A review of Reform in the Time of Stalin: Nikita Khrushchev and the Fate of the Russian Peasantry, by Auri Berg.
Over the last decade historians of the Soviet Union have turned their gaze to the postwar years. This rich literature, however, delineates soviet life from the perspective of Moscow, Leningrad and a handful of provincial cities. With the exception of a few dissertations and a random chapter here and there, little has been published in English on soviet postwar rural society. From this corpus, an uninformed reader would never suspect that the majority of the soviet population lived in the countryside until 1959.
Auri Berg’s dissertation serves as a good corrective to this dearth. It adds to an emerging literature on the attempts of the soviet state to gain control over the countryside after collectivization. This literature includes Sheila Fitzpatrick, Mark Tauger, Jean Lévesque, and to some extent my own work. A study of the life of collective farmers offers historians a different understanding of late Stalinism as experienced by the majority of the population. In the postwar years most collective farmers still occupied pre-revolutionary houses, dwelled with their pigs and chickens throughout winter and could not leave their villages in spring and autumn for the lack of roads. Without roads they were also largely outside the state’s purview – they enlarged their private plots without external intervention, until 1948 there were few consequences to not showing up to work and though collective farmers did not have passports they nonetheless found employment elsewhere during the winter months. In short, the collective farms of the late 1940s and early 1950s were not the modern mechanized agriculture than Lenin had envisioned.
Berg captures an episode in postwar agrarian politics that is little known to non-specialists: the 1950-51 collective farm amalgamation campaign in which the number of soviet collective farms shrank from 252,146 to 99,400 farms. The significance of this campaign to the central administration of collective farms was immeasurable. While until 1950 the vast majority of collective farms were organic village communities, which Sheila Fitzpatrick calls “collectivized villages” (Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization [New York: Oxford University Press, 1994], pp. 10-16, 103-127), most post-amalgamation farms (87.4%) consisted of two to four former farms and some combined as many as ten farms. The new amalgamated collective farm stretched for kilometers on end, often with swamps, forests and rivers separating communities within the same farm. Berg writes of collective farms stretching for four hundred kilometers (p. 165), chairmen who complained that the terrain of their newly constructed farms was impassable in spring and fall and they could not acquire information about the other villages, let alone visit them (p. 194). Needless to say these new collective farms could no longer hold general meetings, discuss and make decisions as one community. Farm chairmen governed populations they did not know and field brigade leaders acquired responsibility over workers working in distant fields.
What brought about this strangely destructive policy? Berg uses James Scott’s concept of authoritarian high modernism to explain the drive to amalgamate collective farms. According to Scott modern states simplify the complexity of the real world in order to make societies governable. Indeed, Berg shows that as early as 1935 district officials complained that the enormous number of collective farms per district made governance impossible. Some were attempting to administer as many as four hundred collective farms (pp. 40-41). Berg shows that until 1950 provinces lacked coherent maps of the districts’ agricultural lands and regional leaders did not know the number of cattle of each farm. Planners designed the amalgamation campaign to render the countryside more “legible” by correcting boundaries between farms, reducing the number of farms and thus the amount of paperwork, and making surveillance of collective farm administration easier. Moreover, a modernist vision propelled the Bolsheviks since the early 1920s to push for larger farm. After all, larger farms were thought to be more prosperous for they used agricultural machinery more efficiently, the state could provide services such as schools, postal deliveries, electricity and radio cheaper. Of course, a smaller number of farms also allowed the state to send “reliable leaders” from the center rather than relying on local chairmen which collective farmers preferred. Berg shows, however, that a combination of political intrigue, lack of resources and collective farmers’ resistance made the amalgamation campaign less than successful.
Berg’s dissertation is divided into five chapters.
The first chapter traces the idea of amalgamated farms to the Bolshevik modernizing impulse. Like other European socialists and many Americans, the Bolsheviks believed that modernizing agricultural production required economies of scale. Though the ultimate goal of collectivization was to establish large industrial collective farms, these large farms failed in the last instance. As Mark Tauger and Viktor Danilov have shown, peasants preferred collective farms which “inherited” the membership, traditions and agricultural tools of the former commune (Viktor P. Danilov, Rural Russia under the New Regime [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988], p. 202; Mark B. Tauger, “Commune to Kolkhoz: Soviet Collectivization and the Transformation of Communal Peasant Farming, 1930-1941,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1991, pp. 135-141).
