Life in the USSR



Marxism-Leninism

Marxism-Leninism, proclaimed the official ideology of the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin, was based on Karl Marx’s economic theory but included important differences specific to Stalin’s totalitarian government.

Learning Objectives

Contrast Marxism-Leninism with pure Marxism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Marxism-Leninism is a political philosophy founded on ideas of Marxism and Leninism, often used specifically to refer to the state ideologies of communist nations such as the USSR. In contrast, classical Marxism did not specify how the socialist mode of production would function in government.
  • Generally Marxist-Leninists support the ideas of a vanguard party, one-party state, state-dominance over the economy, internationalism, opposition to bourgeois democracy, and opposition to capitalism.
  • Marxism-Leninism first became a distinct philosophical movement in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, when Joseph Stalin and his supporters gained control of the Russian Communist Party.
  • His version of Marxism-Leninism, sometimes called Stalinism (not an explicit ideology at the time but rather a historically descriptive term), rejected the notions, common among Marxists at the time, of world revolution as a prerequisite for building socialism in Russia in favor of the concept of Socialism in One Country.
  • Stalin’s regime was a totalitarian state under his dictatorship, in which Stalin exercised extensive personal control over the Communist Party and unleashed an unprecedented level of violence to eliminate any potential threat to his regime.

Key Terms

  • bourgeoisie: In Marxist philosophy, the social class that came to own the means of production during modern industrialization and whose societal concerns are the value of property and the preservation of capital, to ensure the perpetuation of their economic supremacy in society.
  • Socialism in One Country: A theory put forth by Joseph Stalin in 1924 which held that given the defeat of all the communist revolutions in Europe in 1917–1921 except Russia’s, the Soviet Union should begin to strengthen itself internally. This turn toward national communism was a shift from the previously held Marxist position that socialism must be established globally (world communism).
  • class consciousness: A term used in political theory, especially Marxism, to refer to the belief a person holds regarding their social class or economic rank in society, the structure of their class, and their class interests; used to point toward a distinctions between a “class in itself,” defined as a category of people with a common relation to the means of production, and a “class for itself,” defined as a stratum organized in active pursuit of its own interests.

Overview

Marxism-Leninism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of Marxism and Leninism that seeks to establish socialist states and develop them further. Marxist–Leninists espouse an array of views depending on their understanding of Marxism and Leninism, but generally support the idea of a vanguard party, one-party state, state-dominance over the economy, internationalism, opposition to bourgeois democracy, and opposition to capitalism. It remains the official ideology of the ruling parties of China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam, and was the official ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the other ruling parties making up the Eastern Bloc.

Marxism-Leninism first became a distinct philosophical movement in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, when Joseph Stalin and his supporters gained control of the Russian Communist Party (bolsheviks). It rejected the notions, common among Marxists at the time, of world revolution as a prerequisite for building socialism in Russia (in favor of the concept of Socialism in One Country), and of a gradual transition from capitalism to socialism (signified by the introduction of the First Five-Year Plan). The internationalism of Marxism–Leninism was expressed in supporting revolutions in foreign countries.

The goal of Marxism-Leninism is the development of a state into a socialist republic through the leadership of a revolutionary vanguard, the part of the working class who come to class consciousness as a result of the dialectic of class struggle. The socialist state, representing a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (as opposed to that of the bourgeoisie) is governed by the party of the revolutionary vanguard through the process of democratic centralism, which Vladimir Lenin described as “diversity in discussion, unity in action.” It seeks the development of socialism into the full realization of communism, a classless social system with common ownership of the means of production and full equality of all members of society.

Leninism

In Marxist philosophy, Leninism is the body of political theory developed by Lenin for the democratic organization of a revolutionary vanguard party and the achievement of a dictatorship of the proletariat as political prelude to the establishment of the socialist mode of production. Since Karl Marx barely, if ever, wrote about how the socialist mode of production would function, these tasks were left for Lenin to solve. His main contribution to Marxist thought is the concept of the vanguard party of the working class, conceived as a close-knit central organization led by intellectuals rather than by the working class itself. The party was open only to a few of the workers since the workers in Russia still had not developed class consciousness and needed to be educated to reach such a state. Lenin believed that the vanguard party could initiate policies in the name of the working class even if the working class did not support them, since the party would know what was best for the workers since its functionaries had attained consciousness.

