In the Soviet era, farm land. Like all land, was owned by state. About two thirds of all farmland was worked by collectives. There were around 40,000 collective farms and 9,000 state farms. Soviet agriculture emphasized high output regardless of the costs. In a famous speech Khrushchev said of the United States “we will bury you” in meat and milk production.

Food produced by farms was sold to the state at fixed prices that were generally lower than the prices of the same food sold on the open market. As a result the farms were dependent on government subsidies to remain a float.

In the Soviet era, harvests were lost to poor storage and transportation. Poor use of fertilizers hurt the soil, damaged crops and polluted waterways. Shallow plowing caused soil to be blown away and moisture to evaporate from the soil. The Soviet Union imported a lot of grain for human consumption so that domestically produced grain could be used to feed livestock. In 1981, Soviets consumed 126 million tons of grain. Their animals consumed 186 million tons.

Agricultural productivity was low. Farmers lacked incentives to be productive; infrastructure and transportation problems prevented food from getting from the fields to people's homes before it spoiled; poor land management exhausted soils and water supplies. There were also weather problems. The low productivity resulted in shortages and even famines.

To increase productivity, chemical fertilizer plants were built, hybrid-seed programs were developed, insecticides were used, rivers were irrigated. Many of these programs had negative effects on the environment.

Farm Workers in the Soviet Era

One of the Soviet Union's biggest problems was transporting goods. It often produced enough food but getting the food from the farms to consumers in the cities was a different story. There was usually plenty of food in the south. It was around the large cities in the north where the most severe shortages occurred. In the 1970s and 80, plane ticket were cheap enough that a Georgian farmer could fly 3000 miles to Moscow or St. Petersburg with a suitcase of oranges or tangerines, sell them and fly back with a good profit to show the effort.⌂

Soldiers and students were used to harvest potatoes and cabbages. One farm supervisor told the Washington Post, "The children are helping us save the carrots. Without them, almost all the carrots would stay in the fields." Even today, elementary schools are sometimes closed for couple of days so students can help in the carrot harvest. This custom dates to the Communist and even tsarist era. Elementary school students usually work from morning until lunch time and are allowed to home a bucket full of carrots. Soldiers participating in the cabbage harvest have traditionally been allowed to keep as many heads as they could carry. In the 1990s, soldiers were given cabbages and sacks of potatoes as pay.

Collectives, Communes and State Farms

Most Soviet era farms were generally either collectives (kolkhoz) or state farms ((sovkhoz). Collectives were cooperative organizations in which farmers joined together to collectively raise crops on land worked in common. The farmers were paid in food (grain, vegetables, milk and meat) and money earned by the collective. Sometimes the term collective farm and commune was used interchangeably.

In the Soviet agricultural system, a collective farm (kollektivnoye khozyaystvo--kolkhoz) was an agricultural "cooperative" where peasants, under the direction of party-approved plans and leaders, were paid wages based in part on the success of their harvest. A state farm (sovetskoye khozyaystvo--sovkhoz) was government-owned and government-managed agricultural enterprise where workers were paid salaries. Collectives and state farms still existed in the 1990s.

A commune was a groups of many cooperatives. A typical one embraced 60 villages and 20,000 members. All buildings, tools, machines, land and dwellings are owned by the commune. People worked in teams of 150 to 600 people and were paid a small wage and given clothing, food and housing.

State farms were "factory type" farms that specialized mainly in one kind of crop or one kind of animal. They were set up and run by the state. Workers were treated the same as factory workers and paid a regular salary. The state assumed all the risk and owned the land.

About two third of all farmland was worked by collectives. A typical collective farm cover an area of one square kilometer and included 720 people, 470 houses, 20 tractors, 4 harvesters, and 5 combines. The largest collective farms covered more than 62,000 acres (twice the size of Malta). Tractor stations dispensed machinery, seed, fertilizer and expertise.

Soviet Collectives and State Farms

The 26,700 state and collective farms in the Soviet Union where home to 27 million people. Some collectives had their own dry cleaners, beauty parlors, restaurants and saunas. Some collectives used conveyor belts to feed pigs.

Truck drivers earned about $500 a month. Drivers of combines were paid more and given bonuses based on tons harvested. Workers on collective farms were allowed to keep one or two cows and sell the milk in the private sector.

