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INCHING TOWARD ARMAGEDDON, 1928–1929
Throughout 1928 and 1929, the Communist authorities adopted diverse means to squeeze grain out of the peasantry, short of a wholesale assault and complete takeover of the countryside. The OGPU was at the forefront of these grain-confiscation campaigns. In fact, during these operations the secret police became a central player in Soviet governance, a position it would occupy until the collapse of Communism in 1991 and, with the rise to power of former KGB operative and FSB chief Vladimir Putin, until the present day.
Already on January 4, 1928, the OGPU (secret police) instructed its agents to get directly involved with grain collection as enforcers. They were to act quickly, demonstratively, and extrajudicially. The next day, the Politburo unanimously adopted a directive, signed by Stalin and sent out on January 6 to the party apparatus, demanding immediate mobilization of the entire Communist Party to implement the collection campaign using harsh administrative measures, in particular against "kulaks." The militia and prosecutors should also be drawn into the work, since of course the leading officials of all Soviet institutions were Communist Party members. Failure to comply would be treated as a breach of party discipline. It is not surprising that many officials preferred to overfulfill than to underfulfill such orders. The fact that the secret police acted first in this drama might suggest that it was in charge, but this seems unlikely. Although documentary proof is lacking, one can assume that Stalin collaborated with Genrikh Iagoda, the second in command of the OGPU, behind the scenes and essentially brought him to the center of the operation as an ally.
Iagoda and his henchmen were also unleashed against the political opposition. On January 17, the police seized Trotsky, carried him physically out of his Moscow apartment, and deported him to Alma-Ata, at the far end of Kazakhstan, 4,000 kilometers from Moscow. Stalin gleefully jotted "ha ha" in the margin of the report.
Agents of repression throughout the country immediately went to work. They were typically organized in teams of three, or troikas, representing the secret police, prosecution, and party. They arrested "speculators," "kulaks," and others who got in the way of the collection campaign.
In addition to a steady stream of directives, the Politburo also decided on January 9 to send top party officials to the chief grain-producing regions of the country to force the issue. Stalin himself departed for Siberia on January 14, having signed a party directive asserting that attacking "kulaks" was the best way to convince "middle peasants" to hand over grain at low state prices. The order concluded with a typical Bolshevik flourish: grain procurements were a "fortress we must capture no matter what." Stalin's closest associates, Viacheslav Molotov (1890–1986) and Anastas Mikoian (1895–1978), were sent to the Ural Mountains and North Caucasus regions, respectively, and with the same purpose.
Even before Stalin's departure, the OGPU and the chief prosecutor in Siberia had directed their personnel to punish peasants withholding large quantities of grain by means of article 107 of the criminal code, an obscure and little-used statute banning speculation. When he arrived in Novosibirsk five days later, Stalin claimed that prosecution under article 107 was yielding excellent results in other regions. (He may have been bluffing.) He traveled across Siberia, cajoling and threatening officials not to "wimp out," demanding "savage" pressure, repeatedly raising the collection targets, and insisting on the sacking of officials complicit in grain "speculation." A significant purge of less-forceful party members in fact ensued. After Molotov departed from the Urals, for example, 1,157 such officials were removed from office, excluded from the party, or brought to trial.
The day Stalin headed back to Moscow, February 4, the secret police ordered its operatives to telegraph the results of the campaign. The repression had paid off. Twice as much grain was collected in January 1928 as in December 1927, yet the takings fell short of the year before (only 300 compared to 428 million poods). Perhaps for this reason, the party leaders did not crow. The campaign in fact had been waged in total secrecy. Not a word was breathed in the press — not even the mention of "kulaks" or article 107. On January 26, 1928, the party mouthpiece Pravda had even denounced rumors about the end of the NEP, a return to civil war era confiscations, and impeding famine. Of course, Moscow could not prevent a hoarding mentality from taking hold, given the war hysteria it had stirred up. A police report on February 11 quoted one well-to-do peasant in Voronezh province saying: "We can live without manufactured cloth and can use home-woven cloth; but we need to conserve grain, which will be necessary in the event of war." In any event, the peasants were unlikely to indefinitely hand over grain at low prices and would soon cut their output. Indeed, complaints came in from the villages that not enough was left for survival until the next harvest. Yet the urban population was growing and needed more and more grain. Something had to give.
On February 13, a party directive signed by Stalin admitted that the grain crisis had not ended. Workers and urban dwellers would face shortages and wage cuts. Heavier taxes on "kulaks" were needed. Yet officials up and down the apparatus knew full well that the vast majority of peasants holding back grain in the hope of higher prices were middle peasants. Repression continued. During the first two months of the year, 6,854 people had been arrested for obstructing the collection campaign. The hardliners could well exult: grain collection was up 186 percent in February from the previous year, and 50 percent over January. Yet they wanted more, and the campaign continued. On March 21, Pravda warned that some rich peasants had gained possession of 300 acres of land. Within two months, some 74,000 acres had been confiscated from 6,214 people, or just over 12 per person — clearly not big landowners.
