Soviet Collectivization: A Historiographical Essay

In the 1920s, following the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War, the leader of the Bolsheviks Vladimir Lenin distanced the newly formed government from the policies of War Communism through a series of decrees.  Under War Communism, the Bolshevik Party practiced class warfare against the peasants and justified the use of force to carry out grain requisitioning.  Although this led to repression and sparked violent disturbances in the countryside, the Bolsheviks relied on these methods to retain power and win the war.  The violence caused by War Communism convinced Lenin that a new economic approach was needed and he instituted a series of economic concessions known as the New Economic Policy (NEP).  For the peasants, NEP replaced grain requisitions with a fixed grain tax and allowed peasants to sell grain at free-market prices.[1]  Although NEP improved the economy and benefitted the peasants, many Bolsheviks viewed NEP as a retreat from the October Revolution and characterized it as a policy that permitted the bourgeoisie to again dominate Russian society.  To ward off these arguments Lenin insisted that a hostile peasantry would doom the revolution and thus concessions, however unpalatable, were indispensable to stabilizing the economy.

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, the Politburo witnessed much debate, infighting, and factional alliances over the issue of NEP.  While all Bolsheviks believed in the eventual collectivization of agriculture, they differed in approach.  The Rightist faction headed by Nikolai Bukharin favored a slow approach towards collectivization and wanted to maintain NEP policies.  On the other hand, the faction headed by Joseph Stalin took a more militant view towards the peasants wanted to institute collectivization quickly; moreover, Stalin regarded the peasants’ preference for selling to private buyers at higher prices than those offered by the state as undermining the state’s modernization efforts.  As Bukharin’s faction failed to propose an alternative method to rapid collectivization, Stalin, backed by the majority of the Politburo, claimed popular support from workers and poor peasants to launch the collectivization of Soviet agriculture.

Collectivization was the first of Stalin’s “socialist offensives” that sought to modernize the Soviet state from above, which at the time was 80 percent rural, and he specifically targeted the “rich” peasants, or kulaks, as an anti-Soviet class in 1929.[2]  Through the mobilization of local party committees, political police, internal security forces, volunteer military forces, and urban workers to enforce collectivization, these shock troops destroyed the system of private land use in the country-side and created large state administered agricultural farms.  Peasants and villages were organized either into state farm administrations, known as sovkhozy, which were owned outright by the state and paid peasant farmers as hired labor, or volunteer co-operative collective farms called kolkhozy.  The collectivization campaign was brutal and aroused strong peasant resistance, and while the Soviet state often couched this resistance in terms of kulaks fighting against socialism, most historians agree that resistance was widespread.

Stalin’s collectivization drive from 1929 to1940 is often characterized as a war, or an offensive, and this war has often drawn the attention of historians.  Framed in this aggressive language, the historiography of collectivization can largely be broken down into two categories – those studies examining the state and actions it took to carry out collectivization and the scholarship focusing on the peasantry and the peasant reactions to collectivization.  Within these two larger categories, interpretation and emphasis vary, but the scholarship can largely be categorized as either revisionist or post revisionist.  The early revisionist scholars challenged the totalitarian model of interpretation prevalent during the early Cold War period; however, they still overtly focus on the state.  On the other hand, second wave revisionists explore the dynamic interaction between state and society.  The third model of interpretation focusing on collectivization is the radical social model which seeks to remove the state from the interpretation of collectivization and focus specifically on society.  This essay will review the English language interpretations of collectivization and examine the larger trends in the historiography.  At the conclusion, it will offer suggestions for further study.

The first major works on Soviet collectivization focus on the state and the policies and methods the state used to carry out collectivization.  Mostly written prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of Russian archives, this scholarship relies heavily on official documents released by the Soviet Government and state backed journals, newspapers, and publications.  Based on these official state sources, these historians investigate state mechanisms and depict the actions of Politburo members and the nameless bureaucrats who instituted and enforced the collectivization policy.  This revisionist model does not exclude peasant society and the violence that occurred during the implementation of collectivization; however, it does depict peasant society as a static featureless object which is shaped by the state.  Although the revisionist interpretations center their analysis on state level decision making, the majority of these historians reject the totalitarian model of Soviet scholarship that dominated the field during the early years of the Cold War and reveal the debate and interaction within the Politburo and the ability of mid-level bureaucrats to take independent action.  By rejecting the totalitarian model, these scholars are characterized as revisionist and often attempt to rehabilitate both Lenin and Bukharin while still firmly denouncing Stalinist practices.  The earliest studies within this framework are Moshe Lewin’s Russian Peasants and Soviet Power and R.W. Davies’ The Socialist Offensive.  Both of these studies examine the grain crisis of 1927-1928, Stalin’s preference for state methods of grain requisition, and the development and implementation of collectivization and rapid industrialization.[3]