Collective production and profits were distributed among the farmers by management. Salaries were based on the amount of work performed and the amount of food harvested Families were given about a quarter of a hectare to raise crops and animals.

Under the Soviet system there was no private ownership of land anywhere. Instead agricultural land was held as part of collective and state farms Farmers were allowed cultivate small private farm plots. These accounted for a disproportionate share of agricultural production—up to 30 percent of the total agricultural output in some places.


In the 1920s and 30s, Stalin government took over privately run farms, organized huge government-run state farms and order peasants to join together and form collective farms. Many peasants whose families had worked their land for centuries resisted and were forced to give up their farms and move to huge collective farms.

"Collectivization" was an aim to produce enough food for everyone and free people to factory workers. It was thought that fewer people would be able to produce more food under the system, but actually productivity dropped and peasantry was destroyed as a class and a way of life.

Stalin forced peasants into collective farms against their will and imposed impossible quotas. Police and party brigades carried off away food and seed grain. Mills and storage facilities were burned down and harvests were confiscated and exported while people went hungry to demonstrate to the world the success of "scientific socialism."

To satisfy the state's need for increased food supplies, the First Five-Year Plan called for the organization of the peasantry into collective units that the authorities could easily control. This collectivization program entailed compounding the peasants' lands and animals into collective farms (kolkhozy; sing., kolkhoz) and state farms (sovkhozy; sing., sovkhoz) and restricting the peasants' movement from these farms. The effect of this restructuring was to reintroduce a kind of serfdom into the countryside.

Agriculture Policy Under Stalin

Under Stalin the government socialized agriculture and created a massive bureaucracy to administer policy. Stalin's campaign of forced collectivization, which began in 1929, confiscated the land, machinery, livestock, and grain stores of the peasantry. By 1937 the government had organized approximately 99 percent of the Soviet countryside into state-run collective farms. Under this grossly inefficient system, agricultural yields declined rather than increased. The situation persisted into the 1980s, when Soviet farmers averaged about 10 percent of the output of their counterparts in the United States. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

During Stalin's regime, the government assigned virtually all farmland to one of two basic agricultural production organizations--state farms and collective farms. The state farm was conceived in 1918 as the ideal model for socialist agriculture. It was to be a large, modern enterprise directed and financed by the government. The work force of the state farm received wages and social benefits comparable to those enjoyed by industrial workers. By contrast, the collective farm was a self-financed producer cooperative that farmed parcels of land that the state granted to it rent-free and that paid its members according to their contribution of work. *

In their early stages, the two types of organization also functioned differently in the distribution of agricultural goods. State farms delivered their entire output to state procurement agencies in response to state production quotas. Collective farms also received quotas, but they were free to sell excess output in collective-farm markets where prices were determined by supply and demand. The distinction between the two types of farms gradually narrowed, and the government converted many collective farms to state farms, where the state had more control.

Collectivization and Kulaks

One of the main targets were kulaks, relatively rich peasants accused of exploiting peasants who worked for them. The kulaks were often the hardest working, most energetic and enterprising rural people but it was a misnomer to describe them as rich. They seldom owned more than a few acres and two or three horses and cows. They were useful in organizing peasant society and employing other peasants. Later the kulak label was use to describe any peasant who resisted collectivization, refused to turn grain over to the state or otherwise caused trouble.

Although the program was designed to affect all peasants, Stalin in particular went after the kulaks. Generally, kulaks were only marginally better off than other peasants, but the party claimed that the kulaks had ensnared the rest of the peasantry in capitalistic relationships. In any event, collectivization met widespread resistance not only from the kulaks but from poorer peasants as well, and a desperate struggle of the peasantry against the authorities ensued. Peasants slaughtered their cows and pigs rather than turn them over to the collective farms, with the result that livestock resources remained below the 1929 level for years afterward. The state in turn forcibly collectivized reluctant peasants and deported kulaks and active rebels to Siberia. Within the collective farms, the authorities in many instances exacted such high levels of procurement that starvation was widespread. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

"Collectivization" caused hardships particularly in the Ukraine and the Volga-Don region, the heart of the farming belt, where hundreds of thousands of farmers, many of them kulaks, resisted. Many were killed or sent to labor camps or remote areas of Siberia to start new villages and had their grain, homes and possessions were seized. Other protested the action by killing all their animals: sheep, cattle, pigs goats and even the horses and oxen that pulled their plows.

