Collectivisation in the USSR

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In the Soviet Union, collectivisation was a policy introduced in the late 1920s, of consolidation of individual land and labour into co-operatives called collective farms (Russian: колхоз, kolkhoz) and state farms (sovkhozes) with the goals to increase the agricultural production, to put it under the control of the state, as well as an important political goal, a step towards communism: transfer of the land and agricultural property from kulaks to collectives of peasants.

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The collectivisation campaign in the USSR, 1930s. The slogan reads: "We kolkhoz farmers are liquidating the kulaks as a class, on the basis of complete collectivisation."

Traditional farming

In Imperial Russia, the Stolypin Reform was aimed at the development of capitalism in agriculture by giving incentives for creation of large farms. The World War I and the following Russian Revolution stopped this process in Russia. During the revolution, large holdings of agricultural land were seized by the peasants and repartitioned, according to one of the revolutionary slogan "Land — to Peasants". The land seized from landlords and kulaks had before the revolution produced 70% of the grain which entered the market and was available for export. Before the revolution, peasants controlled only 2,100,000 km² in 16 million holdings. After the revolution, the peasants controlled 3,140,000 km² in 25 million holdings. Before the revolution peasants produced 50% of the food grown in Russia and consumed 60%; after, they produced 85% but consumed 80% of what they grew. Thus the problem of devising some method of getting grain into the market and available for export.

Although conditions varied over the vast expanse of the Soviet Union and among ethnic groups and enclaves, farming on the most territory of the European part of the state and in Siberia was carried on by a host of individual small landowners who lived either at isolated settlements (khutors) or in villages. Farmland was characteristically laid out in strips divided by boundary ridges and dead furrows, and could be worked by small horse-drawn equipment, but not by modern tractors. Richer peasants might own 2 or 3 horses, 4 or more cows and work 30 or 40 acres (120,000 or 160,000 m²) of land with the help of seasonal employees. The poorest peasants often could not afford a single horse.

The cities' need for food

The World War I, Revolution and subsequent Civil War disrupted farming and food distribution in Russia. Because of the collapse of industrial production and the monetary system, there was little incentive for farmers to sell their products. The money was, in their view, no good, and in any event there was little available to buy. During the Civil War the authorities resorted to the policy of war communism. In agriculture, it amounted to food requisition according to state-defined quotas (продразверстка), with the leaders of a community often held hostage pending delivery of food. The New Economic Policy (NEP) replaced requisitions by a foodstuffs tax (продналог); however, it turned out to favor the capitalistic sector of the peasantry, known as kulaks, an undesirable outcome from the communist point of view.

The crisis of 1928

Later analysts have identified a grain procurement crisis which occurred in early 1928 (involving the harvest of 1927) as the source of the perception by the leadership that a crisis existed in agriculture. Stalin put the blame on kulaks who he believed had sabotaged grain collection. There was a failure, by 2 million tons, to purchase sufficient grain at the price set by the state. The grain had been produced but was being stored. Rather than raise the price, the Politburo adopted an emergency measure which required requisition of grain. 2.5 million tons were seized.

The seizures of grain discouraged the peasants and less grain was produced during 1928 and again requisition was resorted to, much of the grain being requisitioned from middle peasants as sufficient quantities were not in the hands of the kulaks. In 1929 resistance became general with some terrorist incidents but also massive hiding (burial was the common method) and illegal transfers of grain by kulaks. What they could not hide or otherwise dispose of they harvested as hay, burned or threw into the rivers.

Faced with the collapse of the agricultural sector, a decision was made at a plenum of the Central Committee in November, 1929 to embark on a nationwide program of collectivisation. Collectivisation had been encouraged since the revolution, but only 2% of households belonged to them by 1928. The situation represented to the plenum was somewhat misrepresented by Stalin and Molotov who greatly exaggerated the willingness of the peasants to reorganize as collectives, a campaign of voluntary collectivisation having succeeded by November, 1929 in involving only 7.6% of households.

Stalin predicted, "Our country will, in some three years time, have become one of the richest grainaries, if not the richest, in the whole world." Later observers, generally critical, have come to the conclusion that the crisis could have been avoided by better pricing, instituting a reliable market mechanism, and increase in productivity of the existing small farms.

