How far did government policies change towards agriculture in Russia in the period 1856-1964?

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How far did government policies change towards agriculture in Russia in the period 1856-1964?

Throughout the period 1856-1964, there was considerable change and continuity between the different agricultural policies implemented by successive Russian governments. From how they regarded and engaged with the peasantry, to the investment that was put into agriculture and how famines were caused and dealt with.  

For the Tsarists and the Communists the peasantry has always represented the biggest obstacle to progress, the desire for both regimes was to transform and control rural life through their respective agricultural policies. Appointed Prime Minister (1906) by Nicholas II, Stolypin was instructed to overhaul government policy on land distribution and thus capitalise on the now free peasants in order to “wager on the strong”: in which he meant the wealthier peasants. The Emancipation Edict (1861) created these, now free, peasants out of the slavery of Serfdom. Once working on the lands of the Lord of the Manner these peasants were given an allocation of land by the government – for which they would pay for over 49 years of redemption payments at 6% interest. The result of this extra burden on the peasants, along with the fact they now farmed land that was now, on average, 1/5th less than before emancipation, was initially severe disturbances: 1859 in the year of emancipation, reducing to 65 eight years later. The downward trend is then perhaps evidence that peasants felt they had gained something from emancipation. Nevertheless, unrest peaked in 1905-1907 during Nicholas II’s reign – Stolypin’s aim was to create a wealthier more productive class of peasants out of these disgruntled ones. These would, in theory, be more loyal to the Tsar. With the opening of the Peasant Land Bank (1883) – allowing peasants to purchase land – and the weakening of the Mir – allowing peasants to consolidate this land into small holdings – Stolypin’s Reforms led to an increase from 48,271 independent farms in 1907, to 134,544 in 1913. This encouraged the creation of a rural upper class of better off peasants, or Kulaks, in which the Tsarist government saw and found a source of support from.

In contrast, Stalin’s Communist Government viewed the peasantry as holding ‘backward’ religious views and, especially the ‘bourgeois’ kulaks, as a source of opposition and threat to his Soviet regime. The peasants were fiercely independent, so when Collectivisation was forced on them in the summer of 1929, village priests urged that it was against God’s will and many peasants resisted. Collectivisation meant that the State would manage agriculture directly and would help facilitate for the destruction of kulaks and the crushing of their culture; or De-Kulakization. With the threat of a counter-revolution, kulaks were now seen as ‘class enemies’ – any individuals resisting collectivisation ran the risk of being branded as one. The concept of a ‘Kulak’ class as Stalin meant it, has been proven by scholars to be a myth; simply they had proven to be more productive farmers. Nevertheless, it proved Stalin with an excuse to coerce the peasantry as a whole – middling and poor peasants as well as Kulaks: the most dangerous were to be imprisoned or shot. “We must break down the resistance of the Kulaks and deprive this class of its existence”, as Stalin said to the Party Congress in December 1929. With this, the policy of De-kulakization had begun. By 1931 more than half of the peasants were in collectives and were controlled through a series of motor-tractor stations – these stations fulfilled a similar role to that previously done by the Mir and kept the peasantry in check via the organised distribution and collection of grain. It also decided how much a farm could keep for its subsistence and the amount of money to be given as payment to collective famers: often very little leaving most farmers worse off than before serfdom. This attack on the living standards of the peasantry goes to show the extent Stalin saw the peasants as a threat, and wished to break their spirit. During the famine of 1932-34 he prevented the movement of peasants from the countryside by blocking their access to trains – OGPU officials checked the trains heading for the cities; in affect entrapping the starving peasants. The harvest of 1931 and the subsequent three harvests were poor because of the weather and the heavy procurements demanded by the Communist Government to feed the growing urban population: from 26 million in 1930 to 40 million in 1932. Thus as a result the government left the peasant families to die; some lying outside warehouses full of grain but under armed guard. 4-5 million perished: the deaths ironically concentrated in the richest farming, mainly kulak, areas such as the Ukraine – the ‘bread basket of Europe’ – and therefore gave Stalin all the more reason to concentrate his “revenge on the peasants,” as historian Robert Conquest put it,  there. However, it is uncertain whether his actions were born out of hatred, or to consolidate his grip on power. Thus there is great contrast between the Tsarist and Communist approach to controlling the peasantry through agricultural policy. The first wished to improve, make strong and saw a source of support from them. The latter wished to crush and eliminate – Stalin viewing them as a threat to his paranoid fuelled attempt to consolidate his power.

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For much of time period, investment in agriculture was the means to an end for the prevailing Communist government: that ultimate end being the build up and advancement of industry. In a passionate appeal at the First Conference of Workers in 1931, Stalin lays down the context for his economic policies for the next thirteen years: “we are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we will be crushed.” In order to raise the capital needed to develop Soviet industry, Stalin saw that the necessary first ...

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