135: Collectivization in Action


This episode will dive into what collectivization looked like in practice and the impact it had on those in the countryside.



This episode is going to focus heavily on the events in Ukraine during the early 1930s and the challenges and trauma faced by the Ukrainian people during that time. At the time of writing this episode in May 2023 the people of Ukraine are facing new challenges and new trauma in a war that has been raging for over a year. If you are able I would encourage you to head over to United24, the official fundraising platform for the government of Ukraine, over at u24.gov.ua and make a donation. If you make a donation and send me a screenshot of your donation I will personally match the first $500 in donations with a donation to the Medical Aid fund. Again that is u24.gov.ua or just click the link in the show notes.

Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 135 - The Soviet Union Part 5 - Collectivization in Action. [Sawyer, Chris, Bo] Last episode covered some of the early attempts at collectivization and the reasons that collectivization was pursued by the central committee of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. This episode will discuss what that collectivization actually meant for the people in the countryside where the collectivization was taking place. Importantly, collectivization was happening whether the rural peasants wanted it or not, and it would have two important outcomes. The first was widespread famine within the agricultural areas. This famine was exacerbated by grain confiscation and export policies which caused widespread starvation among the people living and working on the collective farms, with food confiscation also used as a punishment for those who refused to join the collectives. The second major outcome was just a general drop in production within the agricultural sector, which was already a problem going into the 1930s, but would only continue during the years of heavy collectivization from 1930 to 1932. There was some inefficiency in the collectivization process, which probably would have happened not matter what, just like during any major reorganization of any industry it is impossible to just flip and switch and completely reorganize a massive sector of the economy. But the larger problem was one of lack of motivation among the agricultural workers. When you look at first hand accounts it is obvious that the people actually doing the sowing and the harvesting were far less motivated to complete the work not necessarily because of the collectivization process, but more because of the forced requisitioning to the point where there was not enough food to feed the people doing the work and their families. This general despondency led to a vicious cycle where the peasants were blamed for the lack of output, with the claim being that they were resisting the collectivization process, so the confiscation and punishments were increased, which caused output to fall further, which caused them to be blamed more, and then the process would continue. This episode will focus on the early parts of that cycle, starting with what collectivization looked like in practice, instead of just in theory and then the reaction to that collectivization by the rural workers.

