How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
THE forced drive for a merger of collective farms and the resettlement of peasants, which was begun about two years ago in Russia, has once more brought Soviet agrarian policy into the spotlight. Since it has come at a time of high international tension and feverish military preparations by the Kremlin --a process in which agriculture, as all other sectors of Soviet economy, is expected to play its part--the significance of this new turn of policy warrants examination. Is it a revolutionary development? How does it bear on the probability of war or peace? And what will be its effect on the Russian peasant, who still represents the masses of the nation despite the lopsided advance of industrialization under the Soviet Five Year Plans?
It is safe to say that, after more than 30 years of activity, the magicians of the Kremlin are able to display few, if any, untried tricks. Huge farms have been tried before and have failed. The Bolsheviks inherited the predilection for bigness as part and parcel of the Marxist dogma, which postulates the superiority of large-scale methods of production in agriculture as in industry, uninhibited by the economic law of diminishing returns or by special factors peculiar to agriculture. Lenin's fascination and enthusiasm for that American invention, the tractor, was transmitted to his heirs and reënforced the old Marxist cult of bigness. It was natural, therefore, for the Bolsheviks to pin their faith on large-scale mechanized farming when, early in their rule, they were confronted by the need of greatly expanded supplies of low cost foodstuffs and fibers and yet were meeting with stubborn resistance from the peasant farmers. The latter were restive under the action of the so-called "scissors," that is, the effect of low prices paid them by the state for agricultural products, and high prices charged them for the manufactured goods of the nationalized monopolistic industries--goods which, in addition, were scarce and poor in quality. In the late twenties, the situation worsened as the Kremlin embarked on its ambitious program of industrialization under the Five Year Plans and the ruthless collectivization of peasant agriculture followed.
In organizing the collectives the Soviet leaders set no limit to the size of the farm unit and were guided by the maxim "the larger the better." This gigantomania was evidenced in the huge state farms which the government operated like factories with hired labor. Two such show farms, Gigant and Verblud, served as meccas for foreign tourists in Russia in the 1930's and were especially publicized. Similar though less exaggerated tendencies toward gigantomania also prevailed in the collectivization of peasant farming. But the bitter experience of this early period of collectivization seemed to have taught the Kremlin that the biggest farm is not necessarily the best, and that hugeness is not synonymous with good farm management. At any rate, many of the large state farms were subdivided and some of their land was turned over to collectives.
Inefficiencies resulting from the early unlimited growth were recognized in the collective farms, too. The subdivision of collectives into so-called brigades or sections, headed by a brigadier or foreman, began to be emphasized. Each brigade was to include from 40 to 60 workers and to be assigned a separate plot of land, with its own draft animals and farm implements, for a period of several years, covering a crop rotation cycle. In the late thirties a smaller operational unit in the collectives, the so-called zveno (literally "link") of about a dozen workers was encouraged. These squads were especially favored by the Soviet authorities in the growing of crops requiring intensive labor, such as sugar beets and cotton, but on the eve of the war they were also used in grain farming.
Some large collectives were broken up. For example, four in the Spassk district of Ryazan Province in central Russia were each divided in half. On the other hand, the very small collective farms in the northern and north central regions were considered inefficient and the "voluntary" merger of such collectives was recommended, even though the character of the terrain in the northern and north central regions, crisscrossed by forests, lakes and marshes, militated against large farms just as it favored them in the level southern and eastern steppes. In any event, the average size of the collective farm was increasing in the middle thirties in the north and decreasing in the south and east. In general, such divisions and mergers of collective farms as took place before 1950 were carried out in a quiet and orderly way, without the fanfare of a campaign so characteristic of the Soviet organizing methods. All this changed, however, in 1950.
The change was heralded by a bombshell in the form of an unsigned article in Pravda of February 19, 1950, severely criticizing A. A. Andreev, a member of the Politburo and Chairman of the Council for Kolkhoz Affairs, who had long been the Kremlin's spokesman on agricultural policy. He was condemned for championing the use of the zveno, which had become widespread with the increase of hand labor on farms during the war. It was now declared to be an obstacle to mechanization and detrimental to large collective farming; and immediately following the publication of the article, a campaign was begun in the Soviet press extolling the superior merits of the brigade. In characteristic Communist fashion, Andreev publicly confessed his errors a few days after the Pravda article.
