Can the peasant speak?

I’ve now reached Chapter 3, ‘The return of the peasant’, in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m going to linger here for a few posts, even though it’s only a short chapter. I’ll begin at rather an oblique slant to the substance of the chapter by relating a story told to me by my friend P, reproduced here with his kind permission.

This photograph is of P’s grandfather, G, who was born in the province of Karelia, Eastern Finland, in 1889. At this time, Finland was an autonomous duchy of the Russian empire, and Russian Orthodox Christianity was prominent in Eastern Karelia. G’s ancestry in the immediate locality where he was born went back at least three generations, probably more. The subsistence-oriented swidden farming which we were recently discussing here (later transplanted to Appalachia by Scandinavian migrants) was a recent reality in this area. As P puts it, “this was a man whose roots were deep in the place that he came from. His cultural and farming practices were also deeply rooted in this landscape”.

G was the oldest of six children. When his father died in 1911 it fell to him to sort out the inheritance and allot the family land among his kinsfolk. G himself moved a little way from the village and established a new farm. In 1915 he got married, and between 1917 and 1937 the couple had nine children, two of whom died in infancy from pneumonia.

Swidden farming had been actively suppressed by the Finnish government in the mid-19th century as the country’s economy became increasingly connected with the wider world, and the timber resources of its wooded slopes imbued land with a higher monetary value than that represented in the crops of rye and oats that the swidden farmers grew to feed themselves. G’s farming career was built on these old and new foundations. The family grew cereals, vegetables, flax and hay, kept livestock and harvested wild fruits and fish for their own consumption, but also pursued market ventures to stay afloat in the newly monetized local economy.

In 1917, in the aftermath of war and revolution in Russia, Finland became independent and immediately plunged into a brutal civil war between left-wing and right-wing factions. P is unsure how this played out in his grandfather’s life, but there are family memories of famine during this time which were partially mitigated by their access to farmland. A few years after the civil war, a brother of G’s was shot dead by a policeman in a bar. As one of G’s daughters recalled the incident, “Uncle had been able to say ‘don’t shoot’ but the police at the time did not wait for explanations”. G assumed financial responsibility for the child of his slain brother.

In the Winter War of 1939-40, the Soviet Union attacked Finland and overran eastern Karelia. G’s family travelled west as war refugees in a goods train, while G himself packed up what he could from the farm into a horse-drawn cart and walked across the country with it to join them. Among new environs in Finland’s Lutheran west, G’s family and the family of one of his brothers were taken in by a local family in return for farm work. Later, the government allocated them some land in North Karelia to farm themselves. Around this time, G’s oldest son was hit by shrapnel in an explosion and permanently injured. This son’s wife died in childbirth. One of G’s daughters died of meningitis in the crowded home where they were living in exile.

In the Continuation War of 1941-44, Finland – temporarily allied with Nazi Germany – initially pushed Soviet forces out of the country. G and his family returned to their farm in eastern Karelia. The fighting continued. One of G’s daughters worked in civilian support of the war effort, including driving a wagon heroically under enemy fire to resupply frontline troops. Later, she was badly injured in a landmine explosion. As the Continuation War went against Finland, G and his family had to flee west again, using similar methods as before, with G once again walking across the country with a cart loaded with what he could rescue from the farm. After several vicissitudes, the family ended up back at the land they’d been given to the farm in north Karelia in the aftermath of the Winter War.

At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet-Finnish border was settled, with the family’s original farm and homeland in east Karelia now falling within Soviet territory and permanently lost to them. G continued farming the new land he’d been given in Lutheran north Karelia. The photograph you see was taken in 1950, at the wedding of one of G’s sons. G died nine years later, three years before his youngest daughter gave birth to my friend P in England.

P showed me the picture of his grandfather I’ve reproduced above, before telling me the tale of his life that I’ve related. We agreed that his face seems to hold a sadness, perhaps a grief. Another friend who was shown the picture said that G looked ‘defeated’.  He was, apparently, an untalkative man, and he’s now long dead. He cannot tell us his feelings, and for sure nobody else can either.