A second wave of coercive measures commenced in April. Local officials applied such intimidation and dirty tricks as locking peasants up for a day or two, brandishing firearms, waiting for the man of the house to go out, and pressuring the illiterate to sign away their property. Much of the rhetoric was about teaching the peasants a lesson. "We will show you that you live in a revolutionary state of workers and peasants," warned one official quoted in Pravda on March 16. Thousands of peasants desperately wrote to newspapers and officials professing their loyalty to the state, denying they had ever exploited labor, and insisting on their working-class credentials and ancestry. Many peasants sold their only cow or horse to pay their back taxes and avoid having all their property confiscated and auctioned off. Others divided up their landholdings and property among family members to avoid appearing well-off. Villagers spoke of a return to the cruelty of the civil war era.
The Bolshevik leaders had always been wary of what they called "bourgeois specialists." From the mid-1920s, many statisticians, economists, and demographers with an independent cast of mind had been quietly removed from positions of influence. On March 10, 1928, sixty engineers were arrested in the North Caucasus town of Shakhty and charged with sabotaging Soviet industry at the behest of Western capitalists. At a meeting of the Moscow Party organization on April 13, Stalin used the Shakhty affair to depict the Soviet Union as beset by terrible dangers both within and without. "We have internal enemies," he intoned. "We have external enemies. This, comrades, must not be forgotten for a single moment." The "procurement crisis" was an attack launched by "capitalist elements" in the countryside. The Shakhty sabotage was an attack undertaken by "international capital and its agents in our country." Brought to trial the following month, thirty-four of the alleged saboteurs were sentenced to prison for between one and ten years. Five were executed. A key role in this episode was played by the secret police, whose budget, personnel, and responsibilities steadily expanded in these years. Many other specialists were purged from government agencies, undoubtedly as scapegoats to deflect attention from economic failures. Popular anxiety about internal and external enemies, including peasants allegedly withholding grain, sharpened.
So did the pressure on the peasantry, despite the fact that the party plenum in early April denounced coercive methods of grain collection. Stalin even joined in the chorus, though he insisted the abuses were merely deviations from the party line. Such was now his modus operandi: pretending to agree with the moderates but then implementing harsh policies as he saw fit.
A progressive tax on farm income, coupled with a wealth surtax, both adopted on April 21, aimed at economically ruining the "kulak." The London Times quoted Stalin admitting that three years before they had "needed the energetic richer peasant to extend the cultivated area." Now that he had completed this work, "we can safely destroy him, using the surplus land to form collective farms, cooperative farms, and big state farms." The press frequently warned peasants to watch for the wiles of "kulaks" trying to worm their way into the roughly 23,000 collective farms that had been created by early May. "They did not give your collective farm a tractor? I have one and you can use it. I will join your farm." In fact, better-off peasants traditionally helped their less fortunate brethren in all sorts of ways, such as lending them food and money in hard times. Village solidarity was very strong.
Tensions rose in the main grain-producing regions. In Ukraine, the North Caucasus, Siberia, the Urals, and along the Central Volga from April 15 to May 1, 1928, some 140 mass peasant protests broke out involving 32,500 people. Many protesters were women, commencing a pattern that would become familiar over the next few years. The authorities throughout the country, for their part, arrested 6,794 people in April for "speculation" in grain and other commodities. In the Russian Republic alone, 5,597 people were tried, including 1,700 officially recorded as middle and poor peasants. More and more arrests were made for counterrevolutionary activity, which article 58 defined as "anti-Soviet and counterrevolutionary propaganda and agitation" (paragraph 10).
The collections still failed to yield enough grain, and a further round of grain procurements took place in May and June 1928 with still more coercive methods. Grain collection in June was more than three times higher than the previous month, yet still the plan went unfulfilled. Reports of hunger came in. Relations with the countryside plunged to their lowest level since the civil war. Worse still, breadlines and unemployment riots revealed mass discontent in the towns as well. To stave off disaster, the party leadership took the humiliating step in June of importing grain — 250,000 tons by August.
The party plenum (July 4–11) was a jumble of contradictions. Bukharin and the moderates vigorously advocated a set of policy shifts designed to ease pressure on the peasantry, including an end to arbitrary confiscations and price increases for grain procurements. A master tactician, Stalin approved almost all their proposals. Of course, his agents in the field would continue to apply harsh methods. The moderates apparently doubted his sincerity, but having made a fetish of party unity, they could not easily denounce him in the open. Well might they have doubted.
