- The state of the USSR in 1924: the power struggle after Lenin’s death, and Stalin’s victory
- Economic policies: collectivisation and the Five Year Plans
- State control: the purges and the cult of personality
- Daily life in Stalin’s USSR
- The Soviet experience of WW2, and how it shaped the USSR after the war
In this unit
- The reasons for pursuing collectivisation
- Features of collectivisation
- Assessing the successes and failures of collectivisation
Questions to ask yourself
- How did collectivisation relate to Stalin’s plan for rapid industrialisation?
- In what ways did the reasons for collectivisation differ from the reasons for rapid industrialisation? In what ways were they similar?
- How and why did collectivisation cause great suffering in the countryside during the early 1930s?
- Were the gains of collectivisation worth the cost?
1930 Soviet cartoon supporting collectivisation. On the left is a ‘rich’ peasant (kulak)
American newspaper headline, 1935
“If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — attributed to Joseph Stalin, 1947
“Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers… Do it so that for hundreds of kilometers around the people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucking kulaks!”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – — Lenin, 1918 (during the Russian Civil War)
Russian history has often seen struggle between the rural (peasant) population and the urban elite: Lenin’s Red Terror and NEP was just one more chapter in this ongoing saga. Now, on the eve of his ‘Second Revolution’, Stalin would turn it into a horror story.
In 1928 the USSR’s economic future rested on two legs: rapid industrialisation and collectivisation. The latter involved modernising the USSR’s disorganised and backward farming system; in its place, Stalin envisioned an efficient, mechanised system that would be controlled by the state, where peasants would not own private farms, but instead pool their land and equipment together, working communally. These collective farms would then be capable of pumping out the tens of millions of tons of grain needed for the urban workers. In this way collectivisation would power the Five Year Plans. On paper, Stalin pursued collectivisation for economic and ideological reasons, but there were ulterior reasons as well:
|…collectivisation seemed a better alternative to the NEP. By 1928 the Soviet economy had still not recovered to pre-1917 levels, and in fact the country had suffered a grain crisis in 1927; otherwise annual grain production was often barely adequate. Many in the Party agreed with Stalin that the Soviet agricultural system, which had changed very little since the Middle Ages, had to be quickly modernised and pushed to create huge grain surpluses; this would not only feed the country, but the surplus could be sold to pay for imported industrial machinery to power the ongoing Five Year Plans. Mechanised farming would also free up peasants to work in the factories for the FYPs||…collectivisation seemed truer to communism than the NEP, which had only ever been meant as a temporary compromise with capitalism; it had been tolerated because it could help the country recover, but by 1928 even that reason had evaporated. The NEP had also allowed some peasants to become successful through capitalist practices, such as owning private property and selling grain surpluses for profit; these kulaks were seen as enemies of communism. Many in the Party agreed with Stalin that collectivisation would eliminate the kulaks and spread proper communist values and practices throughout the countryside||…pushing for collectivisation and the abandonment of the NEP would be the final, decisive blow against Stalin’s remaining political opponents: the Party right wing under Bukharin (who supported the NEP), whom Stalin could smear as unpatriotic sympathisers of capitalism. Collectivisation was also yet another attempt by the urban elite to impose control over the countryside: Stalin wanted to build a centralised state firmly under the authority of the Communist Party (and himself), and collectivisation would break the unruly peasants to his will|
When faced with the 1927-28 grain procurement crisis (caused partly by the peasants), Stalin ordered the forced seizure of grain from Siberia in order to prevent starvation in the cities. This crisis was the perfect justification to push forward with collectivisation, to cow the peasants once and for all, and to keep the cities fed; the grain seizures themselves were also a taste of the chaos and suffering to come
Making the Countryside Red
Collectivisation was the process of combining multiple, privately-owned farming units into a single collective unit, or kolkhoz. The state would give production quotas to the kolkhozes, and buy their produce at fixed (and below market) prices; all land, equipment, animals, and profits would belong to the kolkhoz itself, not to the peasants living within it. Between 1928-34, the Soviet countryside experienced the following:
|Kolkhozes and MTSs|