Sporadic reports of collective farm mergers in the Moscow Province began to appear late in 1949. But on March 7, 1950, a member of the Politburo, N. S. Khrushchev, who had not long before been transferred to Moscow as Party boss from the Ukraine, made an "election" speech which was the opening gun in a far-reaching campaign for mergers of collective farms. The campaign began in the Moscow Province and spread over the whole Soviet Union, including the Baltic Republics and other regions incorporated since World War II. Thus, in Soviet Latvia, the 4,115 collectives which were originally created after the Soviet occupation were reduced at the beginning of 1951 to 1,792. Large collectives in the south and east were merged, as well as small farms in the northern and north central regions. In the Dnepropetrovsk Province of the Ukraine, for instance, where the farms certainly were not small, 866 collectives were consolidated into 342, with an average area of 7,400 acres. One district of the Odessa Province where 22 of the 40 collectives had an area of tillable land up to 2,000 acres (800 hectares) was left with 17 farms, all above 2,000 acres, 14 of them with more than 3,750 acres (1,500 hectares). The Minister of Agriculture of the U.S.S.R., I. A. Benediktov, stated that the number of collective farms decreased during 1950 from 252,000 to 123,000. More than two-thirds of all collectives were merged into 60,000 super-farms. The number of collectives consolidated to form these new giants varied from two to 14; mergers involving seven to nine collectives were not uncommon. However, as Khrushchev pointed out, many of the mergers were affected only "legally," i.e. administratively, with actual unification yet to be carried out. Judging from some reports, many independent collectives have merely been turned into "brigades" of consolidated farms, and operations carried on as before.
The phase of the merger campaign which created the most furor was the resettlement of the rural population. Official speeches and press reports suggested that the merger of collectives was to be accompanied by the integration of numerous villages into a number of larger settlements, sometimes called agrogorod, or agro-towns. Such a move was justified by Khrushchev and other Soviet spokesmen on the ground that the cultural and other communal needs of the collective farmers could be better met in larger settlements, since it is not economical to build hospitals, schools, clubs, etc., in small villages. From an ideological standpoint, also, the agrogorod would represent a major step in the achievement of that much publicized aim of Bolshevik policy--the elimination of economic and social contrast between the town and the countryside, the city workers and peasants. So much the better, from the Bolshevik standpoint, if, in this process, the historic bonds which united neighbors in small villages were torn asunder and the historic association with the land that dates back to the period of serfdom were dissolved. Conceivably, this may well have been the underlying, though unspoken, motive for the resettlement drive.
An intensive building campaign in the Russian countryside was projected. For instance, a consolidated collective farm called Pobeda (literally "Victory"), in the Moscow Province, which comprised seven villages, was to be replaced by a single settlement built around the largest village. For this purpose a construction fund was established, to which members were to contribute five percent of their earnings. It was obvious that such mass construction would be seriously handicapped by the shortage of building materials and skilled labor, and that the resettlement was, therefore, bound to be a slow process. However, in order to speed up the process, Khrushchev recommended in the spring of 1950 that existing peasants' dwellings be moved to the proposed settlements without waiting for the construction of new housing.
Had such a policy been pursued on a large scale it would indeed have created turmoil in the Russian countryside and diverted a vast amount of energy from badly needed agricultural production, now only slowly recovering from wartime decline. And peasant morale, which cannot be entirely disregarded by the men in the Kremlin, would have suffered greatly, since there is a vast difference between helping collective farmers build new and better homes, and uprooting them from ancestral farmsteads and deporting them along with their old houses. But the whole scheme of moving peasant dwellings rapidly was unrealistic, and it was never attempted on a large scale.
When Khrushchev returned to this theme, in a speech made on January 18, 1951, and not published in the press until March 4, he did not again raise the issue of moving the peasant houses. He dwelt instead on the advantages of constructing multiple family dwellings in the villages--even two-storied houses with four flats. He contended that farmers did not demand individual homes. To keep down the amount of land set aside for the new villages, and to economize on various public utilities, Khrushchev suggested, as did others, that the size of the kitchen garden plots, immediately adjacent to the peasant houses, be reduced. The peasants were to be compensated by plots outside the village limits which could be cultivated with the aid of tractors, just as are the collective fields. However, the day after Khrushchev's speech was belatedly published, a curious statement appeared in all the papers to the effect that "an editorial note that Comrade N. S. Khrushchev's article was being printed for purposes of discussion was omitted by editorial oversight. This statement rectifies the mistake."
Obviously, an editorial "oversight" could not have been committed simultaneously by all the Soviet-controlled papers that published Khrushchev's speech, especially in the case of so important a personage. Apparently there had been a hitch in the resettlement drive. That this was so was soon confirmed, not by news from Moscow but from faraway Erevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia. On March 21, the local paper, Communist, published a speech made by the Party boss of Armenia, G. A. Arutyunov, at the Fifteenth Congress of the Armenian Communist Party, which, without naming Khrushchev, contained severe criticism of the whole resettlement policy which he advocated.