But such silences don’t stop us today from expressing our opinions on what peasant farmers like G and others for whom history provides no amplifier must have thought. A common talking point nowadays is that peasant life was and is one of utter misery and backbreaking labour that nobody would ever voluntarily undertake. On page 78 of my book I cite a few authors who’ve worked this particular seam. They’re not hard to find.

But to weigh in with my own voice in the face of G’s silence, I wonder if this is the story he would tell. For sure, there’s relentless work and now-preventable disease in his story (as there still is for too many people today), and there’s heavy responsibility to care for a wider family through uncertain times. But it’s surely worth heeding too the nature of those times. G was one of many who lived his life in the crosshairs of global ‘development’, and who farmed under the ill-starred sign of political forces much larger than their local worlds. A famine caused, as they usually are, by politics and not by ‘natural’ events, the loss and injury of family members to the hostile forces of the state (the army, the police), the loss of natal land beyond an uncrossable modern border, possibly the loss of religious and cultural orientation too, the gnawing uncertainties of war, refugeeism and reliance on strangers, the hard work not only of farming but of establishing a new farm, not once but repeatedly in the face of a changing world. New politics, new borders, new nationalisms, new histories cascading through the early twentieth century. I wonder if it was the strain of these things more than the familiar seasonal cycle of hard work on the farm that we see in G’s sad face.

We’ll never know. An unbridgeable and silent river of history divides our present world from the one that G knew. As I see it, the case for a turn to peasant farming today is about trying to meet the challenges of the present, not about trying to recross that river. But maybe we can meet those challenges better if we’re able to bear witness to the pain that history has caused to peasant farmers like G, and also if we’re able to acknowledge that in their ability to furnish a household livelihood in the face of difficult circumstances we might look to farmers like him as inspirations in the difficult journey that lies ahead for us, rather than as yesterday’s people remembered only in the silence of old photographs.

21 thoughts on “Can the peasant speak?

  1. Does your friend P – or your own research into the Finish land history – have any clues to how land was parceled within the communities covered in this narrative? Was there a market of sorts? Did G and his peers have frontier to open for their farming? I’ll suppose that with all the political unrest that the answers to these questions would have changed with the times – adding yet another layer to their complex existence.

    • Instead of a frontier, the displaced farmers from east Karelia settled on existing farmland from large farms which were required to be subdivided (as detailed in the article I previously linked).

      The average size of farms larger than 247 acres was reduced from 423 acres of cultivated land (before the resettlement) to 269 acres afterward. Smaller holdings (down to 37 acres) were reduced by a smaller percentage.

      One of the farmers who gave up some of his acreage was asked, “After years of building up this farm, it must be hard to see all this [subdividing into smaller farms] happen.”

      ‘”Yes, but it is hard for them, too — they are good people,” replied the owner, with a gesture of his hand toward the houses under construction for his new neighbors.’

  2. I think it has only been since WW2 (in rich countries like the US) that these kinds of stories have become uncommon. My own grandparents were forced to relocate from Kansas to Oregon by the economic devestation of the Great Depression. They went from a comfortable upper middle-class life in town to living in a tar-paper shack amongst a vast expanse of sagebrush.

    My mother tells me that the emotional impact on my grandmother was severe. The rest of the family fared much better, but that was probably because they were able to go to school or outside jobs instead of, like my grandmother, being stuck fighting dust and heat in miserable housing.

    By the time I was old enough to visit my grandparent’s farm in the early 1950’s, they were once again living in a middle-class farmhouse and operating a viable dairy, peach orchard and 60 acres of field crops. My uncles had been through WW2, lost children at or immedialtely after birth and still made lives for themselves and their families. Life was good for everyone, again.

    My father’s family and their neighbors were truly peasant farmers. I won’t go into his life, but will definitely agree with Chris that not only were my parents and grandparents amazing and inspiring for having endured with stoicism a series of life events and disruptions that are completely alien to most post-WW2 generations, but their example, together with just a few similar examples from my own life, convinces me that our future life as peasants will be adapted to very well and eventually be seen as perfectly normal and natural. Those future generations will be just as happy as we are now (or as past generations ever were). The earth will definitely be much happier.