While the outcome of collectivization gets placed in one container, there was a lot of variance around what precisely a collective farm looked like throughout the Soviet Union. On some collective farms the workers still lived in their own houses, sometimes even working a small plot of land by themselves, occasionally they were even allowed to keep a few cows or chickens. Other collectives were more all encompassing, with the workers living in shared barracks or houses, eating in shared cafeterias, with everything owned and operated by the collective. Regardless of the exact organization, one unifying feature was that all major equipment was operated and loaned out by a centralized state run Tractor Station, which was an important advantage for collective farms, with any remaining individual farms not having access to such machinery. On the collectives decisions about how to run and operate the collectives were made by central authorities which ended up not being the best structure. For agriculture, when decisions are made centrally there can be a lot more unification around when to sow or harvest, or do other activities this can result in progress due to scheduling efficiencies especially when it came to multiple collectives sharing tractors and other equipment. But it could also mean that if mistakes were made they were big mistakes, it was no longer one peasant family planting too early and getting their crops hampered by frost or rain, no it was a whole collective of many families that now was doing the wrong thing. This challenge was exacerbated by the lack of trust that the controlling committees had in the rural workers themselves, often resulting in decisions being made without the people with the most knowledge about those decisions, the peasants, being consulted. The most visible example of this distrust were the bands of urban workers that were sent into the countryside, often referred to as 25 Thousanders, or just Thousanders. The Thousanders were party members from cities that were sent into the countryside to help setup the collective farms, and then to advocate for them with the local populace. They would often also be the ones making decisions on the collective farms. The idea of having party members, who had previously been urban workers, going into the countryside to assist in the collectivization had merit especially if the Central Committee in Moscow wanted political education to be an important part of the collectivization process, which they absolutely did. But the problems came from the instant antagonism that the Thousanders brought with them into the countryside. By 1929 when the Thousanders were assembled, there was already a narrative in the cities that the peasants were part of the problem when it came to food shortages in the cities, that the peasants were essentially causing those food shortages. This put the urban workers and the rural workers into a mindset of being enemies. The idea of the resisting peasant was also of course tied into counterrevolutionary concerns, which were potent among the Thousanders, as they were party members who believed in the revolution and that it had to be protected from counterrevolutionary forces. Then thousands of those urban workers moved into the countryside and started being the public face of massive reorganization efforts, which the rural peasants did not instantly buy into. This then shifted the Thosuanders from advocating for the collective farms through ideology and teaching to being the face of forced collectivization. The first target would be the village councils that were basically just local governments but would often be seen as obstructing the work of the Thousanders and others advocating for collective farms. Often this was not even a flat rejection of collectivization, but instead a resistance to active forced collectivization. This would cause the councils to be dissolved which resulted in individual peasants losing their organized structures of local government, and at times local organized actions. Local leaders were also at times arrested, again to prevent any kind of organized resistance. To give an example of how this was seen as a major change among the rural villages, here are a few quotes from Miron Dolot, who lived in a rural village in central Ukraine. He would later discuss what life had been like in the village for most of the 1920s: “We were completely free in our movements. We took pleasure trips and travelled freely looking for jobs. We went to big cities and neighboring towns to attend weddings, church bazaars, and funerals. No one asked us for documents or questioned us about our destinations.’ During this time the villages were almost entirely self-governing entities. This would all change during 1929 when the Thousanders arrived in the village and began to make changes. This included the arrest of some of the most prominent local citizens, a teacher, a store owner, several of the more wealthy peasants, all highly respected members of the community were arrested along with their wives and children. This was an example of the dekulakization process which was happening everywhere.

Last episode briefly discussed dekulakization and what a kulak was, but it would be a critical part of the collectivization process. The key piece to understand is that the idea and definition of a kulak was fungible and changed based on the local situation and the general requirements of those labeling someone as a kulak. At the beginning the definition was a bit more solid and was mostly tied into an economic definition of what could set someone part from other workers and turn them into a kulak. Here is a definition provided by the Ukrainian Council of People’s Commissars in August 1929 when describing what could make someone a kulak: “a farm that regularly hired labour; a farm that contained a mill, a tannery, brick factory or other small ‘industrial’ plant; a farm that rented buildings or agricultural implements on a regular basis. Any farm whose owners or managers involved themselves in trade, usury, or any other activity that produced ‘unearned income’ was certainly run by kulaks too.” This is a pretty clear definition and roughly maps to the kind of revolutionary definition that was used for factory or business owners in the urban environment. When a farm gets to a place that it is hiring workers to get the required work done, it becomes a business and the person who owns that farm is. business owner. The definition started to be challenged once it became clear that the larger peasants were not going to be the only group opposed to collectivization, and instead resistance would come from even the poorest of peasants. This meant that dekulakization was expanded to all those who actively resisted collectivization, regardless of their economic standing and the structure of their farms. The excuse given for this was that the poorer peasants were either willfully working for the kulaks or they were brainwashed and were therefore just an extension of the kulak threat. The problem for everyone in the rural villages is that as soon as the definition of a kulak broke out of its relatively narrow economic definition, everyone was at risk of being labeled as a kulak. It became an ever present threat for anyone even passively resisting any central mandates, or even just groups of people that were labeled as a group as kulaks. This included Germans or Poles in Ukraine, who had lived in Ukraine for generations but had German or Polish ancestors. Why was this label so important? Because being labeled as kulak could be devastating to a person. A kulak was no longer a citizen of the Soviet Union, they were an enemy of the Soviet Union. Property rights? gone. Legal rights? No longer existed. Freedom of movement? not a chance. A kulak and his entire family might be kicked out of their homes, arrested, sent to Siberia or another part of the Soviet Union, all freedom was gone. Millions of individuals would be forced into exile from southern and central Russia and into Siberia and other places from 1930 to 1933, being sent to other areas of the Soviet Union with nothing but their clothes and a few things that they could carry. Even more would be arrested and forced, under threat of violence and exile for themselves and their family, to join collective farms. And it gets even worse, there were at times quotas for de-kulakization in some regions, and so kulaks were found because they had to be. I kind of see this as the inevitable problem of blaming problems on groups of people, once that path is started down, if those people are removed and the situation does not improve, it can be hard to change course, and the Soviet leaders would not change course. They would instead continue to blame the kulaks for the problem, and so kulaks to blame had to be found with an ever expanding definition. This included institutions as well, like the village councils but also churches were a major target, with rural churches being labeled as sources of opposition, when it was far more likely that they were simply a source of aid and comfort to those who had chosen not to join the collectives as well as those that had.