As the first comprehensive English language study of collectivization, Lewin’s study examines peasant society in the countryside, the debate within the Politburo to undertake the collectivization drive, and the initial execution of collectivization policy.  Lewin’s objective in this study is to show that collectivization was not an inevitable outcome of the 1927-1928 grain crisis and that other results were possible.  Lewin examines the policies of the Left under Trotsky which emphasized pre-planning for socialization and favored industry over agriculture but not to the extent that Stalin finally implemented.  He also depicts the concepts proposed by Bukharin and the Rightist which advocated for fostering social revolution in the countryside to compliment the urban revolution, but revive War Communism.  However, both these factions lost out to Stalin and his supporters who viewed the grain crisis of 1927-1928 as problem created by the peasants, particularly kulaks, who speculated in grain prices rather than sell to the state.  Setting up the peasants as a class enemy, these individuals wanted to combat the peasants by instituting collectivization and industrialization.

By depicting this debate, Lewin’s interpretation is successful in displaying that collectivization was not an inevitable process and that alternatives were suggested; however, he does maintains some of the totalitarian thinking even going so far as to declare Stalin’s government a “totalitarian dictatorship.”[4]  Lewin describes Stalin as the violent force behind collectivization who demanded that local authorities apply more “fiscal and other pressure” onto the kulaks and characterizing those that did not as “deviationists.”[5]  Lewin also sets out to utilize the new methods of social history and meticulously describes peasant life prior to collectivization, but then switches his focus back to the state and the development of collectivization policy.  This organization allows the state to dominate his study leaving only a brief final chapter to discuss the effects of collectivization and dekulakization.  In this chapter, he does briefly discuss methods of peasant resistance, but he does not place peasant actions into the context of peasant society.  Rather, these are immediate actions taken by the peasants as the collectivization policy was enacted by the Soviet state.  Lewin’s analysis is sympathetic to Trotsky and the Leftists and views Stalin as the corrupter of communism – he utilized the mild ideas of Trotsky and warped them into the violence of collectivization, resulting in a totalitarian dictatorship.

R.W. Davies’ The Socialist Offensive follows the familiar path established by Lewin in examining the development of collectivization, but Davies adds an additional year to his study.  In Davies’ introduction, he writes that collectivization was “the formidable and heroic effort of men and women to shape their own destiny by a comprehensive state plan acquired tragic and ironic qualities”[6]  However, this effort did not result in a communist utopia, but rather, as Davies concedes, famine, large income discrepancies, the increased use of force, and a political dictatorship.  Explaining this outcome is the author’s objective.  He does this by following the familiar ground covered by Lewin and other scholars of Soviet agriculture readdressing the grain crises, the introduction of the Ural-Siberian method, the Politburo decision to undertake collectivization, and the state’s actions towards the peasantry.[7]  Yet, while Lewin focuses on Stalin and blames him for the orgy of violence during collectivization, Davies finds fault with the mid-level bureaucrats operating in the provinces.  Davies states that the general enthusiasm for collectivization in the press along with the support from the central party led “district officials to adopt more ambitious plans.”[8]  This leads Davies to claim that collectivization was not a “top down” revolution but rather a revolution “from below” as these local officials overzealously carried out Politburo’s plans.  Although he appropriates the language of social history, his focus largely remains on the state administration and is best described as a social history of the party and the actions it took to institute collectivization.

Ultimately, Davies’ study attempts to defend the “heroic” men of the Politburo who set out to industrialize the Soviet Union.  He characterizes the Politburo as “men with limited formal education, certainly with little knowledge of economics, whose previous experiences of crisis was acquired during the bitter class battles of the Civil War.”[9]  This description virtually excuses the Politburo for the violence of collectivization because they were uneducated and ignorant of economic theory and, while this might be a fair description, these uneducated individuals took it upon themselves to implement collectivization, thus making them responsible for their actions.  Moreover, Davies assertion that mid-level bureaucrats were overenthusiastic during the collectivization drive is supported by other scholars, but the Politburo is equally at fault as it did not immediately pull on the reigns when collectivization went beyond their expectations.  Rather, they permitted mid-level bureaucrats be enthusiastic until Stalin issued his “Dizzy with Success” article months later.  These attempts to absolve the Soviet leadership clearly mark Davies as a sympathetic leftist historian who supports the basic tenets of socialism.