Arutyunov declared that the emphasis on resettlement of the rural population "brings confusion and relegates into the background the principal objective of enlargement of small collective farms, that of a further and speedy advance of agriculture and development of socialized collective production." He remarked scathingly that the idea of the agro-town was a "hybrid" which was nearer to "fantasy" than to "realistic demands of the kolkhoz villages." And he said that the advocates of resettlement erred in that "they mechanically identify the historic necessity of uniting small collective farms as production units into one large collective with the integration of small villages into one large village." Arutyunov appealed to the experience of the large state farms to demonstrate that single large settlements are not essential from the standpoint of farm production, and are not dictated, therefore, by the production requirements of consolidated collective farms. "Therefore," he concluded, "the suggestions of some comrades about the integration of small villages are unsound in substance and do not follow from the policy of the Party and the Soviet Government with respect to the organizational-economic strengthening of collectives." Arutyunov also cast aspersions, in passing, on Khrushchev's schemes of multiple family dwellings and reduction of kitchen garden plots.
Such criticism by a minor party functionary of the views of an official of Khrushchev's stature, who is supposed to speak with the authority of the Politburo behind him, is most unusual, to say the least. It is true that Arutyunov's strictures never reached the Moscow press, which merely gave a perfunctory summary of his speech. They were most vigorously echoed, however, by the party boss of neighboring Azerbaijan, M. D. Bagirov, whose speech was published in Bakinskii Rabochii on May 26, 1951. But this aspect of Bagirov's speech was not mentioned in the Moscow press either.
Of course it is possible that the speeches of these party bosses were intended to apply only to local conditions of the two mountainous Caucasian republics, where the conditions of the terrain, the attitude of the native population, the proximity to Iran and Turkey and various other special factors made the resettlement drive inadvisable. On June 7, 1951, Pravda said editorially that "Capital investment and labor of the collective farmers must be directed, in the first place, to the development of the socialized economy--the building of livestock shelters, irrigation canals and ponds, the clearing of the land, planting of tree shelterbelts, construction of various farm barns and sheds and electric power stations." No mention was made of resettlement. A similar statement was made by the Deputy Minister of Agriculture of the U.S.S.R., P. Lobanov, writing in Bolshevik, No. 10, May 1951.
It is, of course, impossible to say whether it was the shortage of building materials, the fear of adverse effects on agricultural production and on peasant morale, opposition to Khrushchev in the Politburo, something connected with war preparation, or a combination of all these factors that led to the sudden soft-pedaling of the resettlement part of the general scheme. There is certainly no visible evidence that Khrushchev fell from grace. The fact remains, however, that resettlement is no longer a live issue in the Russian countryside. That it will be revived at some more propitious time is, of course, perfectly possible.
The Kremlin did, however, push through the merger of collectives, as we have noted. It is interesting to review the reasons that have been given in the U.S.S.R. in support of this move. Khrushchev, in his speech of March 8, 1950, complained: "Small collective farms cannot achieve the powerful expansion and development of all branches of agriculture. Is it possible to introduce systematic rotation of crops on an area of 90 to 100 hectares [225 to 250 acres] ? Dividing the land into eight or nine fields, you get a field of approximately ten hectares [25 acres]. . . . The tractor and the combine cannot be utilized on such a field as they should be. . . . Many collective farms in Moscow Province have found the correct solution--they have embarked on a path of uniting and enlarging the kolkhozy. . . . The merging of small kolkhozy is a correct and progressive measure. The task of party and Soviet organs is to assist collective farmers to carry out this important task. . . . "
We may note, incidentally, that the merger of collectives is emphasized by Khrushchev as an entirely voluntary procedure, the great advantages of which were presumably discovered by the collectives themselves.[i] In his version of the development, the Soviet authorities are merely assigned the function of rendering assistance in the process. This has been the leitmotif of the whole merger campaign. It is significant that no legislation on the subject, and no directives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, have been published so far. There are some references to directives, however, and one cannot doubt their existence. But to publish a decree or Party directive would have spoiled the fiction that all was being done voluntarily by the peasants, a pretense which, for some reason, the Kremlin deems it advisable to maintain. Perhaps it has been maintained to impress the public in the satellite and foreign countries, since the Kremlin's subjects are familiar with the degree of regimentation which exists in the collectives and know the full meaning of suggestions for "voluntary" action. The suddenness, the wild-fire speed and the extensive character of the campaign are sufficient evidence that it has been ordered from on high.
