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Collectivisation was a Political Success but an Economic Failure and a Human Disaster

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Stalin wanted to drastically improve the Soviet Union’s industry, his country was decades behind industrially in comparison to other countries, and the NEP was not working, in order for Russia to be self sufficient a change was needed. In a country as vast as the USSR, and with a large peasant population it was decided that the farms and country side needed to be transformed, in order to create a chain reaction that would result in more food and workers for the cities, better international trade and thus more machinery. The solution, according to the government, was Collectivisation. Collectivisation succeeded in spreading the communist message out of the cities and into rural villages, however, in terms of human cost, it was a catastrophe, for those in the country at least. Robert Conquest deemed it ‘a man made famine’, millions lost their lives and the surplus food the government hoped to uncover just did not exist. Economically the grain yields and number of animals never reached pre revolution levels and millions starved.

Externally and at a shallow level Collectivisation seemed like a good idea for a communist society; it abolished the class system and the capitalist nature of farming, in theory everybody would be equal and the communist government would create an egalitarian countryside working towards the good of the whole country; however in practice it was very different. In 1927 Collectivisation was introduced as a voluntary scheme, however at the beginning of the 1929 it became clear people were not going to volunteer to leave their homes and livelihood, and so Collectivisation became forced. The army was sent to enforce Stalin’s decision, and as much as the government wanted to paint a joyful picture of peasants welcoming Collectivisation, it was very different. There was huge resistance from peasants, not only kulaks but those wanting to protect them, their friends and local villagers. Peasants reacted to the seizure of their grain by burning their houses, slaughtering livestock and eating what food they had left in protest. Socially, collectivization had already gotten off to a bad start; many peasants were not willing to cooperate with the new communist ideas and enthusiastic activists who had suddenly appeared in their villages preaching the new methods.

Kulaks in particular did not like the idea of collectivization; they had worked for their land and were more skilled farmers who had produced what they could due to their own work, however, they were, according to Stalin ‘the enemy’ of Russia, how could workers be fed if greedy kulaks were hoarding grain? Stalin told the people of Russia that kulaks were keeping back food for themselves and thus damaging the country, whether he truly believed this or not it was one of the great mistakes of the transformation of agriculture; the peasants were generally not hoarding grain, in fact many only just had enough to feed themselves and for small trading. The belief that there was surplus grain led Stain to impose what he literally called a ‘war’ against the kulak. This resulted in Kulaks and anybody who did not cooperate being shot by the army, as ‘enemies of the state’.

However we have to be careful in saying that collectivisation was a social disaster; it led to huge famine and dislocated millions of peasants, yet in the cities the huge costs in the countryside were not seen, workers had enough grain to eat and were witnessing industrilisation at a rate never seen before, to them collectivisation was a social success. Propaganda also contributed to the positive attitudes in the cities, photographs and paintings of collectivisation showed a scene of harmony and hard working farmers, far removed from reality. To factory workers, collectivisation had helped contribute to the economy they saw thriving, it was, to many in the cities, in no way a human adversity. Kolkhozes also had cr�che facilities, schools and other community essentials rural Russians may not have had in their villages; this seemed to people in the city an improvement in their lives, and thus a success of Stalin and his government.

The reality was however that tens of millions of people starved and died as a result of collectivisation; millions died in transportation to kolkhozes, millions starved as the government took the little grain they had and famine swept the country side in 1932 and 33. In the Ukraine alone, historians such as Werth and Conquest have estimated the death toll at around 6 million, a huge cost in human life. In keeping with Stalinist values, the peasants were not seen as important, they were inferior to the workers and so there welfare was not considered top priority during the implementation of collectivisation. As a result of this Peasants experienced extreme hardships, poverty and death as a result. Those who were relocated to collective farms had to survive transport and the imposition of completely new ways of living and farming. Those who were no longer needed went to the cities were they experienced extreme dislocation, this then in turn affected industrilisation as poorly trained peasants with little disciplined were put into factories.