In stark contrast to Davies work, Robert Conquest pulls no punches in his study Harvest of Sorrow which critically attacks revisionist minded scholars for denying the full extent of Soviet policies.  With this mindset, Conquest reverts back to the totalitarian paradigm laying the blame for the terror-famine at the feet of Stalin.  Conquest’s study is divided into three sections which display the development of Bolshevik antipathy towards the peasantry during the period of War Communism, the decision to collectivize and punish the peasantry during the grain crisis of 1928-1929, and the implementation of the terror-famine to collect grain and punish the peasantry for their past intransigence towards the state.  Conquest particularly focuses his study around the famine in the Ukraine, known as the Holodomor, which he declares was a deliberate act of mass murder and therefore genocide.  Although most historians agree that the terror-famine was a consequence of state hostility towards the peasantry, some scholars do reject this premise and suggest that the 1932 harvest was much smaller than official numbers state which exacerbated the already hostile requisition process.[10]

While the Holodomor plays a central role in Conquest’s study, his larger interpretation asserts that ideology was the key motivation for the terror-famine as Stalin, the Politburo, and the mid-level bureaucrats were all ideologically driven to collectivize and punish the peasantry.  Moreover, Conquest rejects the arguments put forth by Lewin and Davies that alternatives to rapid collectivization existed.  Instead, Conquest writes that the Rightist did not attempt to resist Stalin because they were already beaten and that even Bukharin “urged ‘the offensive against the kulaks.’”[11]  Overall, Conquest’s interpretation of the famine assumes that Stalin was able to implement his vision across the Soviet Union, an argument which most scholars now reject.  As James Hughes shows in his study on Siberia discussed below, local party officials largely did as they saw fit, often ignored the threats from Moscow, and negotiated for themselves and their regions in Moscow.

Shortly after Conquest’s study, historian Shelia Fitzpatrick sparked much debate in Soviet history by calling for a radical reconsideration of the Stalinist period.  She voiced her dissatisfaction with those studies that asserted the primacy of politics and advocated for the study of Soviet Society.  In a widely read and discussed address at the Third World Congress of Slavic Studies in 1985, Fitzpatrick acknowledged that previous scholarship discussed Soviet society’s reactions to state policies stating “Some studies also deal with resentful social responses to state intervention . . . But this is the only kind of social response that is generally discussed, and Social processes unrelated to state intervention are virtually absent from the literature.”[12]  She then urged social historians to rethink the social categories beyond the Stalinist breakdown of kulaks, nepmen, workers, peasants, etc; second they will need to address the issue of social mobility within society; and thirdly, explore the perspective of Soviet society “from below.”  Concluding, Fitzpatrick states that social historians have not yet significantly altered the image of the Stalinist regime as the originator of social change, but have shown that the Soviet government only had limited control over the policies it initiated.  She thus calls for social historians to write histories that remove the state in order to formulate new questions before “bringing the state back in.”[13]

Fitzpatrick’s “manifesto” provoked much though and criticism among Soviet historians, particularly first wave revisionist like Alec Nove who harshly attacks Fitzpatrick’s assertions that previous scholarship on the Stalinist era ignored social processes.  Instead, he argues that historians such as Moshe Lewin and R.W. Davies have addressed the social implications of Stalinist policies.[14]  Moreover, even second wave revisionists challenge Fitzpatrick.  As Manning states, the second wave revisionists differed with Fitzpatrick on the future direction of Soviet history and the “relationship of state and society in the Stalin era.”[15]  They challenge Fitzpatrick by calling into question her suggestion to remove the state from Soviet history and leave the study of politics in the hands of political scientist.  Instead, they point out that to understand society historians need to continue studying “political terror and its origins.”[16]

While this debate was raging within the historical profession, actual historical events soon overtook and impacted the study of Soviet history.  The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had important ramification on historical research as previously off-limits archives opened to both Russian and Western researchers.  Although many archives remain closed and restricted, the number of documents that scholars are now able access has grown significantly.  Particularly significant for historians of the pre-1953 era are the Soviet Communist Party Archive and the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History.  As this newly declassified material slowly trickles out of the archives, historians are broadening their understanding of the Soviet Union and of collectivization.  The year 1996 witnessed the publication of important studies on collectivization incorporating the second wave revisionist model and the radical social model advocated by Fitzpatrick.

