Modern Farming--Soviet Style


MODERN farming has come to the peasants near Odessa. Farming more modern than on up-to-date farms in America, yet grafted on a husbandry more ancient than that of the Pilgrim Fathers.

Here until yesteryear men ploughed with homemade implements, and the village now rechristened ‘Red Way’ had less than one horse for two families. To-day a State-owned Tractor Station, centrally situated, ploughs on contract for seventy-six villages — ploughs, and harrows, and sows, and reaps, and threshes, gives seed and seedlings and French vines on credit, furnishing all machinery while the peasants furnish labor. Such is the type of farming which within a year will be duplicated in two hundred districts, and which, if it succeeds, will rapidly cover one sixth of the earth’s surface.

The Tractor Station Shevchenko is named for a Ukrainian poet — a singer of revolution who suffered much in prison. To poetry, indeed, belongs a dream so daring as that which unites the Ukrainian village Red Way and the German village Naikova and the Jewish settlement Felixdorf and nearly fourscore other quite incompatible villages in the bonds of a single machine. To poetry also seemed to belong those fields when I first saw them — black rows of winter fallow sweeping from horizon to horizon, miles and miles of green undulations of winter wheat, unbroken by any boundary, yet containing the harvest and ‘land rights’ of hundreds of peasants. The boundaries of centuries gone in a single year — it is fitly named for a poet of revolution.

After the unbounded fields — the Tractor Station, a cluster of buildings like a new townlet springing out of the soil. The great machine shop looms like a central temple in the Soviet religion of industrialization where the machine is idol. Only half as high, as if on their knees before it, four parallel rows of long, low tractor garages hold their two hundred tractors, each of which must enter the shop to confess its internal sins, and receive the penance appointed, and after a thorough revival retire to rest in its dark bare cell till spring. A little apart from the shop, by a lake now frozen, are the white cottages of workers’ bedrooms, the central dining hall, the club, the offices.

Here is the centre of machine farming for one hundred and fifty thousand acres. Yet the men here living and working own not a single acre, and plough not a single furrow by their own hands. The Station gives machinery, chosen and organized. The peasants do the ploughing and receive the harvest — those peasants now scattered over the snowy fields beyond the horizons, in the same ancient villages they have always known. Yet across those fields and horizons those primitive peasants are knit by this Station into one great factory system, producing not iron or cloth, but grain.

From the Station the tractors go out in spring to the villages, and to it they return for winter. From it go out the ploughs, the seeders, the reapers and threshers in their turn. From it go out farm experts, in Ford autos or Chevrolet trucks, to work out plans of crop rotation and give instruction. To it come in each winter the chosen youth of the villages to take courses in running tractors. They work and study all winter in the repair shops, and return in summer to the fields. From the Station go out also the selected seed, the imported French vines, the young apple trees, the cows and sheep and chickens bought on credit for fourscore villages. And to the Station comes each fall the surplus harvest, to be sold to the State on behalf of every village.

To the Tractor Station come also many conferences. Conferences of poor peasants and farm hands — a distinction which still exists but may soon be abolished in the general leveling process of the machine. Conferences of farm wives, centralizing for culture; they arrive in batches of a dozen in one creaking wagon. The Station aspires to autobus lines some day; but that is for the future. Conferences of elected delegates from the seventy-six villages, discussing the taking of stock in the Tractor Station, so that they, as well as the State, may share its ownership.

Five presiding officers sat at the table of one such conference — the Russians have a way of electing five chairmen instead of one. Here is an old Ukrainian, with ragged sandybrown beard and hair, with clothes completely disheveled; could such a kindly, shiftless antique be disciplined into the regular labor of modern farming? Next to him the Party Secretary, young, smooth-faced, speaking persuasive words in the soft Ukrainian tongue — his usual manner that of the cajoling parent, changing to harsh fanaticism when crossed. Centrally seated, a German who by common consent takes the chair most often, in clothes so orderly and well brushed and with small moustache so neat under his astrakhan cap that he seems a petty city official rather than a peasant. Then a Ukrainian woman, — for by Soviet custom the women must always be represented, — with a soft brown shawl on her head. Last of all, a black-haired, black-moustached Jew from the new farm colonies, with dogged determination fixed in his reddish face.

