Collectivization of Farms and Cotton Cultivation in Central Asia

In 1929, the collectivization of agriculture across the Soviet Union began as a strategic facet of Stalin’s First-Five Year Plan, yet it had tragic results in Central Asia: the deportation, imprisonment, and execution of millions; famine that killed millions more; and social upheaval and violence across rural areas (Eaton 15-16; Kamp 212). The Soviet central government required land and livestock owners to turn over their properties, livelihoods, and labor to collective farms (kolkhozes), or to factory-like state-run farms (sovkhozes). Many farmers resisted collectivization, which they viewed as the “second serfdom" (Fitzpatrick 67), and they were severely punished or even killed for their resistance (serfdom was banished in the Russian Empire in 1861). Nevertheless, 53 percent of peasant households in the Soviet Union were collectivized by 1931, and 93.5 percent by 1938 (Kassymbekova 84). Lotte Jacobi visited a number of collective farms in both Russia and Central Asia, and her descriptive photographs give us some perspective on the hardships of peasant life, even if not on the chaos and political challenges.

Cotton Cultivation and Production

Beginning in feudal times and continuing from the Tsarist colonization into the Soviet era, cotton drove the economy in the area of Western Turkestan that became Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In the years before the collectivization policies were set up in 1929, Central Asia already experienced increased Russian control over agriculture. Between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cotton cultivation expanded significantly (Kamp 112-113). As Marianne Kamp has written, Central Asia came to be seen as “a raw material-producing periphery to an empire with distant economic centers” (25-26). During Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, the Soviets further increased their control of the area when they built the Siberian-Turkestan Railway to connect the “cotton-growing regions of Central Asia with the grain-producing lands in Siberia” (Somerville 635).

As Adeeb Khalid has written, cotton came to serve as a symbol for Soviet control in Central Asia (Khalid 366). The Soviet central government prevented Central Asian peasants from using raw materials, such as cotton, to bolster their own economies (Kamp 25-26). Instead, cotton was shipped to Russia for processing into cloth (26). By increasing taxes and regulating finances for farms and factories, the conditions for full control and exploitation of industry and economy were being set (190). This included regulation of the prices and sales of cotton and silk in the 1920s. As Marianne Kamp has explained, when collectivization began in 1929, “the state effectively controlled cotton production through its monopoly on credit and promised cotton-growing peasants an adequate supply of grain in exchange” (190). However, Central Asia experienced a “cotton monoculture,” as collectivization forced many peasants to grow cotton instead of essential crops for food, a practice that led to food shortages, rather than the “adequate supply of grain” they had been promised.

Tractors and Factories

The advent of mechanization in the Soviet Union had an impact on the collectivization of agriculture, as well as on the cultivation and production of cotton. Most noticeable in the mechanization of farming was the increase in the use of tractors. Stalin viewed tractors as symbols of power and progress, much like that of the successful farming being done in the United States. The Stalingrad Tractor Plant, which opened in 1930, was designed by a US company, and construction was supervised by American engineers (Dodge and Dalrymple 167). As part of collectivization, Stalin created machine tractor stations (MTSs), which were centrally located to the surrounding farms and were owned and operated by the Soviet state. The MTSs were supposedly implemented to assist peasants and other hired labor on a cooperative basis. However, peasants, many of whom had to give their own tractors to the state, sabotaged Stalin’s forced collectivization by slaughtering livestock and minimizing sown areas (Patnaik 52).

American contract workers were only moderately successful in “transplanting” technologies and methods from American to Soviet soil due to their disregard of the “social, economic, and environmental peculiarities” of the area (Hale-Dorrell 301). The tractor plant in Stalingrad suffered due to the locals’ lack of experience in mass production and an untrained labor force. This inexperience extended into the production of cotton cloth as well. Although at first most of the raw cotton was sent to Russia to manufacture cloth, new cotton factories were created in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but poor management and an inexperienced work force hampered efficiency there as well.

The Cruelty of Collectivization

The goals of implementing rapid collectivization and increasing cotton production expanded the government’s control of both cotton and grain production and increased Soviet supervision of rural areas to make sure citizens were complying with the new policies (Kamp 72; Fitzpatrick 4). Rural villages were flooded by Communists from Soviet cities who, armed with disdain for the “backwardness” of rural life, served as officials enforcing collectivization (Fitzpatrick 3). Through mass exile and the restructuring of rural life, the Soviets effectively embedded government control in the daily lives of Central Asians (Kamp 218).

