29 MARCH 1930, Page 10

Life on a Communal Farm in Russia

[Amabel Williams-Ellis, Mr. St.. Loe Strachey's daughter, has just returned from a visit to Russia. In this interesting article she describes how life on a communal farm struck her. Mrs. Ellis's political views are not those of the Speckitor,- but this in no way lessens the interest of a very vivid piece of descriptive writing.— ED. Spectator.] " THIS is our prize trotter, Vozehd. He's getting old now, but he won hands down last year at the Kirsanov races, and even came in second at the big races up at Tambov. He 'sired that lot of yearlings you saw in the other loose‘boxes."

Strangely enough, the conversation was taking place in English, for Dmitri, who is in charge of all the horses in the Lenin Commune, is, like so many members of that community, a returned emigrant from America, After the 1905 revolution there was a rush to emigrate. Russians who had been involved in one or another of the risings got away if they could, and went to live in Australia or the United States. There they stayed till 1917 made .them believe in the dawn of new. world and long for home. Even then it was difficult for them and their families to get back. Fares had to-be scraped together, and under war conditions transport for emigrants was almost an impossibility.

But by 1922-23 a band of these Russians were homesick both for Russia and for the Revolution joined themselves together, and after countless difficulties did get back. The Soviets welcomed them, of course, for even then the Communist party ewas dreaming of a socialized agriculture, and these people were prepared to live the life most approved of by the Party. They were those rarest of creatures, a set of experienced fanners, smiths, and lumbermen, who were ready to till the soil under conditions of full Communism.

I never heard by what- exact process this particular batch found themselves in the place in which I saw them. It was the estate formerly owned by a Cossack Ataman in the old government of Tambov, some twelve or fourteen miles from the little town of Kirsanov. When they got there in 1923 Russia was only just recovering from the famine. The Soviet authorities, besides giving the land, managed to scrape together six half-starved horses, six foals, seventeen cows and a few .pigs. Unfortunately, the Ataman's house had been burnt down in the course of a bandit raid—I was shown the ruins—and so, until they could build houses for themselves the new community had to live in tents, and to live, or even to eat, in a tent through a Russian winter is no joke.

The rules were strict and the life hard. Each member who joined the community contributed the whole of his means, but if he wanted to leave again he might only take out a tiny part of his contribution—hardly more than his fare to Moscow. So terrible were the conditions at the beginning that out of 103 members 49 had left before the end of the year. But the stalwarts were not depressed, for more than that number of new members joined. By 1926 the community was definitely on its feet, and when I was there three weeks ago there were 400 members, while the Commune cowsheds, stables, piggeries, orchards and wheatfields were the envy and admiration of the surrounding peasants.

There was snow on the ground, so I could see nothing of the fields but only guess at the activity that there would be presently from the huge collection of ploughs and harrows waiting round the blacksmith's shop. The Commune mend implements for themselves and for all the surrounding peasants, and the smiths work three shifts a day, so that the glow and the ringing hammer- strokes are always part of the sights and sounds of the farm. There was a hard frost, and there had been a mist in the night. As I passed the smithy every tree was covered with rime frost, its intricate lacework vivid against- a bright blue sky ; but it was cold, and I was glad to push open the door. I stood for a long time watching that fascinating work.

In Russia, as in America, everybody says to the• traveller : " And what do you think of us ? " But for Once I managed to anticipate the question. " What do you think of the Commune ? " I said to the smith. I found him full of criticism. " Well," he said, " in the first place, we are packed far too tight. It is true that no cooking has to be done in it, and it is true that the children are out all day, it is true we have the club, but I and my wife want more than just one room."

I told him that I had just been visiting a peasant but in the neighbourhood where father and mother, grown-up daughter, two little boys, a black lamb, a white lamb, a black calf and a striped cat all lived in a single room, with straw on the floor and no furniture. He brushed that aside contemptuously. " Oh, yes," he said, " we live better than those peasants, of course But you wine' back to the Lenin Commune in five years. Then we'll shave you something ! For instance, I know we have a good cliche for the children, but why should they have to sleep with their mother ? The mother should play with her child whenever she wants, spend all her time with it if she likes, but let it be because she wants to, not because she has to. I think a woman should be as free. . . " he paused for a long _time, hammer in hand, his English having suddenly failed him. " As free as a young girl ? " I suggested. " Yes," he said, " that's it."

Farming methods seem to be very up to date. The cows, for instance, are milked three times a day, and the calves do not run with their mothers at all. The three-times milking seemed to me rather a hardship on the women milkers, for one milking takes place at one o'clock in the morning, so that the • white-kerchiefed, white-overalled women who do this branch of the work only get an unbroken night on their rest day. I made friends with one of the milkers who talked German. One of her children, a boy, is attending the university at the joint expense of the Commune and the State. Her little girl of seven is looked after in the kindergarten, and has her carefully prepared and dietetically correct meals there. She suggested that we should have our meal together.