  3. In a mid life crisis I went by bike through the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine, Crimea, Turkey, Greece etc and back home. In Ukraine I visited Gammelsvenskbyn.
    The population of Gammalsvenskby traces its origins to Hiiumaa (Dagö) in present-day Estonia. According to the Treaty of Nystad, the island was ceded to the Russian Empire. The part of the peasant population who were in conflict with the local aristocracy petitioned the Russian Empress to accept them as her subjects. Catherine II of Russia accepted the petition under the condition that the peasants resettle in the newly conquered territories from the Ottoman Empire that were named New Russia (today in the Southern Ukraine). Enticed by promises of new fertile land, they trekked overland to southern Ukraine arriving in 1782,as colonists for the new territories. The outcome of this mass migration was disastrous. Almost half of the nearly 1,000 villagers died on the march to their new home which they were required to get to on their own resources. On arrival, there was no trace of the houses they had expected to find. Moreover, in their first year in Ukraine, an even larger portion of the settlers died. According to the records of the Swedish congregation, of the original thousand who had set out for Ukraine 18 months earlier, only 135 people remained alive by March 1783.
    When I was there I visted one old woman in a home for the elderly. She spoke a very old kind of Swedish, mixed with German. She told me that during Stalin’s reign they were persecuted and her husband was executed. When the Germans invaded they were taken prisoners and moved to Poland to work in an arms factory. They were liberated by the Red army, but the Soviet mistrusted these Swedish speaking people and sent them to Siberia, where they endured another 7-8 years (don’t remember exactly).

    So yes, one can’t really predict how a modern peasant life would look like, if life is peaceful and somewhat egalitarian, there is more knowledge and enlightenment and at least the basics of modern medicine.

  4. Nice story!

    For my FacePlant occupation, I have for years had “peasant.” No one has ever asked me about it.

    Perhaps that’s because people just ignore such information. Or perhaps they think I’m joking. (I’m not!) But I still find it odd that it doesn’t raise questions.

  5. A photo with the caption, “Farmers, leaving their houses, lands, churchyards, and communities, in September 1944, journey along a forest road, headed for a new start — somewhere. Such displacement created a serious economic problem for Finland.”

    Caption from another photo in that article:

    “After having been evacuated in 1940 at the close of the Winter War, these people are again leaving their home in surrendered Karelia, September 1944. They illustrate the main reason for Finland’s land problem and colonization program.”

    The “colonization program” settled “374,000 people from the ceded territories, among whom were over 175,000 farm people who had lost 709,000 acres of cultivated land and much forested land besides, some driving their cattle with them, others escaping with hardly more than what they could carry on their backs.” This program is discussed in more detail on pages 133-134.

    Finland’s Agriculture Looks Toward Recovery
    by Eric Englund
    Foreign Agriculture, June 1948, Vol. XII, No. 6.
    pages 126-134

  6. I’m Canadian, and three of my four grandparents started out “on the farm” — and got teaching jobs instead. In the case of my grandmother, this started with a one-room schoolhouse. My paternal grandparents were of an age where they were too young for WWI, in protected occupations by WWII, and then retired with final salary pensions pegged to the interest rate, which was pretty amazing. They were also the ones who grew vegetables in the suburban back yard (in Saskatchewan, no mean feat compared to England), and I can remember the root cellar in the basement very well. My maternal grandfather travelled to Canada from England in his late teens on some kind of farm apprenticeship in order to learn more about the latest hi-tech dairy industry practices, and accidentally did better making music than milk, and also eventually ended up teaching school.

    I often wonder whether they might have decided the farm was a better bet if the economics (or the 1930s dust bowl, for that matter) had looked different. I can’t ask them now, I’m a few decades too late.

    My father-in-law, now in his 90s, is another one born and raised on a farm, this time in Ireland, who then took a very different career path; but he cites differences of religion as being a large part of his reason for moving on. He grew some vegetables in the back garden, but a serious back injury slowed him down a lot. His brother did continue in farming, but I didn’t get to know him well before he died.

