone produce the food that was required by those in the cities. Crop failure was common and it is estimated that 50% of the peasants in Russia lived below the subsistence level.
Lenin knew that if the Bolshevik Revolution was going to succeed he needed to do a number of things.
1. Win over the peasants by offering them the land that the Provisional Government had failed to do. While land was not exactly handed over to the peasants, land reform meant that those who worked on the land after the Bolshevik Revolution had a much greater input into the way that land was farmed. The state collective farms may not have been ideal for the peasants but they were better than what had existed before.
2. Make sure that the workers in the cities had enough food to eat to ensure that the factories could be kept working.
3. Lenin knew that he had to offer a great deal of many things to both workers and peasants if the Bolshevik Revolution was to embed itself in Russia.
In November 1917, the Bolsheviks issued a land decree, which was one of over 190 decrees issued in the first six months of the Bolshevik government's existence. This decree stated that:
· There could be no private ownership of land.
· Land could not be sold, leased or mortgaged.
· All privately owned land was to be confiscated by the government with no compensation paid. This included monastic land, land owned by the Romanovs, land owned by the nobility, land owned by government ministers who were not nobles, private estates and church land. All of this land was “to be placed at the disposition of the workers who cultivate them”.
Confiscated land was handed over the land committees and district soviets. They stated that land could only be worked on by the people who physically worked on that land. They were not allowed to hire out labour. In 1921 an unknown person - presumably someone from a landed family - wrote:
“December 23rd: Maria received a telegram from the Second Estate. It is the same there as in the First Estate: the peasants have taken over the land, the livestock, the house etc. I received a letter from Mary. The peasants came to her father with a copy of the new decrees, which say that the land must at once be divided up among them, and quite politely asked him to divide it up for them, as they knew he would do it best.”
One thing that the land reforms did highlight was the disparity that was found among the peasants in terms of who was successful and who was not. Those who for whatever reason had been successful - in comparative terms - were seen by the majority of other peasants as being not better than the land owners who had charged high rents for frequently poor land. Even 'Izvestia', the Bolshevik newspaper, commented about gangs of poor peasants breaking into the seed banks of successful peasants and taking the grain they wanted. This frequently led to fights and even deaths. It was, of course, a mutual dislike between the two groups that Stalin was to play on during collectivisation.
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