Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Farmers in the Soviet Union were under tight state supervision until Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of perestroika brought about a loosening of the reins.

Summary of Event

On February 4, 1989, three Estonian farmers became the first citizens of the Soviet Union to receive formal documents from the government allowing them to use land permanently and without charge for independent farming. This event represented the culmination of a fairly long and involved movement in official Soviet thinking away from an emphasis on large state and collective farms and toward an emphasis on the individual, independent peasant farmer. As such, it marked a watershed in Soviet agricultural theory and practice. Perestroika Soviet Union;agriculture [kw]Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection (Feb. 4, 1989) [kw]Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection, Soviet (Feb. 4, 1989) [kw]Land and Crop Selection, Soviet Farmers Gain Control of (Feb. 4, 1989) [kw]Crop Selection, Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and (Feb. 4, 1989) Agriculture;Soviet Union Perestroika Soviet Union;agriculture [g]Soviet Union;Feb. 4, 1989: Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection[07180] [g]Europe;Feb. 4, 1989: Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection[07180] [g]Baltic States;Feb. 4, 1989: Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection[07180] [g]Estonia;Feb. 4, 1989: Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection[07180] [c]Agriculture;Feb. 4, 1989: Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection[07180] [c]Economics;Feb. 4, 1989: Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection[07180] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 4, 1989: Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection[07180] Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;perestroika Yeltsin, Boris Nikonov, Aleksandr Tikhonov, Vladimir

With the coming of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Soviet agriculture was in dire straits. Production of food had plummeted as a result of enormous casualties of men and draft animals in World War I and widespread rural unrest in connection with the “agrarian revolution” of peasants against their landlords. Upon their accession to power, the Bolsheviks immediately issued a decree titled “On Land” on November 8, 1917, followed up by the more comprehensive “Decree Concerning the Socialization of Land” on February 19, 1918, whereby all landlord property rights were abolished and estates confiscated. In addition, all land was nationalized and was to be parceled out to local collectives, or soviets, for distribution to those who tilled it. Preference was to be given to collective farms, but the primary purpose of the legislation was to ensure the equitable distribution of land among individual peasant farmers and thereby gain them as allies of the proletariat (under the guidance, of course, of the Bolsheviks).

This alliance, however, was not to be permanent; rather, it was to serve as a temporary arrangement whereby the urban proletariat, which was the mainstay of the new Bolshevik state, could be assured of sufficient food. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin Lenin, Vladimir Ilich saw the eventual outcome as the creation of a second revolution in the countryside that would set the farm laborers and poor peasantry against the more well-to-do farmers (or kulaks, as they came to be called).

Under the policy known as War Communism War Communism (1918-1921), the Bolsheviks came to rely more and more on forced seizures of grain and other products from the peasantry in order to ensure a minimal flow of foodstuffs to the cities. State compulsion became the order of the day, in the form of acreage goals, mandatory improvements of farming techniques, forced labor drafts, a national plan for sowing different crops, and increasing pressure on the approximately fifteen million small peasant households to join collective and state farms. As a result, by the spring of 1921, agricultural production had fallen to disastrously low levels.

Lenin’s solution, in the form of the New Economic Policy New Economic Policy, Soviet (NEP), was to grant the peasantry titles in perpetuity to land that they cultivated and to restore ownership of personal property, primarily draft animals and farming implements, that had been confiscated. Although actual land ownership remained with the state, the peasants were free to choose which type of land tenure they preferred (individual, cooperative, or collective) and had the right to select which crops they wished to grow and how they chose to cultivate them. These rights were codified in the Law of Toilers’ Land Tenure (also known as the Land Code) of May 22, 1922. Land Code (Soviet Union, 1922)

The Land Code constituted the high-water mark in terms of individual freedom for the peasantry for almost the next seventy years. Lenin’s successor as head of party and government, Joseph Stalin, Stalin, Joseph in pursuit of his goal of “socialism in one country,” embarked on a crash program of industrialization of the Soviet Union. This industrialization was to be financed largely by enhanced earnings generated by an increasingly rational and productive agricultural sector. Stalin and his supporters believed that the individual and small cooperative peasant holdings were both ideologically undesirable and economically backward; they believed that Soviet agriculture could be brought into the twentieth century only if such holdings were consolidated into large collective and state farms.