Great Famine in the Early 1930s

The two greatest famines in the 20th century were in China in the 1960s and the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The famine created by Stalin policies between 1929 and 1933 is believed to have caused 5 million and 40 million deaths. The hardest hit area was the Ukraine. The historian Robert Conquest estimated that 14.5 million people died, half of them children and 6.5 million of the kulaks, making it the second or third worst famine ever.

The famine was its worst between the spring of 1932 to the summer of 1933. Much of it was caused the decline of food production that accompanied collectivization. This in turn was caused when the people who worked the land were driven away or killed. At the time of the famine four fifth of the Soviet population was made up of peasant farmers.

There was initially plenty of food, but to fulfill the unrealistic quotas, nearly all of it was handed over the state. Some farmers stopped growing grain. There was no incentive to grow it because they had to turn it over to the state, with very little compensation. Those who didn’t turn over their grain were accused of “hoarding” and imprisoned or killed. Marxist brigades searched houses for food; peasant who looked healthy were singled out for intensive searches.

Farmers starved to death while working in the fields. Entire villages perished from starvation. One Ukrainian farmer who returned to his farm in 1933 after a year’s absence, found his village “almost extinct” and survivors living on grass, bark on and occasional rabbit. His brother told him when the food sources gave out: “Mother says we should eat her is she dies.” Survivors of the Great Famine recall piles of bodies and monasteries turned into orphanages. Many children were raised by their grandparents or in orphanages.

Book: Harvest of Sorrow by historian Robert Conquest.

Famine, Repression and the Export of Grain

Soldiers searched the homes for the presence for grain. People were issued internal passports to keep them from searching for food. People caught with any amount of grain could executed. Executions for food thefts and hoarding were randomly applied.

Fields were guarded against the hungry. People were executed for picking an ear of corn. There were so many reports of cannibalism that posters were printed to remind people that it was illegal. The borders were sealed. Few reports leaked out about the tragedy. Afterwards the Soviet government insisted the famine never happened, and Western government didn't push the issue, not wanting to raise tensions. Some say the whole process of collectivization and famines was orchestrated by Stalin to wipe out dissent in independent-minded Ukraine.

The famine was exacerbated by the Soviet government’s export of 3.5 million tons of grain during a two-year period in 1932-34 and the fact that peasant killed 50 percent of the country's livestock to protest collectivization. The famine would have been worse if Stalin hadn't allowed people to set up backyard garden plots so they could feed themselves.

Trofim Lysenko and the Famine

Trofim Denisoveich Lysenko (1898-1976) was a charlatan biologist who worked under Stalin and Khrushchev and found favor among Communist ideologues because his theories that acquired characteristics could be inherited seemed to confirm Marxist doctrine and transcended Darwinism and Mendel genetics, which were popular in the West.

Lysenko played a major role in the famine of 1932-34. A specialist in agronomy, he claimed that he developed a technique called vernalization that could "train" spring wheat to be winter wheat and produce additional harvests. Soviet agricultural specialists agreed to try his methods on a large scale even though his technique had not been properly tested. The result: failed crops and farming methods that contributed to the starving deaths of millions of people.

Lysenko’s “miracles” were supposed to cure the Soviet Union of the problems caused for forced collectivization, but they made them much worse. Lysenko sent Soviet biology back decades with his wacky ideas and caused the Soviet Union to miss out on the genetics revolution. He also supplied ideology for led pogroms. Colleagues that dared to speak out against his ideas, in many cases were imprisoned and even executed.

Book: Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science by Valery Soyfer (Rutgers University Press, 1995).

Collective Farm Organization

Authority for collective farms was determined by Soviet law or by rules drawn up by the collective farm. Each collective was run by a chairman-manager and board made up of Communist party loyalists theoretically elected by members of the collective. The collective farm chairman controlled all the resources and incomes.

The workers often worked in units called brigades or links that were directed brigade or link leaders. The only freedoms that ordinary members had was grow crops in small gardens. These small gardens produced a large share of Russia’s food stuffs, including meat, dairy products and vegetables. The size of the plots varied from place to place.