The Communal dining-room was nearly full, but we found places at one of the oilcloth-covered tables. It was a good country meal, with a kind of gigantic homeric air about it—like so much at the Commune. Cabbage soup with a good piece of meat in it, two, three helpings if you could, and then delicious white bread with sultanas in it, served with a plate of curd cheese. There was warm fresh milk to drink, and a mug of tea made a finish. She apologized because there was no meat except the meat in the soup. " We used to have meat every day, but now the Government wants us to breed from our stock, so now we scarcely sec meat—but there is plenty of everything else."

" How do you like the life here ? " I said. " Much better than when I lived in the village," she said. " When I lived in the village, it was all work. Here I have my work at certain times, but the rest of the time I am free. I do like having the children looked after for me ! I like to see them in the evening, but to have children about all day when you've got your work to get on with gives me a headache. Besides, when I lived in the village it was so lonely. Here I can see other people whenever I want." She regards getting up at one o'clock in the bitter frost, and all the rest of her work, as a rest cure compared to the village housewife's day. After the meal she went back to the cow byre. " Ah, believe, me," she said as we parted, " when I lived in the village, my life was dark."

I went out to the woods with the teams and the men cutting and hauling trees, and amused them very much by taking a hand with cross saw and axe. " This is an American axe," one of the men said proudly. " Just you feel the difference ! I brought it back with me. These Russian axes are no damn good I " A new Com- munal dwelling-house was being put up. It was being built of unseasoned poplar logs, the chinks stuffed with moss. This building is very skilled work, and old peasants from a village near by came to do it. No one in the Commune knew the trick of it.

Then there was the creche to see. I watched the kindergarten children doing musical drill ; in the evenings I was taken off to meetings in the club, and was there soundly beaten at chess. The weekly cinema show I missed.

*Although life at the Lenin Commune seems to rank as " fully communalized," a great many property rights still exist, nor are incomes all the same. There is, of course, a basic standard. Members and their families get their food, housing, fuel and light, and, in addition, working members get an average of 860 roubles a year and non-working adult members an average of 280 roubles a year, but . most money payMents are reckoned by the day. Members elected to the Commune governing body* get higher pay than the ,ordinary members,-but the joiner, head blacksmiths, and bricklayers get more again. The calculation of the pay seems at first peculiar. For instance, the average pay is about 90 copecks a day; from which •an allowance of 40 kopeks a day deducted for food.

Payments arc calculated in this way because it may be impossible -to find jobs for certain members of the CommUne at certain seasons of the year, For instance, there is very little work for the women during the winter months. There are the milkers, teachers, girls who work in kindergarten or creche, and in rotation all women help in the kitchen. But this does not absorb all the women in the Commune, of whom there are about 200. A woman for whom no job is found gets no pay, but gets her meals free. If, however, a woman is not working because she is going to have a child, she gets full pay as a working member for one .month before and one month after the birth of the baby, and of course all necessary medical attention.

Much has been heard in England and America of the hardships of villages forced to collectivize. In the district round the Lenin Commune no difficulty is being experienced. The ordinary peasants' life is too hard, and the life of the member of the Commune too com- paratively comfortable, not to tell its own tale. Some of the old men don't want to co-operate, and. say so, but the younger people like the new ways and mean to get their share of the advantages. One neighbouring village proposes not to form the usual " Kolhos," in which merely the farm work is done together, but to imitate- the Lenin Commune in all things, pull down their huts, build communal houses and kitchens, and become " fully communalized."

I was amused by the attitude of _ some of the young people of the original- Commune towards this new move-, ment. Frankly, they are inclined to sniff, as I found when I spent a delightful evening with some of the boys and girls who had been born in America or Australia. We were out to recall old times, and sang " Three Blind Mice," " Black-Eyed Susan," " Clementine" and kindred lyrics to a little orchestra of balalaikas . and guitars, betweenwhiles discussing the world,-; New. York; Mel-. bourne, Vladivostock and their futures. ." What -do you think I'd better be when I'm grown up ? "- We tossed, all kinds of careers about. • . These young people look down on the peasants. ". It's very hard on us children," one of them said to me. " In- our holidays and off days we are supposed to• go out and teach them to read, and write. They are so stupid, especially- the old. ones. Besides, they aren't clean, and- they aren't civilized." I suggested that perhaps they. might become civilized if us children " worked hard enough to teach them. But they have a sad prophetic sense of -the size of that great plain. Beyond the next village. there is another village, and beyond that yet another, and from every village the peasants need civilizing." - They come in hordes wanting to learn, wanting a remedy for a sick child or a sick cow, or simply . wanting a new kind of cigarette.

_ However, the thought, did not sadden them long,. and they were off, nineteen to the dozen, telling me where the raspberries grew in the woods, -and about how they would soon be gathering armfuls of lilies of- the valley. Of course, when they grew up these young 'people will be quite free to leave. Jinnie, aged seventeen, came back to the subject and discussed her future almost- auxinusly.with me._ She likes animals, and likes learning anatomy, but does not, feel inclined to go through the long training necessary to be a doctor, I think she will probably end by being something equivalent to a veterinary surgeon. Another girl, who spoke no English, was deep in a manual. I looked over her shoulder: It was a handbook in Russian on the Ford_ son trietor. " She knows what she is going to be," said Jinnie. " She is going to be an engineer, and to learn all about machinery, and what you have to do to these things "— pointing a contemptuous finger and shuddering.