|The kolkhoz (collective farm) was the key component of collectivisation; by 1933 most peasants lived and worked on these. Otherwise a peasant family might be assigned to a state farm (sovkhoz). Each kolkhoz could house many peasant households, and was headed by a chairman who belonged to the Communist Party. The state dictated what each kolkhoz would produce and how much of it, and dictated working hours for farmers. Farmers could not sell their produce privately nor own private property; the state was the sole buyer (often paying a fixed, low price), and all property belonged to the kolkhoz itself. The profits from the produce would be distributed by the kolkhoz to each peasant household. Unsurprisingly this proved unpopular with most peasants, and the state had to restrict their movements from the kolkhozes; by 1935 the government compromised, allowing the ownership of some private land and property.|
Collectivisation also went hand-in-hand with the mechanisation of farming; MTSs (motor tractor stations) supplemented the kolkhozes, lending them farming machinery, mostly tractors. The MTS mechanics however were poorly trained, and the tractors themselves often shoddily built; there were also rarely enough tractors to adequately supply the kolkhozes. The MTSs, like the kolkhozes, were also run by Party men, in charge of requisitioning grain from the kolkhozes, and spying on the peasants — this only exacerbated the peasants’ distrust toward MTSs
|Peasant responses to collectivisation were hostile, which ensured that it was mostly enforced, not voluntary as the state claimed. Peasants simply did not want to surrender their lands, houses, and animals to the state, submitting to state authority, state production orders, and (low) state pay rates. Many peasants would not cooperate, refusing to sow grain, even attacking and killing officials, burning crops, and slaughtering animals; the Soviet government responded by violently enforcing collectivisation, arresting and exiling ringleaders and their families, and withholding food rations from uncooperative villages after seizing their grain. The result was chaos and starvation in the countryside from 1929-33|
|Some of the fiercest opponents to collectivisation were the kulaks, productive peasants who had done well for themselves under the NEP and had become moderately better off than most other peasants; they did not want to surrender their hard-won gains to the state nor share it with their neighbours. The Soviet government wanted the kulaks’ productive lands and wanted to break their resistance, and so launched a massive propaganda campaign stirring up traditional peasant resentment against the kulaks, smearing them as decadent capitalist sympathisers, and enemies of the state. Their removal, Stalin declared, would be necessary to promote communism in the countryside. |
Many kulaks were then arrested by state dekulakisation squads prowling the countryside, or even abused by other peasants who’d bought into Stalin’s propaganda (or who wanted to settle old grudges). Kulaks could expect to be evicted from their homes, abused physically or sexually, even executed on the spot; if they survived, they could be exiled to Siberia or thrown into a labour camp. Many simply died on the journey. Before long the victims of dekulakisation included regular peasants who had opposed collectivisation, and were then labelled as ‘kulaks’ by the state. By 1933 Stalin’s goal of “liquidating the kulaks as a class” was complete, with some 2 million ‘kulaks’ deported, and as many as 5 million dead. Dekulakisation was not an unfortunate side effect of collectivisation; it was a cornerstone policy
Kulak women and children sitting outside of their house, now confiscated by the government, Ukraine, 1929.
|“The dekulakisation squads drove the kulaks naked in the streets, beat them, organized drinking bouts in their houses, shot over their heads, forced them to dig their own graves, undressed women and searched them, stole valuables, money, etc.”|
– – – – – – – – – – – – — GPU (secret police) report, 1930s
|The Great Famine|
|Stalin’s collectivisation policies helped create a devastating famine from 1932-33 — this Great Famine killed nearly 4 million Ukrainians, and some 2 million Kazakhs (more than 40% of Kazakhstan’s population). The victims were mostly peasants, whereas urban populations faced food shortages but little mass starvation. The Great Famine’s effects were felt across the country from 1932-33, but particularly severely in Ukraine, where it was known as the Holodomor. The peasants there, like most other Soviet peasants, had resisted collectivisation fiercely, and then worked grudgingly on the kolkhozes, resulting in lower than average crop yields in 1932; these were exacerbated by serious droughts across the country in 1932. Stalin’s reaction has been condemned by some historians as genocide: the government now raised grain quotas in Ukraine to unrealistic levels, seizing what little the peasants could produce to give to the cities, leaving them with nothing. |
