This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


Among the many flaming words which poured from the hearts of two hundred combined-harvester operators meeting in December 1935 in Moscow with the heads of Party and government, amid jubilation over present success and promises to make the future even more victorious, there was one poignant phrase of contrast with the past.

“We sons and daughters of peasants—had there been no Soviet power, no Party of Lenin-Stalin, our lot would have been slavery to kulaks, or dawnless poverty in the mire of small peasant farming.”

These words illumine with a piercing ray the tremendous changes that have taken place in the Soviet rural districts in a span of years so brief that the past still remains vivid in the minds of men not yet thirty years old. “When I worked as a fourteen-year-old farmhand under the tsar,” said the combine operator Kapusta, “I never saw the leaders of the government, never saw even the boss for whom I worked. . . . I never expected from life such happiness, such joy.”

Five years ago Kapusta was an unskilled worker. But not Kapusta alone; so were they all. What else but unskilled workers were there on the backward individual farms of peasant Russia, where fifteen years ago the tractor was stoned as a “devil machine?” Even five years ago, who among Russian peasants had ever seen a combine-harvester? Today not only are millions of peasants acquainted by sight with the most modern farm machinery, but hundreds of thousands have mastered its operation and make a more continuous use of it than is possible on the private farms of America, which are too small to utilize profitably this modern machine. The combine is already a machine too good for capitalism. The American average harvesting record per combine is 578 acres, while the Soviet average secured in 1935 was 643. The champion operators who met in Moscow spurned this average. They had made records of a thousand, two thousand and even twenty-five hundred acres for the harvest season, and were swearing a solemn oath to train before next harvest many more operators like themselves.

The time of this great advance has been so short that they can all look back as if to yesterday and recall the days of ignorance and poverty, when they slaved for wealthier farmers or wasted nine-tenths of their labor trudging from strip to strip of their medieval peasant fields. Today the very word “peasant” is passing from their vocabulary. They speak of themselves as “kolhozniks,” members of the collective economy, joint owners and users of the large-scale farm on which they work. They know quite well that if there had been no collectivization of farming, their slavery and darkness would have continued. For if modern machines had come to the Russian soil under capitalist conditions, a minority of successful farmers would have gained the means of production and risen to a brief wealth on the impoverishment of millions—brief until they in turn were robbed by the big banks of the cities, as farmers are under capitalism.

The years 1930 to 1933 will go down in mankind’s story as the turning point in the farm history of the world. No other events of those years will be so long remembered—not the struggles of the League of Nations, nor the American New Deal; not even the world-wide economic crisis which was but one more, the worst, of many crises. Even the rise of the Chinese Soviets and the turning of Central Europe to fascism may receive less space in future history books than the collectivization of Soviet farming, whereby men won the dream of centuries, security on the soil.

Security on the soil! Security from drought, from floods, from mortgages, from the chances of nature and the exploitations of man! Even to attain fragments of such security, if not for themselves then for their children, men of all ages have struggled and died. American families left the comforts of settled regions to homestead in dugouts, for the security promised by land ownership. Then drought or the foreclosure of mortgages showed that security based on private property in land is illusion. Markets collapsed and land was taken away for bare taxes. Soviet farmers today are winning not only security against taxes and mortgages and markets but even against drought and floods. Farming is industrialized on the basis of modern machinery and division of labor. Crop losses through “acts of God” are minimized by better tillage, crop insurance, and assistance from the more fortunate areas. The control of the joint farm is democratically organized; the general meeting not only elects the management, but decides the plan of the farm and the division of work. Security on the land thus co-exists with free initiative.

This change has occurred among people whose farming was formerly notoriously backward. Ten years ago in the central grain-growing regions of Russia, there were three homemade wooden plows for every metal plow. One-third of the peasants had no horse at all but labored for others to pay for the plowing of their own soil. Lands were divided according to a medieval system; the twenty acres of a single family might be divided into a dozen strips scattered miles apart. Scientific crop rotation and seed selection were unknown. The primitive methods of tillage steadily exhausted the soil. A typical study of grain crops in the Kirsanov district showed a steady decline of average yield from thirteen bushels per acre in 1896-1905 to ten and a half bushels in the five years preceding the World War. On this same land since the collective farm was organized in 1930 the yield rose by better tillage to an average of seventeen bushels in 1930-33, and twenty bushels in 1934-35.

