In the mid-19th century, about half of the peasants in the Russian Empire were serfs. After the 1861 emancipation, former serfs gained control of half the land they cultivated. In the late 1920s-early 30a, Joseph Stalin implemented collectivization, confiscating privately owned land, animals and grain and killing and exiling wealthy or unwilling peasants. The resulting famine claimed the lives of anywhere from 6 to 8 million people country-wide, with an overwhelming majority of deaths occurring in Ukraine. The famine bares the Ukrainian name Holodomor, literally “hunger kill”.
As a result of collectivization, agricultural production immediately plummeted. Peasants burnt their warehouses and slaughtered their livestock rather than surrender them to the government. Once herded into kolkhozes, they responded with theft, sabotage and a deliberately slow pace of work. And yet posters with smiling peasants graced the walls of government buildings and stories of record harvests made yearly headlines in Pravda. One of the common themes of the socialist realist art was women and ample harvest, especially grain. While the best examples of the genre were masterfully drawn and poignant, they had nothing to do with reality.
Collectivization restricted the movement of peasants who had to obtain permission of the kolkhoz leadership in order to move. But when regulations were relaxed, people, particularly the youth, flocked to the cities. Soviet country life offered few educational and vocational opportunities. If there was little money to be made by the residents of Russian villages, there was also little to buy because the government preferred to prop up big cities with material goods. Although they like to deny it, Russians are materialistic people — not that there is anything wrong with that — so they like to live in places with good shopping. Living conditions in the countryside were (and still are) deplorable. In the late 1950s, my mother was stationed in a village with no electricity. Never mind that according to the official story, all of the Soviet Union was supplied with electricity in the 20s. Running water and indoor bathrooms were a luxury.
Because of the shortage of people willing and able to work the land, city dwellers were directed to help the kolhozes. Since we weren’t trusted with heavy machinery or the cattle, we ended up picking vegetables or working at the warehouses. A few times a year my parents, both engineers, were sent to kolkhoz warehouses (na kohaty). They always fretted both because they didn’t want to spend the whole day away from home and family and because it was hard to see how menial agricultural work was a good application of their skills. I once asked my mom how come she just didn’t blow them off.
“Somebody has to do this work.” She replied. “Otherwise we will have nothing to eat.”
There were more immediate reasons to go, though. She usually came back with bags full of fresh vegetables for family and friends. Technically that was theft, but in the country with a vast black market economy it was expected, and collective farm administrators looked the other way.
High school and university students, too, were ordered to the countryside where unlike the married older subjects we could spend long stretches of time. I suppose we could get out if we’d put our mind to it, the way young men get out of mandatory military service, but as a rule we wanted to go. My one and only time at kolkhoz was in about 1988. It was during Perestroika, and some boys in my class had the nerve to ask to be paid. From what I remember, it was explained that our earnings will cover room and board. You see, we went for the whole month and were stationed in a dormitory near a lake. In the mornings we were supposed to pull weeds out on a strawberry field, but the rest of the day was spent sunbathing, swimming and socializing. In other words, it was a camp.
Harrison of Capitol Commentary mentioned that a friend of his remembers young women getting pregnant working in kolkhoz. It’s easy to see how something like that would happen. In our case, we were 15 and most of us still reasonably innocent. We were housed in a dormitory with large rooms; I think there were four rooms for nearly 40 of us, and we were chaperoned by a teacher called class leader (klassnii rukovoditel). We were begging for a disco, and it did happen, but only on the last weekend of our stay. Mysteriously, one girl was sent home early. But if anyone got pregnant, she didn’t carry pregnancy to term. My mom, however, who went to kolkhoz multiple times in her youth, had all-girls assignments.
We thought we scored with that strawberry field, but when we arrived on location, we found that the field was so overgrown with weeds, there were no strawberries to save. We kind of pretended to work, with our class leader watching over us. Once we walked into the sunflower field nearby where were shocked to discover sunbathing semi-nude peasant women with their ugly white bras around their waists. On the last day of our stay, a kolkhoz tractor drove through the field and cut down the weeds.
There was a saying in the Soviet Union “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”, but that particular strawberry field was a surreal example of non-exercise in futility of not-so-forced non-labor. One of those things that makes you wonder why the Soviet Union fell.
In the 1990s, old Ukrainian collective farms were re-registered as corporate farms. The land was not redistributed, and the management practices didn’t change. Forced student labor persists in the former republics, like Belarus and Uzbekistan. They harvest cotton in the later. Ring any bells?
UPDATE: many thanks to Professor Jacobson for linking.