Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
Chronic shortfalls in state procurements of grain and a rising tide of working-class protests over shortages combined to persuade Stalin and his supporters within the party leadership to abandon the market as the main mechanism by which goods from the countryside were obtained. Having supervised the application of “extraordinary” (read, coercive) measures in the Urals and western Siberia during the winter of 1927-1928, Stalin hit on the idea of organizing collective and state farms as a potentially more effective and longer-term solution to the problem of extracting grain. Stalin’s enthusiasm for collectivization seems to have been based on two cardinal principles that many in the party and at least some agrarian experts shared. One was that large units of production, organized along the lines of industrial enterprises and with access to mechanized equipment, were far more efficient and would permit the extraction of greater surpluses than the traditional strip farming practiced by Russian peasants. The other was that kulaks represented a counterweight to Soviet power in the villages and by their very nature constituted a “class-alien” element that had to be eliminated. It followed from this that so-called middle peasants who, again by their very nature, wavered between supporting state initiatives and opposing them, could be won over to collective farming by a combination of inducements (access to mechanized equipment, credits, etc.) and coercive measures (taxes, confiscations, threats of exile). Thus, collectivization was to proceed in tandem with “dekulakization.”
How did peasants initially respond to the idea of collectivization? Party agitators sent to the villages to persuade peasants of the benefits of collectivization often met with skepticism and mockery. Peasants who resisted the pressure of regional party officials to enroll in collective farms were labeled as kulaks; those who feared confiscation sold off their property as quickly as they could, in effect self-dekulakizing. By June 1929 one million – out of some 25 million – peasant households had been enrolled in 57,000 collectives. Still, the majority held back. The most intense period of collectivization was during the winter of 1929-1930 following the publication in Pravda on the twelfth anniversary of the October Revolution of Stalin’s article announcing a “great breakthrough” on the road to “winning the vast masses of the peasantry to the side of the working class.”
On January 5, 1930, the Central Committee issued its decree calling for collectivizing not merely the 20 percent of arable land envisioned in the First Five-Year Plan, but “the huge majority of peasant farms” in the most important grain-growing regions by the autumn of 1930. Workers enrolled in brigades to assist in collectivization (the “Twenty-Five Thousanders”) were dispatched to the villages with great fanfare, as if they were going off to war. Much was made in propagandistic newsreels of “kulak resistance” and successful searches and confiscations carried out by the police and party officials. Those identified as kulaks were subjected to confiscation and either local resettlement, deportation, incarceration in labor camps and in case of the most dangerous “elements,” execution. By March 1930 an estimated 55 percent of peasant households at least nominally had enrolled in collective farms. At this point, however, Stalin decried the excesses of local officials, claiming they were “dizzy with success.” Indeed, central authorities had been deluged by complaints concerning expropriations carried out by overzealous officials aiming to achieve “complete” (sploshnaia) collectivization within their districts. Within three months of the publication of Stalin’s article, over half of peasant households ostensibly enrolled in collective farms were recorded as having withdrawn. However, this reversal was short-lived. Fines and compulsory sales of property for peasants unable (or unwilling) to meet delivery quotas drove many back into the kolkhoz system; by July 1931 the proportion of households in collective farms had risen to 53 percent and a year later to 61.5 percent.
Among the incentives to join collective farms was access to mechanized equipment. In June 1929 an experimental machine-tractor station operating on the Shevchenko state farm in Odessa oblast was identified in a decree of the Council of Labor and Defense as a model for the entire USSR. In January 1933 the party seized upon the MTS as its spearhead in the countryside, attaching to them Political Departments (politotdely) to “ensure political control and surveillance of the distribution and use of collective farms and state-farm workers….” While the media portrayed peasants as eager to obtain the services of the MTS, their interventions in village affairs and the inevitable crossing of lines of authority were often sources of resentment, conflict, and denunciation.
Peasant resistance to collectivization took many forms: wanton slaughter of livestock, women’s riots (bab’i bunty), theft and destruction of collective farm property, and, perhaps most widely spread, an intentionally slow pace in carrying out directives of the kolkhoz administration. The tremendous loss of livestock through slaughter, inadequate fodder, and simple neglect made it virtually impossible for kolkhozes to fulfill their procurement quotas for meat and dairy products. Failure of collective farms to meet procurement quotas had dire consequences for their members. It meant that no matter how many labordays (the unit of accounting according to which collective farmers were paid) kolkhozniks worked, there was nothing to pay them. During 1929-31, procurement quotas were set at levels that exceeded the capacity of most farms. In 1932, farms in Ukraine, the Lower Volga and the North Caucasus were hit by a poor harvest, leading to famine conditions. Blaming shortages on kulak sabotage, authorities favored urban areas and the army in distributing what supplies of food had been collected. The resulting loss of life is estimated as at least five million. To escape from starvation, large numbers of peasants abandoned collective farms for the cities.