Leninism was by definition authoritarianism. Lenin, through his interpretation of Marx’s theory of the state (which views the state as an oppressive organ of the ruling class), had no qualms of forcing change upon the country. The repressive powers of the state were to be used to transform the country and strip of the former ruling class of their wealth. In contrast to Karl Marx, who believed that the socialist revolution would be composed of and led by the working class alone, Lenin argued that a socialist revolution did not necessarily need to be led by or composed of the working class alone, instead contending that a revolution needed to be led by the oppressed classes of society, which in Russia was the peasant class.

A photo of Vladimir Lenin speaking from atop a wooden platform.

Vladimir Lenin: Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1924, was one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century.

Stalinism

Within five years of Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin completed his rise to power in the Soviet Union. According to G. Lisichkin (1989), Stalin compiled Marxism-Leninism as a separate ideology in his book Concerning Questions of Leninism. During the period of Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, Marxism–Leninism was proclaimed the official ideology of the state. There is no definite agreement among historians about whether or Stalin actually followed the principles established by Marx and Lenin.

A key point of conflict between Marxism-Leninism and other tendencies is that whereas Marxism-Leninism defines Stalin’s USSR as a workers’ state, other types of communists and Marxists deny this, and Trotskyists specifically consider it a deformed or degenerated workers’ state. Trotskyists in particular believe that Stalinism contradicted authentic Marxism and Leninism, and they initially used the term “Bolshevik-Leninism” to describe their own ideology of anti-Stalinist communism.

Stalinism, while not an ideology per se, refers to Stalin’s thoughts and policies. Stalin’s introduction of the concept “Socialism in One Country” in 1924 was a major turning point in Soviet ideological discourse, which claimed that the Soviet Union did not need a socialist world revolution to construct a socialist society. The theory held that given the defeat of all the communist revolutions in Europe in 1917–1921 except Russia’s, the Soviet Union should begin to strengthen itself internally. That turn toward national communism was a shift from the previously held Marxist position that socialism must be established globally (world communism), and it was in opposition to Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Four years later, Stalin initiated his “Second Revolution” with the introduction of state socialism and central planning. In the early-1930s, he initiated collectivization of Soviet agriculture, by deprivatizing agriculture, not putting it under the responsibility of the state but instead creating peasant cooperatives. With the initiation of his “Second Revolution”, Stalin launched the “Cult of Lenin” and a cult of personality centered upon himself.

Stalin’s regime was a totalitarian state under his dictatorship. He exercised extensive personal control over the Communist Party and unleashed an unprecedented level of violence to eliminate any potential threat to his regime. While Stalin exercised major control over political initiatives, their implementation was in the control of localities, often with local leaders interpreting the policies in a way that served themselves best. This abuse of power by local leaders exacerbated the violent purges and terror campaigns carried out by Stalin against members of the Party deemed to be traitors. Stalin unleashed the Great Terror campaign against alleged “socially dangerous” and “counterrevolutionary” persons that resulted in the Great Purge of 1936–38, during which 1.5 million people were arrested from 1937–38 and 681,692 of those executed. The Stalinist era saw the introduction of a system of forced labor for convicts and political dissidents, the Gulag system created in the early 1930s.

A photo of Joseph Stalin next to Nikolai Bukharin.

Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin: With the help of Nikolai Bukharin, Stalin developed the concept of “Socialism in One Country,” which contrasted with Marx’s concept of “world communism.”

The Soviet Socialist Republics

The satellites states that arose in the Eastern Bloc not only reproduced the command economies of the Soviet Union, but also adopted the brutal methods employed by Joseph Stalin and Soviet secret police to suppress real and potential opposition.

Learning Objectives

Define a Soviet Socialist Republic

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a federation of Soviet Republics that were outwardly independent nations, but existed essentially as satellite states under the control of Russian power.
  • During the opening stages of World War II, the Soviet Union laid the foundation for the Eastern Bloc by invading and then annexing several countries as Soviet Socialist Republics, adding to the existing Soviet Union of Russia, Transcaucasia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia.
  • The defining characteristic of communism implemented in the Eastern Bloc was the unique symbiosis of the state with society and the economy, resulting in politics and economics losing their distinctive features as autonomous and distinguishable spheres.
  • The Soviet-style “replica regimes” that arose in the Bloc not only reproduced Soviet command economies, but also adopted the brutal methods employed by Joseph Stalin and Soviet secret police to suppress real and potential opposition.
  • The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from October 23 until November 10, 1956.

