Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
In the months and years that followed Lenin’s death in 1924, the Soviet Union underwent tremendous social, economic, and political changes as individuals fought for control over the state. Although Joseph Stalin assumed command of the Soviet government in 1924, his future remained uncertain due to interparty strife and the Soviet Union’s political and economic vulnerabilities to both foreign and domestic threats (Riasanovksy, 495-496). Although the NEP served as “a time of revival,” historian David Marples argued that it also created “acute social problems” in the mid-1920s, such as high-unemployment, low-wages, lack of housing, and crime across the Soviet Union (Marples, 65). This resulted in a “mass exodus of the urban population to the countryside” and a retreat from Bolshevik ideology that stressed the importance of strengthening the working-class (Marples, 64).
The Decision to Collectivize
To consolidate power and control, Stalin needed to accomplish three things: control over the countryside, a repeal of NEP, and, finally, rapid industrialization. As a result of its internal and external problems, the Soviet Union remained socially and politically divided and at an increasingly high-risk of invasion from both Eastern and Western powers (Riasanovsky, 496). Moreover, lack of industrial infrastructure placed the Soviet Union at a tremendous disadvantage to mechanized nations capable of mass-producing weaponry and supplies at a rapid rate. During the 15th Party Congress of 1927, Stalin echoed these sentiments in the statement: “Considering the possibility of a military attack against the proletarian state [Soviet Union] by capitalist states, it is necessary…to pay maximum attention to the rapid development of…industry, in particular, on which fall the primary role in securing the defense and economic stability of the country during the time of war” (Stalin, 260).
In addition to problems with industry, the adoption of NEP also equated to a toleration of capitalism. Viewed in this perspective, the NEP served to not only counter the work and original aims of the Russian Revolution, but it also served to prevent the establishment of a communist state. Thus, for these reasons, NEP required significant alterations to fit Stalin’s vision for a unified and “advanced industrial” Soviet state (Marples, 94). According to Marples:
"Stalin believed that the USSR was ten years behind the advanced nations of the West in industrial development. Not only did it have to bridge this gap, but it also had to achieve economic self-sufficiency. The atmosphere created in the country was one of a state of war – enemies were everywhere and being uncovered anew by the secret police. The new directions in economic policy would eradicate these enemies and strengthen the country" (Marples, 94).
The First "Five Year Plan"
In 1927, Stalin sanctioned the development of the “First Five Year Plan” as a response to threats (either real or imaginary) working inside and outside of the Soviet Union (Marples, 95). The plan aimed to subordinate peasants through the development of collectivized farms designed to modernize Soviet industry (Marples, 94). Stalin planned to accomplish industrialization and modernization through overly-ambitious and excessive goals that mimicked a wartime economy (MacKenzie and Curran, 483). Stalin used the potential threats posed by China, Japan, Germany, and the west as an excuse to launch collectivization throughout the Soviet Union and to extract the maximum amount of grain from the peasantry. Stalin also justified his collectivization program through the argument that state intervention served as the only means to eradicate capitalist-sabotage from taking place within the ranks of the peasantry (Viola, 19-20). Stalin falsely accused kulaks (wealthy peasants) for the poor grain supplies of 1927 and argued that wealthy peasants deliberately sabotaged harvests in order to damage the Communist state from within (Marples, 93). The absurdity of this claim, however, lies in the fact that “kulak farms made up only 4 percent of the total” peasant population during this time; therefore, kulak sabotage (if it existed at all) played little role in the creation of a “grain crisis” as Stalin asserted (Marples, 93).
Grain procurement served as a crucial step for the advancement of Stalinism because it increased the amount of available goods to trade with foreign powers. Exports increased monetary capital for the Soviet regime and allowed for greater investments in both industry and security for the Soviet state. The official provisions of the first “Five Year Plan” reflected the overall intent of grain requisitioning. As it stated, “proceeding from the general course of foreign trade…it is necessary to construct a foreign trade plan with the purpose of an active balance” (Stalin, 262). According to the provisions, “an active trade balance together with the increase of gold extraction in the country…[was] the fundamental source for the formation of a currency revenue” (Stalin, 262). Stalin argued that “a sufficient increase in exports” inevitably led to “the growth of heavy and light industry” (Stalin, 263). Likewise, a newspaper article written in 1930 by Louis Fischer summarized the importance of heavy industry in the Soviet Union. In the article, which appeared in The Nation, Fischer stated:
"The heavy industries must not suffer. They are the solid foundation which bolshevism is laying for Russia’s future development. Without them the country is dependent, incapable of defense in war, and doomed to a low standard of living. Moreover, if agricultural overproduction continues throughout the world, and if the Soviet Union were to remain a predominantly agrarian country, nobody would desire her exports, her foreign trade would shrink and her growth would be stunted. Industrialization is the historic function of bolshevism and answers the highest national interests. In the end the nation will be grateful to the Soviet regime for its persistence and courage in carrying out a difficult program despite the terrific costs to all inhabitants of the Union" (Fischer, 282).
Although clearly biased with his conclusions, Fischer, an “astute observer of Soviet politics,” illustrated the importance that Soviet leaders placed on industrialization and equated both its growth and expansion to an agenda of pure necessity (Fischer, 282).
"Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost — maybe even millions. I can’t give an exact figure because no one was keeping count. All we knew was that people were dying in enormous numbers."
