Down on the farm: a history lesson in Kazan

Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture in the USSR in the 1930s led to famine, repression and widespread family tragedy. Oleg Pavlov visited a school in the capital of Tartarstan to find out how this period is being taught now

The school is in a busy Kazan street. It’s a massive four-storey school building of standard design, the kind that was built all over the Soviet Union in the 1930s-50s. For some reason all these schools have their facades painted in pale egg powder yellow. The building has big high steps leading up to the main entrance, big windows and doors, and high ceilings. It’s a classic example of the Stalinist style of architecture.

Today there is to be a history lesson for students in the 11th and final year. The topic is collectivization in the countryside. There have been so many attempts to justify Stalin recently that, to be quite honest, I expected the attitude of the teacher and the students towards him to be quite loyal. You can’t find any newspapers in Kazan which offer an opinion at variance with the official viewpoint. We’ve never been able to buy publications like Novaya Gazeta or magazines like Novoye Vremya; the papers you can buy, if they don’t justify Stalin directly, make it clear that not everything was so bad during his time in power. At any rate, the average person might have the impression that the process of rehabilitating Stalin is slowly getting under way. But I was wrong.    

Schoolteachers in Russia today are able to choose their textbooks. The teacher whose lesson I was attending told me that the Education Ministry usually recommends 6 or 7 textbooks; one series of textbooks is gradually replaced by another. She is still teaching the history of the Soviet period in line with the thinking of the 1990s. She complained that today’s recommended textbooks contain noticeably less documentary material and concrete information. But she doesn’t feel under any pressure about what she should teach or how to teach it.

As usual, the lesson began with a repetition of material that was covered in the last lesson.

“The Communist doctrine assumed the dissemination of ideology all over the world. To this end the USSR began developing heavy industry as a basis for the defence industry. The results were positive – there was an economic boom, and unemployment was eliminated,” a lively boy from the front row sums up the previous lesson.

The teacher asks if there were negative aspects to the Stalinist industrialization.

After a short pause one girl stands up:

“The peasants were left without means of subsistence.”

Here it is, the key phrase to an understanding of collectivization! The peasants were left without means of subsistence. The teacher tells the class that it was the peasants’ money that was used to purchase tools and machines and their grain was bought up for a pittance. When it became difficult to get hold of  – villagers simply refused to sell it at low prices – the decision was made to take the grain by force. Then the idea arose of creating collective farms. The pupils begin to discuss the subject. They have clearly prepared for the lesson.

…Antonina Petrova, whose maiden name was Voronina, was born in early 1926. She was five years old when the collective farm was set up in her native village of Peschanye Kovali, 20 km from Kazan. She remembers collectivization. She remembers it with her stomach because she was always hungry. One day some people came to their home. They were representatives of the authorities and they were not just looking for grain, but for any food at all. A small onion had rolled into the corner of the drawer in the table. They even took this…

Official data was easy to find at the Records Office: in 1932-33, i.e. during collectivization, the mortality rate in the Volga area, of which Tatarstan was a part, increased by 3-4 times. The historians point out that there could only be one reason for an increase of this scale: famine. With no normal food, people were forced to use substitutes. They ate grass and tree bark, which they added to bread. This led to mass outbreaks of disease. “In the section ‘cause of death’, the following notes appeared: ‘bloody diarrhoea’, ‘ hermorrhoidal bleeding caused by the consumption of ersatz food’, ‘poisoning from flour mush’, ‘poisoning from ersatz bread,’” writes Viktor Kondrashin in his article “The Famine of 1932-1933 in the villages of the Volga region”, published in issue №6 of the magazine Voprosy Istorii [Questions of History, ed] as far back as 1991.

The “Holodomor” [Ukr. Famine, ed] was not only in Ukraine, but in the Volga region, Kazakhstan and other parts of the country too. In Russia, they still say of a person who eats greedily, “It’s as if he’s from the starving Volga region”.

HUnger Russia

With no normal food, people were forced to use substitutes. They ate grass and tree bark, which they added to bread. This led to mass outbreaks of disease.

