Collectivization of Farms and Cotton Cultivation in the USSR

Collectivization of agriculture across the Soviet Union began as a strategic facet of Stalin’s First-Five Year Plan and resulted in the death, deportation, and imprisonment of millions, famine that swept across Central Asia killing millions more, and social upheaval and violence across rural Soviet territories (Eaton 15-16; Kamp 212). Beginning in 1929, collectivization of farms was mandated across the Soviet Union, requiring land and livestock owners to turn over their properties, livelihoods, and labor to collective farms (kolkhoz), or factory-like state-run farms (sovkhoz). Many farms were forced to grow cotton instead of essential crops for food (Eaton 14-15; Kamp 218). Though many farmers resisted collectivization, which they viewed as the “second serfdom" (serfdom was banished in the Russian Empire in 1861), and were severely punished or killed for their resistance. 50 percent of peasant households were collectivized by 1931, and 93 percent by 1937 (Volin, 1970, as cited in Eaton 15-16; Fitzpatrick 4-5). The lack of instruction and structure in determining how a kolkhoz would operate left many unanswered questions for the local authorities, as well as for the peasants forced to work in these new, loosely defined collective farms (Fitzpatrick 7-8, 49).

Beginning with feudal times and continuing from the Tsarist colonization into the Soviet era, cotton controlled the economy in the areas of Western Turkestan that became Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In the years before the collectivization policies were set up in 1929, Central Asia had already experienced increased Russian control over agriculture (Kamp 112-113). As Marianne Kamp has written, Central Asia was seen as “a raw material-producing periphery to an empire with distant economic centers,” since the Russian conquest in the nineteenth century. Between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cotton cultivation increased significantly throughout Central Asia, specifically in the area that became Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (25-26). The Soviet regime then saw this as an opportunity to dominate the region and its vast resources. During Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, the Siberian-Turkestan Railway was constructed. The route connected the “cotton-growing regions of Central Asia with the grain-producing lands in Siberia” (Somerville 635).

Efforts were made to prevent Central Asian peasants from using raw materials, such as cotton, to bolster their own economies (Kamp 25-26). Instead, cotton was shipped to Russia for processing into cloth (26). By increasing taxes and regulating finances for farms and factories, the conditions for full control and exploitation of industry and economy were being set (190). This included regulation of the prices and sales of cotton and silk in the 1920s, and in 1929 when collectivization began, “the state effectively controlled cotton production through its monopoly on credit and promised cotton-growing peasants an adequate supply of grain in exchange” (190). Central Asia experienced a “cotton monoculture,” exacerbated by collectivization and the Communist party that saw cotton production as central to their efforts (Khalid 365). Cotton came to serve as a symbol for Soviet control in Central Asia (366). Collectivization forced many peasants to grow cotton instead of essential crops for food, with women doing most of the hard labor of planting, growing, and harvesting cotton (Kamp 218, 224). The cost of cotton falling lower than the cost of grain in the years leading up to collectivization eventually contributed to food shortages during the early 1930s (Khalid 364).

The goals of implementing rapid collectivization included increasing industrialization and productivity while also expanding the government’s ability to control grain production and supervise rural parts of Uzbekistan in order to make sure citizens were complying with new policies (Kamp 72; Fitzpatrick 4). Rural villages were flooded by Communists from Soviet cities who served as officials enforcing the collectivization, armed with disdain for the “backwardness” of rural life (Fitzpatrick 3). Through mass exile and restructuring of rural life, government presence had effectively been embedded into the daily lives of Uzbeks (Kamp 218). This era was filled with widespread violence and even suicide committed by kulaks, a derogatory name given to wealthier land-owning peasants who resisted the new policies and who were the targets of deportation through dekulakization (Eaton 15, 307). Resistance manifested through protests and attacks on collectivizers, as well as the mass slaughter of tens of millions of animals by peasants who refused to give up their livestock to collectives or feared that having multiple animals would have them labeled as kulaks, leading to their deportation (Eaton 15, 135; Fitzpatrick 53).

In response to widespread disorder and fear that productivity would be harmed amidst the turmoil, Stalin wrote an article published in the Communist newspaper Pravda in the spring of 1930 announcing that he was pausing collectivization (Eaton 16). Causing confusion among farmers who now believed they were free to return to their previous lifestyles, the pause was temporary, and collectivization resumed in the fall of the same year (16). However, rampant opposition and death forced the state to compromise, allowing peasant households “to have a small garden plot and a few animals of its own” (16).

