Maurice Hindus, Red Bread. 1931
Walking along the meadow past the schoolhouse, I chanced to meet Sergey. He was pasturing a cow in the rich grass of the lowlands. His face had grown broader and thinner; his brush-like beard had visible streaks of gray, and his eyes had widened abnormally, as those of a man afflicted with illness and tribulation. He did not smile, as was his wont, when he greeted me. He was ominously solemn, and no sooner had he replied to my greetings than he launched into a lament. The worst day in his life was now upon him-trouble, trouble, trouble, and no way of escape. Wherever he turned he found himself checked, pushed back. A new policy in the villages- socialization of the land, the kolkhoz - had I heard of it?
Ah, what a state he had come to! In the early days of the Revolution the Soviets sought to crush him with taxes. He had come to such a pass that at one time he thought of chopping down his fruit trees in order to escape the ruinous taxation. Then the Soviets reversed. their position. As a good farmer, capable of becoming a source of culture in the village and serving as an example and stimulus to others to lift their households to a higher plane of productivity, his taxes were lessened and he was encouraged to make the most of his resources. He did. He had struck his stride. He was successful. He was attaining something, getting somewhere, and he was happy. Then the Soviets had gone back to their original policy, only more ruthlessly. And now, because he had recently engaged hired labor for the gathering of his rye, as he had always done, they labeled him zazhitochnyi, just a grade lower than a kulak, and levied on him a super-tax. Cows, horses, pigs, hens, every crop he raised, every tree in his orchard, every bee hive he had, they taxed according to a new and crushing schedule. And he would not fool himself as to the purpose of this new attack. It was intended to stifle him. Campaigning for the kolkhoz as they were, the Soviets wanted to rid the villages of the more successful individual farmer. They did not want him side by side with the kolkhozy, for fear he would be a menace to the latter. That was clear enough to him. But how could he join a kolkhoz, he who was accustomed to do all his own planning and thinking and everything? There had been talk of putting him out of his house and taking his land away from him. But he pleaded with the authorities and begged them to have mercy on him, and they finally agreed to allow him to remain on his own premises if he would pay the sum of one thousand rubles. That, then, was the reward he was offered for his lifelong efforts to make something of himself and to prepare for the uncertainties and incapacities of old age. And what could he do now? He had thought of painting his house, but even if he were to remain in it, he would not bother. They would point at him as at a landlord. He was not even mending his fences any more. Once he had five cows, now he had only three; in the fall he would sell one more. Once be owned three horses; now he kept only one, and he would never have more-what the devil was the use, if the political axe was swung down on him every time he made a step forward? The individual did not count. Like an insect he was to be stepped upon and crushed ...
A pig had strayed into the path of the pasturing cow and she fled in panic, bellowing frantically. He started after her, and with the help of his dog drove her back to his own land. He approached me again panting heavily and sweating. Removing his hat, he wiped the sweat with his hand and I noted a patch of baldness on the top of his head. His forehead was charted with strips by deep dirt-filled wrinkles; his eyes, deeply sunken, made his broad nose appear enormous, like a clown's. He looked beaten. I said nothing, but he divined my thoughts and added: "Yes, I have grown old in five years ... If you come five years hence, I'll be a tottering old man, or else dead, May be it would be better if I were dead ... My children are young and they may be able to work into the new system. I do not know ... It may be a good system, too. Perhaps people will be happier in a kolkhoz than they are now as individual farmers -Perhaps. But I am too old to change. God! - " He turned away choking with sobs. In a moment he recovered and apologized for giving vent to his feelings. " Come on Sunday anyway and taste some of my new honey."