One of the earliest second wave revisionists works is Lynne Viola’s study The Best Sons of the Fatherland. In this book, the author examines the Central Committee’s recruitment of mobilize twenty-five thousand proletarian volunteers to aid in the collectivization of agriculture.  Her main point is that the state’s ability to gather this many volunteers to work in the countryside for five years demonstrates that the state maintained a strong base of support in the working class.  However, after establishing these important points, her study quickly crumbles.  By focusing on the twenty-five thousand urban workers’ odyssey into the countryside, Viola gives herself the opportunity to examine the social dynamic between workers, peasants, and local officials, but she fails to take advantage of this opportunity and instead remains overly focused on the antagonistic interaction between the twenty-five thousanders and the local party officials which unfortunately excludes the peasants from her analysis.  The author’s treatment of the twenty-five thousanders as a monolithic unit also creates problems because these individuals were spread throughout the Soviet Union, making it difficult to generalize their experience.  Viola ultimately concludes that the twenty-five thousanders “successfully completed their campaign;” however, this conclusion remains in doubt.[17]  As she readily admits, five-thousand workers returned home after only several months, the majority returned back to the city after their five year commitment, and, most importantly, collectivization failed as the state retreated and granted private land to peasants.[18]  Viola’s enthusiasm for the twenty-five thousanders is evident throughout her study and she seems to empathize were their mission, making this interpretation Leftist sympathetic.

James Hughes’ 1996 study Stalinism in a Russian Province was the one of the first studies on collectivization following the Soviet collapse, and his study falls within the second wave revisionist model as he attempts to complicate the state versus peasant narrative created by the revisionist interpretations.  Instead, Hughes sets out to investigate the “nexus between, party, state and peasant, and the political and economic calculus that provided the dynamic for the while process.”[19]  Moreover, Hughes demonstrates that there was not a monolithic peasantry, but a fragmented peasant society that was susceptible to outside influence.  This leads Hughes to argue that the Stalinist revolution was not only a ‘revolution from above’ but also a ‘revolution from below.’  To explore this dual revolution, Hughes focuses on the province of Siberia which allows him a more localized understanding of collectivization’s development.  Hughes begins his study by exploring the development of the “Ural-Siberian method” of grain collection which successfully met the quotas established by Moscow.  These methods involved local activists, without state direction, organizing the middle and low-level peasants to pressure kulaks into self-taxation whereby these peasants targeted kulaks to provide the majority of the taxes and grain quotas.  Hughes describes this phenomenon as “social influence” methods which involved boycotts, pressurized debt collection, and self-taxation, but he also notes that these were methods traditionally used by communities to enforce social conformity.  Hence, the Siberian party officials just co-opted village traditions to meet the center’s grain quota.

For Hughes, the success of the Ural-Siberian method demonstrates that the peasantry was socially stratified and thus susceptible to local activists who agitated against the wealthier peasants.  Peasant society, just like urban society, contains numerous vertical and horizontal networks, including family ties, neighborhoods, and patronage networks which all influenced how peasants reacted to collectivization.  However, the success of this method resulted in pressure from the center to collect more grain and, while some local party officials protested the full implementation of these policies, Stalin demanded the policies be fully executed.  The author demonstrates that Stalin’s orders were heard and that collectivization and dekulakization were applied widely and violently.  However, these orders from the top, what Hughes calls “Stalin’s Final Solution,” undid the social influence method and resulted in the solidarity of the peasants.  The complete chaos that erupted with the execution of collectivization and dekulakization ultimately forced Stalin to relent and return to the earlier strategies of social influence.  Although, Hughes’ study furthers scholars understanding of collectivization, his concepts still need to applied more broadly as his localized study does not present the larger picture.  Ultimately, Hughes presents a nuanced study of collectivization which displays the interaction between the center and periphery, the stratification of peasant society, the role this played in collectivization and dekulakization.

Following Hughes, the study of the state’s role in collectivization went into hibernation as scholars turned their attention to peasant society; however, in 2005 Yale University published The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930 as part of its Annals of Communism Series which includes documents interspersed with the editor’s analysis.  This volume, edited by Lynne Viola, V.P. Danilov, N.A. Ivnitskii, and Denis Kozlov, asserts that collectivization was a war that sought the subjugation of the peasantry.  The early chapters trod over familiar ground focusing on the debate between Stalin and the Rightest over the proper way forward, yet the inclusion of documents reveal the debate the triumph of Stalin over the Rightists during the November 1929 Plenum (specifically documents 39-41).  The documents depicting the efforts of the OGPU and the Soviet secret police, in villages are of particular importance because they reveal the reactions of the peasants of collectivization and dekulakization.  While some poorer peasants took part in campaign against their wealthier neighbors, the editors show that most participated in acts of resistance including demonstrations, attacking party members and slaughtering livestock.[20]  Moreover, this study contains documents that articulate peasant voices and their opinions towards collectivization.  For example, a peasant father writing to his son stating “they [the state] take away everything from everyone in the village.”[21]  While its portrayal of society could be more in depth, this book deftly interweaves the narratives of state and society making it a model of the second wave revisionist interpretation and creating the best one volume book on collectivization.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the partial opening of state archives, several scholars attempted to follow Fitzpatrick’s call to study society by focusing on the peasantry during the Stalinist era.  However, in terms of collectivization, these studies similarly focus on resistance, and can be divided into those who argue for large-scale resistance by the peasantry and those who argue for low-scale resistance.  The first major contribution to the resistance model is Shelia Fitzpatrick’s Stalin’s Peasants which exams peasant life throughout the 1930s. Adopting the radical social model, her objective in this study is to explore the range of strategies peasants used to cope with collectivization and to modify the kolkhoz to serve their purposes.  Fitzpatrick employs a subaltern methodology to analyze the Russian peasantry because they were “the objects of aggression and exploitation by superordinate institutions and individuals.”[22]  In her understanding, subaltern methods are those strategies used by weak people to protect themselves from one another and the strong, or how some who takes orders tries to get want they want.