So varied are the living elements in one small district of Soviet farming — alien and not easily assimilated. The Germans regard the Ukrainians as shiftless and irresponsible; the Ukrainians look on the Germans as ‘all of them kulaks,5 formerly rich exploiting peasants who are now by Soviet decree being ruthlessly ‘liquidated.’ The Jews are new to the soil — they are artisans, traders, workmen, peddlers from the little towns in the former Pale of Settlement. The Revolution bankrupted their private trade, but gave them land; they are burdened with debt, but resolute. All of these elements are now in the melting pot, as patrons and future owners of a central Tractor Station. All of them are giving up horses and depending on a central mechanism. How are they related to it ?


The farm experts of the Station are enthusiastic about the German village Naikova. ‘So orderly, so responsible! At the end of the day their tractors are all lined up in a row, all facing in the same direction, with the ploughs in another row at a little distance, and the kerosene cans and seeders at the other corners of a regular military square. Not one of their members ever fails to show up for work on the day assigned him; they carry out exactly the advice of the experts. Not like most of our Ukrainians,’ they nod sadly.

Yes, the alien experts are enthusiastic about Naikova; but Naikova is not enthusiastic about itself. Few German villages are, in present-day Russia. In the new equalization of land ownership, the once prosperous Germans, who formerly hired Ukrainians and Russians to till their surplus acres, have lost land to these penniless neighbors. The wave of collectivization, which means to the Russian peasant that ‘land rights’ expressed by a dozen tiny strips always changing shall now be expressed by a proportionate share in a tractor-gained harvest, brings on the other hand to Germans the break-up of cherished individual farm plots fertilized and worked by ancestors. So they seem a bit cheerless at Naikova, though plodding and patient. Some of them — those who were poorest before — have gained much by the Revolution. But the village as a whole has lost land to other villages.

In the glamour of twilight Naikova seems a very prosperous village. Majestic old trees planted along orderly streets; big houses, of which the simplest is better than the kulak’s house among Ukrainians. By harsher daylight the dwellings show shabby — no shabbier than Ukrainian houses are always, but seeming down-at-heel from a better past. Germans set great store by houses, both outside and inside. The room which I entered to meet the president of the Naikova Collective Farm was so typically German that it was hard to believe the broad fields of the Ukraine were beyond its windows. Photographs in plush frames, bunches of dried grass hung on framed family portraits, embroidered towels, plaques of cross-stitching, fussy and homely decorations attached to every article of furniture. A text above the bedroom door: Meine Seele ist stille zu Gott, der mich hilft. A tiny Christmas tree, artificially made from a bare bush in a land where there are no firs, yet so artfully trimmed with green papers and tinsel stars that it almost created an illusion of a real ‘Tannenbaum’ Christmas.

Similarly uprooted, yet similarly persistent in their clinging to the forms of a far homeland, were the German farmers. Settled here since the days when Catherine lured them with special privileges of land and tax exemptions, they had never in all the century and a half become assimilated. They spoke their own language; they cherished the ‘German standard of living,’ a standard bought at first patiently by industry and thrift and later expanded on the labor of less clever Ukrainians. When their lands were equalized with others, they revolted against the Soviets, and helped Denikin; and for this they were suppressed. For a few years more they rented their old lands back from the poorer peasants who could not work them. But now the Tractor Station worked all lands alike, equalizing everyone. This common standard of living left them not very happy.

Perhaps it was merely the German phlegmatic temperament, rather than any unhappiness, that accounted for the calmly patient and thorough report they gave me. The members of the Collective Farm had, after all, mostly gained through the Revolution, since this farm was first organized from the former farm hands and poorest peasants, and was only now acquiring the rest of the village by mass influx. At any rate, they deeply appreciated the Tractor Station. Not as some peasants did, because for the first time all their lands were ploughed. No, the Germans had always ploughed all their lands; but the tractors ploughed better. Thanks to the tractors, they had this year a fair harvest, after two years of drought and frost-killed wheat.