I walked on. From the distance I heard someone hailing me. I turned, and saw running toward me a little man wearing a huge cap, his bushy beard flowing over his breast. It was Ekim Lavrentin. " Ah," he spoke as he shook my hand heartily, " countryman of ours, it is so good you came! Have you seen our Miron in America? Nu, Miron, the very one with whom you once killed a little animal in your father's cellar -Do you remember? Yes, he has been in America a long, long time, since before the war, and, countryman dear, the other day we got a letter saying that he killed himself. just imagine! The devil only knows what had possessed him. And think of it -over a woman, yes, a woman! He was living in a place called Meetchigan. He and a friend of his had a room together in a private home, and both of them fell in love with their landlady. But she was married and had a husband and children. So Miron could not stand it, and blew out his brains. Over a woman! -What a fool I If he had come here with his American dollars and his American clothes and his American ways, he could have married the finest girl in this village or in any around here ... Ah, what fools some people can be! "
I went with him to his home, a drooping hovel with a dirt floor and unwashed windows, some of them without glass and stuffed with flax husks. The huge coarse table was laden with cucumbers, bread, empty wooden dishes, spoons, round which flocks of flies buzzed viciously. His wife came in with a pail of fresh milk. She strained it into two earthen jars, one of which she set on the table. Fetching a glass, she invited me to help myself to milk. Ekim hurried out to the cupboard and returned with a platter of butter. Placing it beside me and pushing the bread my way, he insisted that I partake of their meager hospitality- meager, indeed, when in Moscow butter and milk were rationed and could be obtained only by long waiting in endless queues! A poor man this Ekim was, but butter and milk he had in greater abundance than any man that I knew in Moscow.
Eagerly Ekim and his wife proceeded to relate the gossip of the village - so and so was married, so and so had died, so and so was beating his wife, so and so was threatening to leave her husband. Women were growing worldly-some of them were even talking of going to the hospital in the city for abortions. They did not want to have many children any more! What was the use, they said, with babies dying so fast? But perhaps the nursery would change things; all were now hoping it would, though at first a lot of folks did not think much of it. There had been a murder in the village for the first time in ages - only last winter, too! Early of an evening Amelko Hrinuk had been visiting in the home of an acquaintance, and as he sat there talking, an unseen person fired at him through the window and shot him dead. The whole town was in an uproar, yet at heart people were glad, because Amelko was a hoodlum. He had organized a secret band which plundered the neighboring villages. He had disgraced the name of the community, for our people had always been honest. Now all was well enough in the village except for this kolkhoz. All but the young folks were afraid of it, even the bedniaks, in spite of all the promises made to them. Some of them were signing up; they almost had to; but their hearts were not in it. What did I think of it? Were there kolkhozy in America? No? Ah, then perhaps they were not a good thing, because if they were, America would have had them, wouldn't she? America had the best of everything. Nu, what could a dark, dirty muzhik know? He had no mind for anything big or new, and this Revolution with its kolkhozy and other ozy was compelling him to think, think, think, until he had no brains left for anything else.
Neighbors had begun to gather. They had heard of my arrival, and they stopped in on their way home from the fields, sickles on their shoulders, wooden water-buckets on their backs. They were bursting with eagerness to talk-and their chief topic was the kolkhoz.
"There was a time, my dear," began Lukyan, who had been a blacksmith, and who, despite his seventy-odd years, was upright as a young birch and possessed a head of hair that a man of thirty might envy, " there was a time when we were just neighbors in this village. We quarreled, we fooled, sometimes we cheated one another. But we were neighbors. Now we are bedniaks, sredniaks, kulaks. I am a sredniak, Boris here is a bedniak, and Nisko is a kulak, and we are supposed to have a class war-pull each other's hair or tickle each other on the toes, eh? One against the other, you understand? What the devil! " And he shrugged his shoulders as though to emphasize his bewilderment at the fresh social cleavage. To him the launching of the class war in his village was an artificially made affair.
"They call me a bedniak," broke in fat-lipped, freckled Boris Kotlovy, " and there probably is no bigger bedniak in the whole of Russia than I am. But think of it: in the old days I would pay my five or seven rubles in taxes, and I would be let alone; not even a dog would look into my private yard. And now I pay no taxes at all, thank you, but I am constantly pestered by this and that-insurance for cow, insurance for horse, insurance for house, insurance for crops. Soon they will be asking insurance for my lapti or for my toe-nails."
"In this thing, brother Boris," interposed another flat-faced muzhik, "you are indeed wrong. Insurance is not bad.
