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John G. Wright

Two-Year Food Shortage Heightens Tensions in USSR

The Farm Crisis in the Soviet Union

(Fall 1954)

From Fourth International, Vol.15 No.4, Fall 1954, pp.118-121.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SEPTEMBER 1954 marked the first anniversary of a farm crisis that was formally admitted by the Malenkov regime on September 3, 1953. At that time Khruschev, the first Secretary of the Russian party, publicly acknowledged in his report that the “level of agricultural production as a whole” was “inadequate”; that there was a “lag in a number of important branches of agriculture” with the worst shortages existing “in animal husbandry, the growing of feed and fodder crops, potatoes and vegetables”; and, finally, that this lag in agriculture was already so serious as to act as a brake upon industrial growth, in particular, said Khruschev, it “retards the further development of the light and food industries.”

These and other admissions came as a stunning surprise to the Soviet people. In the entire post-war period the Kremlin had claimed nothing but successes, admitting only minor “shortcomings” .in agriculture. This, in fact, was the keynote of Malenkov’s report to the 19th party Congress in October 1952. Malenkov then boasted: “Our agriculture is becoming more and more perfected, more productive and is turning out more and more produce for the market.” The chronic problem of assuring grain to the country had been forever solved. “The grain problem,” announced Malenkov, “formerly considered the most acute and gravest problem, has thus been solved successfully, solved once and for all. (Tumultuous, prolonged applause.)”

When it no longer became possible to deny the farm crisis, the Malenkov regime took the road of trying to explain it away as simply a “crisis of growth.” Khruschev in his report continued flatly to deny that there was any shortage of grain. “Generally speaking,” he said, “we meet the country’s grain requirements in the sense that our country is provided with grain, that we have the necessary state reserves and export definite quantities of grain.” There was, he explained, a shift in the demand of the Soviet population “more and more from bread to meat and milk products, vegetables, fruit, etc.,” owing to “the rise in the material well-being of the working people.” The campaign for “abundance” was the cover chosen by the Kremlin in its struggle to overcome the farm crisis.

There followed a whole series of agricultural reforms coupled, as usual, with administrative measures. The regime made sweeping concessions to the individualist tendencies in agriculture. Private ownership of cattle and cultivation of individually-owned strips of land were spurred; taxes on crops were reduced and so were delivery quotas, benefiting primarily the rich peasants and rich collective farms; overdue taxes were remitted and prices raised on state deliveries and state purchases of crops; bonuses for “over-fulfillment” of crop quotas were raised, etc.

Among the more important administrative measures were the following:

No official statistics have been issued in this connection, but from all indications in the Soviet press, the administrations of the overwhelming majority of 94,000 collective farms and almost 9,000 MTS have been changed from top to bottom, many of them several limes since September 1953.

Sweeping Changes

An equally drastic change has been carried out in the structure of the party apparatus in the rural areas, with the local and district secretariats transferred to the MTS as their center of operations, and with only a skeletal structure retained of the former local and district bodies.

It is no exaggeration to say that since the early Thirties, when Stalin launched wholesale collectivization, the Soviet countrywide has not witnessed such sweeping changes, such shifts of administrative personnel and other “innovations” as have taken place in the recent period.

Literally armies of Soviet bureaucrats armed with “plenipotentiary” powers are now swarming over the countryside. Among the recent emergency measures it is instructive to note that tens of thousands of “organizers” were ordered sent into the fields during this year’s harvest season, with a team of “organizers for every 3-5 combines in order to assure the uninterrupted and highly productive operation of the combines.” (Decision of the Party Plenum, June 24, 1954.)

Developments, entirely unforeseen, aggravated the Soviet farm crisis. The ink had hardly dried on the emergency decrees that emanated from the September 1953 Plenum when the Soviet countryside was hit by early and severe frosts and blizzards. The very measures of “material interestedness” by which the Kremlin had hoped to overcome existing shortages, boomeranged against the regime. The mass of the peasants neglected the collective-farm crops in order to save their own midget economies from, the unexpected blows of early winter, the severest in recent years. The full extent of the losses incurred last year remains unknown.

But the columns of the Russian press did report heavy losses of cattle, sheep and horses, feed and fodder crops. Even the grain crop was admittedly affected. The 1953 grain harvest was apparently the poorest in post-war years, at all events, by official admission, it fell below the 1952 levels.

