No. 79
Spring 1999

                                                                                   Lynda Park
                                                                                  Assistant Director


A Brief History of Russian Agriculture from the 10th Century to the Present
By Matt Rosenstein with Lynda Park

 In Russia, as in other countries of the world, agriculture is not only its lifeline, it is also vitally linked to its national identity.  Farming and its institutions have consistently played a major role in the evolution of Russia's economic, social, and political landscape.  In this issue of Update, we will briefly trace the history of Russian agriculture to its current condition, portraying the people and events that have shaped the face of the country and continue to determine its fate.

Any discussion of Russian agriculture begins and ends with the peasant.  Throughout history, although they belonged to the least educated and most impoverished class, peasants paid the majority of taxes, were the backbone of the army, and of course, their labor provided the country with food.  The structure of Russian agriculture had its foundation in the peasant commune (mir), an institution dating back to Kievan Rus' and the origins of the Russian state in the 10th and 11th centuries A.D.  A typical mir consisted of a community of neighboring peasants who not only pooled their labor and resources, but also practiced a form of local self-government.  Decisions on matters such as crop rotation or the settling of disputes were made by the village assembly, which was usually presided over by the village elder.

Though the mir remained an essential rural institution on into the 20th century, peasant life underwent many changes in the meantime.  During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the Grand Princes of Russia made it a practice of rewarding the service nobility with land that officially belonged to the state.  Peasants increasingly found that the soil on which they and their ancestors had toiled was being claimed by others with no regards to their presence there.  Furthermore, elaborate laws were being passed that decreased the peasants' freedom of movement and reduced their status to that of serfs.  A peasant and his descendants became fixed to a plot of land and were bound, like property, to a landlord.

As their personal freedom decreased, peasants faced rampant cruelty and abuse.  On occasion, their reaction to such treatment erupted into more than just minor, localized incidents of insubordination.  In 1670-1671, the now legendary Sten'ka Razin led a peasant rebellion.  Later, during the reign of Catherine the Great, the Pugachev Rebellion broke out in 1773-1775 along the southeastern borders of the Russian state, in the Volga River region near what is now the border between Russia and Kazakhstan.  Emel'ian Pugachev was a Cossack soldier, a deserter from the Russian army and a fugitive.  Claiming to be the dead Tsar Peter III (who had been ousted by a coup in 1762 of which the principal beneficiary was his wife, Catherine), Pugachev managed to enlist the help of common peasants, Cossacks, and Tatar and Kalmyk tribesmen in that region of the Empire. Over the course of the rebellion, thousands of nobles and their families were killed; the more fortunate ones fled, but their manors were burned and their property seized.  The Pugachev Rebellion was eventually suppressed, but it inspired fear in the nobility and, along with the events of the French Revolution, caused the enlightened Catherine the Great to become much more reactionary and cautious in her attitude towards her subjects.  Above all, the Pugachev Rebellion set in relief the precarious hold the autocracy had over the various peoples of the Russian Empire.

In the mid-19th century, the government faced increasing pressure from the Russian intelligentsia (educated, socially conscious members of society) to free the serfs.  Emancipation finally came under Tsar Alexander II in 1861.  A literary work which was influential in the final push to overturn serfdom was Ivan Turgenev's Notes of a Hunter, published in 1852.  In terms of social impact, it can be compared with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  A collection of sketches, Turgenev's book for the first time in Russian literature depicted peasants as human beings rather than as filthy, stupid, drunken animals.  For instance, peasants were seen enjoying a singing contest together and being genuinely moved by the beauty of the voice of one of their own; an infirm peasant woman was shown as possessing great folk wisdom, at peace with nature and her impending death.  These types of images underscored the injustice of serfdom and finally forced the autocracy to enact reforms.  A number of scholars have noted parallels between Russian serfdom and slavery in the United States.  However, there are significant differences between serfdom and slavery. Slaves were violently uprooted from their homeland and made to work on foreign soil, whereas serfs usually remained on the land where they had been born and raised. Furthermore, slaves were treated purely as property, while serfs maintained at least some measure, however slight, of personal rights and freedom.

