Prof Rempel lecture: collectivisation in smolensk

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Collectivisation in Smolensk

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


We can get a good idea of how the process of collectivization worked from looking at the province of Smolensk. Smolensk on the eve of collectivization was an overwhelmingly agricultural province. More than 90 per cent of the population lived in the countryside. Less than l per cent of the land was collectivized. The private sector accounted for 98.7 per cent of the gross agricultural output. Out of a total of 393,523 peasant households registered in 1927, 5 per cent were classified as kulaks, 70 per cent as middle peasants, and 25 per cent as poor peasants.

In tsarist days the Smolensk area had been one of the centers of flax and hemp culture. After the Revolution, however, the cultivation of flax and hemp declined sharply; population pressure and the expanding needs of home consumption led to a considerable shift to potatoes, grain and fodder groups, and livestock breeding. The NEP years registered significant gains in food output, but population increase outraced growth in production, and the percentage of marketed produce steadily declined.

The decision of the Soviet authorities to abandon the NEP and embark on a policy of agricultural collectivization and rapid industrialization had its immediate repercussions in Smolensk as elsewhere. The first victims of the new campaign in the countryside were the kulaks. They controlled a substantial part of the agricultural surplus which was essential to feed the new factory centers. They could be counted on to resist collectivization most staunchly during 1927-28 when the noose was gradually tightened around their necks. The initial attack on the kulaks involved a sharp increase in their tax burden, designed to force them to disgorge their grain surpluses. At the same time up to a third of all poor-peasant households were freed from all agricultural taxes, and economic aid to poor-peasant groups in the form of agricultural credit and other assistance was increased. Measures were also taken to raise wages for hired laborers working in kulak households.

Thus the regime sought to consolidate the support of the poor peasants and hired laborers in the villages while at the same time neutralizing and weakening kulak influence. Kulaks were denied agricultural credit and equipment, deprived of lands which had allegedly been improperly distributed to them, eliminated from the rural apparatus of soviets, agricultural credit and cooperative organizations, and prosecuted for speculation in grain and concealment of grain surpluses.

The kulak reaction to this attack took a variety of forms. Official reports complained that kulaks were still ''worming their way into" and "planting their own people" in leading organs of rural soviets and cooperatives, bribing soviet workers and even party members to obtain tax concessions, and taking advantage of the grain difficulties to agitate against the Soviet system and ''to dissolve the union between the poor peasants and the middle peasants.''

As the persecution of the kulak intensified, the kulaks replied in kind. The police records of the period are filled with reports of ''terrorist acts.' against zealous Party and soviet workers--the beating of chairmen of village soviets and other ''public workers,'' the killing of village correspondents, the murder of Party secretaries, the disruption of meetings of poor peasants and so on. The flare-up of violence testified to mounting kulak resistance.

As the First Five Year Plan gathered momentum, the demands on the countryside intensified. The grain collection campaign of 1929 registered the pressure, and it fell with particularly crushing force on so-called well-to-do farmers. The Western Region (Oblast) , into which Smolensk Province (Guberniya) had been absorbed in 1929, lagged badly in meeting its quotas. The dissatisfaction of the center was reflected in a Politburo telegram of September 20, 1929, which demanded that the targets be met immediately. Pressed by the center, the regional Party authorities embarked On shock tactics. Special emissaries, appointed by the Party and armed with full power to extract grain wherever they could find it. were dispatched to spur deliveries.

In theory, the main thrust of the grain collection campaign was directed against the kulaks, and the special emissaries were under instructions to enlist the aid of police and middle peasants in carrying the battle to the kulaks, In practice, the problem was not so simple. Many of the kulaks were village leaders respected by their fellow-villagers, frequently related by ties of blood to poor and middle peasants, and occupying positions of influence which ramified into the local soviet and even Party apparatus. The villages refused to fall neatly into categories of poor, middle, and well-to-do peasants and frequently insisted on maintaining a group solidarity that the special emissaries found frustrating and impenetrable. Even more aggravating was the extent to which the local soviet and Party apparatus identified with the peasants and even shielded the kulak against the emissaries' demands.

