Works in Progress: Plans and Realities on Soviet Farms, 1930-1963

Works in Progress: Plans and Realities on Soviet Farms, 1930-1963

by Jenny Leigh Smith

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What really caused the failure of the Soviet Union’s ambitious plans to modernize and industrialize its agricultural system?

This book is the first to investigate the gap between the plans and the reality of the Soviet Union’s mid-twentieth-century project to industrialize and modernize its agricultural system. Historians agree that the


What really caused the failure of the Soviet Union’s ambitious plans to modernize and industrialize its agricultural system?

This book is the first to investigate the gap between the plans and the reality of the Soviet Union’s mid-twentieth-century project to industrialize and modernize its agricultural system. Historians agree that the project failed badly: agriculture was inefficient, unpredictable, and environmentally devastating for the entire Soviet period. Yet assigning the blame exclusively to Soviet planners would be off the mark. The real story is much more complicated and interesting, Jenny Leigh Smith reveals in this deeply researched book. Using case studies from five Soviet regions, she acknowledges hubris and shortsightedness where it occurred but also gives fair consideration to the difficulties encountered and the successes—however modest—that were achieved.

Editorial Reviews

J.R. McNeill

“In this clearly written, concise, and sometimes provocative book, Jenny Smith offers sober judgments on the heady experiments in Soviet agriculture in the days of Stalin and Khrushchev.  She finds Soviet agricultural reforms chalked up a mixed record in delivering food, but excelled as a device for extending state power into the villages.  She sees more glasses half-full rather than half-empty, concluding that Soviet industrial agriculture, despite its eccentricities, had much in common with industrial agriculture everywhere.”—J.R. McNeill, author of Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-century World
James C. Scott

“Smith’s splendid, original and searching history of Soviet agriculture from collectivization to 1963 is the first to challenge and transcend cold-war stereotypes. Her inspired idea of measuring the wildly varied results of Soviet agricultural policy against both the magnitude of social and geographical obstacles it confronted and the manifold failures of Western industrial agriculture provides the basis for a powerful and novel re-assessment. It is an invitation to an essential and bracing, evidence-based debate.”—James C. Scott, Yale University
Daniel Kevles

“This is a strikingly original and insightful history of the failures and successes of Soviet agriculture. Probing practices and processes on the local ground, Smith’s account is masterful, convincing, and in several respects—notably her reassessment of Lysenko’s impact on plant and animal husbandry—a game changer.”—Daniel Kevles, Yale University
Kate Brown

“By focusing not solely on the big promises of Soviet science, agriculture, and technology, but on the smaller compromises Soviet planners and policymakers made to keep industries going and people fed, Smith captures a story long overlooked in Soviet history.”—Kate Brown, author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters
Timothy Pachirat

Works in Progress raises the question of whether it is possible to think of a specifically Soviet/socialist animal that emerged during this historical period and to lay the groundwork for a historically situated political economy of human-animal relations.”—Timothy Pachirat, author of Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight
Agricultural History Society - Henry Wallace Award

Winner of the Henry Wallace Award from the Agricultural History Society for the best book in international agricultural history for 2014

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Yale Agrarian Studies Series
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Works in Progress

Plans and Realities on Soviet Farms, 1930â"1963

By Jenny Leigh Smith


Copyright © 2014 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21031-6


Model Farms and Foreign Experts

In the history of Soviet agriculture two events stand out: first, a rapid collectivization drive in 1929 and 1930 that forced Soviet farmers into state-run farming cooperatives, and second, a famine in 1932 and 1933 that killed as many as six million people, most of them Ukrainian. Historians usually present collectivization and the subsequent famine as consecutive, related events, but the relatively stable two-year interval between them revealed an important and enduring weakness of the Soviet system; central planning experts could not bridge the gap between their ambitious plans for modernization and the reality of enduring underdevelopment in rural areas. Money, additional labor, publicity, and other external inputs all failed to close this divide. The distance between plan and reality in 1930 was important because it set a tone for the decades to come. Well into the 1950s, the Soviet state struggled to overcome what its officials perceived as a backward rural mentality. Official efforts to overcome this backwardness were continually frustrated. Initially, state officials blamed their problems on Soviet peasants who refused to support modernizing reforms; however, a careful analysis of the situation immediately after collectivization reveals that the natural environment, rather than humans, posed the most significant obstruction to progress. It was the state's inability to understand, anticipate, and respond to the complicated natural environments of Soviet agriculture that thwarted rural progress.

