Summary of the PhD dissertation

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“Communism at once!“, 

Commune Movement in Soviet Ukraine (Kharkiv area) 

from 1919 to 1935

translated from  Revue des Études slaves, (Paris, T. LXXVIII, fasc. 2-3, dec. 2007).

  Between February and April 1919, when the civil war is raging and the Red Army has just conquered Kharkiv region, tens of agricultural communes (kommuny) are created. In the same way as the “Second Paris Commune” (sic) in the village of Brigadirovka they assert in their statutes that “everything belongs to everyone; ... everyone works according to his or her strength and receives according to his or her needs; work is done together (collectively)”.

  These attempts to set up a radical and primary communism in every circumstance of life (work, family, education, decision making) concerns a few hundreds of thousand people from the Civil War period until the Great Turn, which is few considering the population of USSR. This is probably why so few books have been written about them(1). However if the communes are not the most striking feature of October, they are situated exactly where the Revolution intersects with Communism, as a political and social phenomenon, born of the revolutionary creativity and bringing into action the notions of community and equality(2). Owing to them, one can study Russian Revolution and Communism in a new way. The processes in which communes are set up and then perceived in their neighborhood is the very measure of the relation of the Soviet society to its ideals and the communes can be considered as as many laboratory experiments of the USSR.

  To do so, one had to follow their actors in their surroundings. Therefore this study has been made from the region of Kharkiv, the capital city of Soviet Ukraine from 1919 to 1934, taking in account the archives of the lowest units of the Party and State administration (villages, uezdy, rayony...) cross-checked by press and literary releases. The three elected parts match the canonical periods of the Soviet history: Civil War, NEP and the Great Turn.

  However we must first explain the origin of the revolutionary myth of Kommuna. The ideal of land collectivism which comes from the populists' legacy is ambiguous: the obshchina, in which the ownership of land is collective has always gone along with individual work and benefit. Moreover this traditional community crumbles at the beginning of the XXth century. When the Revolution starts, the S-R follow this evolution insisting only on the sharing of land. The word kommuna is made popular especially by anarchists in the wake of 1905 Revolution. Nevertheless it is Lenin who in the summer of 1917 imposes the concept of a “State-Commune” in the shape of a “free union of communes as a nation, of a merger of proletarian communes”. He meets the conception of Tkachev who in 1875 aimed at the “gradual change of the present peasants' community (obshchina) into a community-commune (obshchina-kommuna)”. As the people involved in revolution greedily falls in foreign words, the kommuna becomes the center of the revolutionary ideal referring to particular attempts (Paris or Petrograd communes) as well as to the final aim, the “World Commune”. In July 1918 finally the Bolshevik Party favored the set up of collective farms under the name of communes to solve the growing food crisis.


In the actual creation of particular communes around Kharkiv a few months later, the sources especially reveal the forms of political an social mobilization of the lowest class of the rural society. Landless peasants and day-laborers founded their communes by taking hold of large properties which they change into as many utopias. The beautiful houses of masters who have fled become dormitories and assembly rooms. Their general assemblies discuss endlessly about the sharing of the tasks, the revolution in Germany or the origin of the universe. They clumsily write down all this in minute-books duly stamped “Commune Red Flag” or “Our Labor”. In opposition of the assertions of both Soviet and western historiography, the “communards” are neither uprooted nor outcast but for most of them local, family people in their thirties. If the role of the communist militants is undeniable, it is not unilateral. Those who manage the Party locally and found the Soviet Land Administration live in communes too. Moreover “kommunar” and “kommunist” are then considered as synonyms.

  These first communes are swept away by the advance of Denikin's army (July 1919) and the coming back of the Reds six months later does not bring a new bloom of communes. This unveils a little-known face of the Civil War, a popular counter-revolution in reaction to the “kommuniya” in favor of the village patriarchal social order. The eradication of the communes is not due to the white guard but to the small landowners who coveted the snatched properties and dreaded the assertion of the poor and of the women. The reaction of visceral rejection is similar to the concomitant wave of anti-semitic pogroms in the west of the country(3).

