After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, peasants gained control of about half of the land they had previously cultivated, and began to ask for the redistribution of all land. The Stolypin agricultural reforms between 1905 and 1914 gave incentives for the creation of large farms, but these ended during World War I. The Russian Provisional Government accomplished little during the difficult World War I months, though Russian leaders continued to promise redistribution. Peasants began to turn against the Provisional Government and organized themselves into land committees, which together with the traditional peasant communes became a powerful force of opposition. When Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia on April 16, 1917, he promised the people "Peace, Land and Bread," the latter two appearing as a promise to the peasants for the redistribution of confiscated land and a fair share of food for every worker respectively.
During the period of war communism, however, the policy of Prodrazvyorstka meant that the peasantry was obligated to surrender the surpluses of almost any kind of agricultural produce for a fixed price. When the Russian Civil War ended, the economy changed with the New Economic Policy (NEP) and specifically, the policy of prodnalog or "food tax." This new policy was designed to re-build morale among embittered farmers and lead to increased production.
The pre-existing communes, which periodically redistributed land, did little to encourage improvement in technique, and formed a source of power beyond the control of the Soviet government. Although the income gap between wealthy and poor farmers did grow under the NEP, it remained quite small, but the Bolsheviks began to take aim at the wealthy kulaks. Clearly identifying this group was difficult, though, since only about 1% of the peasantry employed laborers (the basic Marxist definition of a capitalist), and 82% of the country's population were peasants.
The small shares of most of the peasants resulted in food shortages in the cities. Although grain had nearly returned to pre-war production levels, the large estates which had produced it for urban markets had been divided up. Not interested in acquiring money to purchase overpriced manufactured goods, the peasants chose to consume their produce rather than sell it. As a result, city dwellers only saw half the grain that had been available before the war. Before the revolution, peasants controlled only 2,100,000 km² divided into 16 million holdings, producing 50% of the food grown in Russia and consuming 60% of total food production. After the revolution, the peasants controlled 3,140,000 km² divided into 25 million holdings, producing 85% of the food, but consuming 80% of what they grew (meaning that they ate 68% of the total).
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union had never been happy with private agriculture and saw collectivization as the best remedy for the problem. Lenin claimed "Small-scale production gives birth to capitalism and the bourgeoisie constantly, daily, hourly, with elemental force, and in vast proportions." Apart from ideological goals, Joseph Stalin also wished to embark on a program of rapid heavy industrialization which required larger surpluses to be extracted from the agricultural sector in order to feed a growing industrial work force and to pay for imports of machinery (by exporting grain). Social and ideological goals would also be served through mobilization of the peasants in a co-operative economic enterprise which would produce higher returns for the State and could serve a secondary purpose of providing social services to the people.
This demand for more grain resulted in the reintroduction of requisitioning which was resisted in rural areas. In 1928 there was a 2-million-ton shortfall in grains purchased by the Soviet Union from neighbouring markets. Stalin claimed the grain had been produced but was being hoarded by "kulaks." Instead of raising the price, the Politburo adopted an emergency measure to requisition 2.5 million tons of grain.
The seizures of grain discouraged the peasants and less grain was produced during 1928, and again the government resorted to requisitions, much of the grain being requisitioned from middle peasants as sufficient quantities were not in the hands of the "kulaks." In 1929, especially after the introduction of the Ural-Siberian Method of grain procurement, resistance to grain seizures became widespread with some violent incidents of resistance. Also, massive hoarding (burial was the common method) and illegal transfers of grain took place.
Faced with the refusal to hand grain over, a decision was made at a plenary session of the Central Committee in November 1929 to embark on a nationwide program of collectivization.
Also, various cooperatives for processing of agricultural products were installed.
In November 1929, the Central Committee decided to implement accelerated collectivization in the form of kolkhozes and sovkhozes. This marked the end of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which had allowed peasants to sell their surpluses on the open market. Stalin had many so-called "kulaks" transported to collective farms in distant places to work in agricultural labor camps. In response to this, many peasants began to resist, often arming themselves against the activists sent from the towns. As a form of protest, many peasants preferred to slaughter their animals for food rather than give them over to collective farms, which produced a major reduction in livestock.