With her wide range of research, Fitzpatrick shows how peasants practiced traditional methods of resistance to collectivization as discussed by James C. Scott, including working slowly, pretending to not understand instructions, showing up for work late, and lacking initiative.  Moreover, many peasants self-dekulakized and abandoned the rural village for the growing towns and cities.  This population transfer is particularly important for Fitzpatrick and she asserts that it reveals the process of social mobility in the Soviet Union, even as it came following the devastation and violence of collectivization.  Following the famine in 1933, she shows that peasants largely abandoned active resistance and instead debated with state officials over the size of private garden or the use of horses for personal reasons.  Her research also shows that many peasants retained grudges from collectivization, particularly the former kulaks who resented the bedniaks cooperation with the collectivizers.  Although far from comprehensive, Fitzpatrick’s study clearly reveals how peasants coped with collectivization and attempted to reconstruct their lives following the state’s war against the peasants.

While Fitzpatrick’s study takes a broad view of collectivization and resistance during the 1930s, several scholars have focused on specific demographics response to collectivization.  Broadening on her article “Bab’I Bunty and Peasant Women’s Protest during Collectivization” which demonstrates the strategies adopted by peasant women to protest collectivization, Lynne Viola explored other methods of peasant resistance in her book Peasant Rebels Under Stalin.  In this study, Viola strongly claims that Western scholars have thus far failed to address peasant resistance and instead have continued to characterize the peasantry as a “passive and inert” group.  Moreover, she discounts the scholarship of both Fitzpatrick and Hughes without addressing the arguments they put forth on peasant resistance.[23]  Viola’s discussion focuses on numerous forms of resistance.  The first acts of peasant resistance were passive techniques including rumors, dekulakization, letter writing, and Ludditism (the destroying of tools, crops, and farm animals); however, when these methods failed, the peasants turned to active resistance including banditry, beatings, murder, and arson.

By centering her analysis on resistance, Viola asserts on multiple occasions that the peasants were a singular entity, using words like solidarity, homogeneity, unity, and cohesion to describe the peasantry.  However, previous scholars have clearly shown that the peasants were not a uniform collective and were also socially stratified.  Without this stratification, the social-influence method of collectivization would have failed.   Like Hughes, Viola posits that peasant resistance is as much “a study of the peasant as it is a study of the state” and notes that peasant violence as a threat to the regime and garnered state reaction.[24]  Yet, Viola fails to show how the state reacted to large-scale protests and violence.  In this study, Viola attempts to distances herself from the language of earlier studies which exhibit collectivization as a state verses peasantry dichotomy, but she notes that this difficult because this viewpoint was held by the peasants themselves and thus a tool of resistance rather than a socio-political construct.[25]

Besides peasant resistance to collectivization, there were other parts of the Soviet state which practiced resistance to collectivization.  Roger Reese shows that the Red Army did not willingly take part in collectivization and, while the Red Army did have a role in collectivization, they did not hold a pro-Stalinist position and favored gradual collectivization.  Reese shows that the Red Army’s reluctance to support collectivization stemmed from the fact that many of the enlisted soldiers were peasants and these soldiers were unwilling to violently destroy the social structure in which they grew up under; moreover, their refusal to enforce grain requisition policies was often not punished because the officers feared that this would result in uprisings.  Other reasons for the Red Army’s reluctance to support collectivization included, peasant families disowning their sons for encouraging collectivization and soldier-run collective farms were unsuccessful.  These factors left the Red Army ambivalent towards collectivization and made their loyalty questionable.  This questionable loyalty left Stalin unwilling to fully enlist the army in the collectivization drive which perhaps answers the question why the party recruited 25,000 proletarian workers to be the “shock troops” of collectivization.

