Russia's Calamity

We know now that the steady depletion of Russia’s agriculture has been responsible for a series of sudden changes in the Politburo, and we turn to EDWARD CRANKSHAW,the English author and historian, for the down-to-earth elucidation of cause and effect. Mr. Crankshaw first visited Russia as a member of the British Military Mission to Moscow; he went back again in 1947 as a writer for the London Observer; and it was in the course of these tours of duty that he assembled the source material for his two readable and authoritative books, Russia and the Russians and Cracks in the Kremlin Wall.



WHEN Beria was arrested in the summer of 1953, one of the charges was that he had been sabotaging agriculture. The world smiled, believing quite rightly that other, more squalid issues were involved. The world was inclined to do the same when, eighteen months later, Malenkov explained his own fall by confessing that he had made a mess of agriculture. At the same time it became clear that the Soviet leaders must be very worried about agricultural production if they felt the need for two scapegoats of the highest rank.

Indeed they are, and with reason. Khrushchev, in fact, had been saying that something was very wrong for the past year and more. The situation Khrushchev outlined in the late summer of 1953 was a disastrous one. His figures for livestock, for example, corresponded exactly with the laboriously worked-out estimates of certain Western observers, He said: “The number of cows in the country has not reached the pre-war level by 3.5 million head, and in comparison with 1928 has decreased by 8.9 million head. In 1952 alone a reduction in the total number of livestock was permitted — throughout the country —of 2.1 million head.”

The figure to remember is that in 1953 there were 8.9 million fewer cows in the Soviet Union than there had been in 1938, on the eve of the collectivization. That meant 34.3 million in 1953 instead of 33.2 million in 1928. Khrushchev’s general picture was in keeping with this.

Khrushchev demanded great and specific efforts. That was in the late summer of 1953. But in January, 1955, just before the public announcement of the fall of Malenkov, he had to make another gloomy speech. After all the shouting and the high resolves, things are still going wrong. And it is clear that Khrushchev and those who think with him believe that the very survival of Communism in the Soviet Union (China is another matter) depends on the success of the new agricultural policies.

What is it all about ?

Primarily it is about food for the hugely expanded urban population of factory workers and technicians. The Soviet leadership has discovered that a modern industrial society cannot be run on a subsistence economy; that it depends on a regular supply of food (unlike a peasant society, which can tide itself over periods of famine and semi-famine in a state of more or less suspended animation); that it depends on a richer supply, and cannot indefinitely operate precision machines at high speed on a diet of rye bread and pickled cucumbers. Malenkov and those who thought as he did recognized this and were prepared, as Stalin was not, to pay a price for more and better food.

But the incentives they offered for higher food production were not enough to win the coöperation of the collective farmers: they were only enough to upset the terrible but black and white logic of Stalin’s economy. So Malenkov has gone, not because of his agricultural policy as such, but liecause he had jealous rivals who were also convinced that his genera] policy of domestic appeasement was heading for disaster. There can be no half measures with Soviet Communism. And Khrushchev, celebrated since 1950 for his belief that the only solution is discipline and yet more discipline, has got his way. He has staked his own future certainly, and the future of Soviet Russia probably, on his capacity to carry out in a short time, and in the teeth of passive but hydra-headed resistance, the third Russian agricultural revolution.

The first agricultural revolution was when Lenin let the peasants seize the land for themselves, knowing that in due course he would have to take it from them. The second was when Stalin took it back by means of the collectivization, deporting and shooting the determined resistors and starving the rest into submission. This operation killed off the most skilled and energetic peasants, the so-called kulaks, to the tune of several million, and halved the country’s livestock population. The third revolution was launched by Khrushchev himself in 1950. Part of the program, the amalgamation of groups of adjoining collectives to make monster units, succeeded on paper. But when it came to resettling the collective farmers in impersonal “agro-towns” where they would be removed from their fields, deprived of their private plots, uprooted from their villages, and sent to dwell among a crowd of strangers under the watchful eye of representatives of the central authorities, the peasants called a halt. The idea had to be postponed.

Now Khrushchev is returning to the charge with the utmost determination. His aim is the coördination of industry and agriculture, the removal of the last vestiges of the village economy, and its substitution by an industrialized and depersonalized agriculture run by the state for the state, with the peasants turned into state serfs. This is perfectly logical. The only alternative is to undo the collectivization and revert to individual or coöperative farming on anti-Communist lines. There is no halfway house. Malenkov thought there might be, and made the worst of both worlds. Khrushchev knows better. He knows that unless he is prepared to abandon Communism, his course is the only possible course.


IT IS too often forgotten that agriculture in the West was not always what it is today. England, for example, is rightly regarded as the cradle of stockbreeding. But the idea of stockbreeding did not exist until the late eighteenth century, and its practice was brought into being by the English industrial revolution. Until that revolution there was no question of breeding animals especially for meat and dairy produce. Cattle were bred for bone and strength, to make good oxen for plowing and hauling. Sheep were bred for wool.

It was not until halfway through the eighteenth century that stock could be wintered in any numbers. There were no root crops, and the unimproved pastures provided insufficient hay. So the bulk of the animals were slaughtered at the approach of winter and salted down. With the discovery of the value of roots it became possible to winter stock in large numbers. And soon the demands of the swiftly growing populations of the new industrial towns were stimulating the production of meat and milk and butter. English agriculture quickly changed over from subsistence farming, with the emphasis on grain, to high-value farming. Then came machines.

