134: Collectivization


Collectivization was the path forward for Soviet agriculture, regardless of whether not the people actually wanted it.



Hello and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 134 - The Soviet Union Part 4 - Collectivization. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 started in the cities, particularly in St. Petersburg, or Petrograd, later Leningrad. It was a revolution of workers, who worked in businesses owned by the group of people they called capitalists. But during the summer of 1917 there was another revolution happening all over Russia, and that was the revolution in the countryside. This revolution was focused on land redistribution. Before 1917 rural Russia was largely controlled by large land owners and rural peasants who would work the land for those large land owners, with some sort of arrangement worked out where a percentage of the work done by the peasants went to the land owners. The poor peasants were not a fan of this arrangement, as you might imagine, and their greatest goal as a class of people was to throw down the landowners and own their own land that they would reap the rewards from. The first Russian revolution in the spring of 1917 gave them the opportunity to achieve their goals, and they would take advantage of this throughout 1917, with many instances of peasants taking control of the land that they lived on, depending on the situation they might simply evict the landowners, but there were also many instances of the landowners being killed. The new socialist government that would take control of Russia after the March revolution would not really have the power to stop these changes when they occurred, and the revolution in the countryside would accelerate after the Bolshevik revolution later in the year as they simply did not have the ability to do anything about it. This would continue throughout the Civil War years, with a major issue between the Reds and the Whites being the status of the rural peasants and the question of land reform and land ownership. After the end of the Civil War one of the major features of the New Economic Program would be the recognition of the land ownership of the rural peasants, this represented a shift from pure Bolshevik principles of pure nationalization, but one that was almost required by the circumstances. This left the Russian countryside in a state of flux, in which the realities of the situation did not really fit within the Communist worldview of how things should be run. The problem was that the peasants had achieved their goal, their generational goal, of overthrowing the landowners and taking control of the land, but that meant personal ownership of that land and the items that it produced, which was ideologically opposed to the core principles of Communism. This was generally glossed over at the time, with the Communist leaders were just not prepared to pick a fight with the peasants, but as the years went by the contradictions between the ideology driving the Soviet Union forward and the arrangement in the countryside would grow. One of the problems faced by Russian agriculture is that larger farms were just more efficient, especially as technology increased. The centralizing forces of this productivity meant that there began to be a class of peasants who were becoming more and more wealthy, a class of individuals that would be labeled as kulaks. The growing economic power of this group created what was essentially a new class of rural landowners, who were employing other workers, which would just be too much of a clash with Communist ideology and the clash between the two groups was became inevitable. One Ukrainian peasant, Semen Ivanisov, from southern Ukraine would write to a longtime friend who was a party official that the situation put many peasants into an impossible position. They could either do what every they could to remain poor peasants, not expand their land, not maximize output, or they could work hard improve their land, buy more land, and then eventually end up as kulaks and then become enemies of the state. There was no good answer. The Communists did have an answer though, and that answer was collectivization, a system under which the rural peasants would give up their privately owned land, pool their labor and their resources together and work together. The key point was that, much like in a state owned factory, the output of those collective farms would be owned by the state, with the rural workers provided for by the state. This was not a horrible plan, at least theoretically, there could be no denying that larger farms were more efficient, which would only be more true as the Soviet Union was able to produce more tractors and other technologies that would further improve efficiency. The problem was that this was so completely against the viewpoints of most of the peasants, they had just labored under landowners for generations, for centuries, first as serfs with limited freedoms and then as peasants with few economic freedoms, and they had gained their freedom, thrown off their shackles….and with collectivization it felt like those same conditions were coming back. This resistance was greatly exacerbated by the fact that there were mistakes made by Soviet leaders in how to implement the policies of collectivization, mistakes that would cause tremendous suffering and death in the rural areas of the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