"Who says it is bad? " interrupted Boris. " Only why should I have to pay for it? " Laughter greeted his words. But he was in earnest. No peasant, still less a bedniak, ever likes to meet a cash obligation, regardless of the worthiness of its purpose.
"But it is other things that worry us," continued the flat-faced muzhik as though unconscious of the interruption, " it is this kolkhoz. That, citizen, is a serious matter - the most serious we have ever encountered. Who ever heard of such a thing -to give up our land and our cows and our horses and our tools and our farm buildings, to work all the time and divide everything with others? Nowadays members of the same family get in each other's way and quarrel and fight, and here we, strangers, are supposed to be like one family. Can we -dark, beastly muzhiks -make a go of it without scratching each other's faces, pulling each other's hair or hurling stones at one another? "
"And the worst of it is that it is not for just a certain length of time, but forever," remarked another
man. "A soldier may not like to live in barracks with other soldiers, but he knows that it is temporary. In the kolkhoz, citizen, it means barracks for life. Only death will rescue us from it."
"What is the use of talking," commented a fat-chinned woman, dolefully shaking her head, "we are lost now, by Jove we are; the harder we work the more plague we have on our hearts."
"We won't even be sure," someone else continued the lament, " of having enough bread to eat. Now, however poor we may be, we have our own rye and our own potatoes and our own cucumbers and our own milk. We know we won't starve. But in the kolkhoz, no more potatoes of our own, no more anything of our own. Everything will be rationed out by orders; we shall be like mere batraks' on the landlord's estates in the old days. Serfdom - that is what it is - and who wants to be a serf? "
"Yes, and some woman will have ten children and will get milk for all of them; another will have only one child and will get milk for only one, and both will be doing the same work. Where is the justice? Hal "
"We older folk, " protested a bewhiskered graybeard leaning on a heavy staff, " might as well tie a noose around our heads and bid the world goodbye; the young scalawags will tread all over us. It is bad enough even now while we are still masters of our households and our hands yet hold the reins. But in a kolkhoz, the young scoundrels will put bits into our mouths as though we were horses and steer us around to suit themselves - cursed youth I "
"Dark-minded beasts we may be," wailed another muzhik in the hopeless tone which is so habitual to the
peasant whether in real or imaginary distress. " We are not learned; we are not wise. But a little self-respect we have, and we like the feeling of independence. Today we feel like working, and we work; tomorrow we feel like lying down, and we lie down; the next day we feel like going to town, and we go to town. We do as we please. But in the kolkhoz, brother, it is do-as-you-are-told, like a horse go this way and that, and don't dare turn off the road or you get it hard, a stroke or two of the whip on bare flesh ... We'll just wither away on the socialist farm, like grass torn out by the roots."
"Hoodlums and loafers, " continued still another peasant, " might readily join a kolkhoz. What have they to lose? But decent people? Their hearts bleed when they see weeds in a field, a leak in a roof. They are
khoziaeva, masters, with an eye for order, for results. But what could they say in a kolkhoz? What could they do except carry out the orders of someone else. That's the way I look at it."
"Nu," " remonstrated a little man whose cap was pulled down over his ears and who was smoking a pipe shiny with grease, " there is no use in making the thing look so very black. After all, we are not mere cattle.
We have not got much culture, and we are backward, but we are not without sense. I can only speak for myself. If there were only an example of how a kolkhoz works, so that we could see with our eyes what is what, we wouldn't be so afraid, none of us ... Perhaps it is the best thing for us -who knows? But we sit here in this quiet little village, go nowhere, see nothing and know nothing, and here they come with this kolkhoz so new and so different from anything we have ever heard
of, and what shall we do? We are just afraid, that's what we are, all of us."
"It wouldn't be so bad if they would only put three or four Jews in with us. We don't know how to run big things, but Jews are clever, they might make a go of it, suggested an old muzhik in a sheepskin hat and a huge linen shirt that hung down to his knees.
"But supposing there is a war," broke in the fat-chinned woman again, " have- you thought of that? "
They stated at one another and at me, transfixed with anxiety.