In this new situation, the Kremlin made another abrupt shift. The slogan of “abundance within the next two-three years” was modified to read “a sufficiency and then an abundance.” And more significantly, the Kremlin for the first time admitted that the production of grain was “inadequate” for the country’s needs. By July of this year the official press was citing six basic reasons why Soviet grain production had to be sharply, increased “in the course of 1954 and 1955.”

First, there is the need “to increase the annual per capita consumption of flour and grain products”; second, to “improve” cattle feeding; third, to create “sufficient” seed and insurance reserves; fourth, to provide enough grain for industrial purposes; fifth, to raise the state reserves; and sixth, to raise the grain exports (Pravda, July 2, 1954). Thus, the grain problem, which Malenkov had boasted less than two years before had been forever solved, has emerged once again as the primary and most acute problem confronting the regime.

Emergency Program

Less than six months after the promulgation of the September 1953 agricultural reforms and new program, the Malenkov regime was compelled to promulgate an entirely different program designed to overcome the lag in grain production. This emergency program was adopted at the February-March 1954 Plenum. It called for the cultivation of grain on the semi-arid steppes of Kazakhstan, the Urals and Western Siberia, with some 32 million acres to be cleared and cultivated in 1954 and 1955.

As late as January of this year there was no talk in the press of such a vast project. The most that was originally contemplated was the possible opening up of one, perhaps two million acres of this “virgin land” for agricultural production, and this, over a period of several years.

Only sometime in February was the decision suddenly made to plunge headlong into this vast venture. The Plenum which formally adopted this new emergency plan was held only a few weeks before the actual opening of the spring sowing season.

Let us further recall that the areas for this projected huge-scale grain production have lagged notoriously, having for years produced the lowest yields in the Soviet Union. In his September 1953 report Khruschev singled out “the Volga area, West Siberia and Kazakhstan” as “lagging” and poorest in “yields of grain and especially grain-leguminous crops.”

These same areas have likewise been among the least efficient in the utilization, maintenance and repair of agricultural machinery and in the operation of their Machine and Tractor Stations. The June 1954 Plenum has once again singled out for criticism “many MTS and state farms” of Kazakhstan, the Urals and Western Siberia for their “failures and short comings” in the 1954 sowing season.

Meanwhile the operations have proceeded on a scale hitherto unknown even in the Soviet Union. Into the “virgin lands” a whole army of technicians, mechanics, tractor and combine drivers, primarily members of the Russian Communist Youth, has been sent. The June 1954 Plenum boasted that “more than 140,000 individuals have already arrived in the MTS and the state farms and are actively involved in the work” on the virgin lands. This is evidently only the first installment of a projected large-scale migration. The lead editorial of July 2 Pravda makes this quite clear.

“As the scale of operations in acquiring the virgin and fallow lands expands, it will demand,” says Pravda, “a new influx of working forces into the Eastern regions from other cities and industrial centers... It is necessary to bear in mind that the population of these regions will grow rapidly in numbers in the next few years.”

It is noteworthy that Pravda foresees not only a rapid growth of these regions but underscores the source of this growth, namely, “other cities and industrial centers.” This means that administrative pressure will be exerted to an increasing extent to force workers from factories to migrate into the West Siberian countryside, the Urals and Kazakhstan.

On July 1 the Chelyabinsk tractor factory “initiated” a move that was given nationwide publicity.

“The factory,” reported Pravda, “sent into the villages more than a thousand production workers... The workers who remained behind in the production departments undertook the obligation to fulfill the plan (of production) for themselves and for the comrades who departed to the collective farms.”

Ostensibly this movement of production workers into the countryside is “voluntary” and temporary, only for the period of the 1954 harvest season. But from many indications the regime envisages a more permanent shift of at least a part of the existing labor force.

“Only a Beginning”

The June 1954 Plenum suddenly announced that the plan adopted in March to bring under grain cultivation 32 million acres of virgin lands was “only a beginning.” Far more extensive areas are to be opened up and cultivated.

The Plenum ordered the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of State Farms and the Council of Ministers of the Russian Federated Republic and that of Kazakhstan to submit new plans by October 15, 1954. Without waiting for the submission of these new plans Pravda on July 2, 1954 declared that the area of virgin lands to be placed under cultivation “in the next few years can be increased twofold and threefold.” In other words, the March 1954 plan for cultivating “only” 32 million acres in 1954-55 was scrapped within ninety days in favor of a plan to cultivate from 75 million to 100 million acres “in the next few years.”

Under the original March 1954 plan, it was necessary to divert the bulk of new agricultural machinery to the virgin lands. Some of this machinery proved inadequate to the needs and new types were found necessary. Under the new and far bigger plan the Soviet agricultural machine industry will have to be reorganized to produce primarily for the projected stupendous operations, to the obvious detriment of the rest of Soviet agriculture.