The British experience has been shared, with variations, by every advanced country. Russia was on the verge of her own variation in 1917. At that time four fifths of the Russian population were peasants, feeding themselves in the traditional peasant way, going hungry in bad times, killing their stock at the approach of winter, making do with inferior and low-yielding stock, and exporting grain because it was easy to raise a surplus. But the normal agricultural revolution, going hand in hand with the normal industrial revolution, was already beginning to move in the last years of the Tsar.

Whether in 1928, when the first Five-Year Plan was launched, the peasant economy would have developed by natural means, by the law of supply and demand, fast enough to feed the new towns adequately we shall never know. It was not given the chance to try. Quite plainly it would have meant allowing the able and ambitious to set the pace, expand their holdings, and employ the less able and ambitious as laborers. This, indeed, the kulaks had already started doing, with the result that by 1928 Soviet agricultural production had recovered from the disasters of civil war and revolutionary chaos and achieved an all-time record. The revolutionaries did not like the smell of it. Lenin himself had said: “Peasant small-scale production breeds capitalism and a bourgeoisie — every day, every hour— by a natural process and on a mass scale.” The free development of agriculture would soon have made nonsense of Communism, so it had to be stopped.

There was another reason for state intervention: Stalin’s industrial plan called for the concentration of all resources in heavy industry. A free agricultural economy could not work without incentives in the way of goods for money to buy. There were to be no goods for money to buy.

And so, to protect the Revolution from the rise of a new class of individualistic landowners and to squeeze food from the peasants in return for practically nothing at all, the collectivization was pushed through in what amounted to a disguised civil war. The result of the collectivization was not to increase agricultural production but to depress it in a highly spectacular manner. But Stalin did not care. He was breaking the new class of landowners in the interests of Communist theory, and he was getting his hands on what food there was in return for the smallest possible outlay. The depression was so unimaginably disastrous that ten years later, on the eve of the war, although the populat ion had largely increased, agricultural output in general and the livestock population in particular still lagged behind the 1928 level. There was less grain per head of population than there had been in 1928. There were fewer animals than in 1928.

The calamity of the war threw everything into confusion. Millions of acres of crops were wasted; millions of animals were killed. On top of this the collective system was breaking down everywhere. It took the Kremlin five years to restore some sort of order (the 1946 famine in the Ukraine was a terrible setback at the beginning of this task). Then, in 1950, Khrushchev’s “Third Revolution" was announced.

It did not work. Nor did the grandiose cattlebreeding scheme. Nor did the Lysenko scheme for temporary pastures; acres of arable land were sown down to grass in arid areas where grass could not thrive. And all the time the towns were clamoring for more and more varied food. One of Malenkov’s first actions was to try to get the peasants on his side. He made a number of concessions in the fields of taxation, compulsory deliveries, and private husbandry. Khrushchev had fought the principle of every peasant being allowed his own plot and his own few animals, because he knew that the individual worked harder on his own land than on the collectives. Malenkov also knew this and tried to make the best of a bad job by encouraging more private husbandry in an effort to put production up. But although Malenkov’s concessions must have seemed spectacular inside the Kremlin, and liable to threaten the whole basis of Communism, they were not enough. And, in spite of his attempt to switch a part, of heavy industry into making consumer goods, there were still not enough goods to tempt the peasants to work harder within the framework of the collectivization.

Thus the idea, expressed in some quarters, that Soviet agriculture is going through a normal stage in the transition from low-value to high-value production simply will not hold water. There is nothing normal about this highly artificial situation, unique so far in the world, and born of a political theory and the determination of a conspiratorial government to maintain itself in power at home while throwing its weight about abroad. This latter aspect is somewhat neglected, but it has complicated the domestic scene out of all recognition. For, because of its insane pretensions as a global power, because of its preoccupation with spreading Communism abroad, the Kremlin has immensely added to its task. It is trying to carry out the traditional development from simple arable to complex mixed farming while, at the same time, diverting vast acreages and resources to the so-called industrial crops and cutting itself off from the free supply of agricultural machinery from abroad. It is, in a word, carrying out an industrial revolution and trying to carry out an agricultural revolution (both by decree), while existing in what can only be called a voluntary state of siege. There is nothing normal about this, and there is no guarantee that such a maniac proposition can succeed.

Khrushchev is trying. His celebrated “virgin land” campaign (the settling and plowing up and sowing down to grain of areas in Kazakhstan and Western Siberia larger than the total area under crops of half Western Europe) has almost certainly a primarily political motive: he is seeking to establish in the neglected steppes the nucleus of his industrialized agriculture, run by the state for the stale; and at the same time he; is seeking to make the Kremlin independent, when it comes to grain, of the soured, apathetic, hidebound collective farmers of the old settled areas.

This impression is borne out by his latest project announced in January, to turn millions of acres of the old settled lands down to maize, as a fodder crop to support the increased head of livestock. Peasants used for centuries to growing their own bread grain will not take lightly to growing maize instead to feed animals which they never see and whose meat is destined for the towns. But if Khrushchev can assure himself of his new supply of grain from the virgin lands, he will then have a powerful hold over the peasants of the western areas.

Whatever happens, it can only mean more suffering for the peasants. For many it will probably mean hunger and bloodshed. Either Khrushchev wins and reduces the rural population to the status of state serfs doing the bidding of the Center, or he will come to grief, as Stalin nearly came to grief before him. One thing is certain: if production cannot be increased, and soon, it will mean the beginning of the end of Soviet Communism. For, in the last resort, the agricultural crisis is not about food; it is about a theory —a theory which heaps suffering on everybody but the men who hold it.