While the collectivization and dekulakization were ongoing, there would be growing resistance throughout the countryside. The lack of trust in the collectivization process, and really in the general distrust for central authority in general, would cause many different types of resistance. Most of it was not active violence though, peasants generally did not attack Thousanders or others advocating or forcing collectivization, but instead chose more creative ways to protest. One of these was of course just a general refusal to join in the collectives, preferring to retain their independent nature even with the increasing hardship. Another was the widespread slaughtering of livestock. The slaughtering of the livestock would occur when orders went out for all livestock to be handed over to the collective farms. Instead peasants would slaughter them, eat some of it, preserve and hide more, and then sell whatever was left to avoid having to hand them over. When this purposeful slaughtering was combined with the general heightened attrition among livestock due to food shortages the drop in overall livestock numbers was catastrophic, with the number of pigs dropping from 26 to 12 million and sheep and goats dropping from 146 million to 50 million from 1928 to 1933. When this happened the peasants were often labeled as kulaks and had everything confiscated and then exiled. In other instances the OGPU would report that there were armed resistances that had to be dealt with, sometimes calling back to the Russian whites and the general fears of counter revolution. And there really were some instances of attempts at organizing armed resistance, with the OGPU getting their hands on printed leaflets that were trying to organize peasant groups into a resistance. But in general these were not politically motivated efforts to overthrow the revolution, or to bring back the Whites, and were instead just attempts by people who felt they had no other choice. The idea that the peasants were attempting to launch some kind of counter revolutionary campaign was born out of a kind of desperation to explain why the collectivization was encountering resistance, and also why it was resulting in the continued drop in agricultural production. Even from the period between 1931 and 1932, years after collectivization started to be pursued year over year grain production and collections would drop 20 percent. At the same time the pressure on the peasants would be increased, with even those already on collectives being targeted with new measures to ensure that grain collections could continue unabated, even as the food on the collectives dropped into starvation levels for those that were working on the collectives. The punishments for those on the collectives would escalate late in 1931 when the new policy would be changed so that any collective farms that missed their grain quotas would be punished through the forced repayment of loans that were to be used to purchase grain, the forced return of equipment that was being leased from the tractor stations which had the result of making it even harder to meet the next quota. Along with these harsh punishments for missing quotas, the punishments for those that were found to be hiding or consuming extra food.

