Agriculture in Stalin's Russia

From 1924 to 1926, the NEP allowed a gradual increase in agricultural production, but in 1926, despite a good harvest, state collections were just half of the predictions for that year as peasants consumed more of their produce, and sold less due to insufficient consumer goods which they could purchase with grain profits.

As a result, emergency measures were put in place, including seizing grain and increasing taxes on Kulaks to force them to sell more grain. By the time of the 15th Party Congress, problems of hunger and unemployment meant that communists saw the NEP as something that restricted both agricultural and industrial development, rather than promoting it. 

• The launch of Collectivisation

Stalin argued that cooperative farms (or collectivised farms) could help to solve some of these issues.  However, as the lack of grain purchases remained a prevalent issue, officials in Siberia followed Stalin’s instructions to increase grain seizures, close markets, and arrest those who resisted the seizures, charging them as kulaks under Article 107 of the criminal code which passed in 1927. 

Regardless of the threats, peasants and kulaks began to hide their grain, in order to bypass the grain seizures. Those who were found to be resisting were arrested following the 1928 harvest, which resulted in serious unrest and bread shortages in rural areas. At the Central Committee meeting in July, Bukharin managed to agree on an increase in the price of grain and an end to the forcible measures. But Stalin, determined to prevent a reduction in industrial development or allow any additional money to go to the kulaks, ordered that emergency actions should continue.

By the end of 1928, a combination of a fall in grain sold to the state and crop failure in central and south-eastern USSR caused radical increases in free-market prices, a further slump in grain deliveries to the state and rationing being introduced in the winter of 1928-29. In 1929, the forceful Ural-Siberian method was used throughout the majority of the Soviet Union, and the practices of the NEP had been eradicated. In November and December 1929, Stalin launched all-out forced collectivisation and ordered that the kulaks be 'liquidated as a class’.

(See right– In order to increase support for collectivisation, Soviet propaganda depicted Kulaks as fat and greedy)

By launching all-out forced collectivisation, Stalin hoped to solve the agricultural crisis before it was time to sow the crops in Spring. He initiated a massive grain seizure, while his campaign against the Kulaks led to officials arresting, deporting and confiscating the property of any peasant who failed to hand over their quota of grain, as the officials were afraid of being punished if they failed to meet the targets. This led to over 30% of the entire grain yield being seized in some areas. Kulaks were arrested based on Stalin’s definition of a peasant who owned two horses and four cows, but means of identification often went beyond this definition.

In order to allow for collective farming to be set up, methods of organisation moved on from persuasion to violence, in order to meet Stalin’s requirement of rapid results. Kulaks were divided into three groups, with two of these being labelled as 'counter-revolutionaries' and ‘exploiters', who were punished by deportation or even execution.

Wealthier peasants often opted to destroy their crops and kill their livestock rather than hand them over to the local kolkhoz, or they raided the kolkhozes (meaning collective farms) to take back their property. 

• The requirements for Collectivisation

Local parties were given targets of how many households should be collectivised. Officials had identified about 4% of households as kulaks, and this was used to set a target of how many households should be collectivised. But in the end, around 15% of households were affected, with approximately 150,000 people being forced to migrate to poorer land in the north and east.

By March 1930, it was reported that 58% of peasant households had been collectivised, but collectivisation had resulted in some strong resistance. After being pressured by Politburo, in March 1930 Stalin had to return the official policy back to voluntary collectivisation. This allowed the many peasants who had been wrongly classified as kulaks to have their property restored, and by October 1930, only about 20% of households were still part of collectives.

But this retreat from collectivisation was only temporary, and once the 1930 harvest had been secured, collectivisation began to resume at a rapid pace. By 1931, 50% of Soviet households were part of collective farms. By 1934, 70% of Soviet households were part of collectives— 75% by 1935! By 1937, the official figure had shot up to 90%. Between 1929 and 1932, over 2500 Machine Tractor Stations (MTS) were established to supply seed and to hire out machinery to local kolkhozes.

How successful was the policy of collectivisation?

• Soviet famine of 1931–1933

From the outside, collectivisation looked like a big success for Stalin and the state, but in reality, it resulted in a catastrophic famine from 1932 to 1933. One of the initial causes was the drought, which affected many agricultural regions in October 1931. Another cause was the failure of collectivisation as the resistance by the kulaks and the disruption caused by sending over 2.5 million people to the Gulag in 1930 and 1931, led to a drastic reduction in food production which contributed to the famine.

Famine first came to light in Ukraine the next spring and spread to North Caucasus, and across more of the country, becoming the worst famine in the history of Russia. 

During the famine, it is estimated that between 5.7 and 8.7 million people died during the famine. The situation was so dire that cannibalism was evident, especially across Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Despite this, the Soviet government actively denied foreign aid for the famine and even the famine's existence altogether, instead enacting policies that resulted in even more deaths and worse effects of famine. 

Although this rural catastrophe was having widespread devastating effects, Stalin continued with his policy of forced collectivisation, confiscating reserve funds that included grain set aside for seed for the next harvest, a grain fund for emergencies and grain issued to collective farmers as a reward for completed work.

An image of starving peasants in Holomodor,  also known as the Terror-Famine. Since 2006, 16 countries (including Ukraine) have recognised Holomodor as a genocide against the Ukrainian people perpetrated by Stalin's government.

• Restrictions on Peasants

Joseph Stalin enacted a secret decree for "Preventing the Mass Exodus of Peasants who are Starving” in January 1933, with which peasants were restricted from travelling and migrating. Some historians estimated this policy itself led to 150,000 deaths, and that the policy was equivalent to a crime against humanity.

• Economic Effects of Collectivisation & Agricultural Development

Aside from the famine, you also need to look at the economic side of Collectivisation and agriculture in the Soviet Union. Historians agree that grain deliveries to the state increased after 1928, despite the famine in the early 1930s. Some historians support the orthodox standard model, arguing that while agricultural output declined, collectivisation shifted resources and funds from rural to urban areas, allowing rapid industrialisation to take place. Michael Ellman claims that collectivisation provided food, labour and funds for the first Five-Year Plan, with others supporting this idea, arguing that Lenin’s New Economic Policy would have resulted in lower industrial advancement than Stalin’s Five Year Plans had achieved.

However, historians such as James Millar and Holland Hunter have a revised viewpoint, believing that collectivisation was an economic disaster that made little contribution to the ambitions for industrialisation that were put in place by Stalin.