In the speech mentioned above, and in several others dealing with the theme of farm consolidation, Khrushchev presented a long list of the supposed benefits of huge collective farms. He maintained that they would facilitate tractor operations, substantially reduce administrative personnel and expenses (the inflation of which has long bedeviled the collective farm economy) and offer greater possibilities of employing specialists and of obtaining qualified and experienced managers, and further that they would result in increased production, higher incomes for collective farm members and larger marketable output and, implicitly, therefore, an increased share for the state. There has been no lack of articles in the Soviet press, both general and special, since the spring of 1950, supporting Khrushchev's thesis by factual evidence purported to be derived from the experience of newly merged or older large farms.
How much of this evidence is authentic and how much is fabricated for propaganda purposes cannot, of course, be ascertained. The volume, uniformity and timing of the outpourings in the press certainly suggest a synthetic product. It is doubtful, in any case, whether the technical advantages of large-scale farming really weighed heavily in the minds of those who decided upon the merger campaign, for, as we have seen, it has not been confined to consolidating small collectives but has aimed at the merger of farms which would already have been considered very large anywhere outside the Soviet Union. The general advocacy of rapid, indiscriminate merging of farms, without regard to the wide regional variations in topography, soil and climatic conditions or types of farming, suggests strongly that greater efficiency is not the central objective of the policy. In the small collectives of the north it would in theory be most advantageous, but small tracts of tillable land dotted with forests, lakes, marshes, etc., such as are found there lend themselves with great difficulty to the process. Of course, there are instances in which mergers of two or more collectives might be conducive to more efficient operation. But it is a far cry from this to a revival of the gigantomania of the early 1930's, which was officially condemned as inefficient.
What, then, is the principal motive of the merger drive? It is significant that Khrushchev stressed the key rôle of managers in the consolidated farms and the necessity of paying them higher salaries. After the merger campaign got under way, much was made in the Soviet press of the consolidation of Communist Party organizations in the collectives, and it was noted that this enhanced the relative importance of the Communists in the new farm units and strengthened the mechanism of Communist control. But the cat was really let out of the bag in a recent Soviet book, by G. I. Aksenenok and others, dealing with the collective farm law:
The problem of improving state control of collective farms assumes especial significance with the merger of collective farms. . . . Previously when there were a larger number of collectives in the raion [district], it was difficult to keep an eye on each one, to know what was going on in each farm. Now it is another matter when there are fewer collectives as a result of the consolidation. . . . Now the raion agricultural authorities can work with each collective farm individually, give each one timely aid, note defects in the work of the manager and administration of the collective farm, and suggest the better and more correct solution to this or that problem.
The desire for more effective government control of collectives is evidently a basic reason for the drive. The smaller the number of collective managers, the easier it is to find persons who are not only capable but also politically reliable. Furthermore, while it has always been largely a fiction that the management in the collectives is "elected," there will be a wider gap than ever between the de-personalized management and the rank and file. The government will be able to exercise stricter controls in the super-collectives, and thus the driving power of managers will be increased and labor discipline tightened. This represents a return to the trend of Soviet agrarian policy of the late thirties, which was relaxed during the war to some extent.
In the Soviet view this leads to the most important objective of all--the increase of agricultural production. To Westerners it seems an anomaly to institute a program which in reality has little concern for efficiency, when the major aim is a great increase in production. There is no inconsistency here by Communist reasoning, however. When more production is needed, the Communist mind has one plain answer to the question of how to get it: increase the pressure upon the producers; in short, tighten the screws. The postwar recovery of agricultural production in the U.S.S.R. has been slow, particularly in view of the growing number of mouths to feed and the intensive preparation for war. Since the Kremlin wants badly to increase production, it has resorted, quite naturally and logically, to a policy which will enable it to get the peasants under closer control, and thus to drive them more ruthlessly. In the West the resort would be to increased economic incentives for farmers. In the Soviet Union such incentives would have to be in terms of consumer goods; they are scarce, due largely to the emphasis on armament. To the Communist way of thinking, the course to be followed is, therefore, obvious.
And, naturally also, this is in conformity with Marxist tenets. Marxism holds that the "maximizing" of production should be only along strictly collectivist lines. Here lies the explanation of the Soviet attitude toward the kitchen garden plots of the collective farmers. These small plots have been an Achilles' heel of Soviet collective agriculture. Soviet administrators have frequently complained that the peasants, particularly women, cultivate these little plots so intensively that they neglect the collective fields. They do so especially when their returns from collective farms are small, as they often have been; and then the very preoccupation of the peasants with personal farming has tended to keep the collective farm returns small.