Goals of collectivisation

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Collectivisation sought to modernise Soviet agriculture, consolidating the land into parcels that could be farmed by modern equipment using the latest scientific methods of agriculture. In fact, an American Fordson tractor (called "Фордзон" in Russian) was the best propaganda in favor of collectivisation.

Social and ideological goals would also be served though mobilisation of the peasants in a co-operative economic enterprise which could serve a secondary purpose of providing social services to the people.

It was hoped that the goals of collectivisation could be achieved voluntarily. When collectivisation failed to attract the number of peasants hoped, the government resorted to forceful implementation of the plan.

Given the goals of the First Five Year Plan, the state sought increased political control of agriculture, hoping to feed the rapidly growing urban areas and to export grain, a source of foreign currency needed to import technologies necessary for heavy industrialisation.


Theoretically, landless peasants were to be the biggest beneficiaries from collectivisation, because it promised them an opportunity to take an equal share in labour and its rewards. For those with property, however, collectivization meant giving it up to the collective farms and selling most of the food that they produced to the state at low prices set by the state itself, so they were opposed to the idea. Furthermore, collectivisation involved significant changes in the traditional village life of Russian peasants within a very short timeframe, despite the long Russian rural tradition of collectivism in obshchinas. 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.

Due to the aforementioned factors and a number of others, opposition to collectivisation proved to be widespread among the wealthier Soviet rural population. Therefore less radical forms of collective farming were also implemented, such as agricultural cooperatives, as well as agricultural associations, known as "Associations for Joint Tillage of Land" (Товарищество по совместной обработке земли, ТОЗ). Also, various cooperatives for processing of agricultural products were installed.

However in November 1929, the Central Committee decided to implement forced collectivisation. This marked the end of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which had allowed peasants to sell their surpluses on the open market. Grain requisitioning intensified, and wealthy peasants were forced to join the collective farms, giving up their private plots of land. In response to this, many such peasants initiated an armed resistance. As a form of protest, many of the targeted peasants preferred to slaughter their animals for food rather than give them over to collective farms, which produced a major reduction in livestock.

To assist collectivisation, the Party decided to send 25,000 "socially conscious" industry workers to the countryside. This was accomplished during 19291933, and these workers have become known as twenty-five-thousanders ("dvadtsatipyatitysyachniki"). Shock brigades were used to force reluctant peasants into joining the collective farms and remove those who were declared kulaks and "kulaks' helpers".

The price of collectivisation was so high that the March 2, 1930, issue of Pravda contained Stalin's article Dizzy with success (, in which he discouraged overzealousness:

"It is a fact that by February 20 of this year 50 per cent of the peasant farms throughout the U.S.S.R. had been collectivised. That means that by February 20, 1930, we had overfulfilled the five-year plan of collectivisation 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 collectivisation temporarily decreased 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 intensified, and by 1936, about 90% of Soviet agriculture was collectivised. Due to high government quotas, farmers often got less for their labor than they did before collectivisation, and some refused to work. In many cases, the immediate effect of collectivisation was to reduce grain output and almost halve livestock.

Despite the initial plans, collectivisation, accompanied by the bad harvest of 19321933, did not rise to expectations. The CPSU blamed these problems in food production on kulaks (Russian: fist; prosperous peasants), who were organising resistance to collectivisation. Indeed, few kulaks had been hoarding grain in order to speculate on higher prices.

Many peasants, notably the kulaks, opposed collectivization. Acts of sabotage included burning of crops and slaughtering draught animals. There were also some cases of destruction of property, and attacks on officials and members of the collectives. Isaac Mazepa, leader of the anti-Soviet Ukrainian Nationalist movement, boasted of "[t]he catastrophe of 1932", 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".

The Soviet government responded to these acts of sabotage and opposition by cutting off food supply to peasants and areas where there was opposition to collectivization, especially in the Ukrainian region. The sabotage of the kulaks and other factors led to what is referred to by some Ukrainian historians as Holodomor. This 'Holodomor' is often cited for the deaths of between 6 and 10 million Ukrainians. Many kulak saboteurs and many who opposed collectivization (dubbed as "kulak helpers") were executed or sent to forced-labour camps. The families of kulaks were resettled in Siberia and Kazakhstan into exile settlements and a significant number died on the way.

