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Peter Carl Faberge

Peter Carl Faberge was a world famous master jeweler and head of the ‘House of Faberge’ in Imperial Russia in the waning days of the Russian Empire.

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Of Russian origin: Kolkhoz

Пичугин. Колхоз в работе. 1930 Kolkhoz at work. 1930

A foreign delegation pays an unexpected visit to a collective farm. There was no time to prepare. After they leave, the chairman of the collective farm calls the District Party committee. "You didn't warn me in advance, so they saw everything, the ruined cow sheds, all the dirt, and all our misery and poverty."

"Don't worry," the Party secretary said.

"But now they will tell the whole world about it!"

"So, let them indulge in their usual slander," the Party secretary says.

This is just one of a myriad of sarcastic jokes about collective farms in the Soviet Union. The Kolkhoz, as it was known, was equally trumpeted as a triumph of socialism and derided as a farcical system of agriculture. But Kolkhozes more commonly told a much more tragic tale. Despite being central to reforms and investment throughout Soviet history, those who worked on them faced grueling hours, backbreaking work and precious little if any pay for it.

The first collective farms appeared in 1918. Peasants were encouraged to create and join them voluntarily, heralded as a better, fairer and altogether more socialist way of organizing agriculture than the system of landed estates and private farmers that had gone before. Soviet leaders also wanted to create a rural socialist workforce to complement and feed the urban proletariat.

Unkown Russian artist - Women of the Kolkhoz Women of the Kolkhoz

This voluntary uptake continued until 1928, but by then less than two per cent of Soviet farms were collectives. In 1928 widespread peasant anger at state grain requisitioning manifested itself in a reduction of planting and widespread grain hoarding. The Soviet government found itself two million tonnes short. Joseph Stalin blamed the shortfall on kulaks, private landowning farmers. It was not in fact them, but the wheels of forced collectivization had already been set in motion.

What had been a gradual trickle of collectivization now became a violent stampede. Collectives were announced, all local families were sorted into work brigades and land, machinery, livestock and more were assigned into packets, now in the possession of the collective. What to plant, where and how much was to be dictated by the state. All produce had to be sold to the state at set prices. Rural enterprise was now out of the hands of the rural people.

Even more cruelly, the very lives of the peasants were now virtually owned by the state. A system of internal passports meant they could not leave their farms. If they were born there, they would have to toil their lives away there. It was a continuation of the slave serfdom the peasants had experienced under the Tsars. Their landlord had merely changed from a local landowner to the state.

The result of these measures was a catastrophe. Productivity and efficiency plummeted as the inefficiencies of a centrally planned system took their toll. Mass starvation swept the countryside as harvest and livestock yields dropped. More than ten million people died as a result.

It wasn’t until the late 1950s that farm productivity levels began to return to their pre-1928 levels. There was less suffering than under Stalin, but workers remained poorly paid and the work was hard. Kolkhozes and their state-owned counterparts Sovkhozes (where workers were paid a wage instead of a share of the ‘profit’ from state purchases) remained the main form of agriculture until the end of the USSR. Collective farms have been unfairly criticized for poor production by value of products. Most collective land was used to grow low-value staples like grain, cotton, flax, forage and seed. However the small private plots allowed to kolkhoz workers, which only amounted to 2-3% of agricultural land, produced between a quarter and a third of the Soviet Union’s agricultural output (measured by value, see above, but still impressive).

Уборка кукурузы в колхозе Maize harvesting in Kolkhoz

For decades this small nod towards private ownership had shown how much more efficient that system was than a centrally planned one, which had little connection to the land it was managing. After the collapse of the USSR, the collective system quickly collapsed and was removed. It had left behind it millions of dead, and tens of millions who had suffered lives of hard labor with no chance of escape. For all that it had been squandered, the potential productivity of Soviet land had proved a drain on the Soviet economy rather than the boost it needed. 

Perhaps the jokes were well-deserved after all. Agriculture has never been an easy industry to reform of make efficient. But it’s fair to say the Soviet Union never did a good job of it, and occasionally did a downright abominable one. But let’s leave the last word to those jokers again, proving the Soviet people’s humor in the face of adversity.

 Soviet Radio host: Our listeners asked us: “Is it possible to solve a problem which has no solution?”

 We’re answering: “We don't answer questions related to agriculture.”

 Written by Tom Barton, RT correspondent