Isaac Deutscher 1951

Explosive Issue in the USSR

Source: The Reporter, 24 July 1951. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

For Soviet farmers, the new super-collectivisation drive means more discontent, more surveillance, even less freedom

* * *

For a year the Soviet countryside has been in the throes of an upheaval affecting the lives of a hundred million people. In the spring of 1950 the government decreed a merger of farms throughout the Soviet Union. This has been the most sweeping change imposed upon the rural population since the collectivisation of the early 1930s.

The scale of this supplementary collectivisation, as the measure should properly be called, became clear when it was announced that the number of the collective farms, or kolkhozes, would be cut by at least one-half, with the 250,000 farming units in existence at the beginning of 1950 reduced by fusion to about 110,000. A few months after the merger had begun it was reported from Byelorussia and parts of central Russia, where collective farms had been smaller than elsewhere, that the fusion had already cut their number roughly to one-third. Early this year the Minister of Agriculture, in an interim report, wrote that only a little more than 120,000 kolkhozes were left in the whole of the USSR. As the drive then had a few months to run, by now it may be expected that, as usual, zealous officials have ‘over-fulfilled the plan’. Normally, farms of less than a thousand acres and fewer than a hundred working members are classed as undersized. The new kolkhozes probably average about 2500 acres.

Much of the tradition of the old individualistic village that had so far survived among the collective farmers is thus being weakened or destroyed. The collective farm, as it was formed amid blood and tears two decades ago, was fitted in one way or another into the framework of the old rural community. In most cases the peasants of one village formed one kolkhoz. The size of the productive unit depended on the size of the rural community. Thus what has now been merged is not merely farms but entire communities.

Memories of the Muzhik: No section of humanity has undergone as many and as convulsive upheavals as those which have taken place in rural Russia since the beginning of this century. Fifty years ago the muzhik still remembered serfdom: either he himself or his father had been emancipated from it. The hangover from serfdom was heavy; the conditions of emancipation had been designed to keep the peasant dependent on the landlord. Apart from this, the primordial rural commune (obshchina), although disintegrating, had not yet faded out of existence. The peasants’ holdings still belonged to the commune.

In 1907, the rural communes were suddenly dissolved by decree. The Czar’s government made a belated attempt to stimulate the growth of a class of wealthy individual farmers who, it hoped, would be conservative enough to prop up the regime. But the disbanding of the communes plunged the countryside even deeper into misery and chaos.

Ten years later, in 1917, the muzhik was killing or expelling the landlord, burning his mansion and grabbing his land. This rebellion in the countryside formed the background to the Bolshevik Revolution in the towns. Then for three years Red and White armies were locked in battle across rural Russia, and Green detachments of anarchist peasants tried in vain to hold their ground against both. The Bolsheviks kept the countryside under the harsh regime of wartime, ruthlessly requisitioned the muzhik’s bread and meat, and thus drove him to despair and new rebellion.

In 1921 Lenin proclaimed the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was to give the countryside a respite, relieve it from requisitions, and accord some scope to the peasant’s individualism. The beginning of this period was marked by a calamitous drought, famine and cannibalism on the Volga. With amazing resilience rural Russia recovered and healed its wounds in the next few years. But the respite of NEP did not outlast the decade. In 1929 came the cataclysm of collectivisation, bringing famine, violence, bloodshed and the subsequent transformation of the whole outlook of the country.

Collectivisation had hardly been completed when in 1934 the Politburo made a concession to the peasant’s craving for property. The member of the kolkhoz was allowed to own a small plot of land and a few cattle. Besides his kolkhoz, he could till his tiny plot and sell its produce – an uneasy balance between collectivism and individualism.

To this record of upheaval must be added the unsettlement caused by the Second World War, with its profuse bloodshed, destruction of material values, and chaos and famine. And now once again rural Russia is in a turmoil.

Why More Collectivisation? To some extent the kolkhozes, such as they have been hitherto, have disappointed the Politburo. True enough, Soviet farming after it had recovered from the shock of collectivisation had been yielding somewhat higher crops than before; and it had been doing this with a smaller number of people working in the fields. But the improvement in crops had not kept pace with the country’s needs, with the tempo of its industrialisation and urbanisation, and had been out of proportion to the massive mechanisation of farming and the extensive use of fertilisers and modern technology.