Ultimately, cotton cultivation and production fell well below the quotas mandated by the Soviet authorities due to a lack of instruction and experience in running kolkhozes and problems with new farming equipment and factory machinery. The tractor and the combine were not utilized efficiently to produce sufficient crop yields. In addition, the unfavorable climate, droughts, and rough land that proved difficult to farm exacerbated the situation. Farmers planted more and more land, but the shortage of labor and animal power left “great quantities of grain, sugar beets, and other crops unharvested,” which led to massive food shortages and starvation (Chamberlin 460). This era was filled with widespread violence, and even suicide among the kulaks, a derogatory name given to wealthier land-owning peasants who resisted the new policies and who were the targets of deportation through dekulakization (Eaton 15, 307). Resistance could be seen in protests and attacks on collectivizers. Peasants who refused to give up their livestock to collectives slaughtered tens of millions of animals for fear that having multiple animals would have them labeled as kulaks, thus leading to their deportation (Eaton 15, 135; Fitzpatrick 53). As a result of missed quotas, leaders were purged, and many farmers and local officials were exiled, imprisoned, or killed.

In response to widespread disorder and fear that this turmoil would harm productivity, Stalin wrote an article published in the Communist newspaper Pravda in the spring of 1930 announcing that he was pausing collectivization (Eaton 16). This caused confusion among farmers who then believed they were free to return to their previous lifestyles. However, the pause was temporary, and collectivization resumed in the fall of the same year (16). Still, rampant opposition and deaths forced the state to compromise, allowing peasant households “to have a small garden plot and a few animals of its own” (16).

Despite peasant protests against collectivization and the allowance of small private plots of land for personal use, little changed to improve the life of the peasants (Fitzpatrick 5-8). The combination of grain shortages, slaughter of livestock, drought, and low yields caused a famine from 1932-1934 that killed millions. The famine, as well as additional deaths from deportation, voluntary exile, malaria, and labor camps, led to population loss (Eaton 16; Kassymbekova). Furthermore, many peasants were forced into the “vast Security Police (secret police) prison system (gulag), where they became slaves, the largest single group in the industrial labor force” (Eaton 108). Nor did Central Asian women in particular fair well under collectivization. While collectivization was a major facet in the increase in women entering the workforce, their quality of life plummeted (Ilič 35; Kamp 224). Women did most of the hard labor of planting, growing, and harvesting cotton, plus shouldering the primary responsibilities of the children and home (Khalid 365; Eaton 14-15; Kamp 218, 224). Between smaller incomes, widespread famine, death and deportation, and the housing crisis as many flocked to cities, collectivization not only upended peasant society but “sharpened the gap between the modern and the traditional sector” (Eaton 16; Ilič 35; Lapidus 104).

Contributors: Lillian Rodriguez, Jessie Sentivan

Works Cited:

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Dodge, Norton T., and Dana G. Dalrymple. “The Stalingrad Tractor Plant in Early Soviet Planning.” Soviet Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, Oct. 1966, pp. 164-68.

Eaton, Katherine B. Daily Life in the Soviet Union. Greenwood Press, 2004.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Hale-Dorrell, Aaron. “The Soviet Union, the United States, and Industrial Agriculture.” Journal of World History, vol. 26, no. 2, Jun. 2015, pp. 295–324.

Ilič, Melanie. Women in the Stalin Era. Palgrave, 2001.

Kamp, Marianne. The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism. University of Washington Press, 2006.

Khalid, Adeeb. Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR. Cornell University Press, 2015.

Kassymbekova, Botakoz. Despite Cultures: Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.

Lapidus, Gail Warshofsky. Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change. University of California Press, 1978.

Patnaik, Utsa. “Peasants and Industrialization in the Soviet Union.” Social Scientist, vol. 16, no. 10, Oct. 1988, pp. 46–62.

Somerville, Henry. “The Soviet Five-Year Plan.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 19, no. 76, Dec. 1930, pp. 624–36.

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