Key Terms

  • Soviet: Derived from a Russian word signifying council, assembly, advice, harmony, concord, political organizations and governmental bodies associated with the Russian Revolutions and the history of the Soviet Union.
  • Eastern Bloc: The group of communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, generally the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact.
  • Soviet Socialist Republic: Ethnically based administrative units in communist states of Eastern Europe that were subordinated directly to the Government of the Soviet Union.
  • satellite state: A country that is formally independent in the world, but under heavy political, economic, and military influence or control from another country.

Formation of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc

The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a union of multiple subnational Soviet republics; its government and economy were highly centralized.

The Soviet Union had its roots in the October Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the provisional government that replaced the Tsar. They established the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (renamed Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1936), beginning a civil war between the revolutionary “Reds” and the counter-revolutionary “Whites.” The Red Army entered several territories of the former Russian Empire and helped local Communists take power through soviets, which nominally acted on behalf of workers and peasants. In 1922, the Communists were victorious, forming the Soviet Union with the unification of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian republics. Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s. Stalin suppressed all political opposition to his rule, committed the state ideology to Marxism-Leninism (which he created), and initiated a centrally planned command economy. As a result, the country underwent a period of rapid industrialization and collectivization which laid the foundation for its victory in World War II and post-war dominance of Eastern Europe.

During the opening stages of World War II, the Soviet Union created the Eastern Bloc (the group of communist states of Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War) by invading and then annexing several countries as Soviet Socialist Republics by agreement with Nazi Germany in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. These included eastern Poland (incorporated into two different SSRs), Latvia (which became the Latvian SSR), Estonia (which became the Estonian SSR), Lithuania (which became the Lithuanian SSR), part of eastern Finland (which became the Karelo-Finnish SSR) and eastern Romania (which became the Moldavian SSR).

A map depicting the Socialist Republics of the Soviet Union.

Soviet Republics: Eastern Bloc area border changes between 1938 and 1948

Satellite States

According to Article 76 of the Constitution of the Soviet Union, a Union Republic was a sovereign Soviet socialist state that had united with other Soviet Republics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Article 81 of the Constitution stated that “the sovereign rights of Union Republics shall be safeguarded by the USSR.” In 1944, amendments to the All-Union Constitution allowed for separate branches of the Red Army for each Soviet Republic. They also allowed for Republic-level commissariats for foreign affairs and defense, allowing them to be recognized as de jure independent states in international law. This allowed for two Soviet Republics, Ukraine, and Byelorussia, as well as the USSR as a whole to join the United Nations General Assembly as founding members in 1945.

Therefore, constitutionally the Soviet Union was a federation. In accordance with provisions present in the Constitution (versions adopted in 1924, 1936, and 1977), each republic retained the right to secede from the USSR. Throughout the Cold War, this right was widely considered meaningless, and the Soviet Republics were often referred to as “satellite states.” The term satellite state designates a country that is formally independent in the world, but under heavy political, economic, and military influence or control from another country. The term is used mainly to refer to Central and Eastern European countries of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.

For the duration of the Cold War, the countries of Eastern Europe became Soviet satellite states — they were “independent” nations, one-party Communist States whose General Secretary had to be approved by the Kremlin, and so their governments usually kept their policy in line with the wishes of the Soviet Union. However, nationalistic forces and pressures within the satellite states played a part in causing deviation from strict Soviet rule.

Conditions in the Eastern Bloc

Throughout the Eastern Bloc, both in the Soviet Socialist Republic and the rest of the Bloc, Russia was given prominence and referred to as the naibolee vydajuščajasja nacija (the most prominent nation) and the rukovodjaščij narod (the leading people). The Soviets encouraged the worship of everything Russian and the reproduction of their own Communist structural hierarchies in each of the Bloc states.

The defining characteristic of communism in the Eastern Bloc was the unique symbiosis of the state with society and the economy, resulting in politics and economics losing their distinctions and autonomy. While more than 15 million Eastern Bloc residents migrated westward from 1945 to 1949, emigration was effectively halted in the early 1950s, with the Soviet approach to controlling national movement emulated by most of the Eastern Bloc. The Soviets mandated expropriation of private property.