The solidarity of the villages presented Ad formidable obstacle to the success of the grain collection campaign. Middle and even poor peasants joined the kulaks in resisting the exactions of the emissaries and openly attacked Party and Soviet workers at village meetings as '.thieves and bandits.'' While some poor peasants applauded the regime's pressure on the kulaks, others were quoted as asserting, ''There are no kulaks in our village. Why do we have to fight them?'' ''Now they are confiscating bread from the kulak; tomorrow they will turn against the middle and poor peasant.'' As reliance on "voluntary" contributions failed to yield results, the tactics of the emissaries became harsher. Under the law, grain quotas were imposed on all peasant households subject to taxation with the proviso that these quotas be delivered in a period of two to five days.

Failure to deliver the grain quota was subject to a fivefold penalty on the first offense. The penalty for a second offense was a year of prison or forced labor. The same offense if carried out by a group with collective premeditation to resist Soviet orders was punishable by two years of prison or forced labor with deportation and seizure of all or part of the property of the convicted.

The actual procedure in dealing with kulak households was more summary. If the kulak failed to fulfill his assessed quota, ..workers. brigades'' or village soviet forces, under the emissary's supervision, simply raided the household and confiscated any grain ''surpluses.. which could be located on the premises. Some emissaries were more implacable than others. The stern measures directed against the kulaks produced a variety of reactions. Where possible, the kulaks hid their grain, or sought to escape sequestration by bribery or other subterfuges. As repressive measures intensified, some kulaks replied in kind. The reports of the emissaries contain numerous references to kulak attacks on village ''activists'' who were engaged in grain seizures. A pall of terror enveloped the villages.#As reports of killings and arson multiplied, Party members were warned to ''stay away from the windows.' when working in soviet institutions and not to walk the village streets after dark.

The grain collection campaign of 1929, as it turned out, was merely a prelude to a far more drastic operation, the decision to liquidate the kulak as a class and to lay the groundwork for total collectivization. The signal for the all-out drive was given at the end of 1929, and soon after the turn of the year the operation was launched in various parts of the Western Region.

The Party began to deport kulaks and to confiscate their property. The state and police apparatus was enlarged and fortified with additional funds. Local militia forces were mobilized and used in the dekulakization campaign. Special district troikas were set up to direct activities. In each case the troika consisted of the first secretary of the Party committee, the chairman of the soviet executive committee and the head of the OGPU (Unified State Political Administration) . Regional party men were sent to the different localities to assist local officials.

The first and most dangerous group, described as ''the counterrevolutionary kulak active,'. was to be arrested by the OGPU. The second category consisted of ''certain elements of the kulak Aktiv,.' especially from among the richest peasants and ''quasi-landowners,.' who were to be deported to ''far-off'' parts of the Soviet Union. The remaining kulaks were to be removed from areas scheduled for .'total collectivization,.. but were not to be deported from the locality. For such kulaks the local executive committees were to provide special land parcels carved out of ''eroded areas, ''swamp lands in woods,'' and other soil in need of improvement.''

The orders "unconditionally prohibited'' the deportation or resettlement of poor and middle peasants. A firm class line was to be prepared. A wedge must be driven between the kulaks- the class enemy--and the rest of the peasants, and the latter must be mobilized to help in annihilating the class enemy. Confusion and disorganization soon resulted. Despite apparently precise directives and instructions, many village authorities went their own way, interpreting the kulak category broadly to embrace middle and even poor peasants who were opposed to collectivization, evicting kulak families with Red Army connections, (which was forbidden.) , and rarely bothering to supply the troika with supporting data to justify their decisions. In the first flush of the dekulakization campaign, ''excesses.' were commonplace. These excesses were later curbed, but the deportation of kulaks continued. The deportations brought an atmosphere of panic to the towns as well as to the villages. Some workers ''do not sleep nights,'' waiting to be taken away, or expecting some of their relatives to be taken.

"All my acquaintances have already been taken away," one commented, ''the most terrible thing is that no one knows where he is taken to; people have been brought to the verge of complete passivity; no matter what one does to them, they don't care any more; earlier an arrested man was led by two militiamen; now one militiaman may lead groups of people, and the latter calmly walk and no one flees.'' A report cited a ''characteristic'' case where one citizen came to the local procuracy and begged to be deported together with the kulaks, reasoning that he would at least have a chance to start a ''less hectic life.''