On the second day of the plenum, Stalin made his notorious reference to a "tribute" from the peasantry. To industrialize, he argued, big investments were needed. The USSR was an anti-imperialist country and therefore "cannot and must not engage in colonial robbery, or the plundering of other countries in general." Nor could it agree to "enslaving loans from abroad." Yet how to pay for grandiose projects like the Turkestan Railway and the Dnieper Hydro-Electric Power Station — each costing hundreds of millions of rubles? Only one source of investment was left: "internal accumulations." The working class, he went on, "creates values and advances our industry." Apparently no more was expected. The peasantry, for its part, "not only pays the state the usual taxes, direct and indirect; it also overpays in the relatively high prices for manufactured goods ... and it is more or less underpaid in the prices for agricultural produce." Everyone at the plenum knew he was right: even without special coercive methods, the peasants were being squeezed on all sides. But now Stalin went for the jugular:
This is an additional tax levied on the peasantry for the sake of promoting industry, which caters for the whole country, the peasantry included. It is something in the nature of a "tribute," of a supertax, which we are compelled to levy for the time being in order to preserve and accelerate our present rate of industrial development, in order to ensure an industry for the whole country, in order to raise further the standard of life of the rural population and then to abolish altogether this additional tax, these "scissors" between town and country.
It is an unpalatable business, there is no denying. But we should not be Bolsheviks if we slurred over it and closed our eyes to the fact that, unfortunately, our industry and our country cannot at present dispense with this additional tax on the peasantry.
Bukharin and the moderates were outraged by such talk, because the term tribute evoked images of Genghis Khan and of the harshest rule of the Muscovite tsars. But surely Stalin was merely calling a spade a spade, for, whatever the rhetoric about smychka, the party-state was indeed squeezing the peasantry, exacting a "tribute" from it. What else can one call buying produce well below market prices and selling (scarce) manufactured goods well above? He went on to argue that emergency measures deployed in grain collection had "saved the country from a crisis of our whole economy," but he hastened to add that they were "emergency" measures needed only in a time of crisis. What Stalin — and the others — did not realize, however, was that the premises on which they were building socialism were producing one crisis after another: it is simply impossible to pay producers less than what the law of supply and demand requires and expect them to continue producing and delivering.
Rural unrest abated for the rest of the year, as did coercive measures, but grain collections were down — 40 percent less in July and August than in the same months a year before. And pressure was kept up on the peasants. Beginning on September 14, 1928, they had to pay a "milling levy" (garntsevyi sbor). Nor did the price paid for their grain increase much. Other taxes went up on most households as well. The first Five-Year Plan, which officially commenced on October 1, foresaw pouring 78 percent of all capital investment into industry. Precious little was left over for agricultural machinery, chemical fertilizer, and other assistance to agriculture.
Two factors now came to Stalin's assistance. On the penultimate day of the July plenum, Bukharin paid a secret visit to a disgraced Kamenev, to confer about joining forces against Stalin, who naturally used information about this meeting to his advantage in the impending battle within the Politburo. Second, a police report for June and July 1928 indicated that the less prosperous peasants backed the procurement campaign, presumably in large part because official policy since January had involved distributing 25 percent of confiscated grain to the poor. At the local level, many officials had begun to realize that social pressure — of the have-nots against the haves — might be the best way to squeeze grain from the countryside.
In any event, paltry collections — by late December only 300 million poods of grain, as against an anticipated 500 — compelled the authorities to introduce bread rationing in the towns, probably the first such instance in any country in peacetime.
Stalin now argued for a return to harsh methods, but this time built around a "social-pressure" or "social-incitement" approach, which became known as the "Ural-Siberian method." He and his supporters carefully laid the groundwork. On January 3, 1929, the Politburo ordered the Commissariat of Justice to speed up the "repression of kulak terrorists." On January 6, an order went out to local Soviets threatening dire consequences for failure to achieve larger collections. For the first time, grain collection was called a "front." Military police went through the ranks, weeding out by mid-January 1929 "socially dangerous" and "class-alien" soldiers, many of them sons of kulaks. All the previous year, families had written to their conscripted sons complaining of coercive grain collection and poor living conditions. The authorities obviously wanted to protect the military from such fonts of disgruntlement. On February 2, the political police forbade deploying troops in anti-"kulak" operations and ordered the interception and analysis of all letters sent to and from soldiers. The party leaders were clearly worried about disloyalty in the ranks.
Excerpted from "Hammer, Sickle, and Soil"
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Inching toward Armageddon, 1928–1929,
Chapter 2 Apocalypse Now, 1930–1931,
Chapter 3 Demographic Catastrophe, 1932–1933,
Chapter 4 A Broken People, 1934–,
Chronology of Events,