In four earth-shaking years, the Soviet Union changed from a country of tiny, badly tilled holdings, worked with wooden plow and hand sickle, to the largest scale farms in the world.1 The initiative was taken by the poorer peasants and farm hands, urged and organized by the Communists, and assisted by government credits and machines. When the Five-Year Plan swiftly increased the farm machinery available, the new collective farm proved able to attract ever wider and wider groups of farmers. The movement was bitterly fought by the small rural capitalists known as kulaks, who farmed with hired labor, lived by money-lending, or owned small mills, threshers and other means of production and used these facilities to exploit their neighbors.2

The state’s donation to farming and the technical help supplied by city workers proved decisive. During the years from 1930 to 1935, the Soviet government issued more than a billion dollars of direct credits to the farms for livestock and implements and spent an additional three billion for farm machinery loaned through the tractor stations;3 it also gave food and seed loans of 157 million bushels of grain to farms in distress. At the call of the Communist Party tens of thousands of skilled workers, bookkeepers, machine repairmen, teachers and organizers, poured into the rural districts to help organize the farms. The most difficult period was from the 1932 to the 1933 harvest when kulak sabotage, added to difficulties of inefficient organization, caused a grain shortage that put the whole country on short rations. Success was won by the 1933 harvest which reached nearly 90 million tons of grain, the largest harvest ever known in the Russian land; it was succeeded by an equal or larger grain crop in 1934 and 1935. These harvest successes helped create a government budget surplus in 1934 of 437 million rubles, which was at once applied to cancel debts owed to the state by the farmers for early expenses of organizing and equipping the collectives. This wiped out 53 per cent of the still outstanding indebtedness, including all debts incurred prior to 1933.

The economic results of collectivization have been an increase in the sown area of 30 million acres, from 293 to 323 million; a grain crop which for three years has been 15 to 20 million tons higher than the average for the five years before the collectives were formed;4 an area sown to sugar beets which is double the pre-war or any previous record; and an area sown to cotton which is two and a half times either the pre-war or the re-collectivization area. Livestock suffered catastrophically during the early years of collectivization but has been climbing rapidly back in the past three years.5 The indications for the future are even brighter, since the rapidly improving methods of tillage and increase of fertilizer are counted upon to increase harvest yield year by year.6 At the end of 1935 Stalin in conference with the harvester-combine operators announced that “in the very near future, in three or four years,” 120 to 130 million tons of grain would be expected from the farms.

By 1935, the new forms of collective farming were sufficiently stabilized for the permanent fixing of boundaries. For at least two years practically no members had wished to leave the collective farms to return to individual farming; crop rotations and the location of fields were becoming settled. The Soviet Government thereupon issued a decree granting “perpetual use of land” to the farm collectives. All over the country today rapid surveying of boundaries goes on followed by village celebrations which record the deed for perpetual use. Speakers celebrate the change of recent years, recalling days when most of the land was owned by landlords and tenant peasants worked in the slavery of debt, when freehold peasants sold their land bit by bit to pay taxes. “From perpetual debt to perpetual ownership is the change we have made,” said a Tartar farmer.

In place of the old disused boundary posts with the tsarist eagle and the inscription “Each for his own,” there arise new boundary posts with the sickle and hammer and the letters, “USSR.” All the land is unitedly owned by the whole country of workers and farmers, say these symbols; its use is granted perpetually to specific organizations of working farmers. As Soviet citizen, the farmer is ultimate owner, as working farmer, he is permanent user. Both ownership and use are democratically organized and the relation of the smaller group to the whole country is fixed in part by permanent law and in part by annual contracts designed to encourage efficient production and to guarantee right to the fruits of toil. Security is gained by the permanent use of land which cannot be alienated by sale, lease, or mortgage. Freedom is secured by the democratic organization of both farm and country.

What is this group which thus becomes permanent user? The model constitution adopted by the Congress of “Farm Udarniks”7 and ratified by the Soviet Government February 17, 1935, states that it is a “voluntary union of working farmers” who unite “in order to build with joint means of production and jointly organized labor a collective, i.e., a social husbandry, to secure full victory over the kulak and over all exploiters, to secure full victory over need and darkness, over the backwardness of small individual husbandry, to create high productivity of labor and thus insure a better life for the members.