While resistance has been the dominant form of scholarship on collectivization since the social turn, several scholars have recently questioned the idea of wide-spread peasant resistance.  In Shelia Fitzpatrick’s article “The Question of Social Support for Collectivization,” she suggests that there was support for collectivization in the peasant villages.[26]  According to Fitzpatrick, during the 1920s, many young peasants supported the new regime and were active in the Cultural Revolution which attempted to change peasant society, particularly through attacks on the church.  These individuals were also supportive of collectivization; however, by 1929, these individuals had “self-liquidated” by taking moving into growing towns and cities of the Soviet Union.  The absence of these individuals left only those peasants that rejected collectivization.  On the other hand, Mark Tauger asserts that the scholarships focus “on opposition, rebellion, and resistance” minimizes the extent to which peasants adapted to the new system.[27]  While Tauger acknowledges that resistance was a common response to collectivization and the violence was prevalent, he instead challenges the resistance interpretation and argues that the majority of peasants adjusted to the new system.  To support this argument, Tauger musters environmental and harvest data which shows that peasants repeatedly overcame famine to produce some of the largest harvests of the 1930s writing that peasants “demonstrated their ability . . . to overcome adversity even at great cost, and to produce harvests that ended in famines.”[28]  Tauger’s argument based on agricultural data therefore rejects the resistance interpretation as one-sided and stereotyped version of peasants during collectivization.  This interpretation is Leftist and while Tauger is probably correct in that peasants adapted to collectivization, his focus on agricultural data fails to show that adaptation was a popular reaction to state policy.

Although the majority of studies on collectivization focus on Russia and the Ukraine, scholars are starting to devote their efforts to examining how collectivization played out in Central Asia.  Scholarship on collectivization in Central Asia falls under the second wave revisionist model as historians integrate the state and society into their narrative.  Since the opening of some archives in 1991, research into Central Asia under the Soviet Union remains scarce.  However, there are several articles and book chapters that explore the issue of collectivization in Central Asia; moreover, these scholars all take a national approach to collectivization while acknowledging that the Central Asian states were still Russian/Soviet constructions that many indigenous peoples did not recognized in the 1930s.  Collectivization in Central Asia also proves unique in that the state was dealing with mostly nomadic peoples rather than peasants.  Finally, the largest theme in the study of collectivization in Central Asia focuses on resistance with little discussion of role played by local officials.

Martha Olcott examines the Soviet interest in collectivizing Kazakhstan, the costs of collectivization and the magnitude of resistance.[29]  Olcott suggests that Kazakhstan was important because collectivization was to be accompanied by increasing cultivization acreage, thus increasing the food supply and exports.  However, collectivization in Central Asia proved a challenge for the Soviet authorities as they attempted to turn nomadic tribes into sedentary peoples leading many to flee the region and resume their nomadic existence, a point supported by Niccolo Pianciola.[30]  Moreover, Soviet officials neglected Kazak collective farms by failing to provide them with grain seed, tools, and technical advice.  Those people who did enter collective farms were placed on agricultural cooperatives known as TOZs in which only land and labor were common.  While Olcott mentions that resistance was widespread throughout Central Asia, she states that Soviet actions against resistance in Kazakhstan were punitive.  This issue is taken up by Pianciola who suggests that the Soviets enacted an “annihilation” policy against the Kazaks by not only withholding grain from nomadic peoples but also forcing them to trade their livestock for grain – thus depriving them of their means of survival.[31]

In her study of Turkmenistan, Adrienne Edgar notes in her chapter on collectivization that Turkmenistan witnessed “the worst outbreaks of anticollectivization violence.”[32]  The peoples making up the region of Turkmenistan were wary of collectivization from the start as they remembered the famines of 1917 and 1920 that derived from overplanting cotton.  Thus when collectivization started, villagers demonstrated, rebels attacked institutions and representatives of Soviet power, and nomads fled beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.[33]  While these actions were similar throughout Central Asia, what made Turkmenistan unique, according to Edgar, was the banding together of tribesmen to fight the OGPU.  This created chaos throughout the region and required a “massive show of military force” on the Soviet’s part to finally end the violence.  While the peoples of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were nomadic, the Uzbeks were a relatively sedentary people which, according to Kathryn Dooley, made collectivization in Uzbekistan unique to other Central Asian republics.  In fact, Dooley posits that collectivization in Uzbekistan was similar to the process in Russia, but also had its own distinctiveness, including Islamic heritage and a collection of local cadres.  This resulted in competition between the Soviet state and local Uzbek cadres which created space for individuations to resist, subvert, co-opt, and collaborate.[34]