    My stepmother, the next generation, also grew up on a farm and went into teaching in the city. By the time of her childhood there was more mechanisation, at any rate. We aren’t really in touch these days.

    And so the only people I’ve known who can tell me about what it’s like to be a peasant farmer have been people who stopped doing it, for one reason or another.

    But out of all of them, it was only my paternal grandparents who kept on with substantial amounts of horticulture. They are the ones who involved me in it, too: sending me out to pick raspberries or peas or carrots when I came to visit. It’s probably their fault I have an allotment.

    • “And so the only people I’ve known who can tell me about what it’s like to be a peasant farmer have been people who stopped doing it, for one reason or another.”

      Isn’t that the fate of almost everyone in the first world, given how few peasants we have left?

  7. There is some breaking news out of India concerning a farmer uprising. The BBS version of events is here:

    This doesn’t splice into the peasant history narrative of this particular post, but it does match much of the SFF direction. Government, small holders, market power, and more.

  8. This kind of thing happened in all walks of life , an example .
    My great great grandfather worked in a cotton mill in Lancashire , he was killed in the job when a flywheel exploded , (1855) he lived in a tied house , it went with the job , before his wife was told he was dead the men from the factory started throwing her furniture into the street , she had 7 children at the time , she went into the workhouse , 4 children were taken and sent to Australia , two joined the navy as boy sailors and the last one died .
    What happened to those sent to Australia is unknown , one died on a navy ship in the far East and we are descended from the other .

  9. One can know the lives of rural workers in other ways: proverbs, old songs based in the rural routine, and so on.

    In the Basque Country we have these brief, old, old sayings which I feel embody some of the qualities needed for a non-modern life:

    ‘Self-respect and Endurance/Persistence.’

    ‘We must be like stones.’

    ‘Enjoy the good times, get on with the hard ones.’

    ‘If you’re a Basque, you’re tough!’

    The peasants in a village dominated by my landowning ancestors actually started a legal suit in the 17th century to prove that were free and that my family had no feudal rights over them – and won!

    My English great-grandmother, who came from an old London trade family, and who fell from urban comfort to hardship with a very large family in 1912 when her husband died uninsured and broke, got by with her two mantras:

    ‘God will provide.’

    ‘If I’m not happy it will be my own fault.’

    And, after all her struggles, she still died with an old stocking under her pillow, containing some Victorian gold sovereigns, one of which I keep as a talisman.

    Which it will remain, a bright symbol, as, clearly, in 2 to 3 years from now we shall be caught in the mesh of digital currencies and 24/7 surveillance.

  10. So … thanks for the comments and links, and so interesting to hear other people’s stories.

    Clem, I think by G’s time land had been marketized somewhat, although there was still ‘virgin’ land available for those who were prepared to travel or live in greater isolation. A generation or two prior to him there was no market and swidden management was organised on a clan basis. This article has some interesting historical background: . I’ll see if P has anything to add.

    Jan, I salute you for wearing the peasant badge with honour. After some years in mainstream work, P is now following in his grandfather’s footsteps and describes himself as a ‘trainee peasant’, while I am his disciple…

    Gunnar, I’m in awe of such a productive and energetic midlife crisis. My episodes of the same usually involve me staring at the woodburner while clutching a bottle of wine and wondering about the point of it all.

    An interesting feature of peasant stories from around this time in different parts of the world is the nature of the market integration. My sense of North America is that settlers were almost always oriented from the outset to market production, even if the reality was that much of their time was spent in household subsistence. Whereas elsewhere market penetration was a novel force in peasant lifeways. I’d be interested if anyone has any thoughts on that.

    • Motivation for farming in the US varied as the ‘frontier’ expanded westward. Market orientation gradually become dominate only after industrialization was well under way by the mid-19th century. Wikipedia has an interesting summary of the history of agriculture in the US.

      I know that at least a little subsistence farming lasted well into the 20th century. I referred to my father’s family in a previous comment. They were small farmers in the Oregon Coast Range in the early and mid-20th century. Most of their food supply was from subsistence and gathering (mostly berries, venison and salmon from gathering). What little cash income they had came from work away from the farm, mostly in the timber industry.