The work which each farming family does and the harvest it receives are proportioned to the ‘land rights,’ which are based on the number of souls. These German farmers keep their records thoroughly. Here, for instance, is the ’labor book’ of Margarita Klaus, a widow with four children, of whom one son and one daughter are old enough to labor. Having ‘land rights’ to thirty acres of land, she was required to furnish eighty-seven rubles’ worth of work during the summer. Her son carried water one day, and was credited with 1.20 rubles; her daughter weeded millet three fourths of a day, and was credited with eighty kopeks; the family horse turned out for three days, with the labor of two persons to cultivate maize, and was credited at 3.12 rubles daily. Thus with some seventyfive days’ labor of a single person assigned to Widow Klaus by the elected Field Manager, and by her portioned out to members of her family, she did her stint of work apd earned her harvest.

In return for this work Widow Klaus and her family received eighteen bushels of wheat, thirty-nine of barley, twenty of oats, twelve of millet, fortyfive of maize, and thirty-six dollars in money, besides the payment of a debt incurred in the spring for sixteen dollars’ worth of vegetable seed and tractor work on their vegetable garden. The garden gave them melons, cabbages, onions, carrots. It was not much, considered as a whole year’s living for a family. Yet it was a year’s food and shoes for five persons obtained by seventy-five days’ labor of one unskilled youth or girl. The problem of the Klaus family was, clearly, not a larger return for labor, but the getting of more labor, properly spaced through the year. Incidentally, the share of Widow Klaus would have been larger had not the thrifty German villagers decided to pay for last year’s seed and this year’s out of a single harvest, and set aside a village grain reserve against crop failure of the future. This, which they counted virtue, their easier-going neighbors called sheer individualism and lack of trust in the government. What was government for, if not to give seed on credit in case of crop failure?


To the German village of Naikova the Ukrainian village ten miles away is in all respects a contrast. Formerly named Zavodovka, from a landlord’s family, it now rejoices in the name Red Way, in token of freedom. About its people the farm experts refuse to indulge in raptures. What a mess they made with their tractors and kerosene cans! One day, during seeding, a tractor stopped all day, because the man assigned to work the seeder went to market. One day during threshing fifteen of the girls and boys went off on a picnic, and the threshing stopped till the morrow.

But if the farm experts fail to wax enthusiastic over Red Way village, it is otherwise with politicians and social workers. How loyal is Red Way! How it loves the Soviet Government which gave it land, and then lent money for seed, and now sends tractors! What, indeed, would Red Way do without the government, which last year not only ploughed for them, but lent them eight thousand dollars’ worth of French vines and other seedlings, and this year is financing a cow barn of a thousand cows? And how wonderful is the club work in Red Way; how fine the choruses and dramas! And when someone starts the idea of a ‘socialist competition’ with the next village, how the work rushes along then, like a royal sport! Anyway, even if the girls and boys did stop to picnic, they got a better crop than the near-by individualist peasants who had no Tractor Station to help.

Practically no one owned land in Zavodovka before the war. The people worked on the lands of General Rauch, whose spacious villa in a near-by park is now an agricultural school for the village youth. When the Revolution gave them land, they could not plough it; among four hundred and seventy-three households there were only two hundred and ten horses. Not a majestic list of livestock for a farming community. No wonder Zavodovka wanted help, and loves the government that gave it.

The real boss of Red Way village, and the inspirer of its many changes, is Rochagoff, the school principal and the Communist representative. Owing to him, it is a village made over. To begin with, it has its new name, ‘Chervoni Shliag,’ which is Ukrainian for ‘Red Way.’ To be sure, I did not hear the peasants use this name during my visit; they called it Zavodovka as of yore. But the name is signed on all official communications to the Tractor Station and to any branches of government, where it doubtless has its effect. You will look in vain for an official notice of a village called Zavodovka.

Then also, Zavodovka — I beg its pardon, Red Way — has a new calendar. Not merely the European calendar, in place of the old-style Russian. No, something much newer! They have adopted the ‘five-day week’ from the city workers. They have even made new names for the days, abolishing Saturday and Sunday altogether. There is Party Day, and Young Communist Day, and Pioneer Day, and Trade-Union Day, and Collective Day; the names may seem prosaic — but think how convenient, since these are the days when those organizations meet! One meeting every day for five days, and then over again. They assured me that their months are all thirty days exactly. When I asked how they got on with the city of Odessa, which has a different calendar, they replied persuasively that the city would soon copy them. But somehow I have a suspicion that if near-by villages still have market days on Sunday, Red Way manages to remember them.