The Soviet-style “replica regimes” that arose in the Bloc not only reproduced Soviet command economies, but also adopted the brutal methods employed by Joseph Stalin and Soviet secret police to suppress real and potential opposition. Stalinist regimes in the Eastern Bloc saw even marginal groups of opposition intellectuals as a potential threat because of the bases underlying Stalinist power therein. The suppression of dissent and opposition was a central prerequisite for the security of Stalinist power within the Eastern Bloc, though the degree of opposition and dissident suppression varied by country and time throughout the Eastern Bloc. Furthermore, the Eastern Bloc experienced economic mismanagement by central planners resulting in extensive rather than intensive development, and lagged far behind their western European counterparts in per capita gross domestic product. In addition, media in the Eastern Bloc served as an organ of the state, completely reliant on and subservient to the communist party. The state owned radio and television organizations while print media was usually owned by political organizations, mostly the ruling communist party.

Hungarian Uprising of 1956

The Hungarian Revolution or Uprising of 1956 he Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from October 23 until November 10, 1956. Though leaderless when it first began, it was the first major threat to Soviet control since the USSR’s forces drove Nazi Germany from its territory at the end of World War II and broke into Central and Eastern Europe.

The revolt began as a student demonstration, which attracted thousands who marched through central Budapest to the Parliament building, calling out on the streets using a van with loudspeakers via Radio Free Europe. A student delegation, entering the radio building to try to broadcast the students’ demands, was detained. When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police (ÁVH) from within the building. One student died and was wrapped in a flag and held above the crowd. This was the start of the revolution. As the news spread, disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.

The revolt spread quickly across Hungary and the government collapsed. Thousands organised into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members were often executed or imprisoned and former political prisoners were released and armed. Radical impromptu workers’ councils wrested municipal control from the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party and demanded political changes. A new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost ceased and a sense of normality began to return.

After announcing willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On November 4, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarian resistance continued until November 10. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter. By January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition. These Soviet actions, while strengthening control over the Eastern Bloc, alienated many Western Marxists, leading to splits and/or considerable losses of membership for Communist Parties in the West.

Public discussion about this revolution was suppressed in Hungary for more than 30 years.

A photo of a Soviet Union flag with the communist coat of arms cut out hanging over a street. Military vehicles can be seen in the background.

Hungarian Revolution: Flag of Hungary, with the communist coat of arms cut out. The flag with a hole became the symbol of the revolution.

Culture of the Soviet Union

During Stalin’s rule, Soviet culture was characterized by the rise and domination of the government-imposed style of socialist realism, with all other trends severely repressed. At the same time, a degree of social liberalization included more equality for women.

Learning Objectives

Give examples of culture in the Soviet Union

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The culture of the Soviet Union passed through several stages during the USSR’s 69-year existence, from relative freedom to repressive control and censorship.
  • During the Stalin era, art and culture was put under strict control and public displays of Soviet life were limited to optimistic, positive, and realistic depictions of the Soviet man and woman, a style called socialist realism.
  • Despite the strict censorship of the arts and the repression of political dissidence during this period, the Soviet people benefited from some social liberalization, including more equal education and social roles for women, free and improved health care, and other social benefits.
  • Starting in the early 1930s, the Soviet government began an all-out war on organized religion in the country, and atheism was vigorously promoted by the government.

Key Terms

  • Russian Orthodox Church: One of the Eastern Orthodox churches, in full communion with other Eastern Orthodox patriarchates.
  • Socialist realism: A style of realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in other socialist countries.
  • Great Purge: A campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938 that involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and government officials, repression of peasants and the Red Army leadership, widespread police surveillance, suspicion of “saboteurs”, imprisonment, and arbitrary executions.

Overview

The culture of the Soviet Union passed through several stages during the USSR’s 69-year existence. People of various nationalities from all 15 union republics contributed, with a narrow majority of Russians. The Soviet state supported cultural institutions but also carried out strict censorship.

During the first 11 years following the Russian Revolution (1918–1929), there was relative freedom for artists, as Lenin wanted art to be accessible to the Russian people. On the other hand, hundreds of intellectuals, writers, and artists were exiled or executed and their work banned.