The advent of mechanization in the Soviet Union had an impact on the collectivization of agriculture. Most noticeable was the increase in tractor use and production after 1929. By the fall of 1928, there were around 27,000 tractors in operation, and within two years, there were more than 40,000 working collective farms (Volin 763–64). The Stalingrad Tractor Factory, which opened in 1930, was designed by a US company, and construction was supervised by American engineers (Dodge and Dalrymple 167). However, the plant suffered due to a lack of experience in mass production and an untrained labor force. This inexperience extended into the operation of the tractor.

American contract workers unsuccessfully “transplanted” technologies and methods from American to Soviet soil due to completely “disregarding social, economic, and environmental peculiarities” of the area (Hale-Dorrell 301). Unfavorable climate, droughts, and rough land proved difficult to farm, and tractors and combines were not utilized efficiently. More and more land was planted, although the shortage of labor and of animal power left “great quantities of grain, sugar beets, and other crops unharvested” (Chamberlin 460).

Stalin viewed tractors as symbols of power and progress, much like that of the successful farming being done in the United States. As part of collectivization, he created machine tractor stations (MTSs) that were owned and operated by the Soviet state. The MTSs were implemented supposedly as a means to assist peasants and other hired labor on a co-operative basis. However, peasants, many of whom had to give their own tractors to the state, sought to sabotage Stalin’s forced collectivization by slaughtering livestock and minimizing sown areas (Patnaik 52).

Between peasant resistance to collectivization and the allowance of small private plots of land for personal use, production quotas set by the state were not being met (Fitzpatrick 5-8). The culmination of immense grain export and shortages, the slaughter of livestock, drought, and low yields caused a famine from 1932-1934 that killed millions, and the additional deaths of men, women, and children resulting from deportation, exile, and labor camps led to immense population loss (Eaton 16). Furthermore, many peasants were forced into the “vast Security Police (secret police) prison system (gulag), where they became slaves, the largest single group in the industrial labor force” (108).

While collectivization was a major facet in the increase in Central Asian women entering the workforce, their quality of life plummeted during collectivization (Ilič 35; Kamp 224). Just as the Soviet strategy to modernize Central Asian women was a top-down approach, collectivization similarly was not initiated or supported by the peasants it directly affected and was therefore met with resistance (Fitzpatrick 3; Lubin 182). Between smaller incomes, the widespread famine, death and deportation, and the housing crisis as many flocked to cities, collectivization not only upended peasant society but “sharpened the gap between the modern and the traditional sector” (Eaton 16; Ilič 35; Lapidus 104).

Collectivization, Photo Gallery

Contributors: Lillian Rodriguez, Jessie Sentivan

Works Cited:

Chamberlin, William Henry. “The Balance Sheet of the Five-Year Plan.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 11, no. 3, Apr. 1933, pp. 458–69.

Dodge, Norton T., and Dana G. Dalrymple. “The Stalingrad Tractor Plant in Early Soviet Planning.” Soviet Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, Oct. 1966, pp. 164-68.

Eaton, Katherine B. Daily Life in the Soviet Union. Greenwood Press, 2004.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Hale-Dorrell, Aaron. “The Soviet Union, the United States, and Industrial Agriculture.” Journal of World History, vol. 26, no. 2, Jun. 2015, pp. 295–324.

Ilič, Melanie. Women in the Stalin Era. Palgrave, 2001.

Kamp, Marianne. The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism. University of Washington Press, 2006.

Khalid, Adeeb. Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR. Cornell University Press, 2015.

Lapidus, Gail Warshofsky. Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change. University of California Press, 1978.

Lovell, Stephen. The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Lubin, Nancy. “Women in Soviet Central Asia: Progress and Contradictions.” Soviet Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 1981, pp. 182-203.

Patnaik, Utsa. “Peasants and Industrialization in the Soviet Union.” Social Scientist, vol. 16, no. 10, Oct. 1988, pp. 46–62.

Somerville, Henry. “The Soviet Five-Year Plan.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 19, no. 76, Dec. 1930, pp. 624–36.

Volin, Lazar. “Agrarian Collectivism in the Soviet Union: II,” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 45, no. 6, Dec. 1937, pp. 759–88.