Chapter 2 captures Nikita Khrushchev’s modernist policies as party chief in Ukraine in 1949-50. Khrushchev, according to Berg, was driven by a strong belief in the need to transform the “peasant way of life” according to scientific principles of human health and behavior. The chapter examines the construction of agrotowns (agrogorod) in Ukraine and the amalgamation of Ukrainian collective farms. It shows that the impulse behind both policies was an attempt to improve the quality of farm leadership, to eliminate economically weak farms and to create the conditions necessary to provide farm populations with a water supply, a sewage system and electricity. The chapter concludes with a section on Khrushchev’s efforts to amalgamate collective farms in Moscow Province after he had been assigned there to “pull [Moscow’s collective farms] out of the ditch” (p. 79).
Chapter 3 explores the debates surrounding the all-union amalgamation from February 1950 until September 1951. Berg exposes two distinct visions of the campaign: on the one hand, Khrushchev and the majority of provincial and district administrators called for state investment in resettling populations living in small villages into the main farm center. In 1950 provincial administrators expressed their belief that “small collectives were beyond the orbit of Soviet culture”: they were run by “inexperienced local villagers,” suffered from “many infractions against the collective farm charter” and “weak labor and government discipline” (p. 90). On the other side of the debate were Moscow’s party leadership and in particular Georgii Malenkov and Aleksei Kozlov who argued for a minimal plan restricted to administrative amalgamation. Interestingly, their argument also shed light on the limited influence Moscow had on collective farm housing. Not only did they consider the resettlement plan as too expensive, but Kozlov argued that the resolutions of state planners were “meaningless” because “collective farm construction was the exclusive responsibility of the farms themselves” (pp. 94-95).
Chapter 4 moves on to investigate the amalgamation campaign as implemented in Arkhangelsk Province. Berg shows that while the main rationalization of the national campaign was to improve farm leadership, in Arkhangelsk the campaign was designed to solve labor shortages. The chapter explores the difficulties faced by the provincial administration in planning the campaign, and its end result: an amalgamated collective farm. This farm was characterized by one Central Committee official as “a collection of collective farms, bundled together under a single leadership. The brigades have not changed; nor has the technology, the labor force, the horses; you sow just as you always have, and you plow for the winter just the same… There is no unified collective” (p. 146).
Chapter 5 discusses the problems that the amalgamation campaign failed to resolve as well as those it created. It explores provincial leaders’ plea for central directives and Stalin’s initial refusal to take a stand, a position which he changed only after Khrushchev’s well known 1951 Pravda article. It was only after Khrushchev called for the transformation of the peasants’ way of life that Stalin decided to support Malenkov’s minimalist plan against what he called Khrushchev’s “consumerist” approach. The chapter shows the result of the application of the minimalist plan, including the difficulties chairmen and brigade leaders faced managing newly formed farms and their inability to convene general meetings and the consequent violations of kolkhoz democracy.
Berg’s dissertation shows how the attempt to make the collective farm landscape legible to central and regional administration resulted in utter chaos on the local collective farm level. Rather than improving the ability of soviet administration to govern collective farms, amalgamation undermined chairmen’s control over their farms’ population. This was a brilliant game of magical numbers – the campaign dramatically increased the percentage of communist party members among collective farm chairmen, their average level of education, the average number of households per farm, etc. But this pretty picture of progress was little more than an illusion.
Department of History
State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)
Russian state archive of the Economy (RGAE)
Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI)
Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI)
Central Archive of Socio-Political History of Moscow (TsAOPIM)
State Archive of Arkhangelsk Province (GAAO)
Arkhangelsk Province State Archive, Department of Documents of Socio-Political History (GAAO Otdel DSPI)
State Archive of the Kiev Province (DAKO)
Central State Archive of the Highest Organs of Government and Administration of Ukraine (TsDAVO)
Central State Archive of Ukraine Civil Organizations (TsDAHO)
University of Toronto. 2012. 251 pp. Primary advisor: Lynne Viola.
Image: Photograph by the author. View of the village of Shelomenskoe, Arkhangelsk Province, Russia. June, 2011.