On August 7, 1932, the Decree about the Protection of Socialist Property proclaimed that the punishment for theft of kolkhoz or cooperative property was death sentence, that "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 grains in the collective fields after the harvest were arrested for damaging the state grain production. Martin Amis writes in Koba the Dread that the number of sentences for this particular offence in the bad harvest period from August 1932 to December 1933 was 125,000.

Central Asia and Kazakhstan

In areas where the major agricultural activity was nomadic herding, collectivisation 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 Soviet dependency, attempted collectivisation was abandoned in 1932 after the loss of 8 million head of livestock.


Most historians agree that the disruption caused by collectivisation and the resistance of the kulaks worsened conditions during 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 famine 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. Moreover, the information was suppressed and migration of population from the affected areas was restricted.

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.

At least 4 million died during the Great Famine in Ukraine. Many scholars characterize the Great Famine as "a genocide of the Ukrainian people". Blame for the underfulfilment of plans of grain acquisition was put on kulaks and "bourgeois nationalist elements", which was followed by purges of Ukrainian management, communist party cadre, and intelligentsia.

The Soviet press did not report the famine and its lead was generally followed. But British journalists Malcolm Muggeridge #1 ( and Gareth Jones #2 ( separately traveled to North Caucasus and Ukraine where they witnessed terror and mass starvations first hand. Muggerredge wrote in his diary: "Whatever else I may do or think in the future, I must never pretend that I haven't seen this. Ideas will come and go, but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow and asking for bread." Their reports were heavily criticised by Soviet government and western journalists sitting in Moscow who wrote their articles based on Soviet propaganda (notably, the New York Times' Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty). The Italian government received accurate information regarding the famine via diplomatic reports from Kharkiv, Odessa and Novorossiisk, but did not publicize the information.

The number of casualties continues to be disputed, with estimates of many millions in the books of historians such as Robert Conquest. Such estimates include those who died in the resulting famine, 6 million according to Nicolas Werth.

In 1983 Sergei Maksudov, a Russian demographer, having compared results of censuses and taken migration into account, estimated that there were no less than 4.5 million unnatural deaths in Ukraine between 1927 and 1938 (due to collectivization, dekulakization and purges).

Some communists such as Jeff Coplon and Ludo Martens have recently claimed a much more modest figure of between several hundred thousand and two million deaths.

This uncertainty as to the death toll of collectivization is reflected in the words of Nikita Khrushchev: "Perhaps we'll never know how many people perished directly as a result of collectivisation, or indirectly as a result of Stalin's eagerness to blame his failure on others". Ironically, as an Ukrainian communist boss of that time Khrushchev himself was at least partially responsible for the cruel and failed policies which resulted in famines and such high death tolls.

Glasnost and Ukrainian independence

With the advent of glasnost, the Great Famine became a subject of general discussion in Ukraine after having been long suppressed by Soviet authorities. Rukh and its leader Mykhailo Boichyshyn engaged in a series of actions, including a commemoration of what they termed "the genocide", in the village of Targon. A platform was built over the burial mounds of some of the victims of the famine; consulting with the elderly, a list of 360 victims was compiled and published in the newspaper Literaturnaya Ukraina, and a memorial service held which attracted national attention and significantly strengthened the independence movement.

In 1998 the fourth Saturday of each November was set aside as National Day of Remembrance of Famine Victims in Ukraine. The Famine monument on Mykhailivskyi Square in Kiev commemorates the victims of the Great Famine.

International recognition

The Ukrainian famine has been commemorated by Ukrainian diaspora around the world, and recognized by many governments. The United States conducted an official Commission on the Ukrainian Famine, which concluded the famine was an intentional genocide. U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution designating November 3–10, 1990, as "National Week to Commemorate the Victims of the Famine in Ukraine", and the House of Representatives passed a motion "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding the man-made famine that occurred in Ukraine in 1932-1933". The Canadian Senate unanimously adopted a motion in 2003, calling on the Government of Canada to recognize "the Ukrainian Famine/Genocide". Monuments have been erected in Washington, D.C. and several Canadian cities.

