Thursday, June 07, 2007

Review: The Unknown Gulag

The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin's Special Settlements by Lynne Viola
(Oxford University Press).

Lynn Viola is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto. She specializes in the social and political history of twentieth century Russia and is well-published in this area of study. In The Unknown Gulag, Viola details how Stalin and his cohort planned and executed a policy that resulted in the exile of over 2 million "capitalist peasants"—kulaks—into the first gulags.
Whether planned or not, the release of the book coincides with the dedication of the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. and Viola does a fine job of portraying one group of those victims: the forgotten kulaks.

Stalin's primary motive for removing the kulaks from villages, she explains, was based on his and the Communist Party's political and ideological goals. Primarily, the Communists believed that the peasants stood in the way of their ideal of agricultural collectivization.

Their desire for collectivization was largely an outgrowth of the failure of past Communist economic policies. In 1927/28, the Party had implemented price controls that artificially held down the price of foodstuffs consumed by industrial workers while at the same time they expected the rural farmers to pay a premium for the goods coming out of the factories. This disregard for the natural self-interest of individual farmers led to unintended consequences. Instead of selling their goods at below market value, the farmers held their goods back or sold them on the private markets. In 1928/29, the Communists responded by implementing various laws and taxes to harass and punish the peasants and to force them to sell their goods to the government--at the government price.

The Communist Party came to believe that the "capitalist peasantry" needed to be removed for the sake of more efficient collectivization. Gradually—often based on whim or prejudice—anyone who was perceived as an obstacle to collectivization was declared a kulak. By 1929/30, collectivization efforts were in full swing and with it de-kulakization. Peasant farmers who didn't move into collective farms had their goods confiscated by "grain requisitioning brigades" composed of "urban communists and industrial workers" whose antipathy towards rural peasants was exploited by Stalin.

The Communist Party perceived issues of socioeconomic stratification through political and ideological lenses. That meant, in practice, that the (broadly defined) political behavior and actions of a peasant were often equally, if not more, important in determining social status than economic position in the village. During the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, almost anyone could be labeled a kulak—the village critic, the outspoken Red army veteran, peasants with large families (and therefore greater land resources), and a host of other village authorities, including priests, church council members, tradesmen, craftsman, byvshye liudi (village notables from the prerevolutionary regime), and even seasonal workers as well as the occasional prosperous peasant. As the state entered into what would be a protracted war with the peasantry, the kulak came to serve as a political metaphor and pejorative for the entire peasantry.

De-kulakization helped Stalin destabilize the traditional village social and political structure by removing leaders and intimidating any peasants left behind. Thus, the Communist party engaged in a "virtual war" that resulted in the destruction of the traditional peasant society that they neither understood nor trusted. In its place, the Communists erected agricultural collectives that would supply the food for the idealized industrial workers who were the true heart of the perpetual Communist revolution.

But what to do with all of the kulaks? G.G. Iagoda's OGPU (secret police) was charged with implementing the policies of that came to be known as de-kulakization. But little thought had been given to how to facilitate the removal of millions of kulaks. Or where to put them.

As a result, Iagoda made it up has he went along. Seeing the increasing disarray in the countryside, Iagoda developed a plan to relocate the kulaks to the Northern Territories, Siberia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, peasant riots broke out and local and regional mismanagement of the policy led to "excesses." Additionally, tensions arose between those territories who sought rid themselves of the kulak problem and those regions that were charged with taking them in. As so often happened, the "perfect" Communist plan somehow failed to materialize in reality.

Despite these problems, the relocation went forward. But a concrete plan was still lacking and kulaks languished in temporary settlements. Eventually, they were moved to remote areas where they began the slow, arduous and uncoordinated process of building permanent special settlements, usually located near prospective labor camps. These families worked together--though they were often separated, too--to scratch out an existence in the remote regions of the Soviet Union.

Such is the lead-in to the heart of Viola's work: the personal stories of those who survived life in these unknown gulags. Viola's work is both a solid institutional and an engaging social history. She accents her intricate sketch of the Soviet bureaucracy with the vivid and often heartbreaking accounts of those who survived the kulak gulags.

In the final analysis, Viola believes that Stalin's de-kulakization policy has been overlooked as a key component of his consolidation of power and that "the peasantry paid the highest price for the Soviet experiment..."
The Soviet superpower was built upon the poverty of the village, artificially fueled by an economy and a society that could not in the end sustain its growth and power. Long before 1991, to those who could see, it was evident that the Soviet Union was a Leviathan in bast shoes. Soviet modernity always remained moored to its agrarian legacy.
Soviet Communism relied on exploiting the common people it claimed it was trying to help. Eventually, the Iron Curtain was drawn and the world saw the fallacy upon which the Soviet utopia had been built. Unfortunately, it was too late to help a lost generation of small farmers.

ADDENDUM: Viola explained her research and previewed her work over at the Oxford University Press blog:

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