      Everyone in the neighborhood was poor. House paint didn’t make an appearance until after WW2. My father got his first store-bought shoes in high school. Most of his youth was spent barefoot, even while picking blackberries or hunting deer (that from the age of seven).

      My father joined the Navy when he turned 17 in 1942 and served unevenfully in the Pacific. After he signed up, the Navy dentist pulled all his (rotten) teeth and fitted him with dentures. He had never been to a dentist before.

      The GI Bill changed my father’s life. Since he didn’t really want to work as a logger or in a sawmill, and since the GI Bill would pay him to go to college, he decided to go that route, almost on a whim. He ended up with a PhD in botany and became a college professor and then, after getting the equivalent of another PhD in statistics, a consultant on experimental design for researchers at a medical school.

      My family, and I, was the beneficiary of the Great Acceleration in energy expenditure and modernity that happened after WW2. I am now waiting for the denouement of the modernity story, the Great Deceleration, which will return us all to a more sustainable life, a peasant life, perhaps much like my father’s early years (if we are lucky).

      Because I know what my father’s early years were like, I see that return to peasantry entirely unromantically, with a kind of grim resignation, but I don’t see any realistic or livable alternative. Modernity: really fun while it lasted.

    • I tend to think the orientation to market production in North American settler agriculture increased with the railways, at least in the northern prairies. Of course, much of the mass of immigration to that area also coincided with the building of the railways. I’m pretty sure my longer-established ancestors were there for the free land — a quarter section (160 acres), yours to keep if you could farm it for three years. (I’d be tempted, if it were still on offer!) Of course, a lot of immigrants to Canada during that time bought land from the Hudson’s Bay Company or the Canadian Pacific Railway instead if they could afford it, not just for the access to markets for their produce, but to be able to buy those things they absolutely needed but couldn’t make themselves.

      Looking at the history of the wheat pools (essentially run as co-operatives) might be of interest. I grew up seeing their logos on grain elevators. It’s also probably worth contrasting that form of governance with those used for cotton and tobacco (which used a lot more slave labour), which I don’t know much about at all. I know at least one ancestor on my paternal side (more distant than those I mentioned in my other comment) was some kind of indentured labourer. I know at least one was involved in the gold rush. I think my maternal grandmother’s side of the family came over during a famine in Ireland.

      I think it’s worth paying attention to these distinctions — slave, indentured labourer, settler — and others besides. The disruption faced by G in this post wasn’t separate from the workings of global markets; nor were the circumstances that led my ancestors to seek free land, or take on a period of indenture, or to get out of farming and into schoolteaching.

      I am not too worried about the hard work part of the future: I am doing what I can now to learn skills and build stamina, and either I’ll be able to manage or I won’t, and either my immediate community will help me or it won’t. But I am very wary of the possibility of a return to oppressive aspects of feudalism, to slave labour, to rapid and traumatic forced displacement, to war, to genocide, to other forms of violence. Peasants in the last few centuries may have taken such things in their stride — and still do in many parts of the world today, of course — and there will always be some instability — but what I want from my future is greater peace, greater stability. I’m sure that’s what my ancestors were choosing. They didn’t go into teaching because they disliked farming, but because farming wasn’t economically viable, and teaching was.

      So: how do we create the circumstances in which subsistence farming, with local markets for most other needs, is actually a choice that makes economic sense for the number of people who need to do it?

