Modernization of Russia

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The Russian Kulaks

The Russian Kulaks were a class of peasant farmers who owned their own land. The term "Kulak" was originally intended to be derogatory. Soviet propaganda painted these farmers as greedy and standing in the way of the "utopian" collectivization that would take away their land, livestock, and produce. "Kulak" means "fist" in Russian and may have had something to do with the supposed tight-fistedness of the Kulak class.1

Peter Stolypin a minister under Czar Nicholas II undertook agrarian reform in 1906. His program was to dissolve peasant communes and buy land from the nobility, then to divide the land among the peasants. This actually increased efficiency and boosted food production in the country-side by over 40%. Stolypin felt that by making peasants actual owners of the land and the product of their labor they would take a keener interest in land improvement and productivity. He felt that these peasants would also be more supportive of a stable Czarist state. In this he proved to be correct.2

During the Russian Civil War (1918-21) the Kulaks generally supported the White Russians who were fighting to restore the Czarist regime.3 The Kulaks in general understood that the Bolshevik government was antithetical to property ownership and would strip away the rights and land the Kulaks had worked so hard to acquire and maintain. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks won the Civil War.

After the Russian Civil War there was widespread famine throughout Russia. This was partly due to the war and partly due to the inefficiencies of collectivization. To relieve the hunger, Lenin attempted to confiscate grain from the peasants, including the Kulaks. Because not enough grain was collected he blamed the Kulaks and ordered not only that the Kulaks be deprived of grain themselves, but also any seed grain. He declared "Merciless war against the Kulaks! Death to them."4 This, of course, only had the effect of making the shortage more severe.

After Lenin's death, Stalin took power in the Soviet Union. He continued the policy of collectivization. But the repeated failure of communist policies continued, and supply problems became even more endemic as the policies were more rigidly enforced. A scapegoat had to be found. The Kulaks were blamed for recalcitrance and a campaign of deportation was begun that amounted to wholesale slaughter. Kulaks were transported to Siberia, which was bad enough. However, they were simply dumped off in the middle of nowhere, without food, supplies, or resources of any kind. Many more were forced to work their farms but not allowed to keep any of the their production - even for sustenance. Literally millions of Kulaks died. The exact number is not known, but estimates range from 4 to 8,000,000.5

Once dispossessed, the Kulaks no longer existed, except as an excuse to be used by the communist regime to attack the peasant class whenever it seemed convenient. Many of the people who died as "Kulaks" were shocked to find out that this accusation had been laid upon them and that they were to suffer or die for it.

The collectivization of Russian farms proved to be such a dismal failure that shortages would occur year after year. Even the Soviet Army was sent into the countryside to help sow, tend, and harvest food. Even so, five year plan quotas were never met. Even by the 1970s farm production could not be brought up to levels that would feed the Soviet population. Food had to be imported from the United States merely to maintain subsistence levels.6 This was a factor in the RAND Corporations suggestion to the Reagan Administration that the United States could win the Cold War by outspending the Soviets militarilly, forcing them to deprive their economy even further.

The unfortunate demonization and destruction of the Kulaks would be among the many factors that would ultimately weaken the Soviet Union - leaving it susceptible first to the massive invasion by Germany during the "Great Patriotic War", and to final economic defeat in the Cold War. The Kulaks could have made valuable contributions to the Russian nation. However, this vital human resource was tossed aside by the ideologically blind communists, and the need to maintain power of the dictator, Stalin.

  1. What Is a Kulak?
  2. Stolypin and Land Reform
  3. Social Identities and Moral Economy in the Soviet Countryside in the 1920s
  4. Lenin and the First Communist Revolution
  5. Genocide in the 20th Century
  6. Collectivization