The state's initial efforts at collectivization established a new bureaucracy on farms and in villages and leaned heavily on outside experts to steer the new kolkhozes toward production goals that had been set in Moscow. Outside expertise was not always a welcome addition to the rural milieu of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Nevertheless, this tactic of relying on outsiders continued a tradition of the Soviet Union looking abroad for solutions to its agricultural problems. As with many top-down improvement schemes, the agricultural reforms that accompanied collectivization only partially succeeded and, in the fall of 1932, frustrated by the slow pace of progress in the countryside and alarmed by the persistence of rural resistance to communism, Stalin and other leaders magnified significant harvest shortages into a famine as an exercise in state terrorism. The famine sent a blunt message to rural areas that the government intended to control agriculture in the Soviet Union regardless of the human or economic cost.

These two events—collectivization and starvation—stand out for good reasons: both were dramatic and had immediate, permanent repercussions. However, after the mass collectivization of 1930 but before the terror of the 1932 famine, collectivized farmers experienced almost two years of relative lack of violence during which the state tried to reform the countryside through peaceful, bureaucratic means. These years of respite were mainly the result of the vocal and wide-ranging protests against collectivization that took place in March and April 1930. Nowhere were the changes in the countryside more pronounced than on the state's new model kolkhozes that had been designed to serve as vanguards of modern agriculture. These model farms received extra money, supplies, and expertise from the central government in order to achieve the goals of modernization in as short a time as possible.

Local and national Communist Party records and the personal letters of two foreign American specialists, Guy Bush and George Heikens, illuminate the distance between the modernizing ambitions of the state and the reality of life in the rural Soviet Union immediately after collectivization. Although providing extra capital and expertise to model farms was intended to boost agricultural productivity, this rarely happened. Instead, both the official reports and the private correspondence of the American experts reveal that these years were a time of frenetic, but largely ineffective, activity on model farms. Outside prescriptions failed because they were not up to the task of modernizing the countryside in one mass effort. The Soviet Union's environments posed enormous challenges to modernization that were difficult for outside bureaucrats to plan for, or effectively address. Organizing winter animal feed, keeping animals out of the mud, and maintaining roads and rail lines were common challenges across the Soviet landscape. Farms in the far north and those in arid regions faced even greater environmental challenges. After the Second World War Joseph Stalin campaigned to transform and control nature, announcing that the Soviet Union needed to rise above environmental limits and harness natural resources. However, in 1930 the Soviet state had little control over nature on its new collective farms. This lack of control hurt both the state's legitimacy and the well-being of Soviet citizens.

George Heikens and Guy Bush had similar agricultural backgrounds. The two men grew up on mixed-use farms in Iowa, and both delayed attending college in order to work on their families' farms. In college, they had both studied hog breeding, the skill that captured the interest of their Soviet employers. When they signed their contracts Heikens was just about to graduate from Iowa State College at age thirty, and Bush, at thirty-nine, had worked for two years as a writer for Wallaces Farmer, the Midwest's most popular agricultural periodical. By the spring of 1930 the Great Depression had dimmed work prospects for both men, and they considered themselves lucky to be among the animal specialists hired to work abroad. The Soviet Swine Trust would pay them over one thousand dollars for their year abroad, a far more generous salary than they were likely to earn in Iowa. The trust would also cover travel and living expenses. And so, in the blistering heat of late July, Heikens and Bush packed trunks full of the warmest clothes they owned and set off separately, first by train, then by Atlantic steamer, for a place they both called Red Russia. They had almost no notion of what awaited them across the ocean.

Heikens and Bush were hardly alone in their lack of knowledge. In 1930, most Americans had little idea how farm collectivization or other aspects of socialist rule had changed the everyday lives of rural citizens in the Soviet Union. During their terms of service Bush and Heikens would experience the disorganization and resentment of a typical Soviet collective farm firsthand, without understanding the historical conditions that had led up to the dramatic decision to attempt to collectivize and modernize Soviet farms as rapidly as possible. However, it is important to be familiar with the recent history of the Soviet countryside in order to understand what the state was trying to accomplish, as well as why the task proved to be so challenging.