One of the most important issues that arises from all of these studies is that collectivization was costly and violent event in Soviet history and resulted in millions of deaths; however, even in calculating the violence of collectivization, scholars are conflicted.  In a series of short articles by Steven Rosefielde, Stephen Wheatcroft, Robert Conquest, and Stephen Cohen, these scholars debate the question: how many individuals died as result of collectivization? Rosefielde kicked off the debate by utilizing new official census numbers to estimate 5.7 million dead to collectivization, a number within the accepted Western standard deviation;[35] however, Wheatcroft harshly criticizes Rosefielde for taking Soviet statistics at face value and points out that some Western estimates near 20 million, much higher than Rosefielde states.[36]  In a rejoinder to Wheatcroft, Rosefielde points out that many of Wheatcroft’s assertions are incorrect because he was looking at the wrong set of statistics; moreover, he states that while his numbers do not solve all debates, they emphasizes that more deaths occurred than the Soviet state attributed to collectivization.[37]  Dragged into the debate by Rosefielde and Wheatcroft, Robert Conquest and Stephen Cohen both assert that they are misrepresented and that their writings are being used inappropriately to support rather weak positions.[38] Ultimately, these scholars fail to reach an understanding concerning the number of individuals who died due to collectivization; however, they do show that the number of deaths is much higher than those admitted by the Soviet state.  More, importantly, these historians also depict the difficulty working with Soviet documents as official numbers were never accurate to begin with and often manipulated to serve other purposes.  For all intents and purposes, the exact numbers will never be known, but the difference between 5 million and 20 million is importance and worth debating.

Scholars have been examining collectivization in the Soviet Union for several decades now and each era has brought forth new interpretative frameworks.  During the 1960s, the revisionist scholars emerged to challenge the totalitarian model, and they emphasized the debates within the politburo pointing out that collectivization was not inevitable.  They also harkened back to Lenin and Trotsky pointing out that collectivization was not a result of Stalin and was not an inherent feature of socialism.  However, the revisionists’ depiction of the peasantry as a uniform social unit failed to address the social stratification within the peasantry and the peasants’ reactions to collectivization.  This led a new generation of scholars to incorporate society into the collectivization narrative.  Second wave revisionists continued examining the state, but they also revealed the latitude of local officials to implement collectivization policies; moreover, they showed the interaction between state and society during this process, revealing through state documents some the methods peasants used to protest or resist collectivization.  Second wave revisionists also explored the implementation of collectivization beyond the borders of Russia and depicted how the geography, religion, and history of Central Asia resulted in problems not seen in Russia while at the same time displaying many similarities.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of selected archives, historians have started focusing more on peasant society during collectivization.  Using the theories of the subaltern along with James C. Scotts work on peasant resistance, these studies examine the numerous ways peasants’ resisted collectivization.  These studies depict both passive and active forms of resistance and also reveal how the social stratification of the peasantry also played an important role in collectivization.  The resistance model challenges the revisionist model that characterized the peasantry as an inert societal unit that did not react to collectivization.  However, these studies do continue to treat the peasantry as a singular unit and fail to account for how the regional and local differences affected the collectivization process.  This particularly evident in Central Asia where local history, religion, geography led to both similar and different responses to collectivization compared to Russia.  Moreover, scholars are now questioning how widespread resistance actually was throughout the Soviet Union.  These historians contend some peasants adjusted to the new system by adapting to conditions or many younger peasants moved to larger and towns and cities.  These are important issues, but the scholarship on the subject of peasant resistance still requires further research.

Ultimately, the history of collectivization from the state’s perspectives is fairly well studied and numerous works mentioned above depict the debate within the Politburo, the defeat of the Rightists, and the implementation of the policies.  For future historians seeking to further historical knowledge in collectivization have several open avenues of research.  First, while James Hughes has provided an excellent study of collectivization in Siberia, there is room for more regional and local studies which would broaden the research on collectivization.  Moreover, this would allow for a more comparative approach permitting scholars to compare and contrast how local and regional differences affected the implementation of collectivization.  Secondly, there is much more research needed on collectivization in Central Asia.  While the above historians have provided a foundation, these studies provide only a hint of how collectivization was actually implemented.  The differing traditions, ethnicities, and religions make this region especially fruitful for future research.  Finally, historians need to explore the affect of collectivization on urban centers.  As some of the scholars above discussed, collectivization resulted in millions of individuals abandoning the village for larger urban areas, but there is little research describing how the urban centers reacted to this transition.  For those scholars interested in understanding the social mobility that occurred as a result of Stalinist practices, the massive population shift that took place during collectivization is still awaiting a historian.  Thus, while collectivization has been examined by several scholars, there is still much research waiting to be done which will help historians broaden and deepen our understanding of Soviet collectivization.


[1] Alan Ball, “Building a New State and Society: NEP, 1921-1928,” in Ronald Grigor Suny, ed., The Cambridge History of Russia. 1st ed. Vol. 3. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 169.