Reluctant to look for the actual reasons for the farmer’s unproductivity in its own policy, the Politburo reached the conclusion that the average farming unit was too small for the benefits of mechanisation to show themselves in larger crops. It is true, of course, that up to a point the bigger the farm unit, the more the productivity of the tractor and the heavy harvester-combine will show up. Whether the difference is important enough to justify the present reform, however, is a moot point.

Another even more urgent motive for the ‘reform’ has been the government’s anxiety to set free new reserves of manpower for industry. Today the countryside has to feed ever more mouths in the towns; it also has to supply the towns with ever more hands. The planned and systematic transfer of the ‘surplus’ farming population to mines and factories has been the mainspring of Soviet industrialisation. Fusion and further collectivisation should soon release three or four million workers from the fields.

By simplifying the administration of the rural economy, the fusion is also expected to reduce the enormous kolkhoz bureaucracy, which has so far made up more than a quarter of the manpower engaged in collective farming. The present drive appears thus to be a precondition for continued rapid urbanisation of the USSR.

The enlargement of the farming units promises also to yield political and fiscal conveniences. It will result in a higher control of rural life by the party. Hitherto the network of party cells has not been so dense as to cover every village; in many kolkhozes not even a single member of the party could be found. The reform automatically assigns to every party cell the command over a greater mass of peasants.

The larger productive units will also find it more difficult to dodge fiscal demands. The government has been extracting, either through taxation in kind or through purchase at a nominal price, at least forty per cent of the crops, which it diverts to urban consumption. But every year the so-called deliveries of grain and meat by the kolkhozes have demanded an intense and ruthless administrative drive, the successive phases and results of which have been reported, like the progress of a military campaign, in the national press. With the further swelling of the industrial population the government will have to lay hands on even more farm produce. The fewer the units, the easier its job will be.

Frontal Attack? It is not only a huge section of the Soviet economy that has been thrown into the melting pot. The reform may touch the whole mode of life of the countryside. On this score there has been some hesitation, and perhaps also a division, within the Politburo. The question that has not yet been quite settled is whether the attack should be carried out by indirect approach or whether it should develop into a frontal assault. Should only the farms be merged or should an attempt now be made to wrest from the kolkhoznik the small plot and the cattle he has been allowed to possess under the statutes of 1934? This is the most explosive domestic issue the Politburo has had to face since the war.

Early this year, Khrushchev, member of the Politburo, former Premier of the Ukraine, and present boss of the party in Moscow, publicly advocated the frontal attack. In a speech on the progress of the reform in Moscow Province he said that the merger of the kolkhozes should be accompanied by a resettlement of the rural population. In the centre of the enlarged farms there should be built up Agrotowns, or special settlements, to which the farmers would be shifted from their present houses and huts. This, he intimated, would be the occasion for the kolkhoz to take possession of the privately-owned plots of land which usually adjoin the farmer’s dwelling. The kolkhoznik would get no more than a tiny back-yard garden in the new settlement. Similar ideas were put forward by other party dignitaries, including the present leader of the party in the Ukraine.

There seems to be little immediate reality in these blueprints of Agrotowns. How can a country which has so far been unable to improve abominable housing conditions in the overcrowded towns and has still to cope with the ruins of the war suddenly embark upon a staggering programme of building new settlements for scores of millions of people? Where would the building materials and the labour come from? It is planned that every enlarged kolkhoz shall set up its own small brick-and-tile factory. But this would divert materials from more essential jobs and at best would take years to accomplish.

At this point domestic and foreign policies closely interlock. In a less tense international situation the government might vigorously press its scheme for Agrotowns. But in the present armament race it must shelve the plan. It cannot afford to spare resources and antagonise the peasants on what may be the eve of war.

How is the countryside likely to be receiving this reform? Even the few and reticent Soviet reports do not speak of any great enthusiasm. The bulk of the farming population has probably submitted to the upheaval with reluctance. The mere merger of the farms probably has not met with active resistance. Much as the peasant may dislike it, it matters little to him, at least immediately, whether the fields he tills, which are not his anyway, belong to a smaller or to a larger kolkhoz. He is not likely to stick out his neck over this since he already knows far too well the tragic consequences of resistance.