In the eyes of the Soviet Union's leaders, Russian agriculture before collectivization "resembled a boundless ocean of small individual peasant farms with backward, mediaeval technical equipment" in desperate need of reform and repair. In spite of this need, the Communists who controlled the Soviet Union adopted a policy of benign neglect toward the countryside during their first decade in power, a situation with which most rural residents were completely content. The earliest agricultural legislation the Soviets passed made no mention of collectivization; in fact, in 1921 the new Soviet authority promised to reduce the tax burden for "industrious peasants who increase[d] the sown-area and the number of cattle in their holdings and ... the general productivity of their holdings." In other words, the state would reward capitalist behavior that increased farm productivity and the amount of food available for the market. In this early era, Bolsheviks focused first on establishing socialism in the cities; building socialism in the countryside was a secondary concern.

Left to their own devices, farmers built up their stocks of animals, invested in new tools and seeds, and improved their barns and houses during the New Economic Policy, or NEP, period, which encompassed most of the 1920s. Farmers paid lower taxes and received more cash for their crops during NEP than in any other period of Soviet rule. Popular with producers, the high food prices of the NEP era were unpopular with consumers in cities. By the late 1920s many Bolsheviks, including Stalin, supported universal farm collectivization in order to give the state more control over grain prices. Until collectivization, farmers acted as their own agents and had considerable influence over the price of grain crops. They could withhold grain from the market for several months in order to drive prices up, thus significantly improving their profit margin. As bread prices rose in turn, an increasing number of Soviet officials became convinced that the state needed to intervene in order to curb the greed of farmers and regulate the supply of all grains, especially wheat. In the winter of 1929 the NEP era of relative prosperity and calm ended with mass farm collectivization drives.

Although these campaigns collectivized over 80 percent of Soviet farms in just a few months, the drive was not the first time a zeal for collectivization had struck Soviet bureaucrats. A collectivized farming system had always been the ultimate goal of Soviet rural policy. Throughout the 1920s, the government had debated and experimented with various forms of collaborative agriculture—creating trial communes (artels) and collective farms of different sizes and with various types of cooperative organization—but administrative disorganization, scarce machinery, and a lack of clear direction from Moscow kept the countryside relatively free from heavy-handed state interventions until the end of the decade. No single form of state-sponsored agriculture became common on a national scale during the 1920s. When the Central Committee first debated creating a national policy of collectivization in 1926, early arguments focused on whether rapid collectivization was even possible. Nikolai Bukharin, the principal architect of NEP, argued that collectivization should take years, if not decades. Joseph Stalin, however, believed that rapid collectivization was necessary in order for agricultural industrialization to occur, and that a "whirlwind" approach was best.

The whirlwind began in November of 1929 when the Central Committee voted to modify the first Five Year Plan in order to include farms and rural areas. The reforms spelled out in the revised Five Year Plan consolidated and collectivized the majority of Soviet farms. State planners grossly underestimated how unpopular this sudden move to collectivize would be in the villages. Both before and after NEP, Soviet farmers thought of themselves as freeholders and the descendants of recently emancipated slaves, entitled to the land they worked as a condition of emancipation. Many believed state collectivization would be slavery by another name. Indeed, mass collectivization was usually accomplished by force or coercion and kolkhoz workers were rarely paid in cash. Beginning in late 1929, the state rapidly consolidated private fields, confiscated farm animals and field tools, and persecuted those who refused to join the collectives.

Collectivization began as an orderly if ambitious campaign of property mergers, but it swiftly devolved into state-sponsored terrorism. During the first months of the campaign, the state offered small cash rewards to farmers who joined the kolkhozes. This was largely unsuccessful. When bribes and propaganda did not convince peasants to collectivize, the state turned to violence, arresting those who resisted and forcefully confiscating farm tools and animals. During this period, the state also intensified its campaign of dekulakization, which identified and persecuted capitalist farmers in agricultural communities. Since farmers had been encouraged to make capital investments in their land, animals, and tools throughout the NEP era of the 1920s, every village had numerous potential kulaks, but identifying and vilifying successful farmers was a subjective process. Inevitably, villages that had most forcefully resisted collectivization were found to contain the most kulaks. The process of dekulakization killed some peasants, caused others to be arrested, disenfranchised entire families, and banished them to distant provinces. Perhaps the most effective result of these campaigns was to produce immediate and severe consequences for communities that protested collectivization, turning popular sentiment against collective protest and toward communal obedience to the state.