Communist agriculture has heavily mechanized. The state farms generally had their own tractors, combines, harvesters and other machinery. Initially collectives obtained their machinery through cooperative station and paid for the machinery with food. Later they possessed their own equipment.

Collectives, state farms and communes were often very inefficient. They often had armies of administrators, bookkeepers, veterinarians, dentists along with farmers that often wouldn’t hit the fields until 11:00am and sometimes did the threshing and winnowing by hand when their machines broke down. Collective agriculture was much better organized in eastern Europe that it was in the Soviet Union.

Collectives, state farms and communes are now largely things of the past.. One Russian said, "First they made everybody join collective farms. Then they made everybody leave collective farms. As a result, now there are no farmers and no collective farms."

Collective Farm Workers

Workers often worked in teams of "labor-day" units, with certain tasks regarded as requiring more labor than others. A day of harvesting for example might be worth a whole labor day while a day of milking might be worth only half a day. Workers "earnings" were drawn against their future "income" of labor days.

At the end of each labor day units were tallied up by the brigade or link leader. At the end of the year, earnings and labor days are added up. If there was a surplus of labor days, a workers might receive money, produce, vacation time or extra pension benefits. During the 1950s farmers who failed to fulfill their quota were thrown in jail.

As was true with factory workers, farm workers lacked incentives. A worker on a collective farm told the New York Times, since farmland belongs to the state "nobody is interested in working and producing on it." The man said he hated working on a the collective because his bosses were always telling him what to do.

Workers on collective farms in Eastern Europe sometimes earned a percentage of the revenue rather than a flat wage plus a bonuses for exceeding quotas. Workers on tobacco farms earned about 58 percent of the money earned on a given parcel of land.

Benefits on a Collective

Collectives provided education, housing and transportation. Workers enjoyed a lifestyle similar to that of industrial workers, receiving paid vacation and social benefits such as maternity leave, health insurance, pensions and access to cultural events and continuing education. Children were cared for in day care centers so their mothers could work. Old people were placed in special dwellings called "happy homes."

Each farm family usually had a small plot of land on which it was allowed to grow vegetables and raise animals. The food produced was supposed to be for the family's consumption. Sometimes extra food was sold for extra cash on the black market or authorized private markets. Farmers who had access to urban markets could earn a considerable amount of money.

A large collective farm usually had two or three kindergartens and schools, one or two hospitals and one cultural center that usually housed a library, several shops and a post office. Some also had forestry departments veterinary clinics, dairies and greenhouses. Rest sanitariums offered medical care and were the heart of the Soviet wellness campaigns.

Commune Life

Communes were intended to function like small cities or towns. They had their own manufacturing capabilities and farmers worked like factory workers. If need be people on communes could be mobilized for large non-agricultural labor-intensive projects.

People who lived in communes sometimes slept in dormitories and ate in mess halls. But mostly they lived in one- or two-room houses or huts they sometimes built themselves. Until the 1970s these homes often lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. In forested areas these were made of wood. In the steppes they were made of mud brick. In other places they were often made of concrete slabs or brick. They houses often had thatch or sheet metal roofs.

Men only had two days off a week and women had three days off. Women were given a month off after the gave birth. There were special tasks for children and old people. Students often studied at school for five hours in the morning and worked in the afternoons. Measures were taken to keep people from migrating to the cities.

Typical Day on a Collective Farms

Workers typically worked eight or nine hours a day and had weekends off. Sometimes when there was a lot of work to do they worked on the weekends. A typical day began at 5:00am when loudspeaker woke everyone up. After roll call, calisthenics and breakfast of dark bread and grits, people worked in the fields.

Around 12:00noon the workers took a break for lunch, which was often made in a barn near the fields and served to workers near where they were working. It often consisted of stew or borscht served from a common pot served with potatoes, black bread and salted pork.

Work usually ended around 5:00pm. Dinner was served around 6:00. If there was time workers often worked their family garden plots. For entertainment there were self-criticism sessions, propaganda films, discussions of Marxism and gatherings and singing parties held in the collective’s recreation hall. Sometimes people piled into trucks and rode to the nearest towns for large dance parties or markets where could sell the produce they grew un their gardens.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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