That the talk about Agrotowns and the abolition of the private plots threatened trouble is clear from the fact that since Khrushchev’s speech the Politburo has quietly retreated. It has declared through Pravda that what Khrushchev said on the Agrotowns was merely his private opinion. As it is most unusual for a member of the Politburo to express publicly any private views, especially on so delicate a subject, the Politburo must have used Khrushchev to fly a kite, and, having found out that the flight was too risky, it must have decided to postpone it. And so for the time being the Agrotown remains a vision of the future, of which there has been a rather abundant crop in this period of the ‘beginning of the transition from socialism to a higher stage of communism’.

Soviet Californian: One major purpose of Soviet agricultural policy is to raise the output of food; another is to bring food production nearer the new industrial centres in the eastern provinces. If in the whole of the USSR farming has been lagging behind industry, the lag has been worst beyond the Volga, in the Urals, in Siberia, and in central Asia, in the sparsely populated provinces with a severe climate and with vast tracts of drought-stricken land and desert.

Soviet planners see in those lands the future Californias of the USSR. About three years ago, they launched the so-called Stalin Plan for Changing Nature. Under this grandiose title they presented a fifteen-year scheme, repeatedly modified since, for forestation and for the building of canals, water reservoirs, and so on. Recently, new and ambitious irrigation plans have been publicised. These envisage the reclamation in the near future of 55 (or of 65, according to some sources) million acres, ‘an area nine times as large as the Nile Valley and three times as large as the total irrigated land in the United States’.

How much of that scheme is window dressing and how much is a practical project only time will show. These plans are certainly more realistic than are the schemes for Agrotowns. The labour needed to carry them into effect will in part be drawn from the collective farms, which themselves have to build the canals and to plant the forests on their own and on adjacent land. In part the labour will undoubtedly be supplied from concentration camps. It is not likely that other than forced labour will be used, for instance, in the building of the projected canal seven hundred miles long through the Kara Kum Desert in central Asia. Perhaps one day this desert will be made into another Garden of Semiramis; but how many victims will it claim before it is so transformed?

Electrifying Schemes: Connected largely with these projects is the building of a series of great hydroelectric stations to be completed in 1956. Two stations are to be set up on the Volga, one at Kuibyshev, the other at Stalingrad, each producing 10 billion kilowatt-hours per year, part of which is to be used for operating irrigation projects. Of the smaller projects, the Kakhovka plant on the Dnieper will serve the irrigation works in the southern Ukraine and in the northern Crimea, while three hydroelectric stations will supply power to the Kara Kum Desert and other Turkmenian lands.

Great emphasis is indeed placed on the speeding up of the general electrification of the rural economy. One motive behind this is the need to save oil. Mechanised farming uses up so much of the Soviet Union’s limited output of gasoline that the kolkhoz competes for supplies with the armed services. The government therefore aims at the replacement of the gasoline-driven by the electrically-driven tractor; and it hopes that by the end of the now-opening Five-Year period more than a quarter of the tractors employed will have switched over to electricity.

These are all impressive schemes. But nobody openly asks who is going to settle on the irrigated, reclaimed and electrified land. Here is another problem of agricultural resettlement perhaps more dramatic than that raised by the talk about Agrotowns. In the case of the Agrotowns the peasant family would be able to settle in the vicinity of its old home. But in order to populate the newly-irrigated lands, farmers would have to shift to places hundreds or probably thousands of miles away.

If precedent offers any guide, the movements will be largely compulsory. The only other precedent is the more or less voluntary eastward migration of vast multitudes during the last war. Many of the people who fled before the advancing German armies have stayed east of the Urals and thereby helped to solve in part the problem of manpower in the newly-developed areas. It is very likely that the government is planning another large-scale eastward migration in the event of a new war. The new agricultural bases in central Asia, that part of the Soviet Union which is strategically best sheltered, would then serve a vital purpose. But the migratory movement of the last war involved mainly industrial workers rather than farmers, who even under the collective system remain more attached to their homeland and less mobile. So the question remains: who will settle in the new agricultural areas? This human factor is never mentioned in all the grandiose and in many respects truly imaginative development plans.