Pomochi (Russia)

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Pomochi (pomoch), toloka
Location: Russia (mainly pre-revolutionary)
Russia map.png
Author: Irina V. Davydova
Affiliation: unaffiliated scholar

Original text by Irina V. Davydova


Pomochi is a Russian term denoting an occasion of collectively helping, on request and free of charge, a member of the village community to accomplish a particular task in one day. On completion of the work, the effort was rewarded with a feast provided by the beneficiary. The practice was widespread among peasant communities in Imperial Russia, but died out in the early twentieth century, due first to increasing monetisation of the economy, and then due to the collectivisation of agriculture under the Soviet system.


The noun pomochi is derived from the verb pomoch, which means ‘to help’. In grammatical terms the word is plural in form, but can also be used to designate a singular occasion of help (although this is subject to regional variation – in some areas a singular form, pomoch, exists). Vladimir Dal in his Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language (1882[1]) recorded the word pomochi as common in the northern and eastern parts of the Russian Empire, with the equivalent term toloka used in the south, west, Tver and Novgorod regions. In addition, there were many specific terms denoting pomochi for particular kinds of work: dozhinki, vyzhinki, otzhinki, boroda, borodnye, kasha, salamata meant pomochi to complete reaping; navoznitsa – to muck out, transport and spread manure; pochebit’e – to make a mud stove; vzdymki – to erect the timber frame of a house; kapustki – to process cabbage into sauerkraut; drovnitsy – to cut and gather firewood for winter; supryadki – a gathering to spin yarn together.


Fundamentally, pomochi was the custom of collective assistance in peasant communities, encompassing a wide range of practices. Pomochi could be organised by either a family in need or the village assembly ( skhod). In the former case, the family’s members would go to each individual household asking them to come on a particular day to help. Participation was voluntary and reward was never monetary but a good party. The absence of formal payment and the fusion of work and enjoyment were important for the participants. Evidence from the Tobolsk region in 1810 states that, ‘people readily help each other and this is called pomoch … Festivities afterwards involve singing and dancing to the accompaniment of balalaika or violin… working for money on such occasions is considered reprehensible and nobody would agree to do pomoch for money’ (Gromyko 1975: 78[2]). In poor Belarusian neighbourhoods instead of a feast, verbal gratitude was provided after talaka (as toloka was called there). A specific type of pomochi was krugovye pomochi (literally ‘the round pomochi’) when several households worked together for each other, sometimes without any special reward but each benefiting from a greater number of hands put to work when time was of the essence. Where pomochi were organised by decision of the village assembly, participation was considered more or less mandatory and was not rewarded with a feast. Such pomochi were typically used for helping a family in misfortune, or infirm and disadvantaged members of the community. There were many other variations: in some places pomochi to complete harvesting or to erect roof beams of a new house involved ritual elements to mark the occasion; sometimes it was mostly young people who participated (as with making a mud stove, processing cabbage into sauerkraut), or women (as with scutching flax, spinning yarn); some pomochi were organised during workdays, other on weekends or holidays. Usually pomochi lasted one day, but in the Tver region it was customary to work only until midday, while gatherings for scutching flax took place in a barn at night. The common traits were informality, mobilisation of the collective to help a community member, the free nature of the help, and fun as its accompaniment.


‘Time of Harvesting (Mowers) by Grigoriy Myasoyedov, 1887.’

Pomochi were a case of generalised reciprocity, which is a very different form of exchange to market exchange based on pre-agreed payment for goods and services. Only with the ‘round pomochi’ was there was a specific expectation of help in return. For the most part, the participants’ ‘reward’ consisted in enjoyment of the social occasion, with the general understanding that one would also be helped in the future if in need. Lone elderly people, widows, the infirm etc. were helped even though they would not able to ‘repay’ in a quid pro quo manner.


The vast ethnographic surveys conducted in the second half of the nineteenth century, systematised by Gromyko (1986: 39-48[3]) confirm the ancient origin and wide geographical spread of pomochi in Imperial Russia. For the earlier period evidence has been found in local archival materials concerning administrative and criminal proceedings (ibid: 32). The very word toloka also meant commons – publicly owned pastures – strongly suggesting links with the communal farming system (ibid: 36-37). ‘Round pomochi’ appear to be a survival from earlier times when land was farmed collectively by the village community. In general, practices of pomochi were rooted in the system of peasant economy. Chayanov (1993[4]), who in the 1920s developed a full-fledged theory of this system, emphasised the absence of the institution of hired labour as its key element. In peasant economy the basis of production is not the capitalist enterprise but the household unit which has rather limited relations with market. Consequently, labour is valued not in monetary terms (wages), but in subjective terms: its perceived difficulty measured against the necessity to satisfy the family’s needs. Seen from this economic perspective, mutual collective assistance in the form of pomochi is an alternative to hiring labour on occasions when a family does not have enough hands for the job. Hence, practices similar to pomochi can be expected in peasant societies other than in Imperial Russia. Such practices were recorded in the early twentieth century Encyclopaedic Dictionary for the Bulgarian, Chechen and Ingush populations, and Jewish diaspora in the Caucasian Mountains, as examples in the entry for the term toloka (Brockhauz and Efron 1901: 439). Despite pomochi’s economic functionality, its social aspect was a fundamental part of the custom. A respondent from Siberia wrote to the Geographical Society in 1850 that ‘processing of cabbage, which marks the completion of field work, is joyful for the young: kapustki start the village parties, the village balls so to speak; it is a rare family with even one daughter of marriageable age, which would make sauerkraut themselves…, all invite young people of both genders to come in the morning to take part’ (Gromyko 1975: 79[5]).