The government encouraged a variety of trends. In art and literature, numerous schools, some traditional and others radically experimental, proliferated.

Later, during Stalin’s rule, Soviet culture was characterized by the rise and domination of the government-imposed style of socialist realism, with all other trends severely repressed with rare exceptions like Mikhail Bulgakov’s works. Many writers were imprisoned and killed.

Lenin Years

The main feature of communist attitudes towards the arts and artists from 1918-1929 was relative freedom and significant experimentation with several different methods to find a distinctive Soviet style of art.

This was a time of relative freedom and experimentation for the social and cultural life of the Soviet Union. The government tolerated a variety of trends in these areas, provided they were not overtly hostile to the regime. In art and literature, numerous schools, some traditional and others radically experimental, proliferated. Communist writers Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky were active during this time, but other authors, many of whose works were later repressed, published work without socialist political content. Film, as a means of influencing a largely illiterate society, received encouragement from the state; much of cinematographer Sergei Eisenstein’s best work dates from this period.

Under Commissar Anatoliy Lunacharskiy, education entered a phase of experimentation based on progressive theories of learning. At the same time, the state expanded the primary and secondary school system and introduced night schools for working adults. The quality of higher education was affected by admissions policies that preferred entrants from the proletarian class over those of bourgeois backgrounds, regardless of the applicants’ qualifications.

The state eased the active persecution of religion dating to war communism but continued to agitate on behalf of atheism. The party supported the Living Church reform movement within the Russian Orthodox Church in hopes that it would undermine faith in the church, but the movement died out in the late 1920s.

In family life, attitudes generally became more permissive. The state legalized abortion and made divorce progressively easier to obtain, while public cafeterias proliferated at the expense of private family kitchens.

Culture During the Stalin Era

Socialist realism is characterized by the glorified depiction of communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat, with realistic imagery. The purpose of socialist realism was to limit popular culture to a specific, highly regulated faction of creative expression that promoted Soviet ideals. The party was of the utmost importance and was always to be favorably featured. Revolutionary romanticism elevated the common worker, whether factory or agricultural, by presenting his life, work, and recreation as admirable to show how much the standard of living had improved thanks to the revolution. Art was used as educational information.

Many writers were imprisoned and killed or died of starvation, including Daniil Kharms, Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and Boris Pilnyak. Andrei Platonov worked as a caretaker and wasn’t allowed to publish. The work of Anna Akhmatova was also condemned by the regime, although she notably refused the opportunity to escape to the West. After a short Ukrainian literature renaissance, more than 250 Soviet Ukrainian writers died during the Great Purge. Texts of imprisoned authors were confiscated, though some were published later. Books were removed from libraries and destroyed.

Musical expression was also repressed during the Stalin era, and at times the music of many Soviet composers was banned. Dmitri Shostakovich experienced a long and complex relationship with Stalin during which his music was denounced and prohibited twice, in 1936 and 1948 (see Zhdanov decree). Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian had similar cases. Although Igor Stravinsky did not live in the Union, his music was officially considered formalist and anti-Soviet.

A photo of a Soviet era statue characteristic of socialist realism, depicting a male worker holding a hammer aloft in his hand and a woman worker with a sickle aloft in her hand.

The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman: The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman by Vera Mukhina (1937), an example of socialist realism during the Stalin Era.

Society During the Stalin Era

During this period (1927-1953), the Soviet people benefited from social liberalization. Women were eligible for the same education as men and at least legally speaking, obtained the same rights as men in the workplace. Although in practice these goals were not reached, the efforts to achieve them and the statement of theoretical equality led to a general improvement in the socioeconomic status of women. Stalinist development also contributed to advances in health care, which marked a massive improvement over the Imperial era. Stalin’s policies granted the Soviet people access to free health care and education. Widespread immunization programs created the first generation free from fear of typhus and cholera. The occurrences of these diseases dropped to record-low numbers and infant mortality rates were substantially reduced, increasing the life expectancy for both men and women by more than 20 years by the mid-to-late 1950s. Many of the more extreme social and political ideas that were fashionable in the 1920s, such as anarchism, internationalism, and the belief that the nuclear family was a bourgeois concept, were abandoned. Schools began to teach a more nationalistic course with emphasis on Russian history and leaders, though Marxist underpinnings remained. Stalin also began to create a Lenin cult. During the 1930s, Soviet society assumed the basic form it would maintain until its collapse in 1991.