"Do you think there will be a war? " The little man turned to me.
"Why are they shouting so much about it if there isn't going to be any? someone speculated.
"Yes, why? Why? several others repeated almost in unison.
"And if there is a war, and the invaders come and find us living on a kolkhoz, they will say we are Communists and they will cut our throats."
"The Poles will do that anyway."
"They will, they will. Oh, how they will!
How revealing these open-hearted words of theirs were! Earnest, simple-minded folk, utterly devoid of a sense of worldliness, or of a spirit of adventure, they were actuated solely by the elementary urge of physical self-preservation. The Revolution had shaken them mightily, but it had failed to implant in them either the imagination or the social audacity which would have enabled them to welcome the proposed innovation. They were afraid to break away from their old fastnesses lest the very earth under them give way and they tumble into an ugly void.
"But," I said, " is the Soviet actually compelling you to join the kolkhoz? "
"No, no, no," several voices responded. That, of course, was in the summer of 1929, before the so-called "Great Break."
"But it might as well," answered Boris the bedniak. "They have given me no peace of mind since they started the campaign here."
"They make it so hard if we don't join," commented the old man with the long shirt, " that in the end we'll have to join anyway."
Another muzhik spoke slowly and thoughtfully, as though he were musing aloud: "Ah, if only we had any assurance that their promises would be fulfilled, that we could really get all the things they say the kolkhoz will give us ... I wouldn't hesitate a minute, I wouldn't, even if it is something new and different from what we have been used to."
At this point a new visitor arrived, a tall youth, in boots, in a black blouse and with a shaved head. I had never seen him before. At his appearance the muzhiks began to move about restlessly, though they replied to his greeting with promptness and cordiality.
"Here he is, " one of the older men began, " our peace-wrecker."
"Peace-maker, grandfather," the youth shot back good-naturedly.
Several men burst into sardonic laughter. But the youth paid no heed to them. A stranger in the village, he was the organizer of the kolkhoz, therefore a person of stern importance.
"I suppose they have been shedding tears about the kolkhoz," he said to me, and addressing the crowd he continued, "If you have any more tears to shed, you had better not stop now or you'll lie awake all night. Like babies they are," he turned to me again, " they never can fall asleep unless they have had a good cry; and now that you are here - an American - they will be sobbing their hearts out to you all the time. Oh, how they love to sob."
"What would you expect us to do-dance a jig over the ruination you are planning for us, ha? " remarked a stern-eyed muzhik who had not said much all evening, but who was continually puffing at a pipe which had long since gone out.
"Nothing of the sort, no; only it is about time you realized how dark-minded you are."
"That, tovarishch," a woman broke in angrily, we know without your reminding us. "You had better tell us why you want to take the bread away from us."
"Ingrate, you," sneered Boris the bedniak, "you ought to know that he does not want to snatch the bread out of our mouths. He wants to feed us roast pig for breakfast every morning."
"And why not?" fired back the agitator, "must capitalists alone eat roast pig? It won't hurt you if you, too, taste it once in a while."
Laughter, loud and derisive, greeted his words.
"You don't believe it possible," continued the agitator, unperturbed.
"Who said we don't? " sneered the old man with the long shirt. "It must be possible since you Communists are saying it. When we have the kolkhoz we shall have a real heaven on earth! No wonder you are against the priests. You don't want to wait for a heaven in the hereafter. Our babas will be wearing silks and diamonds, and maybe we shall have servants bringing us tea and pastry to our beds. Haw, haw, haw! I served once as a lackey in a landlord's household. I know how rich people live."
"Everything is possible, grandfather, if we all pool our resources and our powers together," replied the visitor.
More laughter and more derisive comment.
"You Communists are good at making promises. If you would only be half as good at fulfilling them."
"What promises have we failed to fulfill? "
"All, all of them, " a number of voices exclaimed.
"Nu, be reasonable, citizens. There is a limit to jesting."
"Well, you have promised us a world revolution. Where is it? "
"Yes, where, where?
"The German workmen were going to send us textiles."
"The American workmen were going to send us machines."
