Collectivisation was expected to meet with the strongest resistance from the kulaks as they had the most to lose, and from Ukrainian peasants. A kulak was considered to be a ‘rich’ farmer who typically owned 12 acres of land, one cow, a horse, ten sheep, a pig and about 20 chickens.
Stalin launched collectivisation with the call to “liquidate the kulaks as a class” – even though no satisfactory definition of the class of kulaks has ever been identified. Dekulakisation was launched in December 1929, with the most intense period lasting from January to March 1930 and coinciding with the main push for collectivisation.
As a result of dekulakisation and collectivisation, 282,000 peasant households disappeared in Ukraine between 1930 and 1931, some 100,000 kulaks were shot and almost 10 million peasants were deported to the Arctic in cattle trucks causing the death of about three million people. By the end of this period there were no real kulaks left.
Resistance still continued, albeit sporadically but was crushed by the armed OGPU (state police). The only peasant tactic that had some success were the “women’s rebellions” – peasant women stopping the confiscation of their cows with the authorities not knowing how to cope. The peasants main reaction to enforced collectivisation was to slaughter their animals. In a few months over 40% of the country’s cattle and over 65% of its sheep had gone.
The grain producing regions in Ukraine and Northern Caucasus were specially targeted for rapid collectivisation. But mismanagement, inadequate machinery, a shortage of horses and tractors meant that the collectives collapsed. This did not deter Stalin, who on 27 November 1929 declared the movement a great success and ordered 25,000 selected industrial workers to the countryside to continue to help with the organisation and management of the collectives. By the spring of 1930 there were 50,000 activists with special powers to organise, punish and intimidate Ukrainian peasants.
Sanctioned state violence meant that by the end of February 1930 more than half of individual farms had been collectivised in the USSR, and 68.3% in Ukraine. The target had been attained with uncontrolled violence. Terror reigned in the villages. Resistance peaked in early spring 1930 when the OGPU recorded 6,528 mass peasant risings, 45% of these in Ukraine.
Stalin was forced to sound a temporary retreat but on 2 March 1930 Stalin’s “Dizzy with success” speech was published in which collectivisation was deemed a massive success with excesses blamed on over-zealous activists. Stalin re-affirmed the principle of voluntary membership of the collectives. The peasants took him at his word and began to leave. Sixteen million families had been collectivised. Within weeks, 9 million left. But their land was not returned to them.
In theory the collective farms (kolhozes) were voluntary organisations. Many poor farmers (bedniaks or subkulaks) and landless farm workers (batraks) joined hoping for a better life. The majority of peasants though preferred to stick to individual farming. However in order to meet their monthly quotas, peasants were forced to join the collectives because of the exorbitant taxes on individual farm incomes, false accusations, intimidation and physical violence.
A renewed drive for collectivisation started in October 1930. By August 1931 the whole Ukrainian steppe was collectivised and by the next year, 75% of Ukrainian peasants were working in collectives. Effectively they had been reduced to the status of agricultural workers.