In terms of the economic achievements of collectivisation it seems unjust to call it a failure, Stalin succeeded in modernising many aspects of rural farming in 10 years, a task which had taken many western countries generations. Tractors could be used on bigger stretches of land to sow seeds and help make farming more efficient. Collectivisation also freed 17 million workers to go towards the city and help contribute towards industrialization and the five year plans. Although figures must be dealt with carefully as they are not always accurate, by the end of 1931 the state collected 22.8 million tones of grain, which was enough to feed the cities for the industrial drive and for exportations, by 1937, 97 million tones were produced as well cash crops for export.

However agriculture production was extremely disrupted; the most able class of peasants, the kulaks, were wiped out leaving less experienced peasants left with nobody to train them in effective farming methods. In response to forced collectivisation many slaughtered their livestock, resulting in a 30% loss of cattle, pigs and sheep. Grain levels did not rise above pre collectivisation production until after 1935, over 7 years into the process. It took even longer for livestock levels and meat production to reach pre collectivisation levels; these were not exceeded until the mid 1950s. It took many years for an improvement to be seen and although grain yields went up they never reached the pre-revolution levels.

Collectivisation was not only an economic tool; it was a political drive also. It served as a method for Stalin to route out anti-communist values and opponents in the country side, or what he saw as such. . It also stopped Russia’s economy being at the hands of the peasants and rural areas; dekulakisation allowed those who supposedly favoured more capitalist systems to be effectively wiped out and removed as a class. Collectivisation also worked as a vehicle for spreading the Stalinist message into the country sides; urban workers and activists, known as the ‘twenty five thousanders’ were sent into cities to round up support for collectivisation and encourage peasants to cooperate, as well as find out and eliminate kulaks.

This meant the party gained control of villages, creating a climate of fear and thus more cooperation, making communist values dominant in the country side. However these activists were inexperienced in farming methods and had high quotas to stick to, resulting in huge amounts of killings of ‘kulaks’ as well as taking grain which was essential to the next years harvest. The existence of tractor stations with party officials also helped ensure party control in the country side. Stalin also ensured he maintained popularity by placing the blame for the harsher measures on minor party officials; in his ‘dizzy with success’ speech he blamed over enthusiastic activists for the slaughter and called a temporary halt to collectivisation, making himself seemed concerned about the welfare of peasants as well as shifting the fault.

Yet we have to look at the genuineness of the support, it is unlikely that the majority of peasants and families who had been forced to move to collective farms were really supportive of Stalin, many were secretly resentful towards Stalinism, others showed their anger in more external ways through destroying crops, killing livestock and burning their houses. The apparent success could be put down to fear and intimidation rather than genuine support or belief in collectivisation.

In the end, collectivisation did lead to more efficient farming and increased production, but in the short term it involved Stalin in a ‘war’ with the kulaks, and a disastrous fall in output, which led to famine. Many historians have blamed the social failure of collectivization on the speed it was put into effect; in theory it seemed a good idea in keeping with communist values, however the speed at which Stalin tried to enforce and change the system came at a huge cost to human life. Soviet Russia had succeeded in modernising ancient farming methods and were able to trade with foreign countries for equipment; it allowed the cities 17 million more workers and helped towards industrialization, demonstrating that it was not all together an economic failure, yet this caused a massive disruption in the country as millions of people were relocated, the existence of internal passports at this time shows how much movement was happening.

Politically they succeeded in driving the communist message into the countries, as well as having party members in every village, spreading the communist beliefs and informing on opposition, as well as gaining international recognition for the rapid improvements in industry. However in terms of humanity, collectivisation caused millions to die unnecessarily; it took years for grain crops to reach pre-collectivisation levels, and even when they did they now had to feed millions of workers, be used for export and trade, and feed the peasants themselves, resulting in famines and deaths of millions. Collectivisation seemed to show no mercy towards peasants, their families or their property, and the means to do not justify the ends when we look at the sheer human cost.

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