    • In my book Global Eating Disorder, I describe it like this:
      “Fernand Braudel estimated that as recent as the sixteenths century only one percent of the total grain produced around the Mediterranean was internationally traded. At the beginning of the 1900s, the United States, Canada and some of the more advanced European economies had a commercialization rate of more than 75% (which means that three quarters of production was sold in the market and one quarter was consumed on the farm or distributed by other means). But in most countries much less than half of the production was sold.
      The process goes from market contact, to market orientation and finally ends in market integration. In the market contact phase farms sell a limited surplus to get income to buy some consumer goods and pay taxes. With market orientation they adjust their production to supply markets, changing the mix of crops and actively seeking market opportunities. They seek to increase production of tradable goods, but still strive to base the production on local resources. With market integration the whole farming process is guided by the market and the farm is integrated in markets for inputs, credit, land and labor. “

  11. Thanks for the further comments. Apologies, offline life has made its claims on me these past few days.

    Interesting stories on North American settling – thank you. I won’t further press the claim about the difference from capitalist penetration of non-capitalist peasant economies but … well … maybe another time. Maybe interesting on that note is this piece mentioning Finnish settlers in the US being described by others as ‘Finn-dians’:

    Thanks for mentioning Braudel, Gunnar – an interesting figure. Also interesting for his emphasis on long-term continuity amid historical upheaval – hopefully something for us to revisit. Generally, I think our view of markets & money draws heavily from the recent history of global capitalist market integration that you describe. But if we move towards deglobalisation and market disintegration, the picture looks different.

    So indeed as Kathryn says, G’s sufferings seem intimately bound up with marketization & modernization, and it’s not so much hard work as hard politics that make small farm life miserable – two key take-homes from this post. Joe is I’m sure wise not to romanticise peasant life, but modernisation has been a pretty miserable experience for many, and living in an existing, stable small farm society could well be an attractive option compared to either depeasantization or repeasantization on a violent colonial frontier.

  12. Hi Chris & co,

    I’m arriving late to this thread, but deeply appreciating the series and the book itself. (I just finished Chapter 3, as it happens.) And there’s a neat coincidence in this post, since ‘G’ is the title and the name of the protagonist of John Berger’s Booker-winning novel of 1972. Soon after writing that novel, Berger settled among the last generation of peasants in the Haute Savoie, and his work was transformed by the influence of those he found himself living and working alongside. He called them ‘my university’ and described the humbling experience of discovering that the skills he had acquired so far as a novelist were of little use in telling their stories.

    I bring this up because, while I share your reaction to the ease with which a particular genre of writers will tell us what peasants like G ‘must have thought’, I’m not sure the river of history is completely without bridges. The stories Berger tells in his essays and novels (especially the Into Their Labours trilogy) from the mid-1970s onwards are one example of such a bridge.

    I’ve argued elsewhere that Berger offers a Western European example of what Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash called ‘Grassroots Postmodernism’: a critique of modernity that begins from those on the receiving end of projects of ‘modernisation’, rather than from seminar rooms in Paris. Indeed, if mainline postmodernism took shape in the wake of a retreat from the streets to the seminar rooms after the failure of the political hopes of 1968, there’s another current of radicals of that generation who retreated instead to the mountains and the barrios, bringing their Marxism into dialogue with peasant and indigenous experiences. Berger and Esteva both belong to this current, along with Subcommandante Marcos of the EZLN.

    When I interviewed Esteva in 2012, we spoke about his friendship with Ivan Illich, who he described as the only thinker he had found whose work made sense to the indigenous peasants he found himself living and working alongside in the years after he turned down a position in the Mexican government in 1976. I asked him why he thought this was, and he said that Illich had never forgotten the experience of the peasant culture of rural Croatia in the 1920s and 30s where he spent much of his childhood.

    As I read your book, I’m struck by how it relates to and complements the work of this earlier generation of grassroots postmodernists – and when I get the chance to write a review, I’ll do my best to draw out this thread.

    • Thanks for that Dougald. Interesting points on bridges & ‘grassroots postmodernism’ – not a term I’d come across. I started reading John Berger’s ‘Pig Earth’ some time ago and was enjoying it, but put it aside for some reason – must go back to it.

      Your comment is suggestive of one of our contemporary problems in the abstraction of our education systems and of professional disciplines in general that prompt hostility towards grounded local knowledges, or ‘folk politics’ as Srnicek & Williams would have it. It can be hard to find one’s way back from that kind of schooling.

      I’d be interested in learning more about the historical-intellectual pathways of the kind of grassroots postmodernists/organic intellectuals that you mention.

      Glad you’re appreciating the book – will be interested to hear your further thoughts on it.

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