“Collectivization was a step forward. Brutal, bloody, but in a sense natural”

Historian Mikhail Beznin about “the year of the great change” and its consequences

“Collectivization was a step forward. Brutal, bloody, but in a sense natural” Photo: cultinfo.ru

Ninety years ago, on 20 October 1929, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU CC) officially proclaimed the complete collectivization of agriculture. Pravda newspaper announced about its beginning on 31 October, and the actual start of the complete collectivization was given by the article A Year of Great Change authored by Joseph Stalin, published in Pravda on November 7 on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the October Revolution. In it, the secretary general claimed that the “mass kolkhoz movement” had begun and there had been a “great change in the depths of the peasantry itself” in favour of the kolkhozs (collective farms). Henceforth, the country had to receive bread steadily, and the families of a number of wealthy peasants turned out to be unnecessary in the new village and were subject to expulsion from it. In the interview with Realnoe Vremya, Mikhail Beznin, Doctor of Historical Sciences, the author of a number of works on the agrarian history of the country, spoke about why collectivization is both a tragedy and a forced move of the authorities, whether the village of the ‘20s was a model of agricultural economy to follow and whether the kulaks became the real enemies of the Soviet power.

“Russia followed the way of primitive accumulation of capital in the classic tough version. Its main period was collectivization”

Doctor Beznin, one can find more frequently in the scientific literature and publications the conclusion that collectivization was necessary. That the country had to receive a sufficient amount of bread, as the military threat was still looming, and was even increasing. Besides, the sold bread had to bring the currency necessary for industrialization. Do you agree with this opinion?

Today, there are different points of view on this question. I see the following picture: from the world of agrarian society in due time there began to emerge different civilizational formations, and the society, which I call capitalized, emerged. Previously, most of the population had used their own land, their small plot, and mostly produced for themselves. Of course, the representatives of the political authorities managed to take away some of the products of this production through various non-economic methods — in Russia, it was socage and servage, later some food products went to the strata of urban artisans (later — the owners of factories) in exchange for their products needed by agriculture. The new society was becoming marketable, the main product was produced for sale, but I call this society capitalized because it was no longer based on labour, but on capital.

Different countries were transferring from agrarian society differently, and most dominant theory of the new society was the theory of the primitive accumulation of capital when a small owner is expropriated, and there is a concentration of capital, which produces commodity industrial production. There are other points of view on the emergence of a new capitalist society — scientists said that it was formed through economy, thrift and consolidation of capital.

I adhere to the first point of view and believe that Russia followed the way of the primitive accumulation of capital in its classic hard version. And its main period was the period of collectivization. Before collectivization, 4/5 of the country's population was sitting in the countryside, in Russia, there were 25 million peasant farms engaged in self-oriented labour and some kind of commodity exchange, which the state tried to increase in various ways. But commodity exchange was not always successful, and in the early ‘30s, for the sake of the primitive accumulation of capital, the authorities took away more than two tithes of land from each family, took away cattle, for the sake of marketability they organized kolkhoz and sovkhoz enterprises, and a significant part of the population was moved to industry by various methods.

So, from the point of view of the theory of the primitive accumulation of capital, collectivization has logic and rule, and there was no some Russian unique way. We just went the same way in the twentieth century, unlike England and other countries that went through it in an earlier time. Of course, the Soviet Union had its own great specificity — the country was multinational, with the Communist ideology that ensured the management of the society. Any ruler always explains to society what he does, even the Chinese emperors ruled the people not only by force but also ideologically. So it was in the USSR: there was Communist propaganda, but they were transforming the agrarian society into a state capitalist system.

Photo: little-histories.org
From the point of view of the theory of the primitive accumulation of capital, collectivization has logic and rule, and there was no some Russian unique way. We just went the same way in the twentieth century, unlike England and other countries that went through it in an earlier time

The propaganda claimed that the kolkhoz was a step forward. Was that really so?