Though officially emancipated from serfdom, the peasants' plight did not change significantly.  The overwhelming majority remained uneducated and impoverished in the latter half of the 19th century. Meanwhile, the Russian intelligentsia continued to pound away at the theme that conditions needed to improve for Russia's largest, but politically and economically weakest, class.  They perceived the peasant as an icon of Russia's true, natural identity.  This vision led many of the Russian populists (narodniki), as they came to be known, to launch a "Going to the People" campaign in the mid-1870s.  Composed largely of radical university students, the populists traveled to rural villages spreading socialist propaganda and encouraging the peasants to rebel against the autocracy.  Often, the results were far from what the narodniki anticipated: the peasants were suspicious of the students, had no desire to be bothered, much less enlightened, by them, and generally clung stubbornly to their trust of their "little father," the tsar.  Many peasants even turned the populists in to the police, who arrested them for political agitation.

Some factions of the populists increasingly grew more zealous and violent, even resorting to terrorism.  In 1881, members of a radical populist party known as the People's Will assassinated Alexander II, bombing his carriage in St. Petersburg.  Over the next three decades, the grievances of the peasants remained a focal point for the growing revolutionary momentum in Russia.  It finally boiled over first in 1905, and then again in 1917.  Nicholas II's abdication in February of 1917 marked the end of the monarchy.  In October, the Bolshevik Revolution assured the full-scale upheaval of Russian society.

From the beginning of the revolution, the Bolshevik vision of an ideal socialist agriculture was the formation of large collective and state-run farms, in which the peasants would pool their land and resources together to create large, efficient cooperative farms.  Initially, the Bolsheviks viewed the collectivization of farms as a long-term process that would take decades of educating the peasants about the benefit of collective farms.  The fledgling Communist government, however, was constantly faced with food shortages, which the government blamed on the backward peasants and the traditional subsistence farming. In 1929, Stalin suddenly announced a policy of rapid collectivization of Russian agriculture.  The results of this policy were absolutely devastating.

Stalin's agricultural policy involved two simultaneous campaigns.  First there was the collectivization campaign. In principle, the Soviet officials were to quickly educate the peasants about the benefit of joining the collective farm (kolkhoz) and have them voluntarily sign an agreement to join the kolkhoz.  In reality, this process was carried out by force.  The peasants were subjected to physical violence, humiliation and the threat of deportation until they signed the agreement. After having signed the agreement, they were forced to hand over their land and livestock to the kolkhoz and work as agricultural laborers. The harvest of the kolkhoz would then be requisitioned by the state.  The state, on its part, provided the kolkhoz with modern agricultural machinery, such as tractors and harvest combines.  The rapidity of the Stalinist collectivization campaign boggles the mind.  Before 1929, only 3-4 percent of peasants were in collective farms; by 1933, however, the number had reached 65%, and by 1936, 90%.

The second component of Stalin's policy was the so-called "dekulakization" campaign. The word kulak literally means "fist"--hence, a tight-fisted person or someone who does not easily part with his possessions.  In this case, it referred to prosperous peasants, relatively speaking, who owned land and hired labor.  Stalin saw these peasants as bourgeois "enemies of the people" and ordered the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class."  The officials carrying out the plan were to identify the kulaks, confiscate their land and property and deport their families to the remote corners of Siberia or to the Gulags (forced labor prison camps).  However, identifying exactly who was and was not a kulak was no easy task.  In effect, anyone resisting collectivization could be and often were labeled as kulaks for standing in the way of the great socialist revolution and sent off to the Gulags.  The statistics on the number of people who were "dekulakized" have not been clearly established.  One estimate states that between the summer of 1929 and March 1930, the government confiscated land and property from some 7 million peasants and the number of Gulag inmates increased from 28,000 to 2 million.
Peasants resisted both collectivization and dekulakization, often by destroying their own property and livestock rather than hand them over to the kolkhoz.  Meanwhile, the government continued to take extreme measures to requisition grain from the peasants, sometimes even taking their seed grain.  Such a draconian policy of requisitioning resulted in a widespread famine in 1932 and 1933, which was responsible for approximately 3 to 4 million deaths in Ukraine alone and 1 to 2 million more elsewhere.  Blaming the famine on the kulaks, Stalin continued to export grain abroad during the famine and deliberately suppressed news of the famine to the outside world, thus preventing foreign aid from reaching the starving peasants.