Urban women under Stalin were the first generation able to give birth in a hospital with access to prenatal care. Education also improved with economic development. The generation born during Stalin’s rule was the first in which most members were literate. Some engineers were sent abroad to learn industrial technology, and hundreds of foreign engineers were brought to Russia on contract. Transport links were also improved as many new railways were built–with forced labor, costing thousands of lives. Workers who exceeded their quotas, Stakhanovites, received many incentives, although many were in fact “arranged” to succeed by receiving extreme help, and their achievements then used for propaganda.

Starting in the early 1930s, the Soviet government began an all-out war on organized religion. Many churches and monasteries were closed and scores of clergymen were imprisoned or executed. The state propaganda machine vigorously promoted atheism and denounced religion as an artifact of capitalist society. In 1937, Pope Pius XI decried the attacks on religion in the Soviet Union. By 1940, only a small number of churches remained. The early anti-religious campaigns under Lenin were mostly directed at the Russian Orthodox Church, as it was a symbol of the czarist government. In the 1930s, however, all faiths were targeted: minority Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.

Famine and Oppression

Under Stalin, forced collectivization of farms was implemented all over the country, causing widespread famine and millions of deaths, primarily of Ukrainian peasants.

Learning Objectives

Explain the reasons for the recurring food shortages of the Soviet Union and how the government used hunger as a tool

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • With Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, the state sought increased political control of agriculture to feed the rapidly growing urban population and obtain a source of foreign currency through increased cereal exports.
  • This brought about widespread collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union, and by 1936, about 90% of Soviet agriculture had been collectivized.
  • Kulaks, a term referring to prosperous peasants and anyone who opposed collectivizations, were forcibly resettled to Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the Russian Far North, as well as sent to Gulags. In 1930 around 20,000 “kulaks” were killed by the Soviet government.
  • Widespread famine ensued from collectivization and affected Ukraine, southern Russia, and other parts of the USSR, with the death toll estimated at between 5 and 10 million.
  • The Holodomor, considered a genocide by many historians, was a man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 that killed an estimated 2.5–7.5 million Ukrainians.

Key Terms

  • kulaks: A category of affluent landlords in the later Russian Empire, Soviet Russia, and the early Soviet Union, especially any peasant who resisted collectivization. According to the political theory of Marxism-Leninism of the early 20th century, these peasants were class enemies of the poorer peasants.
  • Holodomor: A man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 that killed an estimated 2.5–7.5 million Ukrainians.
  • first Five-Year Plan: A list of economic goal, created by General Secretary Joseph Stalin and based on his policy of Socialism in One Country, including the creation of collective farming systems that stretched over thousands of acres of land and had hundreds of peasants working on them.

Collectivization

The Soviet Union enforced the collectivization of its agricultural sector between 1928 and 1940 during the ascendancy of Joseph Stalin. It began during and was part of the first Five-Year Plan. The policy aimed to consolidate individual landholdings and labor into collective farms. The Soviet leadership expected that the replacement of individual peasant farms by collectives would immediately increase the food supply for the urban population, the supply of raw materials for processing industry, and agricultural exports. Planners regarded collectivization as the solution to the crisis of agricultural distribution (mainly in grain deliveries) that began in 1927. This problem became more acute as the Soviet Union pressed ahead with its ambitious industrialization program.

In the early 1930s, more than 91% of agricultural land became “collectivized” as rural households entered collective farms with their land, livestock, and other assets. The sweeping policy came at tremendous human and social costs.

Despite the expectations, collectivization led to a catastrophic drop in farm productivity, which did not return to the levels achieved under the NEP until 1940. In the first years of collectivization, it was estimated that industrial production would rise by 200% and agricultural production by 50%, but these expectations were not realized. Stalin blamed this unanticipated failure on kulaks who resisted collectivization. However, so-called kulaks made up only 4% of the peasant population; Stalin targeted the slightly better-off peasants who took the brunt of violence from the OGPU and the Komsomol, who comprised about 60% of the population. Those officially defined as “kulaks,” “kulak helpers,” and, later, “ex-kulaks” were shot, placed in Gulag labor camps, or deported to remote areas of the country, depending on the charge. Archival data indicates that 20,201 people were executed during 1930, the year of Dekulakization.