— Nikita Khrushchev
Reaction to Collectivization
The implementation of collectivization provoked widespread resentment and anger throughout the Soviet Union, as peasants (especially wealthier kulaks), and Soviet citizens clashed with government agents tasked with the enforcement of Stalin’s new economic system (Riasanovsky, 497). To expedite the process of collectivization, the Soviet regime established brigades of armed “party activists,” similar to War Communism, in order to confiscate grain and force farmers to join the collectives, often through force, if necessary (Marples, 96). These brigades included the infamous 25,000ers, who were comprised (primarily) of urban-workers, “demobilized Red army soldiers, internal security forces…and rural officials” (Viola, 33). According to Lynne Viola, the Soviets tasked the 25,000ers “to serve in permanent positions on the collective farms in order to ensure the reliability of the collective farm movement” (Viola, 33). Through this leadership role, the 25,000ers “were to serve as agents of revolution from above” and “were to inject [a sense of class] consciousness into the vast” peasantry to prepare them for socialism (Viola, 35). To meet the grain procurement quotas set by collectivization, these activists often “went from hut to hut…seizing everything they could find” (Snyder, 39). According to Timothy Snyder, these brigades “looked everywhere and took everything,” and often used “long metal rods to search through stables, pigsties, [and] stoves” to look for grain (Snyder, 39). In the process of taking anything that “resembled food,” Snyder also argued that party activists humiliated and disgraced peasants (Snyder, 39). According to his findings, activists “would urinate in barrels of pickles, or order hungry peasants to box each other for sport, or make them crawl and bark like dogs, or force them to kneel in the mud and pray” (Snyder, 39). Peasants, particularly in the Ukraine, despised the efforts of 25,000ers. Oleksander Honcharenko, a former peasant from Kiev, described the 25,000ers as follows:
"The Twenty-Five Thousander was a propagandist-agitator…but who listened? No one. This liar made his way from one end of the village to the other. No one wanted anything to do with him. Everyone knew what was going on" (Case History LH38, 327).
Because of their overzealous efforts to collectivize agriculture, by 1930 “about one in every six households was deprived of its possessions” (Marples, 96). In response, peasant insurgencies quickly “broke out across the Soviet Union, in virtually all of the chief grain-growing regions” as peasants sought to preserve the standard of living experienced under the NEP (Marples, 97). Consequently, historian David Marples argued that in the early 1930s, “the Stalin regime had not only succeeded in creating a civil conflict once again; it had also alienated perhaps the majority of the Soviet population” as peasants attempted to understand and adjust to these rapid changes (Marples, 97).
The degree of change that peasants experienced varied considerably depending on their location within the Soviet Union, as some regions experienced far greater alterations to their farming customs than others. In Siberia and parts of Western Russia, for example, the collectivization of agriculture initially proved less drastic and dramatic. During the tsarist era, peasants who resided in these regions of Russia often operated within the confines of the mir. These communal-based, agricultural communities provided a sense of collectivized farming well before Stalin’s forced grain requisitions began in the late 1920s. According to a French observer in the late 1800s, the mir served as “an assemblage of families holding…a common quantity of land, in which members collectively farmed for sustenance, and “to satisfy…[financial] obligations” and debts” (Lastrade, 83). Therefore, early peasant resistance towards collectivization in these areas often resulted in far less situations of violence and dissent, due to the peasantry’s familiarity with this form of communal farming (Fitzpatrick, 9).
In the Soviet Ukraine, however, the shift to a collectivized system of agriculture resulted in far greater change for the peasantry. Similar to the nomads of Kazakhstan, Ukrainians possessed little knowledge about the communal labor practices of the mir in Russia due to their isolation and independent forms of farming (Pianciola, 237). According to Leonid Korownyk, a former peasant from Dnipropetrovsk, “nobody wanted [collectivization], because historically Ukrainian farmers were individualist” (holodomorsurvivors.ca). Likewise, historian Graham Tan described Ukrainian agriculture as a “system [that] shared many similarities with the communal system found in Central Russia [the mir] but… [with an] emphasis on the individual rather than the whole” (Tan, 917). As he stated, in the Ukraine, “the most common form of land tenure…was the podvornoe system where land was held by individual households and passed to relatives as hereditary property” (Tan, 917). As historian Anatole Romaniuk described, “the Ukrainian peasantry had a strong sense of property,” which contrasted sharply with “the more collectivist-minded Russian peasantry…[and] its tradition of obschena (communality)" (Romaniuk, 318). Thus, forcing peasants of the Ukraine to work on collectivized farms resembled serf-like conditions of the nineteenth century and a return to a master-slave relationship. This sort of social and economic reality provoked great distress amongst those it touched. As a result, many Ukrainians chose rebellion as their best option to block Stalin’s plans for an industrialized Soviet Union.
In closing, the decision to collectivize agriculture in the Soviet Union had drastic consequences for the Soviet countryside, and resulted in the displacement (and death) of countless lives. Only a few years after collectivization began in 1927, the Soviet Union experienced one of the worst famines in human history due to the overzealous efforts to seize grain from the peasantry. Millions died and succumbed to starvation across the Soviet interior, particularly in the Ukraine. Thus, in many ways, collectivization represented a true crime against humanity, and one of the greatest man-made disasters of the twentieth-century. May the lives of those lost in its social and economic upheaval never be forgotten.
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Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance & Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
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Pianciola, Niccolo. “The Collectivization Famine in Kazakhstan, 1931-1933,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies Vol. 25 No. 3/4 (2001): 237-251.
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Viola, Lynne. “Bab’I Bunty and Peasant Women’s Protest During Collectivization.” In Russian Peasant Women, edited by Beatrice Farnsworth and Lynne Viola, 189-205. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Viola, Lynne. The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
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© 2019 Larry Slawson