One of the challenges faced by the advocates of collectivization was that there had already been resistance in the countryside to greater centralized control during the Civil War period. During the war the Bolshevik government had put in place a policy of forced requisition in the countryside to be able to support the war effort. This was done under the guise of war communism, and was seen as an essential action at the time. The result of this policy was a bit counter productive though, with it causing a drastic reduction in the amount of grain produced in many areas of Russia. This was due at least partially to a feeling among the rural workers that there was no point in producing more grain if it was just going to be confiscated anyway. The drastic reduction in production did not stop requisitions though, and there would be a famine that would spread through several areas of the newly formed Soviet Union during 1921. This would continue into 1922, even though there were efforts by international organizations like the Red Cross to provide food aid. These actions during this period are a perfect illustration of the differing worldviews of the rural workers and the central government and the urban workers. The Bolsheviks, from Lenin down the line, believed that the production of the rural farmers and laborers was state owned, just like the production of factories in the cities, therefore the confiscation of the production of farms was just the logical outcome of that worldview. This extended to the treatment of areas that would not give over the expected quotas of grain and other goods, with an order being given that “In every village take between 15 and 20 hostages, and, in case of unmet quotas, put them all up against the wall.” This was the same type of actions that were taken against villages that had supported the Whites during the civil war, resistance to central authority was seen as an anti-revolutionary action and was treated in the harshest possible way. The drop in production, the continuing famine, and the overall economic disaster that was the Soviet Union by 1923 forced a change in the form of the New Economic Policy. For the rural peasants, the most important feature of this new policy was a general change in how rural land ownership was viewed, the Lenin calling it a “strategic retreat”. This saw a return to a structure similar to what had been put in place immediately after the overthrow of the large rural land owners in 1917, with the peasants owning their own small areas of land and the goods that the land produced. This policy would then continue until the late 1920s, but would be a frequent areas of disagreement among Communist leaders, and really for good reason. It was, at least in my opinion, simply a capitalist system inside of a Communist system, and having the two systems interacting in that way was bound to cause problems, especially as the group of leaders who strongly favored all forms of centralization, led by Stalin, grew in power.

The disagreements about collectivization would gain additional prominence during 1927 due to Soviet agriculture missing its production targets. The goal for the year was around 7.7 million tons of grain, but the actual production was only around 5.4 million tons, a serious problem. There were two primary reasons for these challenges, government investment priorities and pricing errors. Even before the big investments made through the First Five Year Plan in 1928 there were major investments being made in Soviet industry which reduced the amount of resources put into bolstering and improving agriculture activities. Coupled with this, the pricing policy of the central government, which purchased most of the grain from the farmers, was set too low, which disincentivized production. Given these problems there were two directions that could be taken, from a policy perspective. On one hand the Soviet leadership could have made the decision to amplify the incentives for the peasants through economic stimulus and pricing policy changes. But this idea ran into resistance from those who were already concerned about the number of capitalist ideas and policies that were being adopted in the Soviet Union, this would be another major step in that direction. The other direction, and the one that was chosen, was to increase pressure on the peasants and begin at least some level of forced requisitions. This represented a change back to what had been done during the Civil War Period, during which there was a constant push to forcibly extract grain from the countryside. The first area that this was instituted was in Siberia, with Stalin traveling to Siberia in early 1928 to put in place the systems of extraction that would be used moving forward. Groups of government agents would roam the countryside demanding grain, and then physically ensuring that the proper quantities were obtained. The exact definition of “proper quantities” varied depending on the area, but it was almost always going to result in too much being taken from some families, who were left without enough food to feed themselves. These policies of forceful extraction were not the long term plan though, they were seen as short term measures to take care of a gap. The long term plan was for all of agriculture to become collectivized, and to be ran via centralized planning and collective work. In theory, farms could be structured much like large factories, with everybody working together towards a common goal with the production given over to the central government in exchange for that same government taking care of all of the workers. In theory, this would happen organically in the countryside, because once the peasants learned about Communism and its benefits they would clearly be able to see that it was just a better way to do things, obviously. But then they didn’t. The fact that this voluntary collectivization was not occurring was accepted during the mid 1920s, because sufficient grain was still being produced, and the entire agricultural industry was recovering from the civil war period. But when targets started to be missed, to the leftist absolutists among the Soviet leadership there was only one answer: the capitalist nature of the agricultural sector of the Soviet economy. This would begin to change in 1929.