The upheaval associated with collectivization was particularly severe in Ukraine and the heavily Ukrainian Volga region. Peasants slaughtered their livestock en masse rather than give them up. In 1930 alone, 25% of the nation’s cattle, sheep, and goats and one-third of all pigs were killed. It was not until the 1980s that the Soviet livestock numbers returned to their 1928 level. Government bureaucrats who had been given a rudimentary education on farming techniques were dispatched to the countryside to “teach” peasants the new ways of socialist agriculture, relying largely on Marxist theoretical ideas that had little basis in reality. The farmers who knew agriculture well and were familiar with the local climates, soil types, and other factors had been sent to the gulags or shot as enemies of the state. Even after the state inevitably succeeded in imposing collectivization, the peasants sabotaged as much as possible by cultivating far smaller portions of their land and working much less. The scale of the Ukrainian famine has led many Ukrainian scholars to argue that there was a deliberate policy of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Other scholars argue that the massive death totals were an inevitable result of a very poorly planned operation against all peasants, who gave little support to Lenin or Stalin.

Image of a Soviet propaganda poster for the farm collectivization, depicting three farmers grabbing three others walking away from the farmland trying to hide items under their clothes.

Collectivization in the Soviet Union: “Strengthen working discipline in collective farms” – Soviet propaganda poster issued in Uzbekistan, 1933

Famine

Widespread famine ensued from collectivization and affected Ukraine, southern Russia, and other parts of the USSR. The death toll from famine in the Soviet Union is estimated between 5 and 10 million people. Most modern scholars agree that the famine was caused by the policies of the government of the Soviet Union under Stalin, rather than by natural causes. According to Alan Bullock, “the total Soviet grain crop was no worse than that of 1931… it was not a crop failure but the excessive demands of the state, ruthlessly enforced, that cost the lives of as many as five million Ukrainian peasants.” Stalin refused to release large grain reserves that could have alleviated the famine, while continuing to export grain; he was convinced that the Ukrainian peasants had hidden grain away and strictly enforced draconian new collective-farm theft laws in response. Other historians hold it was largely the insufficient harvests of 1931 and 1932 caused by a variety of natural disasters that resulted in famine, ended with the successful harvest of 1933. Soviet and other historians have argued that the rapid collectivization of agriculture was necessary to achieve an equally rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union and ultimately win World War II. Alec Nove claims that the Soviet Union industrialized in spite of rather than because of its collectivized agriculture.

The Soviet famine of 1932–33 affected the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, leading to millions of deaths in those areas and severe food shortage throughout the USSR. These areas included Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, Volga Region and Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. Gareth Jones was the first western journalist to report the inhumane devastation. The subset of the famine within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Kuban, is called Holodomor. All affected areas were heavily populated by Ukrainians.

Holodomor

The Holodomor (Ukrainian for “extermination by hunger”), also known as the Terror-Famine and Famine-Genocide in Ukraine, was a man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 that killed an estimated 2.5–7.5 million Ukrainians, with millions more in demographic estimates. It was part of the wider disaster, the Soviet famine of 1932–33, which affected the major grain-producing areas of the country.

During the Holodomor millions of inhabitants of Ukraine, primarily ethnic Ukrainians, died of starvation in a peacetime catastrophe unprecedented in the history of the country. Since 2006, the Holodomor has been recognized by the independent Ukraine and 24 other countries as a genocide of the Ukrainian people carried out by the Soviet Union.

Some scholars believe that the famine was planned by Joseph Stalin to eliminate the Ukrainian independence movement. Using Holodomor in reference to the famine emphasizes its man-made aspects, arguing that actions such as rejection of outside aid, confiscation of all household foodstuffs, and restriction of population movement confer intent, defining the famine as genocide; the loss of life has been compared to the Holocaust. If Soviet policies and actions were conclusively documented as intending to eradicate the rise of Ukrainian nationalism, they would fall under the legal definition of genocide.

Photo of a street in the Ukraine with several people lying dead or dying and several others walking by.

Golodomor: Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 1933