To confirm that the stories of the famine are correct, the teacher must provide quotes from additional sources, other than the textbook. As she already said, previous textbooks published in the 1990s examined this topic in more detail, and contained stories by eye-witnesses.

The teacher tells the class that the first prototypes of collective farms appeared as early as 1918, the so-called TOZ (a form of agricultural cooperative). At that time approximately 1% of farmers joined these associations. The vast majority preferred to farm on their own. Villagers were divided into three categories: kulaks (rich peasants), middle peasants and poor peasants. Kulaks were essentially the owners of large farms.

In this part of the lesson the teacher asks the class to remember Pyotr Stolypin and his reforms. “Give them 20 years of freedom and the peasants will become the bosses,” she quotes the Tsarist-era Prime Minister. Stolypin didn’t get those 20 years. But there was a result even so – the kulaks, so despised by the Soviet regime, became their own masters. There is mention of the Baltic States in the class, as pupils already know from previous lessons that Stolypin’s experiment began there. It was the Baltic States that had the largest number of farmers when the Revolution broke out, and it was these farmers who subsequently put up such stubborn resistance to the Soviet regime – they had a great deal to lose. Reforms in the rest of Russia began later, but even those few years were sufficient for a class of capitalist farmers to appear – hard-working people with initiative.

But the majority of the peasants in the 1920s were the peasants of average means, the so-called middle peasants. I remember that our textbooks quoted Lenin on the subject of the need to bring this large category of the population over to the side of the Bolsheviks. They were already strong, sufficiently well-off peasants who could feed their own families, which were often large, and if the development of rural areas in Russia had continued along Stolypin’s path, they could have been expected to become well-off farmers.

…Antonina Petrova’s family were middle peasants. The head of the family, Mikhail Karpovich Voronin, had a horse which he used to work his plot of land. He kept sheep, pigs, calves and chickens, and, of course, a cow. It was impossible to get by without a cow. The cow provided milk, butter and cheese to feed his large family. Antonina was the eldest and she had two sisters and two brothers. Her mother was called Anna, and she took care of the children and housekeeping, while the father of the family spent most of the time in the field…

The teacher continues the lesson. She says that the poor peasants were not the largest group among the rural population. But they were very active. The teacher quotes the memories of eye-witnesses to the effect that they were almost all pretty idle. People like these are called dynamic layabouts. I agree with her – there is confirmation for this. The creation of the collective farms was preceded by “de-kulakisation” or the dispossession of the rich peasants. All their property was taken away from them and they themselves were repressed as enemies of the Soviet regime, often entire families at a time. The authorities’ logic was understandable: prosperous and successful owners saw no reason to give the fruits of their labour away for a pittance. The property of the kulaks went partially to the state, and partially to the poor peasants. But these injections of assets didn’t make the poor peasants richer or help them towards a start in life.  Pupils in the class remember the case of Grandfather Shchukar from the novel by Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov, “Virgin Soil Upturned”. This old man, the poorest member of the village, is given some of the things belonging to the “rich man” Tit, who has been dispossessed.  Essentially the old man just fritters these things away. In a word, poor peasants were behind collectivization. It’s easier to shirk in a crowd and someone else would always do the work for you, but you could still demand your share. At any rate, class discussions have led the students to this conclusion. 

This was in fact the way things later turned out. My elderly colleague, the editor of a news agency, recalled how her grandfather’s health was ruined when he worked in a collective farm. He was used to working conscientiously and people like this found it very difficult to look on while things went to rack and ruin. They often broke down and died at a relatively young age. The middle peasants, like the kulaks, were in no hurry to join the collective farm. So they were forced to join.

…Antonina’s father, Mikhail Voronin, was taken away by the NKVD. The small, frightened girl remembered the plywood suitcase covered with imitation leather cloth, in which he was allowed to pack a few personal items. Once, in a circle of fellow villagers, her father had expressed his doubts about the need to join the collective farm. Someone informed on him, and the NKVD came to get him.Mikhail Voronin was lucky, as in the early 1930s they still sometimes looked for proof of the charges, and they evidently didn’t find any. They let him go three months later. Antonina Petrova remembers her father’s story:he came out of jail, put the suitcase down on the road and looked back one more time at the place where he had been imprisoned. Of their own accord his legs started carrying him away from this terrible place – so quickly that he tripped over his case…

“You couldn’t leave the collective farm voluntarily. A person automatically became an outcast,” the teacher explains. “The principle was: if you’re not with us, then you’re against us”.