Collectivization had been encouraged since the revolution, but in 1928, only about one percent of farm land was collectivized, and despite efforts to encourage and coerce collectivization, the rather optimistic first five-year plan only forecast 15 percent of farms to be run collectively.
The situation changed incredibly quickly in the fall of 1929 and winter of 1930. Between September and December 1929, collectivization increased from 7.4% to 15%, but in the first two months of 1930, 11 million households joined collectivized farms, pushing the total to nearly 60% almost overnight.
To assist collectivization, the Party decided to send 25,000 "socially conscious" industry workers to the countryside. This was accomplished during 1929–1933, and these workers have become known as twenty-five-thousanders ("dvadtsat'pyat'tysyachniki"). Shock brigades were used to force reluctant peasants into joining the collective farms and remove those who were declared kulaks and their "agents".
Collectivization sought to modernize Soviet agriculture, consolidating the land into parcels that could be farmed by modern equipment using the latest scientific methods of agriculture. It was often claimed that an American Fordson tractor (called "Фордзон" in Russian) was the best propaganda in favor of collectivization. The Communist Party, which adopted the plan in 1929, predicted an increase of 330% in industrial production, and an increase of 50% in agricultural production.
The means of production (land, equipment, livestock) were to be totally "socialized", i.e. removed from the control of individual peasant households. Not even any private household garden plots were allowed for.
Agricultural work was envisioned on a mass scale. Huge glamorous columns of machines were to work the fields, in total contrast to peasant small-scale work.
The peasants traditionally mostly held their land in the form of large numbers of strips scattered throughout the fields of the village community. By an order of 7 January 1930, "all boundary lines separating the land allotments of the members of the artel are to be eliminated and all fields are to be combined in a single land mass." The basic rule governing the rearrangement of the fields was that the process would have to be completed before the spring planting.The new kolkhozy were initially envisioned as giant organizations unrelated to the preceding village communities. Kolkhozy of tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of hectares were envisioned in schemes which were later to become known as gigantomania. They were planned to be "divided into 'economies (ekonomii)' of 5,000 – 10,000 hectares which were in turn divided into fields and sections (uchastki) without regard to the existing villages – the aim was to achieve a 'fully depersonalized optimum land area'..." Parallel with this were plans to transfer the peasants to centralized 'agrotowns' offering modern amenities.
In the prevailing socio-economic conditions, little could become of such utopian schemes. The giant kolkhozy were always exceptional, existing mainly on paper, and in any case they were mostly soon to disappear. The peasants chose to remain in their traditional, primitive, villages.
It is a fact that by February 20 of this year 50 percent of the peasant farms throughout the U.S.S.R. had been collectivized. That means that by February 20, 1930, we had overfulfilled the five-year plan of collectivization by more than 100 per cent.... some of our comrades have become dizzy with success and for the moment have lost clearness of mind and sobriety of vision.
After the publication of the article, the pressure for collectivization temporarily abated and peasants started leaving collective farms. According to Martin Kitchen, the number of members of collective farms dropped by 50% in 1930. But soon collectivisation was intensified again, and by 1936, about 90% of Soviet agriculture was collectivized.
Theoretically, landless peasants were to be the biggest beneficiaries from collectivization, because it promised them an opportunity to take an equal share in labor and its rewards[clarification needed]. In fact, however, rural areas did not have many landless peasants, given the wholesale redistribution of land following the Revolution. Alternatively, for those with property, collectivization meant forfeiting land up to the collective farms and selling most of the harvest to the state at minimal prices set by the state itself. This, in turn, engendered opposition to the idea. Furthermore, collectivization involved significant changes in the traditional village life of Russian peasants within a very short time frame, despite the long Russian rural tradition of collectivism in the village obshchina or mir. The changes were even more dramatic in other places, such as in Ukraine, with its tradition of individual farming, in the Soviet republics of Central Asia, and in the trans-Volga steppes, where for a family to have a herd of livestock was not only a matter of sustenance, but of pride as well.
