Lenin in Siberia

I have just completed the 600-page work by Lenin called The Development of Capitalism in Russia (vol 3 of the Collected Works), written while he was in exile in Shushenskoye village in eastern Siberia. Nothing like ‘exile’ for some productive work! Before a few wayward comments on this text, I realised when reading it that I have been in this area, on the Trans-Siberian train. Shushenskoye is in the region of Krasnoyarsk and that city is a stop on the railway line. It’s a long way from Petersburg:

Here’s the house, or rather shack, in which he lived for three years, from 1897-1900:

And today:

Not bad, really, although it gets a little chilly in winter:

Not quite the same village, but you get the picture.

But travelling through the area, it strikes you that the infamous ‘exile’ to Siberia, often for mere misdemeanours, was actually a large-scale resettlement program. Begun in the 18th century, the populous west was encouraged by whatever means to move to the sparsely-populated east. For example, during World War Two, whole populations, industries and universities were moved to Siberia, out of harm’s way and a big boon for resettlement. The result: in 1709 the total population was 230,000; now it is over 36 million. And cities such as Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk and Perm  have populations of a million or more each.

As for the book, it covers in very sober detail (minus Lenin’s usual polemic and love of exclamations) the shifts in agriculture, handicraft and manufacturing that manifest the growth of capitalist relations. I must admit to being intrigued by discussions of the ‘melon crisis’, ‘pulling squirrels’, Lacanian-style diagrams, the measuring of horse-shit in ‘poods’ (as a feature of the economy), and the tendency to classify peasants as no-horse, one-horse or many-horse, so much so that he uses the intriguing term ‘horse employments’.

But above all a very Hegelian Lenin appears in this book, even before he had systematically studied Hegel (he knew Marx back-to-front by this stage). Hegelian? Like a bass-line, an underlying dialectical theme keeps re-emerging: capitalism is the best and worst thing that happened to Russia. So we find statements like:

Capitalism for the first time broke down these purely medieval barriers – and it was a very good thing that it did (p. 316).

Alongside assessments of working conditions:

People have to work in a stifling atmosphere filled with the harmful vapours emanating from accumulated horse-dung (p. 420).

The agricultural workers … travel on foot, since they lack the money for a rail fare … The journey takes from 10 to 12 days, and after such a long tramp (sometimes undertaken barefoot in the cold spring mud), the travellers’ feet swell and become calloused and bruised (p. 242).

How to make sense of such a contradiction?

Recognition of the progressiveness of this role is quite compatible (as we have tried to show in detail at every stage in our exposition of the facts) with the full recognition of the negative and dark sides of capitalism, with the full recognition of the profound and all-round social contradictions which are inevitably inherent in capitalism (p. 596).

Wouldn’t be bad reading in today’s Russia, it seems to me, although a post-script would need to be added on the transition from communism back to capitalism…

Lenin’s immediate theoretical targets in the book are the Narodniks, liberal romantics who saw the development of capitalism as completely evil. These Narodniks stressed the uniqueness of Russian history (which Lenin counters), the evils of multi-national industry, the value of small producers, communal bonds in villages and towns, the attachment of people to place, the great boon of cottage industries and mutual co-operation between master and servant. In short, they espouse locality, family, moral economy, virtuous elites and common popular customs – just like Alasdair Maclagan and the Red Tories.


7 thoughts on “Lenin in Siberia

    1. The whole lot happenned to be in a couple of boxes out the back of the New International bookshop in Melbourne a couple of years ago, given by an old communist couple for resale. It’s the 1960- edition, with a reprint in 1977. I wouldn’t mind getting hold of the Russian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.