There was a sharp upsurge in collectivization which came in the wake of the deportations. This, in the eyes of the regime, was the ultimate rationale of the entire dekulakization program. Prior to the application of this pressure, the kolkhoz movement was slow to take root in the Western Region. Indeed, the First Five year Plan for the region contemplated that only 8.6 per cent of the peasant households would be enrolled in kolkhozes by 1932-3. on October 1, 1928, the actual percentage of collectivization was an almost infinitesimal 0.8 per cent. By October 1, 1929, it had increased to only 2.5%. From that point on, in accordance with directions from the center to liquidate the kulak and intensify the organization of kolkhozes, the tempo of collectivization mounted swiftly. On March l, 1930, the Western Region reported that 38.8 per cent of all hired-labor, poor-peasant, and middle-peasant households were collectivized.

What happened in the intervening five months is perhaps best portrayed in the language of the peasants themselves. Here, for instance, is a vivid description by one peasant written to the editors of the regional peasant newspaper: For a long time I have wanted to write you about what you have written on collectivization in your newspaper Nasha Derevnya.

In the first place I will give you my address so that you will not suspect that I am a kulak or one of his parasites. I am a poor peasant. I have one hut, one barn, one horse, 3 dessyatins of land, and a wife and three children. Dear Comrades as a subscriber to your newspaper. . .I found in No. 13/85 for Feb. 15 a letter from a peasant who writes about the life of kolhoz construction. I, a poor peasant, reading this letter, fully agreed with it. This peasant described life in the kolkhoz completely correctly. Isn't it true that all the poor peasants and middle peasants do not want to go into the kolkhoz at all, but that you drive them in by force? For example, I'll take my village soviet of Yushkovo.

A brigade of soldiers came to us. This brigade went into all the occupied homes, and do you think that they organized a kolhoz? No, they did not organize it. The hired laborers and the poor peasants came out against it and said they did not want corvee, they did not want serfdom. . .I'll write more of my village soviet. When the Red Army brigade left, they sent us a kolhoz organizer from Bryansk okrug. And whom do you think this Comrade signed up? Not poor peasants, not hired laborers, but kulaks, who, sensing their own ruin, enter the kolhoz. And your organizer takes to evil deeds.

At night, together with the Komsomolites, he takes everything away from the peasants, both surpluses and taxes, which you fleece from the peasants. Of course agricultural taxes are necessary, self-taxation is necessary, fire taxes are necessary, tractorization is necessary. But where can the toiling peasant get this money if not from the seeds of his products? And these Party people stay up all night and rob the peasants. If he brings a pud, if he brings 5, it's all the same. I would propose that you let the peasant live in greater freedom than he does now, and then we won't beg you to get rid of such a gang, for we ourselves will eliminate them.

Another peasant wrote: Comrades, you write that all the middle peasants and poor peasants join the kolhoz voluntarily, but it is not true. For example, in our village of Podbuzhye, all do not enter the kolhoz willingly. When the register made the rounds, only 25% signed it. while 75% did not. They collected seeds by frightening the peasants with protocols and arrests. If any one spoke against it, he was threatened with arrest and forced labor. You are deceived in this, Comrades. Collective life can be created when the entire mass of the peasants goes voluntarily, and not by force' . .I beg you not to divulge my name, because the Party people will be angry. (signed) Polzikov.

These extracts, which are culled largely from the letters of poor peasants, underline the role that force played in accelerating the tempo of collectivization. Nor was the opposition to collectivization confined to verbal protests. In some instances, at least, violence was met with violence, and the reports of the procurator and the OGPU for this period are replete with examples. The story of the first great collectivization drive (1929-1930) as it unfolds in the Smolensk Area is a record of '.storm'. tactics and stubborn peasant opposition, of grandiose projects and .'paper.' victories.