Peasants viewed collectivization as the end of the world. By no means was joining the collective farm (also known as the kolkhoz) voluntary. The drive to collectivize came without peasant support. The intent was to increase state grain procurements without giving the peasants the opportunity to withhold grain from the market. Collectivization would increase the total crop and food supply but the locals knew that they were not likely to benefit from it. Peasants tried to protest through peaceful means by speaking out at collectivization meetings and writing letters to the central authorities. When their strategies failed, villagers turned to violence: committing arson, and lynching and murdering local authorities, kolkhoz leaders, and activists. Others responded with acts of sabotage, including the burning of crops and the slaughter of draught animals. According to Party sources, there were also some cases of destruction of property, and attacks on officials and members of the collectives. Isaac Mazepa, prime minister of the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) in 1919–1920, claimed "[t]he catastrophe of 1932" was the result of "passive resistance … which aimed at the systematic frustration of the Bolsheviks' plans for the sowing and gathering of the harvest". In his words, "[w]hole tracts were left unsown,... [and as much as] 50 per cent [of the crop] was left in the fields, and was either not collected at all or was ruined in the threshing". Fueled by fear and anxiety, rumors spread throughout the villages leading to these acts. Rumors associated the Soviet government with the Antichrist (godless and evil), threatened an end to traditional ways of peasant life, and worked to unite the peasants to protest against collectivization.
Rumors circulated in the villages warning the rural residents that collectivization would bring disorder, hunger, famine, and the destruction of crops and livestock. Readings and reinterpretations of Soviet newspapers labeled collectivization as a second serfdom. Villagers were afraid the old landowners/serf owners were coming back and that the villagers joining the collective farm would face starvation and famine. More reason for peasants to believe collectivization was a second serfdom was that entry into the kolkhoz had been forced. Farmers did not have the right to leave the collective without permission. The level of state procurements and prices on crops also enforced the serfdom analogy. The government would take a majority of the crops and pay extremely low prices. The serfs during the 1860s were paid nothing but collectivization still reminded the peasants of serfdom. To them, this “second serfdom” became code for the Communist betrayal of the revolution. To the peasants, the revolution was about giving more freedom and land to the peasants, but instead they had to give up their land and livestock to the collective farm which to some extent promoted communist policies.
Women were the primary vehicle for rumors that touched upon issues of family and everyday life. Fears that collectivization would result in the socialization of children, the export of women’s hair, communal wife-sharing, and the notorious common blanket affected many women, causing them to revolt. For example, when it was announced that a collective farm in Crimea would become a commune and that the children would be socialized, women killed their soon-to-be socialized livestock, which spared the children. Stories that the Communists believed short hair gave women a more urban and industrial look insulted peasant women. After local activists in a village in North Caucasus actually confiscated all blankets, more fear dispersed among villagers. The common blanket meant that all men and women would sleep on a seven-hundred meter long bed under a seven-hundred-meter long blanket. Historians argue that women took advantage of these rumors without actually believing them so they could attack the collective farm “under the guise of irrational, nonpolitical protest.” Women were less vulnerable to retaliation than peasant men, and therefore able to get away with a lot more.
Peasant women were rarely held accountable for their actions because of the officials’ perceptions of their protests. They “physically blocked the entrances to huts of peasants scheduled to be exiled as kulaks, forcibly took back socialized seed and livestock, and led assaults on officials.” Officials ran away and hid to let the riots run their course. When women came to trial, they were given less harsh punishments as the men because women, to officials, were seen as illiterate and the most backward part of the peasantry. One particular case of this was a riot in a Russian village of Belovka where protestors were beating members of the local soviet and setting fire to their homes. The men were held exclusively responsible as the main culprits. Women were given sentences to serve as a warning, not as a punishment. Because of how they were perceived, women were able to play an essential role in the resistance to collectivization.
Collectivization did not just entail the acquisition of land from farmers but also the closing of churches, burning of icons, and the arrests of priests.  Associating the church with the tsarist regime, the Soviet state continued to undermine the church through expropriations and repression. They cut off state financial support to the church and secularized church schools. Peasants began to associate Communists with atheists because the attack on the church was so devastating. The Communist assault on religion and the church angered many peasants, giving them more reason to revolt. Riots exploded after the closing of churches as early as 1929.