In early 1929 both Stalin and Bukharin agreed that changes needed to be made, but they had polar opposite opinions on what should be done. Bukharin was one of the leaders for the idea that the best path forward was to further embrace free market ideas specifically for agriculture. Stalin was diametrically opposed to this, and would claim that this was one of the reasons that Bukharin was one of those right deviationists. In April 1929 Stalin would outline his plan, which was to gradually push for collectivization, with an emphasis on gradual. At least initially it would not involved forced collectivization, but instead it would allocate resources to jumpstart collectivization by providing equipment and tools to collective farms so that they could set an example, with the theory being that this would attract more support among the peasants, eventually converting more and more peasants and land into the collective system. This more gradual approach was essentially required, because there simply was not enough machinery and farm equipment to handle larger collective efforts, with the entire system depending on a greater use of tractors to allow for larger areas to be cultivated. The administrative structures to suddenly manage a bunch of collective farms also simply did not exist, and they would need to be created. There would also need to be a concerted effort to either build trust with the peasants or to crush any resistance completely. In September 1929 a story would be published in Pravda, the official party newspaper, with reports that the sowing season was going poorly and was far behind what was needed. Part of the problem was apparently the fact that peasants were reluctant to bring their grain seeds to government run seed cleaning stations due to fears that it would be confiscated. This was slowing the sowing of the seeds down considerably with concerns that it would cause an even greater food shortage in 1930. This is also an example of why there were so many problems trying to make the semi-free market of the agriculture industry exist within the Soviet economy. Farming was somewhat unique among the Soviet economy in that to produce a crop, a certain amount of food must be sacrificed in the form of seeds, you are planting the same stuff that you could eat. This meant that there had to be trust among the peasants that there would be a market for the grain after it had grown, that was not a problem, plenty of hungry people. However, it also required trust that the peasant would have enough food to make it from the time of planting to the harvest. This is where the break in trust between the peasants and the government became such a problem. Self preservation instincts of the peasants caused them to be cautious, to hold back grain and to generally just be more conservative, while at the same time there was pressure from the central government to produce more. The reduced production without similar reductions in the need to feed millions of people caused confiscation efforts to be ramped up, especially during September and October, with it being driven by concerns about starvation in the cities. This was met with greater resistance from peasants, and violence would begin to erupted between the peasants who were trying to keep their grain and confiscation parties that were moving around the countryside. Just to make matters worse, there were several instances where the confiscation, when completed, resulted in more grain than expected, and more than the transportation systems could handle which resulted in food just sitting around rotting due to lack of transport. In early November, as the final step, Stalin announced that a complete collectivization of all agriculture in the Soviet Union was going to begin.