In 1939 measures were taken by the Kremlin to curb personal farming by collective farmers, but during the war, when the country was faced with an acute food shortage, its expansion was winked at by the government. Since 1946, however, the Kremlin has reverted to its restrictive policy. The addition of a few hundred thousand acres to the several hundred million acres of collective land is not, of course, what the Kremlin cares about; but it is very much concerned about the diversion of peasant labor to personal work, and the example of poor collective discipline which that produces. Now the importance of full utilization of farm labor for state purposes in the U.S.S.R. has been enhanced by the manpower shortage occasioned by war and postwar reconstruction.
The merger of collectives provides new opportunities for limitation of personal farming, and for advancing the Soviet goal of bringing the peasant nearer to the status of its ideal--the docile factory proletariat. When several collective farms have been merged, the size of each peasant's kitchen garden plot has often been scaled down to the level of the collective with the smallest plots; those were the best and "most efficient" farms, it is said. The speeches of Arutyunov and Bagirov referred to above criticized the reduction of the size of the plots, and so have other statements in the Soviet press; it may have been a case of deliberately locking the barn after the horse was stolen.
What may we conclude from such evidence of the new development as is now in? First, it is not "revolutionary," as some have been inclined to believe. The super-collective farms may prove too unwieldy to manage, as did their predecessors in the early 1930's, but should the Kremlin be convinced of this, it would not hesitate to reverse itself. Strategic retreats are no novelty to the Bolsheviks, who were taught by Lenin that the road to their goal is not straight, but twists and turns like a mountain path. In the 1920's the liberal N.E.P. replaced the régime of war Communism, only to be supplanted by the collectivization drive late in the decade and in the early thirties. This in turn was followed by some concessions to peasant individualism in the midthirties; but these were being undermined by a new collective wave on the eve of the war, which, once again, was relaxed in the war period. The current campaign is not a revolutionary phenomenon, but a surge forward in the wave-like evolutionary process which the Soviets believe will carry them to their goal.
Second, it seems reasonable to suppose that the Kremlin does not expect war instantly, but that it is intensifying preparations for a possible war a few years from now. The confusion created by the mergers may hamper production in the short run, but in the long run the tighter control of the super-collectives makes an increase in output probable--certainly an increase of the share of output going to the state. And an iron grip on agriculture is essential for the Soviets in wartime, as the experience of the last war proved. The selection of new managers for the super-collective farms has not proven an easy task, and even more time will be required to consolidate collective fields, build new farm centers, etc. But by 1953 Soviet agriculture should be better organized to do its part in any Soviet emergency plan.
The conclusion that the new drive will in the long run increase Soviet agricultural production must, however, be qualified in one very important respect. The response of the Russian peasant is the factor on which success or failure will turn. The whole scheme of super-collective farming is predicated on the continued submission of the Russian peasant to the increasingly strict regimentation. That there is smoldering peasant unrest in Russia is hardly doubted by anyone familiar with Russian history and contemporary agrarian conditions. Every tightening of the collectivist screw is bound to increase agrarian discontent. The Kremlin, however, has usually been willing to open the safety valve just enough to prevent an explosion, resuming the collectivist offensive as soon as the danger of open revolt has passed. This has occurred in every decade. Should the new agrarian offensive affect the peasant morale too adversely, it is probable that the Kremlin will make another of its famous zigzags.
Some observers speculate on the possibility that the present movement may push right on to a logical conclusion in the complete integration of collective peasant agriculture with state farming--that is, in a single "Socialist" type patterned essentially on the state farm. It is argued that the trend toward growing operational control of the collectives by the government, the increase in their size, and the influence of ideological considerations (always strong in long-range Communist policy) make such a unified system the likely outcome. It may indeed come to pass eventually, but one may doubt that during the next few years the Kremlin will be willing to substitute the method of wage payment for labor which prevails on the state farms for the system under which members of the collectives are merely residual claimants to its income. The latter is much more profitable to the Soviet Government, and so long as it is so, the fiction of "self-government" for collectives, and separate existence of collectives and state farms, will be maintained. Whichever happens, the Russian peasants (as Karl Marx said of the proletarians) "have nothing to lose but their chains."
[i] It was admitted by the Ukrainian Party boss, L. G. Mel'nikov (in a speech reported in Pravda Ukrainy, June 3, 1951), that there were some cases of violation of the voluntary principle, and undue haste in mergers of collectives.