Identification of Soviet power with the Antichrist also decreased peasant support for the Soviet regime. Rumors about religious persecution spread mostly by word of mouth, but also through leaflets and proclamations. Priests preached that the Antichrist had come to place “the Devil’s mark” on the peasants. and that the Soviet state was promising the peasants a better life but was actually signing them up for Hell. Peasants feared that if they joined the collective farm they would be marked with the stamp of the Antichrist. They faced a choice between God and the Soviet collective farm. Choosing between salvation and damnation, peasants had no choice but to resist policies of the state. These rumors of the Soviet state as the Antichrist functioned to keep peasants from succumbing to the government. The attacks on religion and the Church affected women the most because they were upholders of religion within the villages.
Due to high government production quotas, peasants received, as a rule, less for their labor than they did before collectivization, and some refused to work. Merle Fainsod estimated that, in 1952, collective farm earnings were only one fourth of the cash income from private plots on Soviet collective farms. In many cases, the immediate effect of collectivization was to reduce output and cut the number of livestock in half. The subsequent recovery of the agricultural production was also impeded by the losses suffered by the Soviet Union during World War II and the severe drought of 1946. However the largest loss of livestock was caused by collectivization for all animals except pigs. The numbers of cows in the USSR fell from 33.2 million in 1928 to 27.8 million in 1941 and to 24.6 million in 1950. The number of pigs fell from 27.7 million in 1928 to 27.5 million in 1941 and then to 22.2 million in 1950. The number of sheep fell from 114.6 million in 1928 to 91.6 million in 1941 and to 93.6 million in 1950. The number of horses fell from 36.1 million in 1928 to 21.0 million in 1941 and to 12.7 million in 1950. Only by the late 1950s did Soviet farm animal stocks begin to approach 1928 levels.
Despite the initial plans, collectivization, accompanied by the bad harvest of 1932–1933, did not live up to expectations. Between 1929 and 1932 there was a massive fall in agricultural production resulting in famine in the countryside. Stalin and the CPSU blamed the prosperous peasants, referred to as 'kulaks' (Russian: fist), who were organizing resistance to collectivization. Allegedly, many kulaks had been hoarding grain in order to speculate on higher prices, thereby sabotaging grain collection. Stalin resolved to eliminate them as a class.
The Soviet government responded to these acts by cutting off food rations to peasants and areas where there was opposition to collectivization, especially in Ukraine. Many peasant families were forcibly resettled in Siberia and Kazakhstan into exile settlements, and most of them died on the way. Estimates suggest that about a million so-called 'kulak' families, or perhaps some 5 million people, were sent to forced labor camps.
On August 7, 1932, the Decree about the Protection of Socialist Property proclaimed that the punishment for theft of kolkhoz or cooperative property was the death sentence, which "under extenuating circumstances" could be replaced by at least ten years of incarceration. With what some called the Law of Spikelets ("Закон о колосках"), peasants (including children) who hand-collected or gleaned grain in the collective fields after the harvest were arrested for damaging the state grain production. Martin Amis writes in Koba the Dread that 125,000 sentences were passed for this particular offense in the bad harvest period from August 1932 to December 1933.
During the Famine of 1932-33 it's estimated that 7.8-8.1 million people died from starvation. The implication is that the total death toll (both direct and indirect) for Stalin's collectivization program was on the order of 12 million people. It is said that in 1945, Joseph Stalin confided to Winston Churchill at Yalta that 10 million people died in the course of collectivization.
Since the second half of the 19th century, Siberia had been a major agricultural region within Russia, espеcially its southern territories (nowadays Altai Krai, Omsk Oblast, Novosibirsk Oblast, Kemerovo Oblast, Khakassia, Irkutsk Oblast). Stolypin's program of resettlement granted a lot of land for immigrants from elsewhere in the empire, creating a large portion of well-off peasants and stimulating rapid agricultural development in 1910s. Local merchants exported large quantities of labeled grain, flour and butter into central Russia and Western Europe. In May 1931, a special resolution of the Western-Siberian Regional Executive Committee (classified "top secret") ordered the expropriation of property and the deportation of 40,000 kulaks to "sparsely populated and unpopulated" areas in Tomsk Oblast in the northern part of the Western-Siberian region. The expropriated property was to be transferred to kolkhozes as indivisible collective property and the kolkhoz shares representing this forced contribution of the deportees to kolkhoz equity were to be held in the "collectivization fund of poor and landless peasants" (фонд коллективизации бедноты и батрачества).
