Committees of Poor Peasants
In Soviet-ruled Russia the Bolshevik authorities established Committees of Poor Peasants (Russian: Комитеты Бедноты, komitety bednoty or Russian: комбеды, kombedy) commonly rendered in English as kombeds) during the second half of 1918 as local institutions bringing together impoverished peasants to advance government policy. The committees had as their primary task grain requisitioning on behalf of the Soviet state; they also distributed manufactured goods in rural areas. The kombeds quickly fell into disrepute among the bulk of the peasantry due to the abuses carried out by their members, who were often outsiders to the village and who received a commission from the state for all grain obtained. The need of the Bolshevik government to establish closer relations with the peasantry during the Russian Civil War lead to the merger of the Committees of Poor Peasants with the village soviets starting in December 1918.
By the spring of 1918, a situation of chronic food shortage existed in the cities of Soviet Russia and urban manufacturing threatened to grind to a halt. Local village assemblies were insufficient to the task of gathering foodstuffs for the cities, a crisis which the Bolsheviks attributed to the domination of local government by wealthy opponents of the new regime.
A new "class war" was desired in the village to empower the rural poor in support of the Soviet regime. According to Bolshevik doctrine, the Russian peasantry was divided into three categories: poor peasants (bednyaks), individuals who were forced to sell their labor to others to survive and were thus regarded as natural allies of the new Soviet regime; "middle" peasants (serednyaks), who conducted farming operations on their own land with their own labor; and wealthy peasants (kulaks), who profited through the hired labor of others.
On June 11, 1918, the People's Commissariat for Food Supplies (Narkomprod) of Soviet Russia was instructed by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets to establish a new institution to assist it in gathering foodstuffs for the country's hungry cities, the Committees of Poor Peasants.
Membership in these kombeds was to be denied to all wealthy peasants as well as to those who hired labor or held surplus grain.
The kombeds were given the task of helping to locate and confiscate surplus grain from other peasants of that same village. The groups were also placed in charge of the distribution of food, manufactured commodities, and those limited agricultural implements that were available to the members of the village. This activity inevitably brought the members of the kombed into conflict with others in the village from whom grain was taken.
In the view of many experts, the kombeds were doomed by a poor understanding of the true essence of the soviet peasantry. In the view of historian Orlando Figes:
"Most villages thought of themselves as farming communities of equal members related by kin — they often called themselves a 'peasant family' — and as such were hostile to the idea of a separate body for the poor. They either failed to elect a kombed, leaving it to outside agitators, or else set up one which every peasant joined on the grounds that all the villagers were poor.... The poor peasants were simply not aware of themselves as 'proletarians'. They all thought of themselves as fellow villagers and looked at the efforts of the Bolsheviks to split them with suspicion and hostility."Consequently, most of the kombedy were set up by elements from outside the commune. These were not the poor peasant farmers but immigrant townsmen and soldiers, landless craftsmen, and laborers excluded from the land commune.... Disconnected from the peasant commune, upon which all rural government depended, they were unable to carry out their tasks without resort to violence. They requisitioned private property, made illegal arrests, vandalized churches, and generally terrorized the peasants. It was more like a local mafia than an organ of the Soviet state."
Figes notes that many members of these kombeds were quick to resort to such brutality in the "desperate struggle to procure foodstuffs and military supplies" and that they sometimes were a means for local officials to "operate networks of corruption and extortion from the peasantry."
The vast majority of members of the Committees of Poor Peasants were not affiliated with the Communist Party, with a majority categorized as "non-Party" individuals and a small minority listed in official records as "sympathetic" to the party. Most were supportive of the 1917 revolution, however, and many saw themselves as "true representatives of the people's government" and sought to carry out their assigned duties loyally.
Disestablishment and legacy
In the fall of 1918, the need of the Soviet state to forge closer relations with the peasantry in the face of the Russian Civil War and a desire to eliminate the emerging "dual power" in each village between kombed and village soviet led to pressure for the abolition of the kombeds and the transfer of their functions to the village soviets.
In addition to alienating the overwhelming masses of the peasantry from the Soviet state through their often abusive methods of grain seizure, the kombeds additionally came to be seen as institution which usurped the authority of the regular institutions of soviet government, the village soviets.
On December 2, 1918, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets decreed the amalgamation of the kombeds with the village soviets. The kombeds were thereby effectively eliminated by late in the spring of 1919.
Although their establishment was brief, lasting less than a year, the number of kombeds established in Soviet Russia was vast and their influence in 1918-1919 was pervasive. According to Soviet historian V.R. Garasimiuk, a total of 131,637 kombeds were established in the various provinces of Soviet Russia in this period.
- Orlando Figes, "The Village Commune and Rural Government," in Edward Acton, Vladimir Iu. Chernalaev, and William G. Rosenberg (eds.), Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914-1921. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997; pp. 464-465.
- George Jackson and Robert Devlin (eds.), Dictionary of the Russian Revolution. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989; pp. 145-146.
- Orlando Figes, Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917-1921. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989; pg. 187.
- Aaron B. Retish, Russia's Peasants in Revolution and Civil War: Citizenship, Identity, and the Creation of the Soviet State, 1914-1922. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008; pg. 196.
- Retish, Russia's Peasants in Revolution and Civil War, pg. 198.
- V.R. Gerasimiuk, "Nekotorye novye statisticheskie dannye o kombedaky RSFSR" ("A few new statistical facts regarding the kombedy of the RSFSR"), Voprosy istorii, 1963, No. 6, pp. 209-210. Cited in Aaron B. Retish, Russia's Peasants in Revolution and Civil War, pg. 193.