Lynne Viola, The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivisation, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp285, £8.95
This book is a well-researched and detailed study of the workers who, in response to an appeal launched by the Soviet Communist Party at its Central Committee plenum in November 1929, volunteered to help organise the crash agricultural collectivisation scheme, which was announced at the same time. Of the 70,000 volunteers, 27,519 were selected, and they became known as the 25,000ers. They were predominantly factory activists, members of factory committees, party cells and union committees, shock workers, etc. Nearly 80 per cent of them were party members, or in the party’s youth section. Over half of them were under 30 years old, and 7.7 per cent of them were women. In order to ensure their reliability and loyalty to the regime, in most areas a four-tier screening process was run to weed out workers with close connections with the countryside, troublemakers, heavy drinkers and anyone who had been associated with party opposition groups.
After a two week (!) training course, the 25,000ers were despatched with much fanfare into the rural areas in order to help assert the centre’s control over the crisis-wracked countryside. By mid-February 1930 they were all in rural areas, ready to take on such tasks as chairmen of collective farms and party secretaries and administrators. Not surprisingly, the existing rural officials resented the volunteers’ entry onto their patch, cold-shouldered them, and often relegated them to menial work. The peasantry, generally bitter at the harsh treatment they had been receiving since grain requisitions had commenced in 1928, were mainly hostile to the volunteers, and were often contemptuous of their unfamiliarity with rural life. Even though Viola claims that the volunteers’ attitude towards the peasants was on the whole better than that of the average rural officials, several volunteers were brutally murdered. By the time the campaign ended in late 1931, there were still 18,000 of the volunteers in the countryside, many of them by then having gained leading posts in rural party and government bodies.
For all the extensive research behind this book, Viola emerges as an apologist for Stalinism, albeit of a curious kind. She claims that collectivisation was supposed “to be a revolution which would undermine the old order, modernise agriculture, institute a reliable method of grain collection, stimulate a cultural revolution, and build a new social and administrative base in the countryside” (p.91). However:
Although centrally initiated and endorsed, collectivisation became, to a great extent, a series of ad hoc policy responses to the unbridled initiatives of regional and district party and government organs. Collectivisation and collective farming were shaped less by Stalin and the central authorities than by the undisciplined and irresponsible activity of rural officials, the experimentation of collective farm leaders left to fend for themselves, and the realities of a backward countryside and a traditional peasantry which defied Bolshevik fortress storming. The centre never managed to exert its control over the countryside as it had intended in the schema of revolution from above. (pp.215-6)
Notwithstanding the efforts of the volunteers, the centre apparently could only assert its authority over the countryside through “a network of strict repressive measures” and by ruling “by administrative fiat”, which “did not represent effective control, but its opposite” (p.216).
True, rural officialdom did act in a bureaucratic manner, alternating between collectivising everything within sight, and merely collectivising on paper. But whose fault was that? There were no detailed plans for collectivisation for the rural officials to subvert, nor could there have been. Soviet agriculture was quite unready for all-out collectivisation. The material prerequisites for it were just not there. On the eve of the collectivisation drive there were only 35,000 tractors in the Soviet Union, 5.5 million households still used wooden ploughs, half the grain harvest was reaped by sickle or scythe, and 40 per cent of it was threshed by flails. Under Stalin and Bukharin theoretical myopia and factional zeal had ensured that little attempt had been made to initiate measures to modernise agriculture and increase industrial capacity, measures which would have enabled a realistic collectivisation drive to proceed smoothly. Their policies led directly to the grain crisis of 1928, when peasants started to withhold grain as they saw no purpose in selling it to the state when there was little industrial product to buy in return.
Collectivisation was in no sense a fully worked-out scheme. It was a desperate attempt by the Soviet bureaucracy to reassert its faltering authority over the peasantry. It grew spontaneously and haphazardly from the enforced grain requisitions of 1928, themselves an emergency measure. The alternating lack of instructions and floods of contradictory diktats to the rural areas from the centre, the continually changing central policy statements, the sudden charges and retreats, and the general application of coercion against the peasantry all contradict Viola’s bizarre claims that the problems were essentially caused by rural officialdom’s sabotage.
Viola holds the 25,000ers in high esteem, considering them as “the cadres of the Stalin revolution who, as advanced workers, served in the vanguard of the revolution” (p.169). But the “Stalin revolution” was a disaster, not least in the agricultural sector. The peasantry, rich or poor, was overwhelmingly hostile to the coercive methods of collectivisation, and reacted by destroying their stock. From 1929 to 1933 the number of cattle fell from 70.5 to 38.4 million, pigs from 26 to 12.1 million, horses from 34 to 16.6 million, and sheep and goats from 146.7 to 50.2 million. Shortages and dislocations led to famine. The human cost was terrible. At least six million people, probably more, perished during the collectivisation drive. Viola admits that many of the volunteers who made a career in the countryside adopted the siege mentality common to Soviet officialdom at the time. They were of that generation “who would replace the cadres purged in the late 1930s and who would later come to be identified as the cohort of the Brezhnev generation“ (p.211), which, incidentally, is not (as far as I can tell) intended as a criticism.
Returning to their arrival in the rural areas, the 25,000ers did see themselves as enthusiastic fighters for Socialism (but, then, so did the Red Guards during Mao's Cultural Revolution) and may have been at first more humane than the average Soviet official. But when they are considered in the general context of the collectivisation scheme, their story, far from being a revolutionary epic, is just one chapter, and a fairly minor one at that, in the tragedy that was Stalin’s Soviet Union.