It has since been perceived by historians such as Lynne Viola as a Civil War of peasant against Bolshevik Government and the attempted colonisation of the countryside.
In areas where the major agricultural activity was nomadic herding, collectivization met with massive resistance and major losses and confiscation of livestock. Livestock in Kazakhstan fell from 7 million cattle to 1.6 million and from 22 million sheep to 1.7 million. Restrictions on migration proved ineffective and half a million migrated to other regions of Central Asia and 1.5 million to China. Of those who remained, as many as a million died in the resulting famine. In Mongolia, a so-called 'Soviet dependency', attempted collectivization was abandoned in 1932 after the loss of 8 million head of livestock.
Most historians agree that the disruption caused by collectivization and the resistance of the peasants significantly contributed to the Great Famine of 1932–1933, especially in Ukraine, a region famous for its rich soil (chernozem). This particular period is called "Holodomor" in Ukrainian. During the similar famines of 1921–1923, numerous campaigns – inside the country, as well as internationally – were held to raise money and food in support of the population of the affected regions. Nothing similar was done during the drought of 1932–1933, mainly because the information about the disaster was suppressed by Stalin. Stalin also undertook a purge of the Ukrainian communists and intelligentsia, with devastating long-term effects on the area. Many Ukrainian villages were blacklisted and penalized by government decree for perceived sabotage of food supplies. Moreover, migration of population from the affected areas was restricted. According to Stalin in his conversation with the prize-winning writer Mikhail Sholokhov, the famine was caused by the excesses of local party workers and sabotage,
I've thanked you for the letters, as they expose a sore in our Party-Soviet work and show how our workers, wishing to curb the enemy, sometimes unwittingly hit friends and descend to sadism. ... the esteemed grain-growers of your district (and not only of your district alone) carried on an 'Italian strike' (sabotage!) and were not loath to leave the workers and the Red Army without bread. That the sabotage was quiet and outwardly harmless (without blood) does not change the fact that the esteemed grain-growers waged what was in fact a 'quiet' war against Soviet power. A war of starvation, dear com[rade] Sholokhov. This, of course, can in no way justify the outrages, which, as you assure me, have been committed by our workers. ... And those guilty of those outrages must be duly punished.
About 40 million people were affected by the food shortages including areas near Moscow where mortality rates increased by 50%. The center of the famine, however, was Ukraine and surrounding regions, including the Don, the Kuban, the Northern Caucasus and Kazakhstan where the toll was one million dead. The countryside was affected more than cities, but 120,000 died in Kharkiv, 40,000 in Krasnodar and 20,000 in Stavropol.
The declassified Soviet archives show that there were 1.54 million officially registered deaths in Ukraine from famine. Alec Nove claims that registration of deaths largely ceased in many areas during the famine. However, it's been pointed out that the registered deaths in the archives were substantially revised by the demographics officials. The older version of the data showed 600,000 fewer deaths in Ukraine than the current, revised statistics. In The Black Book of Communism, the authors claim the number of dead was at least 4 million, and characterize the Great Famine as "a genocide of the Ukrainian people".
After the Soviet Occupation of Latvia in June 1940, the country's new rulers were faced with a problem: the agricultural reforms of the inter-war period had expanded individual holdings. The property of "enemies of the people" and refugees, as well as those above 30 hectares, was nationalised in 1940–44, but those who were still landless were then given plots of 15 hectares each. Thus, Latvian agriculture remained essentially dependent on personal smallholdings, making central planning difficult. In 1940–41 the Communist Party repeatedly said that collectivization would not occur forcibly, but rather voluntarily and by example. To encourage collectivization high taxes were enforced and new farms given no government support. But after 1945 the Party dropped its restrained approach as the voluntary approach was not yielding results. Latvians were accustomed to individual holdings (viensētas), which had existed even during serfdom, and for many farmers the plots awarded to them by the interwar reforms were the first their families had ever owned. Furthermore, the countryside was filled with rumours regarding the harshness of collective farm life.
