Was the Bolshevik regime locked in an inexorable death struggle with the Russian peasantry? This study investigates the police reports on the peasants during the early years of the New Economic Policy (NEP) as the new Soviet state attempted to establish a working relationship with rural Russia through a variety of organizations. Chief among these was the police. Contrary to the image of the Stalinist police thug, this study demonstrates that as the government sought to determine the meaning of the NEP, the police in rural Russia attempted to provide the central authorities with accurate information on economic, social, and political conditions in the countryside and to establish a positive relationship with the peasantry. In the process, the police came to understand the peasantry well and demonstrated a complex appreciation of the realities of rural Russia rather than a simple proto-Stalinist worldview. These labours at joining state and society through policing, as we know, ultimately failed. The police effort at bridging this gap, however, is worthy of our appreciation.
It was not so much that the police were champions of the peasantry. Rather, the reports from rural Russia reveal an organization that at this moment championed information. And that information indicated that the peasants were not simple inveterate enemies of Bolshevism. The peasants, the police came to argue, were logical beings whose cooperation, just as their antagonism, could be won. Police reports on the reactions to news of Lenin's death offer us a starting point for perceiving aspects of state-peasant interaction. The death of Lenin would permit a gradual reopening of the "peasant question" and thus the period surrounding that event represents a crucial turning point in the history of Sovietpeasant relations.
According to top-secret police reports to the party leadership,1 Lenin's passing produced serious anxiety among peasants. One peasant outside a teahouse in the town of Nizhniy Novgorod was overheard ominously stating: "If Trotsky takes Lenin's place, life as we know it will not continue."2 Almost immediately rumours circulated amongst the peasants of the Moscow region of a schism within the party leadership. Leon Trotsky figured prominently in these rumours that included claims that he had been shot by Leningrad party boss Grigory Zinoviev, that he had been arrested, and that he and Mikhail Kalinin, Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets (in other rumours, he and Civil War hero General Semyon Budennyi), were in conflict. Soon, it was whispered, there would be a coup d'état. In one of the odder rumours, it was claimed that Lenin had actually been dead for the last six months and had been frozen! Only a demand from delegates to the Congress of Soviets for him to be presented dead or alive allegedly produced the report of his death.3 The police in Moscow guberniia reported genuine grief among the peasants at hearing of Lenin's death. Peasants attending a non-party conference in Moscow were reported to have "cried like children" when informed of his passing and demanded to be allowed to attend his funeral. The secret police had feared that Lenin's death might lead to a peasant uprising against the Bolsheviks, and yet tiiey reported to Moscow that "there has been no agitation [against the government] on this account."4 In what was the expression of a sincere and widely felt popular outpouring, thousands of peasants waited in line in the freezing cold to enter the House of die Trade Unions where Lenin's body lay in state until the funeral, a scene captured on film by Soviet Cinéma Véritéist Dziga Vertov.5
This reaction to news of Lenin's death brings to the fore the problem of how state and rural society had come to interact by 1924. A window on this crucial issue is provided by the reports of the secret police. The svodki, at least until the beginning of the Stalin Revolution in the fall of 1927, concentrated not on alleged party left- and right-wing deviations and supposed anti-Soviet conspirators, but on the economic and social-political situation in the villages and peasant attitudes, in particular the reasons for peasant dissatisfaction. …