Stalin would make his major public argument for collectivization during a speech to the Conference of Marxists Students of Agrarian Questions on December 27, 1939. Stalin would do the things that are kind of the hallmark of this kind of Communist speech, pulling from Marx, Engels, and Lenin to support his theories and viewpoints, I have pulled in a few interesting quotes here that explain how Stalin justified his push for collectivization and the problems he believed it solved. Also, shoutout to the Marxists Internet Archive for being an amazing resource for all of these episodes, I really appreciate not just the contents of the archive, but also that it is all in next clean plaintext web pages. The first quote here discusses why Stalin believes that collectivization is the only path forward for turning the countryside into a better model of socialism: “Of course, there are contradictions in the collective farms. Of course, there are individualistic and even kulak survivals in the collective farms, which have not yet disappeared, but which are bound to disappear in the course of time as the collective farms become stronger, as they are provided with more machines. But can it be denied that the collective farms as a whole, with all their contradictions and shortcomings, the collective farms as an economic fact, represent, in the main, a new path of development of the countryside, the path of socialist development of the countryside in contradistinction to the kulak, capitalist path of development? Can it be denied that the collective farms (I am speaking of real, not sham collective farms) represent, under our conditions, a base and centre of socialist construction in the countryside—a base and centre which have grown up in desperate clashes with the capitalist elements?” In the next quote Stalin discusses the kulaks, and how collectivization is actually saving them from a return to servitude to the kulaks, who were becoming just like the landowners of old: “Are there elements of the class struggle in the collective farms? Yes, there are. There are bound to be elements of the class struggle in the collective farms as long as there still remain survivals of individualistic, or even kulak, mentality, as long as there still exists a certain degree of material inequality. Can it be said that the class struggle in the collective farms is equivalent to the class struggle in the absence of collective farms? No, it cannot. The mistake our “Left” phrasemongers make lies precisely in not seeing the difference. What does the class struggle imply in the absence of collective farms, prior to the establishment of collective farms? It implies a fight against the kulak who owns the instruments and means of production and who keeps the poor peasants in bondage with the aid of those instruments and means of production. It is a life-and-death struggle.” The final quote here discusses the fact that collectivization is also a major component in molding the peasantry into better socialists: “It would be a mistake to believe that once collective farms exist we have all that is necessary for building socialism. It would be all the more a mistake to believe that the members of the collective farms have already become Socialists. No, a great deal of work has still to be done to remould the peasant collective farmer, to set right his individualistic mentality and to transform him into a real working member of a socialist society. And the more rapidly the collective farms are provided with machines, the more rapidly they are supplied with tractors, the more rapidly will this be achieved. But this does not in the least belittle the very great importance of the collective farms as a lever for the socialist transformation of the countryside. The great importance of the collective farms lies precisely in that they represent the principal base for the employment of machinery and tractors in agriculture, that they constitute the principal base for remoulding the peasant, for changing his mentality in the spirit of socialism.” After Stalin’s announcement that complete collectivization was now the plan a commission would be setup in December 1929 to create the plan to turn it into reality and they would spend almost a month debating and determining what the policies should be. There were two different plans proposed, the more moderate plan was to reorganize the land into two different sections. The first would be small plots given to the farmers that they could use to produce food and some small surplus of goods. The second would be much larger and would be the collective farms. The peasants would be expected to work on the large collective farms, in exchange for which they would given their small bits of land to live on and work for themselves. This was not that far removed from the pre revolution serf and landowner system that had been in place for centuries. Stalin would advocate for a different structure, removing the concept of any small individual areas of production with the peasants instead being completely collectivized. They would live and work on the collective farms and they would be provided with food from its production. This was the path of complete control, and Stalin would argue was more ideologically pure, more leftist and more Communist. A key component in both proposals was that the groups of people known as kulaks would have to be removed from the equation. The precise definition of what a kulak was would change over time, but at least in the beginning a kulak was a rural landowner that had grown to a certain size and prosperity. They had larger farms, they often employed workers on those farms, and they were the most likely to have things like tractors that then just accelerated their growth and prosperity. These individuals would be targeted for special treatment, under the claim that they were capitalists and were through their actions attacking the Communist system. The special treatment would involve their lands and all of their possessions being confiscated, and with the kulaks and their families being exiled, generally to somewhere in Siberia. Their land and their equipment would then form the nuclei for collective farms. This was a major risk because the kulaks and their properties were the most prosperous areas in Soviet agriculture, and by destroying them it increased the stakes placed on collectivization, it had to work. But what has come to be called “dekulakization” would become official policy and would be pursued. While there was general optimism about collectivization being a good plan for the future of the Soviet Union, there was acceptance of the fact that this was not something that could be done without violence. The plan called for land and goods of peasants across the entire Soviet Union to be confiscated, and then large numbers of those peasants to be forcefully relocated to collective farms, or kolkhozes. Not everyone was going to be happy about the changes.

As the collective drive really got rolling in early 1930, this was exactly what happened. Violence in the countryside increased, with there being thousands of instances where peasants resisted the changes that were being made. Hundreds of thousands of individuals participated in these acts of violence. This was then met by greater repression from the government agents that were trying to make collectivization happen. One interesting fact is that the support for collectivization within the Red Army was not that strong, with so much of the Red Army being drawn from the same rural families that were now resisting collectivization. This meant that the Red Army was not always the group that was used to put down peasant violence, with groups from the OGPU, or the Joint State Political Directorate which would later be incorporated into the NKVD, often being the face and bulwark of collectivization efforts, which just increased the antagonism between the two groups. The major problem was that by March 1930, the unrest in the countryside was starting to cause problems with the spring planting season. During March there were over 6,000 separate instances of unrest and resistance among the peasant population involving up to 2 million people. None of this resistance was really well organized, it was not like these actions were a threat to state power, the peasants did not have a lot of weapons and they were never organized into large groups. There also were not a lot of deaths during this time, the goal of the protests was to push the government groups away, not to kill them. All of these actions were taking away from what the job of the peasants was during the spring, which was planting. If the goal was to reform Soviet agriculture to increase production, the worst possible thing to do would be to disrupt the spring planting. This problem would result in a change in policy with some property being given back to the peasants, particularly livestock and some land around where they lived. This was seen as a temporary tactical retreat to make sure that the planting happened, before a renewed effort was made. These changes, when combined with the general need among the peasants to also do the planting because they also would need food in the fall, would greatly reduce the number of incidents after March. But collectivization would continue, dekulakization would continue, violence would continue. Oh, and also, agricultural production would continue its collapse. Next episode we will continue our discussion of Soviet agriculture as the reduce production of food in the countryside is not met with a reduction in the extraction of food from the countryside, with the inevitable result of famine, suffering, and death.