Pressure from Moscow to collectivize continued and the authorities in Latvia sought to reduce the number of individual farmers (increasingly labelled kulaki or budži) through higher taxes and requisitioning of agricultural products for state use. The first kolkhoz was established only in November 1946 and by 1948, just 617 kolkhozes had been established, integrating 13,814 individual farmsteads (12.6% of the total). The process was still judged too slow, and in March 1949 just under 13,000 kulak families as well as a large number of individuals were identified. Between March 24 and March 30, 1949, about 40,000 people were deported and resettled at various points throughout the USSR.
After these deportations, the pace of collectivization increased as a flood of farmers rushed into kolkhozes. Within two weeks 1740 new kolkhozes were established and by the end of 1950, just 4.5% of Latvian farmsteads remained outside the collectivized units; about 226,900 farmsteads belonged to collectives, of which there were now around 14,700. Rural life changed as farmers' daily movements were dictated to by plans, decisions and quotas formulated elsewhere and delivered through an intermediate non-farming hierarchy. The new kolkhozes, especially smaller ones, were ill-equipped and poor – at first farmers were paid once a year in kind and then in cash, but salaries were very small and at times farmers went unpaid or even ended up owing money to the kholhoz. Farmers still had small pieces of land (not larger than 0.5 ha) around their houses where they grew food for themselves. Along with collectivization, the government tried to uproot the custom of living in individual farmsteads by resettling people in villages. However this process failed due to lack of money since the Soviets planned to move houses as well.
|Percent of farmsteads
in collective farms
|Percent of sown area
in collective use
Sources: Sotsialisticheskoe sel'skoe khoziaistvo SSSR, Gosplanizdat, Moscow-Leningrad, 1939 (pp. 42, 43); supplementary numbers for 1927–1935 from Sel'skoe khoziaistvo SSSR 1935, Narkomzem SSSR, Moscow, 1936 (pp. 630, 634, 1347, 1369); 1937 from Great Soviet Encyclopedia, vol. 22, Moscow, 1953 (p. 81); 1939 from Narodnoe khoziaistvo SSSR 1917–1987, Moscow, 1987 (pp. 35); 1940 from Narodnoe khoziaistvo SSSR 1922–1972, Moscow, 1972 (pp. 215, 240).
The official numbers for collectivized area (the column with percent of sown area in collective use in the table above) are biased upward by two technical factors. First, these official numbers are calculated as percent of sown area in peasant farmsteads, excluding the area cultivated by sovkhozes and other agricultural users. Estimates based on total sown area (including state farms) reduce the share of collective farms between 1935–1940 to about 80%. Second, the household plots of kolkhoz members (i.e., collectivized farmsteads) are included in the land base of collective farms. Without the household plots, arable land in collective cultivation in 1940 was 96.4% of land in collective farms, and not 99.8% as shown by official statistics. Although there is no arguing with the fact that collectivization was sweeping and total between 1928 and 1940, the table below provides different (more realistic) numbers on the extent of collectivization of sown areas.
Distribution of sown area by land users, 1928 and 1940
|All farms, '000 hectares||113,000||150,600|
|State farms (sovkhozy)||1.5%||8.8%|
|Collective farms (kolkhozy)||1.2%||78.2%|
(in collective and state farms)
|Peasant farms and other users||96.2%||9.5%|
Source: Narodnoe khoziaistvo SSSR 1922–1972, Moscow, 1972 (p. 240).
During World War II, Alfred Rosenberg, in his capacity as the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, issued a series of posters announcing the end of the Soviet collective farms in areas of the USSR under German occupation. He also issued an Agrarian Law in February 1942, annulling all Soviet legislation on farming, restoring family farms for those willing to collaborate with the occupiers. But decollectivization conflicted with the wider demands of wartime food production, and Hermann Göring demanded that the kolkhoz be retained, save for a change of name. Hitler himself denounced the redistribution of land as 'stupid.' In the end, the German occupation authorities retained most of the kolkhozes and simply renamed them "community farms" (Russian: obshchinnye khoziaystva, a throwback to the traditional Russian commune). German propaganda described this as a preparatory step toward ultimate dissolution of the kolkhozes into private farms, which would be granted to peasants who had loyally delivered compulsory quotas of farm produce to the Germans. By 1943, the German occupation authorities had converted 30% of the kolkhozes into German-sponsored "agricultural cooperatives", but as yet had made no conversions to private farms.