The practices of pomochi were eroded by monetisation of the rural economy. In 1894 the author of Olonetsky pomochi was already lamenting the decline of ‘this wonderful ancient custom’, conveying reports that rewarding with a feast was being replaced by payment of money in places located near main roads and towns, meaning the participants of such help were becoming just hired hands (Kulikovsky 1894: 412[6].). In 1898 a respondent from Vologodsky region noted that pomoch was becoming more expensive than hired labour because one had to thank the participants with costly treats (Gromyko 1986: 59[7]). Some forms of pomochi, such as those involving spinning yarn, easily mutated into low wage employment of the village poor by their better off neighbours. A woman born in 1908 recalls how in her youth she worked hard spinning wool for other people, and the money she earned in this way over the winter only sufficed to buy new boots and galoshes (Berdinsky 2011: 43[8]). Evidence from the Saratov region, collected in the early 1990s, depicts pomochi as a thing of the past, of the time when the respondents were young, but also provides plentiful examples of later practices which seem to be transitional forms between the old-style mutual assistance and fully monetarised exchange based on formal agreement, typical of modern economies (Davydova 1999[9]). Examples of such ‘transitional forms’ include: craftsmen charging less for their work when the buyer was a relation or a neighbour, especially if poor; a girl taken as a nanny, receiving lodging but no wage; a family which lost their horse being helped to transport their sheaves, but returning the favour with their labour, by weeding and reaping on the fields of people who provided this help; home-made vodka being bartered for grain pilfered from the collective farm, to be used to feed the household’s own livestock, which later might be sold at market. With collectivisation of farming in the USSR in 1929-1934, households ceased to be the primary production units, which made much of the rationale for pomochi redundant. Caring for the elderly and infirm was gradually taken over by the state. Mechanisation made easier tasks which in the past had required many hands – such as felling and transporting timber for construction of a house. Now when in need one had to ask for assistance not the village community, but the individuals with access to the collective farm public resources, such as machinery. This unequal access to public resources and to people with such access fed corruption and much resentment. A form of abuse of the retreating custom of pomochi was inviting people to ‘help’ with certain chores and then not feeding them, as if the job done was disinterested help. The expectations of reward were informal, and as such could not be enforced. Generally, the boundary between help and paid work was blurred at that time due to the rural practice of paying for work (such as digging a kitchen garden, chopping and piling up firewood, weeding a field, occasional cleaning of the house etc.) with food or drink rather than money. This created ambiguities which could be exploited by the greedy. Yet the social aspect of pomochi – fun of collective work and merrymaking afterwards – was much missed by those who had memories of it when the custom finally died out.

Notes

  1. Dal, V. 1882. Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language. Vol.4. St Petersburg-Moscow: M.O. Wolff Press; reprinted 1994, Moscow: TERRA press
  2. Gromyko, M. 1975. Trudovye traditisii russkikh krestyan Sibiri (XVIII-pervaia polovina XIX veka) . Novosibirsk: Nauka.
  3. Gromyko, M. 1986. Traditsionnye formy povedeniya i formy obsheniya russkikh krestyan XIX veka. Moscow: Nauka.
  4. Chayanov, A. 1993. ‘Organizatsia krestiankogo khoziastva’, in Chayanov, A. Izbrannye Trudy. Moscow: Kolos.
  5. Gromyko, M. 1975. Trudovye traditisii russkikh krestyan Sibiri (XVIII-pervaia polovina XIX veka) . Novosibirsk: Nauka.
  6. Kulikovsky, G. 1894. ‘Olonetskie pomochi’, in Blagoveshensky (Ed.) Olonetsky sbornik. T.3 Materialy dlia istorii, geografii, statistiki i etnografii Olonetskogo kraia
  7. Gromyko, M. 1986. Traditsionnye formy povedeniya i formy obsheniya russkikh krestyan XIX veka. Moscow: Nauka.
  8. Berdinskikh, V. 2011. Rechi nemykh. Povsednevnaya zhizn’ russkogo krestyanina v XX veke. Moscow: Lomonosov Press.
  9. Davydova, I. 1999. Moral Traditions of Rural Communities: A Study of Russian Collectivism. PhD thesis, Sociology Department, University of Manchester.