“All boundaries formerly dividing the fields of the members are abolished. . . .

“All draft animals, farm implements, seed reserves, fodder for the collective livestock, and buildings necessary to carry on the joint farming and the processing of the farm products are socialized. . . .

“Living quarters, family cattle and fowls and the buildings necessary for their use are not socialized but remain for the private use of the members’ family.”8

All persons over sixteen who toil on the farm have equal vote. The general meeting elects the management, accepts or expels members, decides in conference with state experts the plan for farm production, crop rotation and new improvements and sets aside within certain limits private family garden plots ranging from half to one and a half acres for the individual use of members. It also contracts for the use of machinery from the Machine Tractor Station, a service center which supplies machines and expert knowledge over about a fifteen mile radius. These stations were originally organized and financed by the state but are becoming in part co-operatively owned through shares taken by the collective farms they serve. The farm must make certain deliveries of crops to the state at low prices fixed by a state commission; it must also pay the tractor station in kind. These two payments amount to about one-fourth of the average Crop; as tractor station service increases and with it the payments for machinery, the direct deliveries to the state somewhat diminish, moving towards a time when the state will receive its quota as direct payment for machinery.

When these deliveries are made, and the seed and fodder fund set aside, the rest of the harvest may be divided among the members in proportion to the work they have done. The “work-day” is the unit for payment, but work-days are of different value according to the quantity and quality of work done. A tractor driver’s day may count as two ordinary work-days, a night watchman’s as three-quarters of a day. When possible, work-days are related to a definite amount of labor done—an area plowed or harvested—and additions or subtractions are made for work above or below the norm. The general meeting also sets aside part of the income for expansion and common uses such as field kitchens and day nurseries. This at first led to abuses by over-zealous farm officials wishing to build up central funds, but these amounts are now limited. In the past two years, the increased harvests have led to an increasing surplus above the government deliveries and the food required by the members. This may be freely sold, either individually or collectively, and either in town markets or through the village co-operatives, which have been greatly strengthened during the past year.

Some fifty miles from the railway, in a northern flax and rye district, the Kalinin Collective Farm showed me its “Farm Plan,” a document of eighteen long pages, neatly stitched into a pamphlet. It was a printed form issued by the Commissariat of Agriculture, with details filled out by the local organization. Acreage, meadows, arable land, orchards, crop rotations, farm implements, draft animals, cows, pigs and chickens—everything you could wish to know about the Kalinin farm is here recorded. Not only are all people listed but allowance is made for babies yet unborn; an estimated 2 per cent annual increase of population must be provided with a growing standard of living. The farm plans to provide food for people and animals, produce the marketable crops recommended for the district, erect new buildings, reclaim new fields and create an increasingly prosperous life for its members. To this end work must be assigned to use as far as possible the entire working-time of the hundred able-bodied members.

The farmer-members have discussed this plan for months before they adopted it. The township surveyor helped them plot the fields; the township land office and the Soviet newspapers have informed them that the country’s standard of living is to double by 1937, and that they must do their share. This involves increasing wheat at the expense of rye, doubling the oat ration of their horses, increasing fats and meats. They know that the state expects from them a certain amount of flax, the chief marketable crop of their district. On the basis of all this knowledge they plan for the coming year, counting on a constantly increasing crop yield through more machines and fertilizer and better methods, and on a constantly increasing prosperity through the rational assignment of work to the members. The plan includes the labor organization, with the number of total work-days needed for sowing and harvest, and the amount of labor left over for building a new library, equipping a playground and stadium or installing electricity and radios. No one need be out of a job, for all labor can be utilized to increase in various ways the prosperity and culture of the village; all will be paid by shares in the joint harvest, according to the quantity and quality of work done.