Red Way has even new names for its babies. There are no more churches in this settlement of three thousand souls. The Baptists, the Adventists, and the Orthodox have all given up their buildings for various social purposes. The priest and the psalm singer have gone away. So babies are no longer baptized; they are ‘Octobered,’ by a ceremony held in the former church, now the club, under the strict atheist auspices of Principal Rochagoff. Old saints’ names, like Ivan, are frowned on, and only revolutionary names win the principal’s favor. Such as Kim, the initials of the Communist League of Youth; or Yu-pé, standing for Young Pioneer; or Vilen, for Vladimir Ilich Lenin. October is also a possible name for boys, but it is more favored as Octobrina, for girls. Rochagoff has as yet no longer list of names than this, so one worries about the babies still to come. Perhaps his imagination will expand; if not, Russian villages have survived with scores of Ivans; doubtless Red Way will not perish if it has thirty or more Kims.

Red Way also has, since there is no more a priest, its ‘Red Funerals’ and ‘Red Weddings,’ at which Rochagoff officiates. The young folks register their marriage first at the Soviet registration bureau, and then come to the village club for a party. A speech is made about the difference between the old and the new marriage. merly,’ says Rochagoff, ‘the priest told wives to fear their husbands. But we say this is nonsense. A wife should be a good comrade; she and her husband are equal.’ This subversive speech is ended by music from the village orchestra, also organized by Rochagoff. Such are the Red Weddings!

No wonder Red Way obeys Rochagoff and his ally, the Tractor Station. Has the Tractor Station not ploughed for Red Way the fields which had never been ploughed since the days of General Rauch? Has it not furnished seed, well selected? One fourth of the village joined the collective farm the first year, one hundred and sixty-five families, and these received in addition to the ploughing a loan of materials to the amount of one hundred rubles per family, mostly in imported vines; Red Way has set out a collective vineyard. Even the easy-going ways of the collectivists did not seem seriously to hurt their harvest. With their land ploughed deep by tractors, they got thirteen bushels of spring wheat to the acre, though the year was dry, while their individualist neighbors, who worked much harder without machines to aid, got barely seven or eight. Happy collectivists, who can miss a day or two at picnics and still be better off than their neighbors!

Now, however, everyone in the villages has joined the collective farm,2 as was natural after such a showing, and especially in view of the credits offered by the Tractor Station for purchase of cows. The government wants milk for the babies of Odessa, and it wishes also to help a good village of former farm hands like Red Way. So collective cow stables are to be built, housing a thousand cows. For the building, the State gives half the cost on credit, while the peasants give half in labor. For the cows, the peasants have only two hundred and sixty, so the State will furnish the others. Gradually, out of the profits, they will pay back the debt and own the cows as property of Red Way. A collective chicken ranch, with two hundred cocks and two thousand hens, has just arrived from the Tractor Station; and many new fruit trees, now carefully covered against frost, are next spring to be set out as a collective orchard.

In spite of the farm experts’ respect for Naikova, it is with Red Way that one falls in love. Red Way with its little white houses decorated in pale blue, in the gay Ukrainian fashion. Red Way with its enthusiasms and loyalties. We stroll down muddy streets and learn that next year trees will be planted here, by the ‘Red Way Beautiful Committee,’ to make a boulevard and park. The ‘Scrap Iron Committee’ shows us great yards full of ancient ploughs and reapers and implements of all kinds, gathered to sell as junk to the nation’s industries and earn an honest penny for Red Way. There are dozens of tons! Easily the price of a couple of tractors! A noble job! But somehow one can’t imagine that the German village would ever have let so many implements go bad.

We turn at last to the village club, where a health exhibition is on display. Really, when one finds such a club in a small village, criticism stops and enthusiasm holds sway. Here is a programme that would do credit to a town thrice its size and with thrice its culture. Posted on the wall is the ‘Treaty of Socialist Rivalry ’ concluded with the club of another village. In the course of the three winter months Red Way Village Club agrees to hold thirtyeight lectures, of which eight shall be on collectivization, four on science, eight on anti-religion, eight on daily life, six on sanitation, and four on care of livestock. Four mock trials must be held, on political subjects; four women’s evenings and four dramatic presentations. Once a week the movies come, followed by discussion of the theme presented, from a civic and social point of view! Radio must be installed — in fact, this is already done. Among the study circles meeting regularly are those on drama, on current events, on daily life, on collective farming, on anti-religion; there is also a string orchestra, as well as a chorus of sixty voices.