The regime in many cases could not trust its local soviet functionaries to carry the brunt of the drive, and as a result workers were mobilized from the factories to organize the kolkhozes. The "25,000'ers" as they were called, did not find their task easy. Yet. despite many difficulties, the collectivization drive was resumed during the spring of 1931 in accordance with a telegram of February 15, l93l, signed by Stalin and urging implementation of the ''decisions of the Sixteenth Party Congress'' with regard to an ''intensification of the kolhoz movement.''

By April 21, l93l, 64.8 per cent of the households of Roslavl district, for instance, had been collectivized. But criticism of the poor performance of the kolkhozes continued to be voiced and Party agitators appearing at meetings were treated to bitter complaints of sharp rises in food prices and inadequacies in the food supply.

The food situation continued to deteriorate during the year 1932, and the kolhoz movement itself showed signs of disintegration. On July 5, 1932, a top-secret letter to district Party committees instructed them on how to deal with ''cases where kolhozes fall apart and kolhoz property is illegally appropriated. . Every effort should be made to hold the kolhozes together by reviewing the complaints of kolkhozniks and punishing those who ''caused the economic deterioration of the kolhozes.''

But despite drastic sanctions invoked against departing kokhozniks, the flight from the kolkhozes continued. The year 1932 was a bitter one in Soviet agriculture, and the Smolensk area had more than its share of tribulations. The failure of the Western Region to fulfill its grain delivery plan from the 1931 harvest had stern repercussions. In the spring of 1932 the regional Party authorities were informed that Moscow was counting all undelivered grain as part of the grain available for regional consumption, and that the supply of grain from the centralized funds would be substantially curtailed during the second quarter of 1932.

Meanwhile, preparations for grain deliveries from the 1932 harvest proceeded apace. Despite stern commands from above the food shortage continued to be acute. There were many reports of kolhozes falling apart and kolhozniks abandoning the kolhozes. There were even more numerous reports of widespread pilfering of kolhoz property and crops both by kolhozniks and those entrusted with the management of the kolhozes. Even the introduction of the death penalty for thievery failed to stop this trend. Thus the grain delivery campaign for 1932 yielded worse results than that of the preceding year. The food crisis in the Smolensk Region reached a climax of desperation during the bitter winter of 1932-33.

But the 1933 harvest marked a turning point. Perhaps the most notable step in placating discontent in the kolkhozes was the central decree of Jan. 19, 1933, revising the procurement system to provide for fixed deliveries to the state based on acreage planted instead of the largely arbitrary quotas which had previously been assessed in the guise of ''contracts.'' The new system provided inducements to increase production since the obligations to the state were definite and any surplus the kolkhoz accumulated could be distributed to the members in proportion to the workdays which they earned. This concession to the self-interest of the collective farmers provided an incentive to work in the kolkhoz which had previously been lacking, and its effects soon became apparent.

Soon thereafter the central leadership itself ordered that '.the center of gravity.' of work in the villages turn from .'mass repression'' to '.mass political and organizational work.'' In a dramatic secret circular of May 6, 1933, signed by Stalin and Molotov and distributed to all Party and soviet officials and all organs of the OGPU, the courts, and the procuracy, orders went out that mass deportations and indiscriminate arrests ''be immediately stopped.'' Henceforth, said that circular, ''deportation may be permitted only on a partial and individual basis and only with regard to those households whose head are carrying on an active struggle against collective farms and are organizing resistance to sowing and state purchasing of grain.''

Helped by good harvest, grain collections mounted and the kolkhozes began to take on life. Collectivization percentages again began to increase. On December 15, 1932, 60.6 per cent of all peasant households were collectivized in the Smolensk district. By July 1, 1934, the collectivization ratio had increased to 66.2 per cent; by December 15, 1934, it mounted to 77.8 per cent.

As the economic pressure on the individual peasants intensified, more and more of them were forced to seek refuge in the collectives. How they felt we may guess, but so far as the Party records go, they become mere digits recording the steady triumph of collectivization in percentage terms.

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Background to Revolution
  1917 Revolutions
  Lenin's Russia
  Stalin's Russia 1927-39   
Stalin: Economics & Terror, 1927-41


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Blue Ribbon HOT site, USA
SovLit, Harvard Univ, USA


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