When the entire plan is accepted by the general meeting, it is registered with the township office and becomes part of the economic plan of the whole country, which is derived from and in turn controls all lesser plans. Sowing and harvest are not the affair of the individual farmer only; they are the great annual rhythm on which the nation’s life depends. The whole country knows this and relates itself consciously to the plans of the farmers. Scientific conferences consider questions of insect pests and seed selection; heavy industry makes plans to manufacture more tractors. Government and Party congresses outline the changing demands which the growing life of the land makes on farming—increase of area or yield, or a change in the proportion of crops. Congresses of farmers meet by township, province and on national scale to discuss problems of tillage and farm organization. The Russian winter which in former days was a season of hibernation in snow-bound villages, is today a season of active farm-planning on a nationwide scale. Not even the farthest farm is isolated; visits of experts and newspaper campaigns keep it in touch with the life of the country.

When spring begins in the south, hundreds of press correspondents pour forth to cover the sowing. Izvestia alone sends a dozen staff correspondents and tells sixty local correspondents to concentrate on farm news. The Peasants’ Gazette keeps several small airplanes busy, each as the center of a group of a dozen persons covering the farms. The news-gathering organization which some of the Soviet newspapers put on the sowing or harvest is beyond the scope of the biggest dailies in the capitalist world. Every provincial paper adds its reporters. The story is the world’s biggest annual story with more reporters than covered the World War!

These reporters are not mere observers; their reporting is planned to help the harvest. One journalist of my acquaintance spent forty-four days in an airplane covering harvest in the North Caucasus; he visited one hundred farms and forty Tractor Stations, and slept in the fields without one night in a bed. His reporting was for a concrete purpose; he would drop in a field, apply his yardstick and count the grain ears lost on a square yard of harvested ground; he compared various farms, discovered which ones harvested best and how they did it. Within three days he was meeting with other journalists who made similar surveys; they discussed the chief harvest problems of the season and the best ways in which these were being met. These results were at once radioed to all the farms and published through the press of the country for the benefit of other farmers as the harvest traveled north. Every season hundreds of new ideas are thus culled from the experience of the farmers and broadcast by press and radio for the use of other farms.

“A characteristic trait of the collective farm system,” says Vaviloff, chief of the Plant Institute. of Leningrad, “is its ability to assimilate new technical methods and make new scientific experiments.”

The most striking example of the organization of great masses of farmers under the leadership of science was shown by the united fight of 1934 against the great drought which affected the whole southern half of Europe, including large areas in the Ukraine and Crimea. In many places no rain fell from April till harvest. In days of individual peasant farming, the peasants would have killed cattle for food and gone to the cities for work, putting back agriculture for several years. The collective farmers met swiftly in delegate congresses to declare “War Against Drought.” They took stock of all resources and made plans to suit each region. Near the Dnieper river they seeded the overflow meadows. On the slopes of the Caucasus the Kabardinians dug thousands of miles of irrigation ditches, declaring: “We have mountains; we don’t need rain.” Other farms organized continuous hauling of water by fire-department wagons, or planted swamps and forest glades. Children stormed the fields in organized detachments to pull up every moisture-sucking weed. Scientists busily determined for each district what second crops could best grow where winter wheat had failed. The press gave directions about this second planting; the government shot in by fast freight the necessary seed. The USSR secured a crop equal to the bumper harvest of 1933, and even most farms in the drought-stricken regions came through with food for man and beast, and with organization strengthened.

The Soviet farmer has come out of his old isolation; he stands on the highways of the world. Through his collective farm, like the industrial worker through the factory collective, he connects with the wider life of science and art. Seven thousand farms in the Ukraine have established during the past two years their “laboratory cottages,” where the farmers carry on scientific experiments based on their own fields. In a typical one I found exhibits of wheat grown under varying conditions, samples of new crops, collections of insect pests, instruments for weather recording. “Sixty farmers take part in our experiments,” they told me. “We exchange data with the Zaporozhe Experimental Station.” These not long since illiterate peasants who grubbed the soil blindly are farmer-scientists now, collecting nationally useful data for the conquest of harvest yields.

More than a hundred thousand drama circles for self-expression have sprung up on Sovict farms. Sport and recreation of all types grow also with tremendous speed. Farmers learn gliding, parachute jumping, even aviation. The small farm airplane which can land on a harvested field is a not infrequent visitor in farm campaigns. Extra-early sowing done by air into the mud of melting snow is a recognized means of combating drought in many regions.