"From every country workmen were going to send us things -that's what you've been promising us."
"Ekh, people, quit talking nonsense," shouted someone in the back of the room, " this world revolution's got stuck in the mud on our Russian roads."
A howl of laughter broke loose in which the agitator himself joined.
"It will come yet, this revolution," he said after the roar had subsided.
"Like the devil it will! Other people have more brains than we have."
The agitator remained calm-one has to be when one is among peasants who never hesitate to be frank and cruel in their speech. Counter-revolutionary as this thrust was, the agitator took no occasion to reprimand the speaker. It would have done him no good if he had, and might only have evoked further and more rabid thrusts. But he was beginning to show signs of restlessness. He shifted about and began absentmindedly to thump the table with his fingers.
"Be patient and the revolution will come yet. The bourgeoisie the world over will get it in the neck. Wait. But now let us be sensible. For the twentieth time I am telling you that the kolkhoz is your only salvation. There is no other for you. Why won't you be reasonable? Think, be sensible.
"You be sensible, " someone countered.
"Yes, you, you! " a host of voices continued.
"I am; we social workers always are."
"So are our cows - they always know enough to bellow when they are hungry and thirsty."
"Let me talk for awhile, let me say something ...
"Let him, let him, our savior! "
"Savior, savior I " again a chorus of voices jibed gleefully.
"Tell me, you wretched people, what hope is there for you if you remain on individual pieces of land? Think, and don't interrupt. Let us discuss it openly and let the American countryman of yours decide for himself. From year to year as you increase in population you divide and subdivide your strips of land. You cannot even use machinery on your land because no machine man ever made could stand the rough ridges that the strip system creates. You will have to work in your own old way and stew in your old misery. Don't you see that under your present system there is nothing ahead of you but ruin and starvation? "
"We never starved before you wise men of the Party appeared here."
"You came near to starving -why lie? -you bedniaks especially. Remember your yesterday. You are just too dark to see the good that we have in store for you. I want this American friend to see you as I see you, as you really are, as you never want to see yourselves. You do not think of a future, of ten, twenty, a hundred years from now, and we do. That's the difference between you and us. The coming generations mean nothing to you. Else you would see a real deliverance in the kolkhoz, where you will work with machinery in a modern organized way, with the best seeds obtainable and under the direction of experts. You accuse us of making false promises. Let us see. And please do not interrupt and do not giggle-Hear me, all."
He stepped forward, unbuttoned the collar of his blouse, and wiped the sweat from his face and neck. "What did you say five years ago when the Soviets offered you a landlord's home for a schoolhouse if you would only move it to the village? You called mass meeting after mass meeting and you voted down the proposition. I do not belong to your village, but I know your condition. I worked on the school board. You said, 'Let the Soviets move the building at their own expense.' Well, you lost that building, and only last year you got a schoolhouse; and have you forgotten how we of the Party and of the Soviet had to work to squeeze out of you through the voluntary tax your share of the cost of the schoolhouse? And now? Aren't you glad your children can attend school? Haven't you yourselves said that the schoolhouse is a blessing because in winter children can develop their minds and acquire real culture, instead of loafing around in the streets and becoming little savages? Tell me, were we wrong when we urged this schoolhouse on you - yes, and insulted and denounced you because you wouldn't meet us halfway on the project of building it? Were we wrong when we urged you to build a fire station? Were we wrong when we urged you to lay decent bridges across your stream in the swamp? Were we wrong when we threatened to fine you if you didn't take home two loads of peat to mix with the bedding for your stock so as to have good fertilizer for your fields? Were we wrong when we urged you to subscribe to newspapers? Were we wrong when we urged you to join the cooperative where you can get goods.
"There isn't any," someone interrupted.
"Nu," retorted the agitator, "don't be silly. You mean there is not everything you want? "
"There is not even tobacco paper any more," someone shouted.