Peasants resisted collectivization most forcefully during February and March 1930. To protest the state's whirlwind campaign, rural residents organized marches, occasionally attacked regional officials, and slaughtered horses, pigs, and cattle that were slated for collectivization. In some regions protesters killed a quarter of all livestock. These protests did not reverse or completely halt collectivization, but they curbed its early whirlwind. In its place, a two-year détente developed between the state and the countryside and the government replaced force with inducements. Villages that collectivized willingly received extra money, better seeds, more animals, and more technical support as rewards. Many of these compliant farms became model kolkhozes, which were intended to become showcases of functional collectivization. Extra assistance from the state was definitely an advantage, but these advantages did not necessarily guarantee the successful modernization of model farms.

Historians have often focused on the problems Soviet collectivization created for grain production and distribution. Grain, especially wheat, was a staple of both the Soviet economy and the Soviet diet, and ensuring a reliable and affordable supply of it was a central task of the government. However, almost 10 percent of newly collectivized farms specialized in raising animals, not grain, and the state paid special attention to these farms after mass protests resulted in the slaughter of so many livestock. The state devoted extra and disproportionate attention to kolkhozes that specialized in meat or milk because they were early proving grounds for the government's ambitious plans of agrarian modernization. Before collectivization, a minority of farming operations specialized in raising livestock and there were not many Soviet agricultural professionals trained in feeding, breeding, or veterinary care of farm animals. The People's Commissariat of Agriculture struggled to fill these gaps in expertise, often deploying veterinary field technicians (known as vet-feldshers) to new collective farms and, in 1930, hiring American experts to help organize new specialty kolkhozes.

Creating farms that were dedicated to producing just one item was a new tactic that the Soviet state adopted for both grain farms and livestock operations. Although most kolkhozes remained multipurpose farms for another two decades, a few were selected at the very beginning of collectivization to become models of a new, more modern style of specialized agriculture. Specialization was intended to make collective farms more efficient. Communist officials, kolkhoz managers, and other professionals found the contemporary system of farming in the Soviet Union to be appallingly inefficient and that this was the central flaw of Soviet agriculture. If farms could be made to be more efficient, either by scaling up and completely mechanizing, or by specializing in just one marketable product, then their profitability would also increase. The Soviet state experimented with both tactics, creating massive, highly mechanized grain farms on the eastern frontier, and closer to urban centers, establishing model farms that produced high-value products like meat and milk. Neither tactic worked well. Moshe Lewin has noted that "the first [Five Year] plan ... produced a kind of self-perpetuating mechanism in which uncoordinated and quite arbitrary economic targets served to enlarge the scope of 'planning' without necessarily improving order or efficiency on the ground." Inefficiency, both real and imagined, plagued the agricultural goals of the state for the next two decades.

Traditionally, in Russia, the marginal nature of most agriculture made crop diversity a necessary adaptation. It also encouraged self-sufficiency. While regions specialized in cash crops such as flax and cotton before collectivization, almost every farm also strived for a basic level of household autonomy, raising vegetables, feed crops, and root crops for personal and animal consumption. After collectivization, the Soviet state decided (often in an arbitrary manner) which farms would specialize in specific crops, and which farms would continue producing a more diverse range of products. Both of the farms highlighted here—Rodomanovo in Western Oblast (roughly present day Smolensk Oblast), and Millerovo in North Caucasus Krai (roughly present day Rostov Oblast)—were selected to specialize in raising pigs. Before collectivization, farmers in Rodomanovo had raised flax, dairy cows, clover, and rye (and almost no pigs). In Millerovo, farmers had grown wheat and sunflowers and raised pigs, in addition to maintaining large vegetable gardens.


Excerpted from Works in Progress by Jenny Leigh Smith. Copyright © 2014 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Jenny Leigh Smith is assistant professor of history in the School of History, Technology and Society, Georgia Institute of Technology. She lives in Atlanta, GA.

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