Collectivization was a step forward if we are talking about the transition to a more modern type of economic structure. Yes, this step was cruel, bloody, as well as at many other transformations, but in a certain sense natural.

“Did Russia have time for the ‘Bukharin alternative’?”

Was it possible to carry out this step forward through “Bukharin's alternative”, which included commodity cooperation of peasants and the state? Or cooperation had many pros and cons?

Pros and cons are a kind of moral assessments, not categories of historical science. For example, Gaius Julius Caesar is a figure with what sign, plus or minus? Caesar was a historical figure who carried out transformations in Ancient Rome, and for some strata, they were a plus, for others — a minus.

Yes, there was an alternative from Bukharin, Lenin spoke about cooperation and it was his ideas that were incorporated into the Bukharin concept, and among scientists, this idea was most promoted by Chayanov (Alexander Chayanov, a Russian and Soviet economist, the founder of interdisciplinary peasant studies — editor’s note). Such path was to be softer and longer, it involved the accumulation of capital in light industry, then mass production and the production of funds in heavy industry.

But did Russia of that time have enough time for this? Would we have gone this way before 1941 to any extent, would we have been ready for the war as we were with the collectivization, or would we have lost our independence? It's all in the subjunctive domain, and as a historian, I don't do that. This is futurology or something like that.

It turns out that the crisis of grain procurement (a small amount of grain handed over by peasants to the state gave rise to a shortage of bread — editor’s note), which led to collectivization, clearly showed that without kolkhozes the country would be with no bread?

That’s right. In the late ‘20s, the authorities made an attempt to solve the problem of bread shortages through contracting, that is, by pre-agreed with individual farms supply of certain volumes of grain, which would create cities and factories and to pull away the labour force from the village. But nothing worked out with this method.

Photo: zeir.ru
In the late ‘20s, the authorities made an attempt to solve the problem of bread shortages through contracting, that is, by pre-agreed with individual farms supply of certain volumes of grain, which would create cities and factories and to pull away the labour force from the village. But nothing worked out with this method

So, thanks to collectivization, the country won the war?

Collectivization was, first of all, the opportunity to create a capitalized system, and this system started to work. The transition from agrarian to predominantly industrial, urban capitalized society finally takes place in the late ‘50s-60s, at this time the history of agricultural society finishes, and already in the ‘60s we see that the majority of the population lives in the city, consumes clothes, fabrics, furniture. And if we compare the end of the ‘20s and the end of the ‘80s, these are generally two different societies: in the first, only 20 per cent of the population lived in cities, and already in 60 years later — almost 80 per cent. The ratio of industrial and agricultural production also turned in favour of industry.

Photo: burckina-new.livejournal.com
Collectivization was, first of all, the opportunity to create a capitalized system, and this system started to work

“In the ‘90s, we destroyed state capitalism and moved to the private path”

Do you agree with your colleague Viktor Kondrashin that it is too early to give an unambiguous assessment of collectivization?

I do. Science is the competition of views, there is no absolute truth in it, and if any scientist claims to be absolute truth, he needs to end with science and go to the temple — there is the truth called “faith”. We argue, and that's okay.

What objective position on collectivization can be there? Only object can have it, but we are all subjects of research. I believe that there was no socialism in collectivization. As I said, this was the primitive accumulation of capital, and in the village, there was no socialist construction, but state capitalist one.

Dekulakization of peasants in the village of Udachnoye, Donetsk Oblast, 1931. Photo: meduza.io

What did our history show 90 years after the beginning of the “Great turn”?

The subsequent history has shown that it is very difficult for us to step over the private capitalist path. In the ‘90s, we destroyed state capitalism and moved to the private path. What was that? The result of a deviation from the path or was everything natural and there can be no development without the stage of private capitalism, interrupted in 1917? This is a big question and only life will answer it. But the impact of collectivization, of course, is still there — primarily in the sphere of our worldview: we still remember it.

By Sergey Kochnev