One of the key points of this period is not just the actions taken to force collectivize the farms, but also the starvation that was happening due to widespread collectivization. This at least partially caused by the fact that even though total agricultural production in the Soviet Union was dropping year over year the amount of grain exported from the Soviet union actually increased from barely any in 1929 up to 5.2 million tons in 1931. These export targets were set and executed on even though the total production of grain in the Soviet Union missed the goal by almost 14 million tons, with less than 70 million tons being harvested in 1931 against an 83 million ton goal. These shortcomings were known, even as high up as Stalin the amount of grain being harvested was discussed, and that it was well below the goal, but changes were not made because of the importance of that grain export to other goals of the First Five year Plan, with the grain being exported for foreign currency and goods to purchase items critical to the success of some of the industrial expansion goals. This meant that the quotas would not be changed, but there was not enough food to meet the quotas, something had to give. Among officials in the agricultural areas like Ukraine, a feeling of desperation came into play as they greatly feared being seen as the people that were failing to meet the objectives set before them. This meant even further increases in the already harsh confiscation policies during the spring of 1932. Every piece of grain and food that could be found was at times confiscated by local officials who organized groups of workers to move through the countryside village by village and house by house. This was a short term solution to the problem though because the availability of food by this point, or the complete lack of availability of food, was causing starvation in many of the most agriculturally productive areas of the Soviet Union. Reports out of many areas of southern Russia, from Ukraine, the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and others made it clear that children were starving, bread was almost impossible to find, and even healthy adults were reaching the point where they could no longer work. In some areas peasants were also starting to just refuse to sow the land in the spring, because the only food they had left was their seed grain, and if they planted that they would have nothing. The situation in Ukraine got so bad that high ranking Ukrainian communist leaders started to discuss a clear statement to Moscow that the current system was unsustainable. This included a letter from Petrovskyi, a Bolshevik party member from before the revolution, who tried to gather support for writing a letter to the Central Committee in Moscow. The general idea of the letter was that policies were creating shortages so severe that continued production would be impossible, and that grain collections in Ukraine should be temporarily halted to allow for some level of recovery in the populace. The letter would also suggest that emergency relief organizations were necessary, and the region would not be able to recover just on its own, there simply were not enough resources available. It would even go so far as saying that nothing should be removed from Ukraine for all of 1932 to try and make a recovery possible. These types of ideas did result in some small changes in policy during early 1932, including some shipments of food back into Ukraine to distribute to the people, with permission for this distribution coming from Moscow.

But then starting in April things began to once again change, and in a very bad direction for the people in Ukraine. Stalin himself became involved and ordered that the food aid going into Ukraine be stopped, and that the punishments against underperforming collective farms be continued by the Ukrainian Party leaders. Stalin would even go so far as to question the loyalty of the Ukrainian party leaders, with these questions openly voiced to Molotov and other party leaders in Moscow. But regardless of policies that were put in place, or continued, there was no solution for the fact that there just was not enough grain to even come close to meeting export goals, and in 1932 export levels would drastically decrease from around 5.2 million tons to just 1.73 million. There were also reports leaking out of the most effected regions that theft of food was on the rise, as people were reaching their breaking point. On August 7, 1932 a new set of standards for public property on the collective farms was published stating “Public property (state, kolkhoz, cooperative) [is] the basis of the Soviet system; it is sacred and inviolable, and those attempting to steal public property must be considered enemies of the people … the decisive struggle against plunderers of public property is the foremost obligation of every organ of Soviet administration.” It would then continue to discuss what would happen to the person who violated that state property: “The Central Executive Committee and Soviet of People’s Commissars of the USSR hereby resolve … 1) To regard the property of kolkhozes and cooperatives (harvest in stores, etc.) as tantamount to state property. 2) To apply as a punitive measure for plundering (thievery) of kolkhoz and collective property the highest measure of social defence: execution with the confiscation of all property, which may be substituted … by the deprivation of freedom for a period of no fewer than ten years.” This basically meant that anybody found keeping food from confiscation could be sentenced to 10 years in prison or in exile. This included good in and outside of the collectives, and the increased threats of arrest and imprisonment meant that many of the last hold outs to collectivizations would be forced to finally give in and join the collectives by the end of 1932, as life outside of the collectives simply became unsustainable due to the draconian confiscation policies. By the end of 1932 over 100,00 people had received those 10 year sentences for stealing food, and around 4,500 had been executed under the new laws. Unfortunately for many, 1933 was going to be worse.