How far did government policies change towards agriculture in Russia in the period 1856-1964

Throughout the period 1856-1964, there was considerable change and continuity between the different agricultural policies implemented by successive Russian governments. From how they regarded and engaged with the peasantry, to the investment that was put into agriculture and how famines were caused and dealt with. For the Tsarists and the Communists the peasantry has always represented the biggest obstacle to progress, the desire for both regimes was to transform and control rural life through their respective agricultural policies.

Appointed Prime Minister (1906) by Nicholas II[1], Stolypin was instructed to overhaul government policy on land distribution and thus capitalise on the now free peasants in order to “wager on the strong”[2]: in which he meant the wealthier peasants. The Emancipation Edict (1861)[3] created these, now free, peasants out of the slavery of Serfdom. Once working on the lands of the Lord of the Manner these peasants were given an allocation of land by the government – for which they would pay for over 49 years of redemption payments at 6% interest.

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The result of this extra burden on the peasants, along with the fact they now farmed land that was now, on average, 1/5th less than before emancipation,[5] was initially severe disturbances: 1859 in the year of emancipation, reducing to 65 eight years later. [6] The downward trend is then perhaps evidence that peasants felt they had gained something from emancipation. Nevertheless, unrest peaked in 1905-1907 during Nicholas II’s reign[7] – Stolypin’s aim was to create a wealthier more productive class of peasants out of these disgruntled ones. These would, in theory, be more loyal to the Tsar.

With the opening of the Peasant Land Bank (1883)[8] – allowing peasants to purchase land – and the weakening of the Mir – allowing peasants to consolidate this land into small holdings – Stolypin’s Reforms led to an increase from 48,271 independent farms in 1907, to 134,544 in 1913[9]. This encouraged the creation of a rural upper class of better off peasants, or Kulaks, in which the Tsarist government saw and found a source of support from[10]. In contrast, Stalin’s Communist Government viewed the peasantry as holding ‘backward’ religious views and, especially the ‘bourgeois’ kulaks, as a source of opposition and threat to his Soviet regime.

The peasants were fiercely independent, so when Collectivisation was forced on them in the summer of 1929,[11] village priests urged that it was against God’s will[12] and many peasants resisted. Collectivisation meant that the State would manage agriculture directly and would help facilitate for the destruction of kulaks and the crushing of their culture; or De-Kulakization. With the threat of a counter-revolution, kulaks were now seen as ‘class enemies’ – any individuals resisting collectivisation ran the risk of being branded as one.

The concept of a ‘Kulak’ class as Stalin meant it, has been proven by scholars to be a myth[14]; simply they had proven to be more productive farmers. Nevertheless, it proved Stalin with an excuse to coerce the peasantry as a whole – middling and poor peasants as well as Kulaks: the most dangerous were to be imprisoned or shot. [15] “We must break down the resistance of the Kulaks and deprive this class of its existence”, as Stalin said to the Party Congress in December 1929. [16] With this, the policy of De-kulakization had begun.

By 1931 more than half of the peasants were in collectives[17] and were controlled through a series of motor-tractor stations – these stations fulfilled a similar role to that previously done by the Mir and kept the peasantry in check via the organised distribution and collection of grain. It also decided how much a farm could keep for its subsistence and the amount of money to be given as payment to collective famers: often very little leaving most farmers worse off than before serfdom. [18] This attack on the living standards of the peasantry goes to show the extent Stalin saw the peasants as a threat, and wished to break their spirit.

During the famine of 1932-34[19] he prevented the movement of peasants from the countryside by blocking their access to trains – OGPU officials checked the trains heading for the cities;[20] in affect entrapping the starving peasants. The harvest of 1931 and the subsequent three harvests were poor because of the weather and the heavy procurements demanded by the Communist Government to feed the growing urban population[21]: from 26 million in 1930 to 40 million in 1932. [22]

Thus as a result the government left the peasant families to die; some lying outside warehouses full of grain but under armed guard. -5 million perished[23]: the deaths ironically concentrated in the richest farming, mainly kulak, areas such as the Ukraine – the ‘bread basket of Europe’ – and therefore gave Stalin all the more reason to concentrate his “revenge on the peasants,” as historian Robert Conquest put it, [24] there. However, it is uncertain whether his actions were born out of hatred, or to consolidate his grip on power. Thus there is great contrast between the Tsarist and Communist approach to controlling the peasantry through agricultural policy.

The first wished to improve, make strong and saw a source of support from them. The latter wished to crush and eliminate – Stalin viewing them as a threat to his paranoid fuelled attempt to consolidate his power. For much of time period, investment in agriculture was the means to an end for the prevailing Communist government: that ultimate end being the build up and advancement of industry. In a passionate appeal at the First Conference of Workers in 1931,[25] Stalin lays down the context for his economic policies for the next thirteen years: “we are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries.