By no means all Soviet farms are yet well organized, but efficiency steadily increases. By no means all of them are prosperous, but prosperity steadily grows. The change which is most apparent is in the faces of the farmers. They have lost the dull, unresponsive stare of the peasant; they are more vivid, alert. “Formerly even the peasant with the best income lived like a pig,” said a Soviet farmer to me. “His only use for his surplus was to get drunk. Today he has a reading-room, a hospital, a school, a laboratory; he reads the newspapers and knows about the world. His children go from the village to build factories, to discover minerals, to conquer the Arctic, to become ‘heroes of the Soviet Union.’”

More than two million letters 2 year from farmers pour into the offices of the Peasants’ Gazette in Moscow, a high-piled mountain covering many tables. I asked an editor how their contents revealed the changing life of the farm. “When our paper began its existence,” he said, “in the years before collectivization, we got chiefly individual complaints and requests for simple information on farm technique. ‘My taxes are too high!’ ‘How shall I care for my cow?’ Such were the letters.

“What do they write about now? The education of children, the position of women, the farm theater, the economic crisis in foreign lands. We got five hundred original poems on the death of Kirov and seventy on the disaster to the Maxim Gorky airplane. They comment on world affairs, on China and Italy. You can’t compare them with what they were ten years ago. Instead of ‘my horse and cow,’ their interest is wide as the world.”

On the northern slopes of the Caucasus mountains, a small district of once suppressed non-Russians, known as Kabardinia, prides itself on creating “the farms of tomorrow.” Its collective farmers have been known to vote the greater part of a harvest surplus to add to the government’s school fund and build for their own village “the best school in the valley.” They bring architects from Moscow to help them plan “farm-cities,” settlements which shall combine expert farming with the culture of the town, high schools, laboratories, libraries, sound-film theaters. A forty-mile highway runs through the Kabardinian valley. Last summer travelers passing, on foot or by cart, found seven rest-stations at five-mile intervals. Brightly painted, tile-roofed pavilions were furnished with wash-basins and beds with fresh linen; large plates of watermelon were placed on the table to quench the visitor’s thirst. An old man attendant refused all payment for the refreshment, saying: “This is the farm ‘Dawn of Socialism’; we planted two extra acres of melons for the traveler.”


1.  In the United States farms of a thousand acres or more comprise only 7.5 per cent of the total tilled area; in the USSR in 1935, nine-tenths of the tilled area was made up of farms averaging thirteen hundred acres.

2.  Writers unacquainted with Russian rural life often confuse kulaks with peasants generally, which leads them to describe the whole collectivization movement as an attack on the peasants. But for half a century students of Russian rural districts have spoken of kulaks. In 1895 Stepniak wrote that “hard unflinching cruelty” was their main characteristic; in 1904 Wolf von Schierhand wrote of the kulak as a “usurer and oppressor in a peasant’s blouse.” In 1918 Dr. E. J. Dillon, in The Eclipse of Russia, said: “Of all the human monsters I have ever met in my travels, I cannot recall any so malignant and odious as the Russian kulak.”

3.  For tractor stations 5.5 billion rubles, for direct loans 1. billion; these were “hard rubles” whose value may be estimated as fifty cents.

4.  The average before collectivization was 78 to 80 million tons; in 1933 and 1934, 90 million; in 1935 nearly 100 million tons.
Cotton area 688,700 hectares in 1913; 802,000 in 1927, and 2,051,000 in 1933.
Sugar-beet area 648,700 in 1913; 665,000 in 1927, and 1,212,000 in 1933.

5.  See Chap. 7.

6.  As an example 46 per cent of all spring seeding in 1935 was done on winter-fallowed land, as compared with 25 per cent in 1930, and three-fourths of the autumn sowing in 1935 was done on summer-fallowed land as compared with 30 per cent in 1930. Similar increases have occurred in the use of selected seed, of fertilizer, scientifically planned crop rotations, and so forth.

7.  A delegate congress from the farms that have made the best records; their recommendations have weight as expressing the best farm practice.

8.  Up to two head of milch cattle, one brood sow and her brood, ten sheep and goats, unlimited rabbits and chickens and twenty bee-hives in the grain, cotton, and beet regions; larger numbers are allowed for individual use in the regions devoted to livestock.

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