The tiny library of a thousand paper volumes is better served than many of thrice its size. It sends out two traveling libraries to near-by hamlets; a brigade of seventeen ‘book carriers’ go every week from house to house to take books to the older peasants and thus encourage reading. Another brigade of forty young folks spend an evening a week reading books aloud to peasant adults. The committee of authors which produces the wall newspaper numbers twenty-five budding writers. Two excursions have been organized to places outside the village.

Rochagoff told us, with pride, how the villagers had all voted to use the churches for clubs and schools. The Baptists gave their church and the Adventists theirs, and the whole village met to decide on the big Orthodox Church. Even the priest and psalm singer signed the petition for the club, and declared that there was no religion any more. It was a wonderful story, told with optimism and enthusiasm. Was it indeed true, I wondered, that the ancient village of Zavodovka had been in so short a time completely made over?

Later I met a group of the peasant women and asked about the taking over of the churches. Was it really done by majority vote of the members? Did the Baptists, for instance, vote to give up the Baptist building? The women looked doubtful.

‘Well, you see,’ said one, ‘the Baptists at first opposed and sent a delegation to Odessa to protest against the village taking their church. But they saw it was no use, so they agreed. The Adventists gave their church quite easily; but it was n’t their own building — it was the house of a kulak which they rented. Then taxes began on churches and they had n’t much money, so they voted to give the house for a school.

‘ But the Orthodox — there was quite a fight there. Half the village raised a scandal and left the meeting, trying to break it up. But those who were left, who were chiefly the young folks, voted to take over the church. They said: “The older ones can pray at home, but we can’t have a club at home.” And the older folks said: “Give us a few years to pray in the ancient manner in our church; then we shall be gone.” But anyway, the young folks took it.’

‘The Baptists did better,’ said one woman with a touch of pride. ‘They gave up without scandal.’

‘You Baptists!’ cried a third. ‘It was n’t much for you to give up. You Baptists only existed a hundred and fifty years, but we Orthodox existed nineteen hundred years, from the days of Christ himself.’

Thus they contested superior merit in sacrifice. Anyway, Rochagoff had the churches for clubs and schools, and the young folks were with him. Under his strenuous care the village of Red Way, with its warm Ukrainian temperament, sociable, undisciplined, was going through club work and musical societies to better farming. What could one expect of a village of farm hands only recently given land? Now they were holding lectures, dramas, exhibitions; they were studying current events and farm methods. They were organizing brigades for the summer work, to carry over into farming the ‘socialist rivalry’ which had worked so well in the clubs. They who were last shall be first! If thrifty, individualist German Naikova had sunk in scale of living, the easy-going farm hands of Red Way were joyously rising.


Near to both these villages was the Jewish colony Felixdorf, grim, proud, determined. ‘For three years the government fed us when our harvest failed. This year we feed the government. Thirty thousand poods we gave from our sixty households — two thirds of our harvest.’ So spoke Tulchinski, president of the Collective Farm of Felixdorf.

Of all the many villages for which the Tractor Station ploughs, none are more needy than these of the Jewish colonists who came from the desolate cities wrecked by civil war and the long attrition of revolution and turned to a new occupation — farming. Four years ago they received land near Odessa. After their first sowing came three years of famine. No reserves except relief societies and government. In the fourth year the Tractor Station worked their land — and harvest came!

The village of Felixdorf, of which I heard the epic, was named not for that ‘Felix’ which means happiness, but for Felix Dzerjinsky, who died at his distant post in the year of its founding, a symbol of ruthless, efficient struggle. From many Jewish towns its founders gathered — traders, artisans, workers. Not one soul of the first forty-three families had ever tilled the soil. The Department of Agriculture lent each household three hundred and fifty rubles to put up a mud house; the Jewish Relief Society gave credits for a horse and a cow.