The ensuing period of forced collectivization, the “liquidation of the kulaks,” was aimed ostensibly at the elimination of the remaining rural landlords. In actuality, the “middle peasantry,” or individual peasant proprietors who worked their own land, were denounced as kulaks and forced into large collective and state farms. Those who resisted were either killed outright or exiled for long terms to Siberia.

Because the middle peasantry formed the backbone of Soviet agriculture, the destruction of this group had disastrous immediate and long-term results. Even Stalin realized that something had to be done, and in 1933 he denounced local leaders for forcing the pace of collectivization—which they had done only at his insistence—and threw the peasants a sop in the form of individual plots and livestock. This meant that even though all peasants lived and worked on either collective or state farms, they were given very small plots of ground that they could cultivate in their free time and were also accorded the right to own small amounts of livestock, usually a cow and a few chickens.

This situation in terms of individual peasant rights existed relatively unchanged over the next fifty years. Under Stalin’s successor, Nikita S. Khrushchev, Khrushchev, Nikita S. an attempt was made to consolidate smaller collective and state farms and to curtail the size of individual plots, but the resulting difficulties contributed to Khrushchev’s ouster from power in 1964. Soviet agriculture under Leonid Brezhnev Brezhnev, Leonid [p]Brezhnev, Leonid;agriculture and the short-lived regimes of his successors, Yuri Andropov Andropov, Yuri and Konstantin Chernenko, Chernenko, Konstantin was marked by enormous investments of resources in an increasingly inefficient system of state and collective farms. In this system, individually cultivated plots and individually owned livestock, although they constituted only a minuscule proportion of total cultivated land and livestock in the Soviet Union, produced an embarrassingly high percentage of the milk, eggs, and vegetables consumed in the country.

When Mikhail Gorbachev took the reins of power in 1985, the overall Soviet economy (including agriculture) had deteriorated to an almost unbearable level of stagnation and inefficiency. Gorbachev’s answer to these problems involved a basic restructuring, or perestroika, of the economic system. An integral part of perestroika consisted of a series of basic changes in the agrarian sector, changes that were based largely on the ideas of Aleksandr Nikonov, an administrator, agricultural specialist, and close personal friend and adviser to Gorbachev, and Vladimir Tikhonov, a well-known public figure and popularizer of agrarian perestroika. The primary ideological impetus for the Nikonov-Tikhonov reforms lay in the alienation of the peasantry from the land, an alienation born of forced collectivization and nourished by the continuing lack of any meaningful individual control over the land.

In a more instrumental vein, Nikonov also alleged that the large collective or state farm was not necessarily the optimal size for modern production; he pointed to smaller, family-based units in the United States as a more economically efficient mode of production. The reasoning was that if a level playing field could be created whereby individual and small cooperative farms could legally compete on an equal basis with state and collective farms, Soviet agriculture would benefit greatly. This approach was embodied in a March, 1988, resolution by the Estonian Council of Ministers and Communist Party Central Committee titled “On Individual Labor Activity in Agriculture.” Pursuant to this policy, on February 4, 1989, three Estonian peasant farmers (the first of more than one hundred) were granted title to their land.


In terms of potential impact, granting life tenure and free usage of land to the three Estonian farmers opened up a whole new theoretical and practical vista in Soviet agriculture. Immediate consequences of the change were somewhat limited in scope, however. Agriculture;Soviet Union

In an immediately practical sense, Gorbachev’s agrarian perestroika bore a remarkable resemblance to the agricultural component of Lenin’s NEP. Both granted the peasant farmers life tenure and limited inheritance, free choice of crops and methods of cultivation, and free choice of the mode of production—individual, cooperative, or collective—within which they desired to live and work. There was, however, an important theoretical distinction between the two policies. Lenin’s NEP was designed to be a temporary measure to sate the desire for land on the part of the peasantry; eventually, through education in the principles of socialism and by the example of the more efficient operation of collective and state farms, peasants would be weaned from these petit bourgeois proclivities. In contrast, Gorbachev’s agrarian perestroika was seen as a permanent method for alleviating the alienation of the peasantry from the land and for enhancing the productivity of Soviet agriculture. Indeed, Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), stated that the peasant owner was the foundation for agrarian development.