Propaganda poster

Soviet propaganda poster: "Comrade, come and join the kolkhoz!"

Indeed, no one could leave voluntarily. Peasants were not issued with personal documents, and without a passport it was impossible to travel in the Soviet Union. Young people couldn’t enroll at university or other specialized institutes on their own – they had to be sent by the collective farm, and only on condition that they would return to their native village. This essentially meant the restoration in rural areas of serfdom, which was abolished in 1861. But now the state, rather than the landowner, was acting as the lord of the manor. Incidentally, I noticed that during the lesson the teacher avoided the word “state”, preferring “the party”. This was in fact how things were at that time – the Communist Party became the instrument of state administration in the USSR.

…After his release from prison, Mikhail Voronin was forced to join the collective farm. He handed over his land and livestock. Farmers on the collective farm were not paid any money, and only in autumn were they allocated a small share of the harvest to feed their families. Antonina Petrova remembers well how “sticks” or tallies were handed out for so-called work-days. The “sticks” didn’t give you anything, but if you didn’t have enough of them for the norm, then you were punished…

Now, 70 years later, in assessing the era of collectivization at the history lesson, the students say that the collective farmers were kept like draught animals or cattle for ploughing. If anyone stole a cup of grain out of hunger, he could be arrested, or even shot on the spot. The entire country remembered for many generations to come how people were put in jail for stealing “spikelets” or little ears of corn.

After the death of Stalin, the situation of farmers in the village became less intolerably hard. They were issued passports, and even given a small pension. But in my opinion, this came too late. It was during this period that young people began leaving their villages en masse to go to the cities, where there was incomparably more freedom. The villages emptied: in the 20 years from the start of collectivization up till 1953, the section of the population who could work on the land with skill and care disappeared completely.

The teacher recalled that in the Soviet period students were sent to the collective farms in autumn to bring in the harvest. Indeed, I too had to do this. The teacher and I made the same observation – in the fields where the students were working there was not a collective farm worker to be seen. They had all seized the chance to dig potatoes on their allotments.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked the class to decide for themselves who had been right and whose urban reforms had been correct, Stalin’s or Stolypin’s. The children decided it was Stolpyin.

…The house of Antonina Petrova’s parents in Peschanye Kovali remained standing until the mid-1990s, when it was burnt down by local alcoholics. The log house painted brown with three windows was built by her grandfather Karl Nestorovich Voronin. On the upper frame, the date is engraved – 1897. There is a large covered courtyard with some outbuildings. As a child, I was always puzzled – there was a stable, a cowshed and a granary. But there were no horses or cows, or any grain in the granary. Everywhere was bare. There were only a few scrawny chickens in the henhouse. I remember all of this….Antonina Mikhailovna Petrova is my grandmother.

The lesson is over.

About the author

Oleg Pavlov is a journalist based in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. He is the local correspondent for Radio Liberty's Russian Service.

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Joseph Zajda and Rea Zajda 'The Politics of Rewriting History: New History Textbooks and Curriculum Materials in Russia', International Review of Education, 49 (3/4)

The Soviet collective farm, 1929-1930  by Robert WilliamDavies, Harvard University Press, 1980. 216 pages

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, by Robert Conquest, Oxford University Press, October 1986, hardcover,

More On

After a short pause one girl stands up:

“The peasants were left without means of subsistence.”

Here it is, the key phrase to an understanding of collectivization! The peasants were left without means of subsistence. The teacher tells the class that it was the peasants’ money that was used to purchase tools and machines and their grain was bought up for a pittance. When it became difficult to get hold of  – villagers simply refused to sell it at low prices – the decision was made to take the grain by force. Then the idea arose of creating collective farms. The pupils begin to discuss the subject. They have clearly prepared for the lesson.

Oleg Pavlov