It extends in 1920-1921 with peasant insurrections (called “banditism” in Soviet historiography) and ends in a compromise. Bolsheviks discourage the creation of communes and leave the social power in the village in the hands of influential heads of family. On the other hand they keep their political power in the countryside by using the plebeians' action in the form of Poor Peasants' Comities (Komitety nezamozhnykh selyan), created in Ukraine in May 1920. Hence originates the objectification of social stratification between poor, middle and riche peasants (bednyak – bidnyak, serednyak, kulak – kurkul’), words hardly used in 1919. This setback of the collectivist ideal is not a local phenomenon: it can be found in the debates about the agrarian question in the 2nd Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1920(4).

Communes appear in towns during the NEP. As life in common does not have necessarily a strong institutional character, sources about them are fragmentary. Except for a pedagogical, especially equalitarian commune which fights against the administration inertia(5), these collectives are marked by disillusion of the period. The “House of the Soviets” which is a hostel for leading CP militants is not a Utopia at all. “Do you think that if a house is overcrowded with communists, they have a communistic way of life? Not at all!...”. The militants are embittered and the younger ones who still believe in the “Commune” are like the Christians who long for redemption in an indefinite future. The other communes are laboratories of social control in behalf of the power and the elites. In an agricultural training institute, the apparatus of the CP restores an academic order by creating a student commune. The teaching staff is subjected to a “Council of the Commune” that also directs the students' life and everyone's maintenance is provided by collective farm work. The avant-garde theatrical company Berezil also live in commune with a “marvelous discipline”: witnesses agree to describe Kurbas as a charismatic leader and scientific organization of labor rules everyday life.

There are a few peasant communes in the countryside. In the kolkhozian movement which represents less than 2 % of the land, they are largely outclassed by artels and Association of Common Exploitation of the Land (TSOZ – TOOZ). The State gives them little help although they still recruit from the poorest people. But then “without capital it is too difficult to organize people” and “to do agricultural labor while infusing them with a conscious communal spirit”. So the emancipation movement slackens if compared to 1919. However the young and the women in the countryside consider communes as a space of unique freedom and a path to get education. Moreover despite a tendency to the professionalization of the leading staff the internal democratism is greatly the rule. Finally even according to the requirements of economical efficiency of the NEP, the communes are the most fruitful exploitations.

  The contemporary debates do not mention these good results. The “Enrich yourselves” uttered by Bukharin in 1925 expresses the mood of the period and even Trotsky supports collectivism reluctantly, promoting measures in favor of individualism in communes' organization. Likewise the broad discussion about the “New Way of Life” (Novy Byt) quickly reduces that matter to the modernization of the manners and the mechanization of laundry and cooking. In literature as well the battle for words is lost. Like Pilnyak and Platonov, the best representatives of the Ukrainian Renaissance (the prosaist Khvylovy, the poet Iohansen and the playwright Kulish) show a deep and strong liking to the Commune ideal and express its language originality. But as their experiments are always disappointing, they are mistaken for commune scorners. To fill this lack of representations, works of propaganda are similar to a factory of clichés. Journalists' sketches (ocherk – narys) back up popular prejudice by showing communes as examples of tolerated extremism, but of little worth.

  This process paves the way for the overthrow of utopia by the power at the time of the “Great Turn”. When you read Stalin's speeches from 1929 to 1931 you see how he enforces the cooperative artel against two deviations: the rightist one with the Associations of Common Exploitation of the Land and the leftist one with the communes. As a matter of fact the “complete collectivization” kills the communes which do exist. The compulsory enlistment of villagers marginalize the small group of communards who had joined deliberately. Statutory reforms put an end to internal democratism. The strict egalitarianism between members vanishes when private property is even imposed! The famine in 1933 and the kolkhozian status  in 1935 destroy the last collectives. In the dreary countryside there are only left artels managed in a bureaucratic and patriarchal way.

In towns, a mimic collectivism goes along with the beginning of the Five-year Plan. Among the new forms of organization of the industrial work, the power stages the upsurge of the communes of production(6).

