CRF Blog

How Stalin Became Stalinist

by Bill Hayes

In How Stalin Became Stalinist for the New Yorker, Keith Gessen reviews Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 by Stephen Kotkin.

As Kotkin argued in the first volume, the October Revolution was actually two separate revolutions. One was the revolution in the cities, the storming of the Winter Palace, the fight for the Kremlin. The other, wider revolution took place in the countryside. There peasants who had for hundreds of years been subjugated and brutalized by the landed gentry rose up and chased them off their lands. They then reapportioned the land among themselves and got to work farming it. During the civil war, the Bolsheviks had staged periodic raids on the countryside to extract grain for the cities and the war effort — leading, eventually, to an immense famine in 1921 that killed millions — but, in the aftermath of the war, Lenin performed one of his patented strategic reversals and declared a New Economic Policy, or NEP, which partially legalized private enterprise and eased up considerably on the peasants. As a result, ten years after the October Revolution most of the land in the Soviet Union was in private hands.

For Stalin, this could not stand. In the arguments during the power struggles of the nineteen-twenties, he had used his support for the NEP to isolate its left-wing critics, notably Trotsky, but once he’d consolidated his power he became a critic, too. He believed that another European war was coming, and that, in order to survive it, backward Russia would have to industrialize. “We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries,” he declared in 1931. “We must make good this gap in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us.” Rapid industrialization would require that peasants deliver grain to the state on a set schedule; it would also require that many peasants become industrial workers. The U.S.S.R. needed large, mechanized farms, like those in the United States. And the independent, landowning peasantry was a threat. “Either we destroy the kulaks as a class,” Stalin said in 1929, using the term for rich or greedy (“fist-like”) peasants, “or the kulaks will grow as a class of capitalists and liquidate the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The tragedy of Stalin’s agricultural collectivization unfolded in stages. In the summer of 1929, more than twenty-five thousand “politically literate” young Bolsheviks fanned out from Moscow to the nation’s rural areas, charged with setting up the new collectives. In the villages, they encountered fierce resistance. Most peasants had no wish to give up their livestock and be herded to giant farms; they began, en masse, to slaughter their livestock and eat it. When Bolsheviks came to demand their grain, the peasants shot them — more than a thousand were killed in 1930 alone. In some ways, this resembled the back-to-the-people movement of the nineteenth century, in which young progressives had been sent to the countryside to be with “the people,” and the people had rejected them.

But this time the progressives returned with machine guns. The so-called kulaks were arrested and exiled, and sometimes shot. Their property was confiscated. Then the definition of “kulak” expanded. There were not two million well-off farmers in the impoverished U.S.S.R. in the late twenties. And yet that’s how many were arrested for being such. By the end of collectivization, five million people had been “dekulakized.”

The slaughter of livestock, the mass arrests, and the requisition of vast quantities of grain led, inevitably, to shortages. A cold spring and a dry summer in 1931 meant disaster. Local and regional bosses pleaded with Stalin to relax the grain-requisitioning quotas, but he was stinting about it; he believed that the peasants were holding out on him. Long after all the grain had been beaten and tortured from them, Stalin still thought that they had hidden reserves. People began to starve. When they tried to leave their villages and head for the cities, where the grain that had been taken from them was turned into bread, they were blocked by armed detachments; when they tried to break into the government silos where their requisitioned grain was kept, they were shot. Parents ate their children. Before it was over, between five and seven million people would die of starvation and disease. [more]