Boyars and Kulaks

Artist Ivan Bilibin's painting of Boyars / russianartgallery.org

Artist Ivan Bilibin’s painting of Boyars / russianartgallery.org

Two words which appear regularly in fiction and essays concerning Russia are Boyar and Kulak. They invariably appear with pejorative intention: “Don’t let that bunch of kulaks anywhere near my factory!” or “I suppose you’ll go to that meeting of boyars to see what you can get out of it!” Etc. etc.

A boyar was a kind of Russian noble, not of princely or ducal rank (there were never any dukes in Russia, before or after Sovietization). Boyars were found however in the courts or retinues of princes, because they came from what used to be known as the upper classes. They held land, usually lots of it, and held on firmly to considerable power after the 13th century Mongol conquest had been assimilated.

But the rulers of Muscovy did not want the boyars to enjoy power, and gradually the latters’ independence was curbed. Up to and including the 17th century boyars formed a closed shop of aristocratic landowners kept down to around two hundred dynastic families. Their influence came through the fact that the duma or council contained more boyars than anyone of different rank. But they had not reckoned with Ivan known as The Terrible (ruling 1587 to 84), first of the Romanovs, who made it his task to reduce the power of the boyars by replacing them on the councils of State with personal favourites and locally elected officials.

Throughout the seventeenth century their actual power waned, until Tsar Peter I (the Great) (who built St. Petersburg), abolished the rank and title of Boyar.

Selected Kulaks / allrussias.com

Selected Kulaks / allrussias.com

Kulak, a Russian word for fish, identified a moneylender, merchant, a businessman – anyone thought of as being greedy or acquisitive. It has never been a nice word, always accusatory or critical. The term became peculiarly applied to rich peasants who had worked hard and long during agrarian reforms, in the early 1900s for instance, buying huge farms on which they were rich enough to employ labour. The word is pejorative because it was said that kulaks paid their workers miserable wages, if at all.

In comparatively normal countries in Europe it is possible that the kulaks might have been absorbed into the stable middle class, especially if the more conservative kind of government was in power. But Lenin (q.v.) lost no time in naming kulaks as a potential threat to the Communist state in his published New Economic Policy (1921). Later, Stalin’s (q.v.) collectivization policy clashed with the kulaks views on their status, and they dared oppose him. Between 1929 and 1934 the kulaks’ farms were collectivized and the kulaks eliminated.

 

 

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