References and further reading

  • Ammende, Ewald, "Human life in Russia", (Cleveland: J.T. Zubal, 1984), Reprint, Originally published: London, England: Allen & Unwin, 1936, ISBN 0939738546
  • Robert Conquest The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, Oxford University Press, October 1986, hardcover, ISBN 0888641109; trade paperback, Oxford University Press, November, 1987, ISBN 0195051807; hardcover, ISBN 0195040546
  • R. W. Davies, The Socialist Offensive (Volume 1 of The Industrialization of Soviet Russia), Harvard University Press (1980), hardcover, ISBN 0674814800
  • R. W. Davies, The Soviet Collective Farm, 1929-1930 (Volume 2 of the Industrialization of Soviet Russia), Harvard University Press (1980), hardcover, ISBN 0674826000
  • R. W. Davies, Soviet Economy in Turmoil, 1929-1930 (volume 3 of The Industrialization of Soviet Russia), Harvard University Press (1989), ISBN 0674826558
  • R. W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933, (volume 4 of The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia), Palgrave Macmillan (April, 2004), hardcover, ISBN 0333311078
  • R. W. Davies and S. G. Wheatcroft, Materials for a Balance of the Soviet National Economy, 1928-1930, Cambridge University Press (1985), hardcover, 467 pages, ISBN 0521261252
  • Miron Dolot, Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust, W. W. Norton (1987), trade paperback, 231 pages, ISBN 0393304167; hardcover (1985), ISBN 0393018865
  • Maurice Hindus, Red Bread: Collectivization in a Russian Village, Indiana University Press, 1988, hardcover, ISBN 0253349532; trade paperback, Indiana University Press, 1988, 372 pages, ISBN 0253204852; earlier editions dating from 1931 are available at used book sellers.
  • International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-1933 Famine in Ukraine. "Final report", [Jacob W.F. Sundberg, President], 1990. [Proceedings of the International Commission of Inquiry and its Final report are in typescript, contained in 6 vols. Copies available from the World Congress of Free Ukrainians, Toronto].
  • Moshe Lewin, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivisation, W.W. Norton (1975), trade paperback, ISBN 0393007529
  • Ludo Martens, Un autre regard sur Staline, Éditions EPO, 1994, 347 pages, ISBN 2872620818. See the section "External links" for an English translation.
  • Nancy Nimitz. "Farm Development 1928–62", in Soviet and East European Agricultures, Jerry F. Karcz, ed. Berkeley, California (US): University of California, 1967.
  • "Famine in the Soviet Ukraine 1932-1933: a memorial exhibition", Widener Library, Harvard University, prepared by Oksana Procyk, Leonid Heretz, James E. Mace. -- (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard College Library, distributed by Harvard University Press, 1986), ISBN 0674294262
  • David Satter, Age of Delirium : The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, Yale University Press (1996), hardcover, 424 pages, ISBN 0394529340
  • The Russians Hedrick Smith (1976) ISBN 0812905210
  • Douglas Tottle. Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian genocide myth from Hitler to Harvard. Toronto: Progress Books, 1987. ISBN 0919396518.
  • The Second Socialist Revolution, Tatyana Zaslavskaya, ISBN 0253206146 (a survey by a Soviet sociologist written in the late 1980s which advocated restructuring of the economy)
  • Sally J. Taylor, Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty : The New York Times Man in Moscow, Oxford University Press (1990), hardcover, ISBN 0195057007
  • United States, "Commission on the Ukraine Famine. Investigation of the Ukrainian Famine, 1932-1933: report to Congress / Commission on the Ukraine Famine", [Daniel E. Mica, Chairman; James E. Mace, Staff Director]. -- (Washington D.C.: U.S. G.P.O.: For sale by the Supt. of Docs, U.S. G.P.O., 1988), (Shipping list: 88-521-P).
  • United States, "Commission on the Ukrainian Famine. Oral history project of the Commission on the Ukraine Famine", James E. Mace and Leonid Heretz, eds. (Washington, D.C.: Supt. of Docs, U.S. G.P.O., 1990), ISBN 0160262569
  • InfoUkes Famine resource page (

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