[2] David R. Shearer “Stalinism, 1928-1940,” in Ronald Grigor Suny, ed., The Cambridge History of Russia. 1st ed. Vol. 3. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 192.

[3] Roberta T. Manning, “State and Society in Stalinist Russia,” Russian Review, Vol. 46 No. 4 (October, 1987), 407.

[4] Moshe Lewin, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 517.

[5] Lewin, 233.

[6] R.W. Davies, The Socialist Offensive, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), xiii.

[7] See also Naum Jasney, The Socialized Agriculture of the USSR: Plans and Performance, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1949); Barrington Moore, Jr., Terror and Progress – USSR: Some Sources of Change and Stability in the Soviet Dictatorship, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954).

[8] Davies, 133.

[9] Davies, 398.

[10] See Mark Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933,” Slavic Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1991), pp. 70-89.

[11] Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrows, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 93.

[12] Shelia Fitzpatrick, “New Perspectives on Stalinism,” Russian Review, Vol. 45, No. 4 (October, 1986), 359.

[13] Ibid, 373.

[14] Alec Nove, “Stalinism: Revisionism Reconsidered,” Russian Review, Vol. 46 No. 4 (October, 1987), pp. 412-417.

[15] Manning, 408.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lynne Viola, The Best Sons of the Fatherland, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 214.

[18] Ibid.

[19] James Hughes, Stalinism in a Russia Province, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 209.

[20] Lynne Viola; V. P. Danilov; N. A. Ivnitskii; Denis Kozlov; Steven Shabad, The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2005), 197, 247.

[21] Ibid., 136.

[22] Shelia Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 5.

[23] Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4.

[24] Ibid., 11.

[25] Ibid., 12.

[26] Shelia Fitzpatrick, “The Question of Social Support for Collectivization,” Russian History, Vol. 37, No. 2 (April, 2010), pp. 153-177.  This was originally published in Russian as “Vopros sotsial’noi podderzhki kollektivizatsii”

in Otechestvennaia istoriia XX veka: ekonomicheskaia, politicheskaia i sotsial’naia zhizn’.V pamiati V.Z. Drobizheva , ed. Efi m Pivovar (Moscow: Tentr teoreticheskikh problemistoricheskoi nauki MGU, 2004).

[27] Mark Tauger, “Soviet Peasants and Collectivization, 1930-1939: Resistance and Adaption,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 31 No. 3 (September, 2010), 427.

[28] Ibid., 450.

[29] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Collectivization Drive in Kazakhstan,” Russian Review, Vol. 40 No. 2 (April, 1981), 122, 123.

[30] Niccolo Paianciola, trans. Susan Finnel, “Famine in the Steppe: The Collectivization of agriculture and the Kazak herdsmen, 1928-1934,” Cahiers du Monde russe, Vol. 45 No. 1-2, Strategies imperials: Expansion, colonization, integration, conversation (Jan.-June, 2004), pp 137-191.

[31] Niccolo Pianciola, “The Collectivization Famine in Kazakhstan, 1931-1933,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 25 No. 3-4 (Fall, 2001), 246.

[32] Adrienne Edgar, Tribal Nation, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 197.

[33] Ibid., 203.

[34] Kathryn Dooley, “Stalinist Policies, Indigenous Agents, and Peasant Actors: Negotiating Collectivization in Uzbekistan, 1929-1932,” M.A. Thesis (University of Oregon, 2009).

[35] Steven Rosefielde, “Excess Collectivization Deaths 1929-1933: New Demographic Evidence,” Slavic Review, Vol. 43 No. 1 (Spring, 1984), 83-88.

[36] Stephen G. Wheatcroft, “New Demographic Evidence on Excess Collectivization Deaths: Yet Another Kliukva from Steven Rosefielde?,” Slavic Review, Vol. 44 No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), 505-508.

[37] Steven Rosenfielde, “New Demographic Evidence on Collectivization Deaths: A Rejoinder to Stephen Wheatcroft,” Slavic Review, Vol. 44 No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), 509-516.

[38] Robert Conquest, Stephen Cohen, and Stephen G. Wheatcroft “New Demographic Evidence on Excess Collectivization Deaths: Further Comments on Wheatcroft, Rosefielde, Anderson and Silver,” Slavic Review, Vol. 45 No. 2 (Summer, 1986), 295-299.

3 thoughts on “Soviet Collectivization: A Historiographical Essay

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  2. Conquest himself disavowed his work “Harvest of Sorrow”, about the famine of 1932-33 which was due to drought and so poor harvests, but associated with collectivization, well after its claims were debunked by numerous historians. Until collectivization, famines occurred in Russia every 3-4 years. After collectivization, there was a postwar famine, but none since collectivization.

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