The Soviet Union, under Stalin's leadership, embarked on a massive economic plan to industrialize the largely agrarian country. The so-called five-year plan, actually four and a quarter year plan, required the concentration of labor in urban areas. Most of the people in the Soviet Union lived on farms in small villages. To implement the plan significant social changes had to occur. The people most affected by these changes were the peasants in the small villages in the Russian countryside. The peasants represented the most conservative, most religious, and most traditional group in the Soviet Union. Conflict was inevitable when the greatest change is required of the people who are the least likely to be comfortable with change. The instability of the Soviet Union government between the Russian Revolution and the ascendancy of Stalin and the violent protests of the peasants delayed the imposition of socialist controls over the peasants. Allowing the peasants to exercise relative independence compared to the rest of Russian society created an even greater resistance to change. In "Red Bread" Maurice Hindus provides insight into the depth of the problems facing the Soviet Union. He wrote about the events as they were happening so he presents more detail than a writer who is distant from the events.
January 5, 1930 marked an escalation of the effort to collectivize the peasants. The Soviet Politbureau drafted a declaration establishing two mandates.
"The koolacks [successful farmers] were to be economically exterminated. Their properties were to be confiscated and they exiled to Siberia, to the far north in Europe, or to a remote strip of poor land away from their former homes, where, with limited animal power, few implements, and with no aid from the state or the cooperatives, they were to make their way in the world as best they could. Since koolacks constituted between 4 and 5% of the population, this decision doomed more than one million families to loss of their property and to banishment from their lands." (Hindus 63)
The reasons for the focus on the successful farmers were expected to accomplish a couple of things. These peasants prospered the most before the five-year plan so they would be the most resistant to change. Assuming the success of the five-year plan the less successful peasants would aspire to the position occupied by the koolacks.
"Organizers in their impassioned desire to outdo one another and to bring about complete collectivization in a lesser period than that prescribed by the Politbureau, discarded persuasion in favor of coercion. Under threat of confiscation of property, exile, deprivation of citizenship, they drove the peasant in masses into the kolhozy [collective]." (Hindus 65)
How did the peasants react?
"He [peasant] began to dispose of his personal property, sell what was salable and kill what was killable. In village after village it was the same, and the slaughter of stock was appalling." (Hindus 65)
The stock market crash in the United States occurred in 1929, early into the five-year plan. One of the reactions to the beginning of the Great Depression was the imposition of tariffs by the industrialized countries. This worsened the situation and encouraged even more distrust of the capitalistic countries by the Soviet Union. The boycott of Russian goods contributed to deteriorating conditions for the peasants.
Not all kolhozys operated exactly the same way. The kolhozy needs to be distinguished from the sovhoz [state run] farm.
"It is cooperative association, legally incorporated and with a constitution defining in detail its functions and purposes. However intimate its relations with the state, however rigid the contractual obligations the latter may impose on it in return for the economic aid it offers in loans, machinery, expert advice, the kolhoz actually enjoys full powers of internal administration. Its acts, of course, must harmonize with the basic aims of the Revolution and with the immediate policies of the Soviet government, and it is under surveillance of the Soviets and the Party organization." (Hindus 211)
Although Stalin's goal was to build industry in the Soviet Union, he also wanted to take the opportunity to bring the peasants under his control. Making the peasants dependent on the state for all of their necessities was a way to accomplish this goal. Collectivization was the term applied to process of organizing the peasants into groups that would work the common lands. The peasants viewed this reliance on the state a step backwards into the serfdom that characterized Russia under the tsar. Initially in some parts of the Soviet Union the peasants violently resisted the state's attempts to enforce control. The peasants burned their own crops and killed their own livestock. They even murdered representatives of the Soviet state.
In spite of the attacks on Soviet representatives, the government was able to recruit young crusaders who did know any way of life before the Russian Revolution. They were passionate in their beliefs. Social progress was always more important than individual interests. Only through social change could the people, especially the peasants, enjoy a better living. The government did have a lot to show for its efforts. When the author re-visited the village in which he grew up, he saw many signs of progress between his last visit five years earlier and that day.
"But as I came closer to the village I paused, startled. At the edge of the swamp, where once flourished a thick forest which the peasants in the early days of the Revolution had vengefully hewed down, there towered the shingled roof of a new building, the tallest and most massive in the village. I hurried thither, and from the inscription above the door I learned that it was a schoolhouse." (Hindus 12)
The Soviets addressed the most important issues facing the peasants. A totally illiterate population in the village, high infant and young child mortality rates, and numerous highly destructive fires were addressed by the construction of the schoolhouse, a nursery for children, and a fire station. The period of construction of new buildings also included the dilapidation of other buildings, particularly buildings associated with the practice of religion. As with most agrarian societies the church played a very important role in the lives of the peasants. Many of the teachings of the church were contrary to the dogma of the revolutionaries. The symbols of the church had to be eliminated, not just the buildings, but also the habit of wearing crosses. When the writer ventured into the rundown church, the young people in the village could not understand how a person from an advanced culture such as America could have any interest in religion. The dogma emphasized the incompatibility between industrialization and religion.
The Soviet approach to education included some interesting contradictions. Compulsory education for children reduced the illiteracy rate. At the same time access to higher education was limited to particular classes of individuals.
"His [a friend of the author's] son had graduated from the four-year school. He was a bright lad and wished to continue studying. But the Soviets would not admit him to a higher school. They were growing terribly strict about keeping children of muzhiks [peasants] like him out of the high schools and universities. In the market place he had heard of a man who had sent his older son to the university. The boy was studying to be an engineer. He was a brilliant student, and his teachers prophesied a great future for him. One day when he came to class he was told to pack up and go home -- there was no place in the university for him, the son of a koolacks [a prosperous peasant]!
The peasants' focus was less on the improvements than it was on what they were losing. They expected to have less control over their daily lives. They would have to work when the collective told them to work. Working hard and becoming successful only improved your chances of becoming a target.
"He [Sergey] had thought of painting his house, but even if he were to remain in it, he would not bother. They [Soviets] would point at him as a landlord. He was not even mending his fences any more. Once he had five cows, now he had only three; in the fall he would sell one more. Once he owned three horses; now he kept only one, and would never have more -- what the devil was the use, if the political axe was swung down on him every time he made a step forward? The individual did not count." (Hindus 18-19)
The Soviets labeled each group of peasants to create a class structure and encourage the class struggle fundamental to progress visualized by Marx. At an early age even in a remote village the children learned about and played out the class struggle.
"Each party [group of boys and girls] represented an army, one in the service of the bourgeoisie, the other in the service of the proletariat. The birch sticks were their…