In short, Stalin's policy of collectivization and dekulakization decimated the country's agrarian order, and led to the repression and destruction of human life to rank among the worst tragedies of the twentieth century. It is estimated that some 15 million peasants suffered repression with 2 million deaths.  Half of the country's livestock was also destroyed, from which the Soviet Union did not recover until the late 1950s.*

The collective farming system remained in place for over sixty years in the Soviet Union, enjoying some periods of relative prosperity, but never coming close to attaining the success envisioned by Soviet ideologists.  In 1992, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the government began efforts to privatize Russian agriculture.  But as is the case in other economic spheres in Russia, the transition to private farming has been slow and painful.  Officials bicker over exactly what measures to take; the general populace goes uninformed about their land-ownership rights. In general, the lack of tradition and experience with private farming has left the country without the tools or the knowledge to carry out the task.

Several problems facing Russian agriculture point to bleak times ahead in the immediate future.  The essential difficulty is one of money.  A lack of funds has translated into a huge drop-off in agricultural production (about a fifty percent decrease since 1991).  For instance, the old, broken down machinery desperately needs to be replaced, but the state has devoted very little of its already meager resources to farming.  Again, the people hit hardest are Russia's rural inhabitants.  The collective farm workers were supposed to be given shares of the kolkhoz land, but often the shares were snatched from under them by corrupt administrators before they even realized they had a right to the land.  In many places, the collective farm essentially remains, but laborers do not receive their salaries for months and are often paid in clothing and food instead.

Analysts foresee the situation getting worse before it improves.  Most of them agree that what Russian agriculture requires is more reforms and stepped-up efforts to educate farmers about private agrarian enterprise.  Nevertheless, possibilities for long-term agricultural growth in Russia are good.  Various members of the Russian government have pushed for protectionist economic policies to support the countryside, and slogans like Boris Yeltsin's "Buy Russian" have at least raised public awareness about the need for such support.  In addition, programs enlisting the aid of American agriculture experts have begun to forge positive changes at the local level in certain areas, perhaps pointing the way to improvement for other rural communities.  In time, the proper use of Russia's vast natural and human resources could eventually revive Russian agriculture.
*All statistics in the collectivization section are from John Thompson, Vision Unfulfilled: Russia and the Soviet Union in the Twentieth Century (Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1996), pp.263-66.


"Give & Take"  http://www.wideopen.igc.org/isar/givetake.html
The quarterly journal of ISAR: Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia often has easy-to-read articles about current situations in Russian agriculture.

Bucknell University's Chronology of Russian History
This site has good sections on Stalin's collectivization campaign and the famine of 1932-33.


Ivanov, Mikhail.  "When the Going Gets Tough.Buy Russian!"  Russian Life, 42:1 (Dec. 1998-Jan. 1999), 18-23.  Describes Russian attempts to handle their foodstuffs trade deficit and economic crisis in general.

Tayler, Jeffrey.  "Exiled Beyond Kilometer 101," The Atlantic Monthly (February 1999), 18-25.
A bleak but honest portrait of life in the Russian countryside.

Vance, Kirsten.  "Trouble on the Farm," Russia Review, 5:18 (October 1998), 36-38.
Details many of the problems facing Russian agriculture, including its effects on individual farm workers.

Matt Rosenstein is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian literature at the University of Illinois and the Outreach Assistant at the Center.

Please send any comments or questions to reec@uiuc.edu

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