They are soon condemned because of wage leveling – which hinders the spirit of emulation. Nevertheless in Kharkiv factories communes withstand nearly two years against the reorganization in brigades – which shows the workers' objection to the hierarchical pressure. Nothing like that in the students' communes which are first of all instruments of social control in the huge newly-built students' hostels. The same with the only house-commune built at the same time, the big housing complex “Novy Pobut” which shows above all the authorities incompetence throughout the building work and the greediness of the communist leaders to take a few square meters for themselves to live in, even though they were intended to be collective housing.

In the upheaval of the Soviet society, the communes are a frequent topic in speeches whereas they have not played an actual part. Intentionally or not, the power has made them the scarecrow of a social turmoil in comparison with which the enrollment in kolkhoz or brigades would be a lesser evil. Writers follow this interpretative scheme in painting the “socialist offensive” in the countryside with the same colors as the Civil War. For Khvylovy “everything reminded of my dear friend, the year nineteen nineteen – nineteen twenty”. It is why the communards' opposition, though real, is weak and inaudible: their egalitarism and their democratism seem to be an effect of the official propaganda. In using the revolutionary rhetoric of the Civil War, the power and the elites prevented the poorer classes to express the least disapproval.

Later on, the image of the communes never disappears completely from Soviet culture. For example Makarenko's epic novels about the Gorky Colony (in Poltava from 1920 to 1927) and the Dzerzhinsky Commune (in Kharkiv from 1927 to 1934) intermingles revolutionary themes of the communards' tradition with authoritarian elements of stalinist restoration of the order. The commune myth remains as a distant glimmer of the revolutionary blaze and of the attempts to extinguish it. 

Endnotes :

1. Robert G. WESSON, Soviet Communes, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick (New Jersey), 1963. Anatole KOPP, Changer la vie, changer la ville : de la vie nouvelle aux problèmes urbains, URSS 1917-1932, UGE « 10/18 », Paris, 1975 (chap. VI & VII, p. 159-214). V.V. GRIŠAEV, Sel’sko-xozâjstvennye kommuny Sovetskoj Rossii 1917-1929, M, 1976. Basile KERBLAY, « Les utopies communautaires au ban d’essai de la Russie des années vingt », (Revue des Études Slaves, LVI/1, 1984) in Du mir aux agrovilles, Institut d’Études Slaves, Paris, 1985 ; p. 171 sq. Richard STITES, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1989 ; chap. 10, p. 205-222. N.B. LEBINA, Povsednevnaâ žizn’ sovetskogo goroda 1920-1930 gody : normy i anomalii, Neva / Letnij Sad, SPb, 1999 ; chap. II.3 « Kommuna », p. 159-177. Istoriâ ukraïns’koho selânstva ; narysy v 2-x tomax [holova red. rady : V.M. LYTVYN], Nacional’na akademiâ nauk Ukraïny – Instytut istoriï Ukraïny / Naukova dumka, K, 2006 ; t. 2, p. 79-81.

2. See Éric AUNOBLE, « Les utopies, moteurs d'histoire », Revue des deux Mondes, avril 2000.

3. See Éric AUNOBLE, « Troubles de la guerre civile et mise en ordre révolutionnaire en Ukraine (1917-1921) », communication aux journées d'étude L’Ukraine et la Biélorussie – quels voisins pour l’Union Européenne ? (ENS, Paris, mars 2006).

4. See Éric AUNOBLE, « Le communisme tout de suite ! », le mouvement des communes en Ukraine soviétique (1919-1920), éditions Les Nuits rouges, Paris, 2008.

5. See Éric AUNOBLE, « S'éduquer à part pour mieux s'intégrer ? Les communes pédagogiques en Ukraine soviétique (1920-24) », Revue d’Histoire de l’enfance ‘‘irrégulière’’ – Le Temps de l’histoire, n°7 (décembre 2005).

6. See Éric AUNOBLE, « Les ouvriers et le pouvoir à Kharkov de 1920 à 1933, à travers les archives régionales », Cahiers du mouvement ouvrier (CERMTRI), n°13 & 14, avril et juin 2001.