"If there is none now, there will be some in a day or two, " continued the agitator, "don't expect everything at once. Yesterday there was cigarette paper, I myself got a package. Tomorrow there may be some more. But everything you get at the cooperative costs you one-half or one-third of what it would in the open market. Isn't that something? Everything we proposed you opposed. You always knew so much more than we did. You thought yourselves so all-wise, you ignorant creatures. You swore and cursed and threatened vengeance, but yet the bridge is laid across the river, the roads are mended so they are passable after a rain in the spring, the schoolhouse is built, the cooperative is supplying you with necessaries -some promises we have fulfilled."
The kolkhoz is different, " shouted the old man.
So you said about everything we proposed," the agitator shot back impatiently. "Different? Of course it is different. If we didn't believe in making things different, we never would have overthrown the Czar and the capitalists and the pomeshchik,` and we wouldn't have worked ourselves to exhaustion arguing and quarreling and fighting with you. Different? Of course; but better. Don't you see? Isn't it about time you stopped thinking each one for himself, for his own piggish hide? You kulaks of course will never become reconciled to a new order. You love to fatten on other people's blood. But we know how to deal with you. We'll wipe you off the face of the earth, even as we have the capitalists in the city. Make no mistake about our intentions and our powers. We shan't allow you to profit from the weakness of the bedniak. And we shan't allow you to poison his mind, either! Enough. But the others here-you bedniaks and you sredniaks - what have you gained from this stiff-necked individualism of yours? What? Look at yourselves, at your homes-mud, squalor, fleas, bedbugs, cockroaches, lapti. Are you sorry to let these go? Oh, we know you muzhiks - too well - we who are ourselves muzhiks. You can make strangers believe that we are
cutting you to pieces with axes. You can whine eloquently and pitifully. Yes, you are past masters in the art of shedding tears; you have done it for so many hundreds of years. You may fool a visitor like this countryman of yours from America. But we know you-you cannot fool us. We have grown hardened to your wails. Remember that. Cry all you want to, curse all you want to. You won't hurt us, and I warn you that we shan't desist. We shall continue our campaign for the kolkhozy until we have won our goal and made you free citizens in a free land."
Late in the evening we dispersed. I went home with an old friend, to sleep in his hay barn. There in the darkness I saw before me again the excited faces in Ekim's house and heard those vehement voices. What doubt, what indignation, what forlornness! I recalled the peasant meetings in the village five years previous. Then the muzhiks had complained of a shortage of salt, kerosene, dry goods, leather, soap. Women were heartbroken at the collapse of religion, and bewailed the self-assertiveness of children, especially of their sons. The mere mention of taxes brought forth howls of wrath. Now, in 1929, salt was plentiful and cheap; soap also was available, and kerosene. Dry goods and leather were scarce; cigarette paper was lacking -but they had evidently become used to that. As for taxes; one-third of them paid none at all, and the others - with the exception of Sergey and about five men like him who were considered well-to-do - were not overburdened with them. The women no longer seemed worried over the collapse of religion. Not one of them had mentioned it throughout the entire evening.
Of course they wanted a better life; but what assurance, other than the word of this young and implacably determined agitator, had they that the kolkhoz would offer it to them? These peasants never believed in anybody's words; they had always mistrusted the whole world. None of them had ever bought even a roll in the bazaar without first picking up the white roll and feeling of it to make sure that it was not hollow inside; they never bought a scythe or a sickle without eyeing it carefully from every angle, feeling of it with their hard hands, striking it against their boots, snapping their fingers on it and listening to the resulting sound, or even biting upon it with their teeth in order to make sure that they were not being fooled by the metal. And now they were to give up their individual land, their horses, their cows, their farm buildings-the things that had given them bread, protection against starvation, the very security they needed to hold body and soul together-all on the mere promise of a youthful agitator that this would enrich their lives! True, they could remain on their own pieces of land; as yet there was no effort to push them into the kolkhoz against their will. But they realized that they would not be favored. They saw what had happened to Sergey and to others like him who had worked their way to a semblance of material comfort.
They were overwhelmed with perplexity, and at the time little did they or I realize that this agitator and his speeches were but the first light breezes heralding the advance of a mighty storm.
Source: Maurice Hindus, Red Bread (New York: J. Cape & H. Smith, 1931), pp. 27-34.