The need for formal legislation to give individual farms legal status and protection was met by the Soviet Law on Property Soviet Law on Property (1990) (passed on March 6, 1990, and based on the Principles of Land Legislation); the RSFSR Congress Resolution on Private Ownership of the Land of December 4, 1990; and the Soviet Presidential Land Reform Decree of January 7, 1991. Soviet Presidential Land Reform Decree (1991) These documents formally allowed private ownership of land, right of inheritance, free access to land, and freedom to choose forms of farming. Critics, however, pointed out that these laws were largely a dead letter, because managers of collective and state farms and other figures in the local agrarian apparatus dominated local legislative and administrative levels and could be expected to scuttle the actual operation of the program. Indeed, as of February 1, 1991, the newspaper Izvestia reported that in the RSFSR there were thirty-five hundred peasant farms and four thousand small agricultural cooperatives involving a total of some fifty thousand people, a minuscule proportion of the total persons employed in the Russian agricultural sector.

The situation was paradoxical. There was a strong push from the top for the growth of individual peasant and small cooperative agricultural enterprises, but the response at the grassroots level was lukewarm. This tepid response was based on at least two factors. The peasants, having been encouraged under Lenin to work hard on their own land and then denounced as kulaks under Stalin and forced onto collective and state farms, had no desire to be burned again. Perhaps even more important, Stalin’s forced collectivization, whereby the successful middle peasants were liquidated, resulted in the destruction of the very type of people who could make agrarian perestroika work. The remaining peasantry, with a few shining exceptions, were largely content to continue their existence as cogs in a machine of institutionalized dependence. It would take time and greater trust in government intentions to overcome these ingrained attitudes. Agriculture;Soviet Union Perestroika Soviet Union;agriculture

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, R. W., and Stephen G. Wheatcroft. The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Exhaustive study draws on Russian and Ukrainian archives to describe the causes and extent of the famine years under Stalin’s agrarian policies. Provides historical context for later developments in Soviet agriculture. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, Kenneth R., ed. Soviet Agriculture: Comparative Perspectives. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990. Collection of essays compares trends in agricultural policies among the Soviet Union and other centrally planned economies in Eastern Europe. Contains an exhaustive series of figures and tables that provide graphic evidence of the downturn in Soviet agricultural production and efficiency. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCauley, Martin. Khrushchev and the Development of Soviet Agriculture: The Virgin Land Programme, 1953-1964. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1976. Provides good overall coverage of Soviet agriculture under Khrushchev, with special emphasis on his ideas with regard to consolidation of collective farms and elimination of private plots. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shmelev, Nikolai, and Vladimir Popov. The Turning Point: Revitalizing the Soviet Economy. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Interesting early evaluation of Soviet economic reform by two Soviet economists who present perestroika as a full embodiment of the principles of socialism and as “stripping socialism of the alien veneer it has acquired.” Criticizes agricultural policy under Brezhnev as one of the “black holes” that swallow resources. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solomon, Susan Gross. The Soviet Agrarian Debate: A Controversy in Social Science, 1923-1929. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1977. Clearly outlines the framework of the debate between the organization-production group and the agrarian-Marxist group, which set the dimensions of a debate that continued through the early 1990’s. Draws on the views of A. V. Chaianov, the leader of the organization-production group, to provide the theoretical basis for Gorbachev’s agrarian perestroika. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Classic account of the early Stalinist period in Soviet history is especially valuable for putting forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture into context within Stalin’s overall plans for rapid industrialization. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volin, Lazar. A Century of Russian Agriculture: From Alexander II to Khrushchev. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970. Written by a Russian-born agricultural economist who emigrated in 1915, this work is especially valuable for its pre-Bolshevik background on the enduring problems of Russian agriculture. Exhaustive analysis of the application of Lenin’s NEP to agriculture reveals some essential similarities (as well as basic differences) between Lenin and Gorbachev on the agrarian problem. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wegren, Stephen K. Agriculture and the State in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Offers comprehensive discussion of agrarian policy in the Soviet Union as well as in Russia following the end of the Soviet state. Includes bibliography and index.

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