In 1930, the Soviet Union embarked upon a policy of eliminating the most prosperous portion of the peasantry, known as “kulaks.” As in all policy developments in the period, it was couched in the language of class struggle; its underlying motivations were more complex. “De-kulakization” was intended to serve the collectivization drive by terrorizing those who might consider resistance, and removing those elements that actually resisted. The resources gained from the confiscation of property were meant to support the otherwise woefully underfunded collective farms, while exiled kulak families were meant to contribute to the wealth of the nation by settling in remote parts of the country and gathering resources that otherwise would not be available.
The word “kulak” means “fist,” and Soviet Communists used this word to refer to the wealthiest fifth of the peasantry. To many it might seem strange to use the word “wealthy” with “peasantry,” but the Russian peasants ranged from very poor to rather rich, with a substantial number in the middle. The wealthiest peasants had large plots to farm, and hired other farmers to assist them in working their land. Some of them also lent money to other peasants, or charged them for the use of capital improvements like mills. Thus, the kulaks had aroused the anger of the Communists from the beginning of the Soviet period, being equated with the bourgeoisie and labeled a class enemy.
In practice, however, little had been done about the kulaks under Lenin, apart from the suppression of those who actively opposed to the regime. During the Civil War, the Soviets did not have the wherewithal to eliminate all of them, and during the NEP period, the regime was counting on precisely such elements in society to help in the expansion of the Soviet economy. Thus, by the time that Lenin died, the kulaks were as vital a part of peasant society as ever; indeed, they were somewhat richer than they had been under the Tsars because of the distribution of lands held by the nobility.
All of this was to change with the first Five Year Plan under Stalin. Stalin’s goal was to rapidly industrialize the entire country, but in order to sustain the kind of urban growth that was necessary, he had to have control over the growth and distribution of food. His first priority, therefore, was the collectivization of agriculture and its subjection to state control.
As late as 1929, there were still questions in the highest echelons of the Communist Party about what to do with the kulaks in the context of collectivization. Clearly, they were not to be permitted to go on living and working as they had before collectivization, but as “class enemies,” they were not to be allowed immediately as voting members of collective farms, either.
It was Stalin who determined that the kulaks were to be eliminated entirely. Beginning in 1930, kulaks were classified in three categories, all of which were to be expelled from their communities with varying levels of urgency. Those who were, or who could be construed as being, in outright rebellion were to be rounded up at once. Some of these were summarily executed, while others were sent to prison camps; their entire families would be sent to Siberia or the far north. Rich kulaks who did not revolt would also be expelled with their families, and they would similarly be resettled in the hinterlands of the country. Finally, those kulaks who were deemed less influential would still be barred from participation in the collective farm community, but they would work nearby under governmental controls.
The first wave of actions against the kulaks was met with a certain degree of enthusiasm among the peasants of the collective farms. Whipped up by outside agitators sent to assist the process, and free to get revenge for old grievances, many peasants falsely accused kulaks of being counter revolutionaries, and in many cases, the peasants so accused were not even kulaks. Even so simple an act as selling a bushel of grain or selling some homemade product was considered evidence that the peasant in question was a kulak, regardless of actual economic standing. Non-economic factors also condemned peasants to deportation, such as being related to authority figures under the old regime or attending church too regularly.
In many cases, the families were not yet shipped off to exile, but their property was often seized immediately; edible items, including livestock, were often consumed on the spot, while in other instances goods were sold off for a pittance.
Seeing what amounted to disorganized looting, the government attempted to reorient the process into a more controlled attack on the kulak class; a gradual approach beginning with enhanced taxation was instituted, in an effort to ensure that more of the resources held by the kulaks could be used for the State’s plans. In reality, this effort increased resistance, because those kulaks targeted for increased taxation saw that they were next to face banishment. Moreover, non-kulak peasants who resisted participation in the collective farm system were given the same treatment under the classification of “subkulaks.” Anyone could potentially fall victim to the process, and so the rest of the peasantry shifted from participants in the action against the kulaks into at least potential opponents of the regime. By the end of 1930, there had been about 14,000 protests and uprisings.
Predictably, this resulted in a violent crackdown during 1931. According to official records, more than 20,000 were executed, and the deportation of kulak families proceeded. Nearly two million people were sent away for resettlement; without adequate food and warmth, many perished en route or shortly after arrival at their designated destination. Based, too, on official records, nearly half a million are unaccounted for by 1932. The records do not provide direct data on how many of these losses are due to death, and how many represent escapes, but localized data support the projection of roughly 300,000 deaths (Werth, page 155).
The mass deportation of kulaks was only ended by the completion of the collectivization drive; the conditions of the surviving deportees changed gradually as a result of economic and political realities. First of all, the deportation of kulaks ultimately proved to have no economic value. The costs associated with deportation were higher than the average value of goods seized from kulak families, while harsh climate and the absence of useful tools and adequate food and shelter ensured that the survivors of hastily-created settlements in Siberia were able to contribute little to the State’s coffers. Eventually, many of the most distant settlements were abandoned, and deportees were transferred into industrial work. Of those that remained in remote villages, the Second World War changed their circumstances significantly. Even men from politically suspect origins could be drafted into military service as losses mounted. After the war, these villages ceased to be governed as work camps.
The Soviet suppression of the kulaks was typical of Stalinism. It began as an effort to enhance the power and resources of the State, couched in ideological terms. It was carried out at first in a wildly disorganized form, with excesses that alarmed even the leadership. Efforts to regularize the repression served to increase dissatisfaction and raise the human toll. In the end, it served only to increase central control, with all intended economic benefits being lost, and the arrival of the Second World War effectively ended this war on a segment of the Soviet population.
Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. Free Press, 1994.
Medvedev, Roy. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. Columbia, 1989.
Werth, Nicolas. “A State Against Its People” in Courtois, Stephane et al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard, 1999.
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