We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we will be crushed. ”[26] In order to raise the capital needed to develop Soviet industry, Stalin saw that the necessary first step was to collectivise Russian agriculture – defined by him as “the setting up of collective farms and state farms in order to squeeze out all capitalist elements from the land”[27] They were to be the means by which private peasant ownership would be ended and agriculture made to serve the interests of the state; “the milch cows of the cities and industry. [28] The plan was to group 50-100 holdings into one unit. [29] It was believed that larger farms would be more efficient and would encourage the effective use of machinery. Efficient farming would, in theory, have two effects: it would create surplus food supplies that could be sold off as cash crops to raise capital for industry and decrease the number of rural labourers needed; thus releasing workers for the new factories – such as Magnitogorsk steel works. [30] For Stalin, the needs of the land were always subordinate to those of industry. [31]

Khrushchev, however, focused on the improvement of the organisation of agricultural production – more emphasis was placed on increasing production via state farms. Like Stolypin and Stalin, he believed in the economics of larger farms. [32] With this, many of the smaller collective farms were merged to form his preferred state farms. [33] In September 1953 he set out his plans for the failing agricultural sector. [34] The Virgin Lands campaign (1953)[35] was Khrushchev’s first plan to remedy the failings of agricultural sector – such as very low productivity[36] – by cultivate the unused lands of western Siberia and Northern Kazakhstan. 37]

This was not new; Stolypin had done this during his Land Reforms, involving, like Khrushchev’s, the large scale resettlement of parts of the population to the country’s remoter areas[38]. However, contrary to previous Russian policies, Khrushchev’s would usher in a period where agricultural investment took priority over industrial investment. [39] Production of Cereals went from 82 million tons in 1952, to an average of 132 million tons between 1961-4. [40] These figures are misleading however as, for example, the harvest of 1963 only produced 107 million tons:[41] this was due to the unreliability of the land.

Erosion by wind alone meant that 13,000 square miles of land had its topsoil removed in 1960. [42] Be that as it may, a campaign to increase fertilizer production by 700%:[43] to boost yields from existing fields was a change from the old methods, especially present during the time of Tsars, of letting land fallow. The investment policies implemented by Stalin in agriculture are mostly the result of the desire to advance industry – at the expense of agriculture. Khrushchev, however, bucked the trend – perhaps seeing that for a effective balanced economy equal weight needed to be given to both sectors.

Russia throughout the period had a tendancy to be affected by famine: how it differed was by how far it was caused by the Tsarist or Communist government policies, and to what extent they attempted to rectify the problem. With the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in the October revolution came civil war. After a brief spell of State Capitalism between 1917 and 1918[44] the government decided to take direct control of economic life with War Communism – in June 1918 a decree nationalised all industries. 45] Production would collapse though, as the transportation of goods and raw materials were disrupted by the Civil War (1918-21). In order for industry to continue production the urban workings needed feeding. Yet the farming production had also dropped: the index fell from 100 in 1913, to 31 in 1921. [46] Lenin, in spite of the inevitable results on the peasants, sent in the requisitioning squads into the villages in 1918-1920 to collect grain. [47]

In the latter two years they also confiscated seed-grain and subsistence food that the peasants needed to feed themselves and their families. 48] The Civil War may have been unavoidable, but the confiscation of grain during it helped lead to the deaths of 5 million people during the famine of 1921-22. [49] The inaction on the side of the Communist government only escaped shouldering the responsibility of more deaths by reluctantly accepting support from the American Relief Administration: an estimated 14 million people were kept alive as a result. [50] Lenin did attempt to redeem himself with the New Economic Policy (1921) [51] at the end of the Civil War – as it was clear his government was facing a national emergency.

In order to spur on the recovery of agriculture, Lenin old the Tenth Party Congress to “let the peasants have their little bit of capitalism. ”[52] With this a Tsarist style free market, on which the peasants could trade any surplus crops, was reintroduced. Production went up and by 1925 grain harvest was 72. 5 million tons, compared to 37. 6 million in 1921. [53] Throughout the Civil War there had been little regard for the starving peasants, but with it drawing to a close Lenin saw his opportunity to undo his mainly manmade famine.

This is alike the 1891 famine, in so far as, both governments were slow to react – the Tsarist Minister of Finance during the 1891 famine did not postpone exports until the situation was acute in August 1891; the saying “we ourselves will not eat but we shall export” was attributed by the Russian people to him. [54] In contrast, however, Alexander III and his government were able to deal with the famine internally. In November 1891 it appealed to the public to engage in voluntary assistance schemes and set up two state lotteries in order to buy emergency supplies for the peasants. 55] The Zemstvo led the way – Prince Lvov organising famine relief in his province of Tula. [56] From the intelligentsia: Tolstoy, the famous writer, and the playwright Chekhov organised soup canteens and treatment for cholera victims respectively. [57]

However, had the Tsarist government not taxed consumer goods so heavily, the peasants wouldn’t have been forced to sell more grain in order to buy commodities; leaving many with no reserves of seed-corn. [58] 350,000 died as a result either from starvation or disease. 59] The concern of the elite, though, had been demonstrated: Zemstvo leaders, local gentry and the national government had all worked together – “Never… has the concern of the… government for helping the population ruined by crop failure been so great or achieved so much. ”[60] It is worth noting that this source in from a Report of the Committee of Ministers (1892) which could lead them to exaggerate their achievements. Nevertheless, the death toll was considerably lower than the 5 million of the 1921 famine.

The policies of the Communist government directly helped cause the 1921-22 famine; whereas the Tsarists policies indirectly helped – the latter doing far more to eradicate it. Overall, the change between the Tsarist and Communist governments’ policies towards agriculture during 1856-1964 was in some aspects huge – such as their take on the peasantry: Tsar Nicholas tried to expand his support base from them; while Stalin attempted to exterminate the very same, now opposition, base.

In others it is similar; such as how they both sought to export grain in order to increase revenue – resulting in terrible famines. However, possibly one of the largest changes was not between Tsarist and Communist, but was in fact between Communist and Communist; Such as investment in agriculture. Stalin prioritised industry always before agriculture, and his policies were reflected as such throughout his leadership. Conversely, throughout his leadership, Khrushchev put agricultural at the centre of his government’s policy – perhaps realizing that socialism needed to be built from the roots up.