The labor shortage which already admittedly exists on Soviet farms will not be ameliorated but aggravated in the next period by the need to divert greater labor forces into the Asian steppes and former mountain pastures. Again, the rest of the Soviet agriculture will not be aided but hampered thereby. Why then has the Kremlin finally decided upon this course? Obviously for one reason and one reason only. The Malenkov regime sees no other way out of the current farm crisis.

There is a tell-tale clause in the June 1954 Plenum decision that highlights the bankruptcy of the Kremlin’s entire agricultural policy. It is this, that the projected expansion of Soviet agriculture must take place “chiefly by way of organizing new state farms.” (Pravda, June 27, 1954. Our emphasis.)

The June 1954 Plenum boasts that in the course of the spring months alone there have been created 124 new state farms averaging in size over 51,000 acres each. These are giant grain factories. And the current plan obviously aims to increase their number tenfold and more, with the view toward making the state-owned and state-operated sector the dominant one in Soviet agriculture. State ownership and state operation turns out to be the only way out of the blind alley created by more than a quarter of a century of Stalinist “collectivization.” To put it in different words, the Malenkov regime, unable to cope with the opposition and resistance of the Soviet peasantry, incapable of supplying the village with enough manufactured goods and necessities to spur the peasants to produce more for the market voluntarily, has plunged into another bureaucratic adventure in agriculture.

High Risk

It is an adventure because Soviet agriculture still depends overwhelmingly for its production on the work and skill of the mass of the peasantry. The existing state farms, some 4,700 in number, account for only a small fraction of the total agricultural production. Their yields have run as a rule lower than those of collective farms and their operations have been far more costly. In October 1952 Malenkov admitted that “one of the major shortcomings in the work of a large number of state farms is the high production cost of grain, meat, milk and other produce.” In September 1953 Khruschev repeated: “The high cost of producing grain, meat, milk and other items still constitutes a big shortcoming in the work of the state farms,” and he added: “Many state farms are headed by inadequately trained workers.” A large percentage of the existing state farms have operated only thanks to state subsidies.

Under the most favorable circumstances, a major expansion of state farm operations in these conditions, could not be considered other than a calculated risk. The bureaucratic adventure into which the Malenkov bureaucracy has plunged is nothing short of a desperate gamble. The lands they have brought and propose to bring under cultivation are marginal lands; that is, it is a gamble whether good crops can be grown there under favorable climatic conditions. Inclement weather, periods of drought could prove insuperable obstacles.

As if to warn the bureaucratic adventurers, on the heels of early winter there came this year a belated spring over virtually the whole Soviet Union. The June 1954 Plenum listed ten major provinces that failed to fulfill the plan for spring sowing of grain, plus two Republics (Estonia and Latvia), and seven more major provinces that failed to fulfill the plan for potato sowing. The opening up of the first virginal lands took place under admittedly unexpected and unfavorable conditions. But all this did not deter the bureaucracy, it made it only the more determined to take the plunge.

The year 1954, when both the sowing campaign and the harvesting took place under the sign of emergency, was originally intended by the Kremlin to mark the breaking point in the farm crisis. The bureaucracy has been disappointed in its expectations. None of the previously existing major shortages has been alleviated. And in contrast to 1953, the grain problem has once again emerged to the forefront.

Impose New Strains

The new plan, which on paper appears to solve everything, has imposed new and tremendous strains on both the Soviet countryside and Soviet industry.

The June 1954 Plenum adopted special measures, as yet not made public, “to strengthen labor discipline” on the farms and “to assure the active participation of all collective farmers in the social production of the collectives.” The peasants find it more profitable to work on their own midget enterprises and no amount of administrative pressure will substantially alter their attitude. But the collision between the bureaucracy and the peasants will be intensified.

The Soviet workers find themselves also under mounting pressures. In 1953 they were called upon to produce more “within the same productive areas and with the same equipment”; the June 1954 Plenum has summoned them to “aid” the collectives and the state farms “without detriment to the work of the state enterprises and constructions.” As in the case of the Chelyabinsk tractor plant, this means that an increasing number of workers will be drafted for work in the countryside, temporarily or permanently, while the remaining workers are speeded up to fulfill the quotas “for themselves and for the departed comrades.”

The second year of the still unresolved Soviet farm crisis will therefore unfold under much greater social tensions and conflict than the year that has just elapsed.

Last updated: 29.12.2005