So they sowed — hardly, with unaccustomed hands and insufficient livestock. Each year the winter wheat was frost-killed; each year the spring wheat parched before fall. For three years they made a statement of need through the village government, and got from the State emergency aid — a pound of flour per day per person through the year, and forage for horses to save them as farmers. In spite of this aid, the livestock diminished till sixty households had only twenty-five horses; and every household owed five or six hundred rubles, which was more than all their possessions.

In 1928 they made their contract with the Tractor Station. Again the winter wheat was killed; if they had depended on their own strength, they would have been lost indeed. But the Tractor Station lent spring seed, and quickly replanted the land to other cultures. ‘We got at last a harvest. We kept for our food a good norm, two pounds of bread a day. Not all wheat, of course; our bread must be mixed with barley. But we had thirty thousand poods left to pay the government, to begin settling our debts for the past four years.

‘We did not even save any grain to insure the future. We gave it all to the State, which insured us in the past. We have also begun to arrange for a cow collective; the Tractor Station helps us build a barn for two hundred cows. Land we have also prepared for seventy acres of orchard; the Fruit and Wine Coöperative gave us five thousand rubles’ credit for this and to buy trees. The Tractor Station is testing our soil to find a place for a vineyard. As for grain farming, we don’t worry any more. Our best horse ploughing was five hundred acres; the Tractor Station ploughed for us fifteen hundred.’

So are these villages knit together, German, Ukrainian, Jewish, so unlike each other, keeping their own characteristics, but welded into one grainproducing mechanism. As a result of two years’ experience, several new functions begin to be added to the Tractor Station. It has become a branch of the Agricultural Bank, replacing all credit coöperatives. It buys equipment, livestock, seed, vines, and issues them on credit. It collects grain direct from the thresher and ships by railroad, saving the waste of a hundred government buying agents and bookkeepers. It becomes a cultural centre also, bringing educational and health experts from the city. Even now a health exhibition accompanied by four evening lectures is making the tour of these villages, and five experimental day nurseries are opening, with food furnished by parents and personnel by the Odessa Health Department.

Not by accident was the first Tractor Station set up in the Odessa district, where frequent drought destroys forage crops and depletes the village of horses, and where three bad years in succession have left all peasants poor. So popular now has become this type of large-scale farming that the budget of Odessa district plans for sixteen such stations to be built during 1930; by the following winter of 1931 there are to be twenty stations, ploughing the whole two and a half million acres that make up Odessa okrug.

To-day, across the whole Soviet Union, the idea of the Tractor Station is taken as a model for the rapidly advancing mechanization of farming. Two hundred such stations are being organized, each with two hundred tractors, for the winter of 1930. As they spread across the land, their local relations also develop in the direction of more intimate local control. The villages elect representatives to sit in the Council of the Tractor Station; they begin to subscribe ‘share capital’ toward its ownership. They begin to organize new activities, more intensive farming, small industries, to use the surplus labor which the coming of the tractor has freed.

Such is ‘modern farming — Soviet style’ in the second year of its experiment and the first year of its expansion. If it succeeds, — and it has all the resources of the State pledged to back it, — these forms and methods will conquer the continent of Asia, and will send tremors of hope and of fear rocking the farming peoples in the lands beyond two oceans.

  1. This is no pæan in praise of the Gigant, that Soviet State Farm which has won world recognition by becoming in one sudden harvest the biggest on earth. Scores of articles and one motion picture already show how its tractor armies took the virgin fields of the Caucasus, seeding 150,000 acres in a single first season. The Gigant, however, is only a problem of engineering; Shevchenko Tractor Station is a problem of the reorganization of mankind on the soil. — AUTHOR
  2. This is the tale only of those peasants who are accepted by the Tractor Station. Some are shut out — the kulaks, or former employing farmers. Their fate is indeed a harsh one; they are being ‘liquidated as a class.’ By economic, political, social pressures, and sometimes by direct administrative measures, they are thrown out of the district. A fate not unlike that of small individualists everywhere, in the growing trustification of industry. In Russia it is much swifter and more deliberately planned than elsewhere, taking place in one year instead of twenty, and directed to a conscious end — the collectivization of farming. — AUTHOR