Meanwhile the USSR continued exporting grain from 1932-33. Stalin’s actions could have been motivated simply by his desire to sustain the Five Year Plans and their mammoth urban workforce, while also buying imported machinery with grain; some historians however see a political element in his actions, using hunger as a weapon to punish the Ukrainian peasants for their resistance to collectivisation, and to crush any hopes for Ukrainian independence. This might explain some of his more draconian measures, such as forbidding peasants from leaving famine-hit areas, or punishing with death anyone caught even picking up grain that had fallen from state requisition trucks. Peasants were encouraged to report anyone hoarding grain, leading to false arrests. The famine became so severe that there were allegations of cannibalism; government posters grimly reminded the Ukrainian people that it was illegal to eat one’s own children
|“In Ukraine I saw people dying alone, slowly, hideously, all because of some political decision made in a far-off capital. The most terrifying sights were the little children with skeleton limbs dangling from balloon–like stomachs. They looked more like tortured gargoyles than children, save for their eyes. Everywhere men and women lay on the ground, faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless. I was furious. Butter being sent abroad in the midst of the famine! In London, Berlin, Paris, I could imagine people eating butter stamped with a Soviet trademark. “They must be rich to be able to export butter,” I could hear them saying. “Here is the proof of socialism in action.” Driving through the fields, I did not hear the lovely Ukrainian songs so dear to my heart. These people had forgotten how to sing. I could hear only the groans of the dying, and the lip-smacking of fat foreigners enjoying our butter.”|
– – – – – – – — Viktor Kravchenko, writing in 1947 about the Holodomor. At the time he participated in state grain seizure. He defected to the US in 1944
|“On one side, millions of starving peasants, their bodies swollen from lack of food; on the other, soldiers and secret policemen carrying out the instructions of the ‘people’s dictatorship’. They had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and seized everything edible; they had shot or exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a desert.”|
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, 1933
Assessing the Impacts of Collectivisation
Collectivisation must be seen within its context: it was closely tied together with rapid industrialisation, and together both formed a key part of Stalin’s attempt to modernise the USSR, to secure her in a world of hostile foreign powers — or at least that was how he sold it to the Party. When taken out of its context, collectivisation seems bizarre and barbaric; when seen within its context, it might possibly be justified for unifying the countryside under state control, and powering the industrialisation that gave the USSR a fighting chance during WW2… but at a staggering human cost.
|Economically, collectivisation ensured the government a reliable food supply — at least for the cities; this fed the urban workers during a time of drought, and allowed the USSR to import industrial machinery from the west. The (on paper) mechanisation of agriculture also freed up many peasants, giving the state more urban workers for the Five Year Plans||Ideologically Stalin could claim collectivisation as a victory for communist-style economic policy: the country had indeed been sustained through a period of drought thanks to a guaranteed, state-directed food supply, most farms had been collectivised by 1936, the kulaks had been broken, and more importantly, Soviet agriculture and heavy industry worked in cooperation (on paper)||Politically, pushing for collectivisation was Stalin’s death blow to the Party right wing. By rallying the Party majority under the banner of the FYPs and collectivisation, Bukharin and the right wing were discredited — they could not outvote Stalin’s yes-men, nor were they willing to form factions as the United Opposition had. Collectivisation also cemented the Party’s authority in the countryside: the spirit of the peasants had been crushed and their movements restricted; the kolkhozes and MTSs also spread propaganda while reporting on peasant activities to the Party|
|Collectivisation, whether intentionally or at least half-intentionally, created unimaginable suffering in the countryside. In the name of building a communist society and modernising the USSR’s backward agriculture (which would support the modernisation of heavy industry), millions of people were starved, shot, physically and sexually abused, and worked slowly to death. The peasants of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and the ‘kulaks’ (which by 1933 could mean anyone opposed to collectivisation) suffered particularly. All told as many as 14 million people died as a result of collectivisation, perhaps as many as 20 million. Grain production had recovered by the mid 1930s, but meat production did not recover till the 1950s||Collectivisation, much like the Five Year Plans, was marred by poor planning and implementation. The kolkhozes rarely produced more than the bare minimum, while MTSs fulfilled their role poorly, providing machinery that was inadequate in quality and quantity. The most productive and successful peasants had been removed as part of dekulakisation; meanwhile those who remained on the kolkhozes often did their work resentfully and unenthusiastically, resulting in unimpressive grain yields. Agriculture would remain a problematic part of the Soviet economy for decades to come|