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Kulaks (Russian: кула́к, kulak, "fist", by extension "tight-fisted") were a category of relatively affluent peasants in the later Russian Empire, Soviet Russia, and early Soviet Union. The word kulak originally referred to independent farmers in the Russian Empire who emerged as a result of the Stolypin reform which began in 1906. The Stolypin reform created a new class of landowners who were allowed to acquire for credit a plot of land from the large estate owners, and the credit (a kind of mortgage loan) was to be repaid from farm work. In 1912, 16% of peasants (up from 11% in 1903) had relatively large endowments of over 8 acres (3.2 hectares) per male family member (a threshold used in statistics to distinguish between middle-class and prosperous farmers, i.e., kulaks). At that time an average farmer's family had 6 to 10 children.

According to Marxism-Leninism, the kulaks were a class enemy of the poorer peasants.[1] From this theory's point of view, poor peasants and farm laborers had to be liberated by the revolution alongside the proletariat (the urban workers). In addition, the planned economy required the collectivization of farms and land to allow industrialization of large-scale agricultural production. The "state of workers and farmers" desired to remove the kulaks as a class and presented them with the option of integrating into the new classless system with equal rights. As Soviet propaganda put it, many kulaks resisted these changes and organized subversive activities against the new collectives with the help of former tsarist military. Many peasants and communists were killed, fields were burned, and many machine tractor stations were destroyed. This often caused pronounced hunger and created large problems in agriculture and the economy of the Soviet Union. The view of many kulaks was different, as told by Mikhail Gorbachev whose family were "kulaks." The kulaks stated they had suffered from political repression under the rule of Joseph Stalin in the 1930s.[2]



According to the Soviet terminology, the chrons were divided into three broad categories: bednyaks, or poor peasants, seredniaks, or mid-income peasants, and kulaks, the higher-income farmers who were presumably more successful, efficient farmers and had larger farms than most Russian peasants. In addition, there was a category of batraks, or landless seasonal agriculture workers for hire.[1]

After the Russian Revolution, Bolsheviks considered only batraks and bednyaks as true allies of the Soviets and proletariat. Serednyaks were considered unreliable, "hesitating" allies, and kulaks were seen as class enemies because they owned land and were independent economically. However, often those declared to be kulaks were not especially prosperous. The average value of goods confiscated from kulaks during the policy of "dekulakization" (раскулачивание) at the beginning of the 1930s was only $90–$210 (170-400 rubles) per household.[1] Both peasants and Soviet officials were often uncertain as to what constituted a kulak, and the term was often used to label anyone who had more property than was considered "normal" according to subjective criteria. At first, being a kulak carried no penalty other than mistrust from the Soviet authorities. During the height of collectivization, however, people identified as kulaks were subjected to deportation and extrajudicial punishment, and those people were often killed.[2][3][4]

In May 1929 the Sovnarkom issued a decree that formalised the notion of "kulak household" (кулацкое хозяйство). Any of the following characteristics defined a kulak:[1][5]

  • use of hired labour;
  • ownership of a mill, a creamery (маслобойня, butter-making rig), other processing equipment, or a complex machine with a mechanical motor;
  • systematic renting out of agricultural equipment or facilities;
  • involvement in trade, money-lending, commercial brokerage, or "other sources of non-labour income".

By the last item, any peasant who sold his surplus on the market could be automatically classified as a kulak. In 1930 this list was extended to include those who were renting industrial plants, e.g., sawmills, or who rented land to other farmers. Grigory Zinoviev, a well-known Soviet politician, said in 1924, "We are fond of describing any peasant who has enough to eat as a kulak." At the same time, ispolkoms (executive committees of local Soviets) of republics, oblasts, and krais were given rights to add other criteria, depending on local conditions.[1]


In 1928, there was a food shortage in the cities and in the army. The Soviet government encouraged the formation of collective farms and, in 1929, introduced a policy of collectivization. This method had a very inefficient way of letting people use equipment as common property. But still peasants were attracted to collectivization by the idea that they would be in a position to afford tractors and would enjoy increased production.

Peasants were outraged by the thought of people abusing their tools/animals and using them as common property; they often retaliated against the state by smashing implements and killing animals. Live animals would have to be handed over to the collectives, but meat could be eaten; meat and hides could be concealed and/or sold. Many peasants chose to slaughter livestock, even horses, rather than being obliged to let their personal assets become common property. In the first two months of 1930 millions of cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, and goats were slaughtered. Through this and bad weather a quarter of the entire nation’s livestock perished: a greater loss than had been sustained during the Civil War and a loss that was not recovered until the 1950s.

This widespread slaughter caused Sovnarkom to issue a series of decrees to prosecute "the malicious slaughtering of livestock" (хищнический убой скота).[6] Many peasants also attempted to sabotage the collectives by attacking members and government officials.

Stalin requested severe measures to put an end to the kulak resistance. In a speech given at a Marxist agrarian conference, he stated that, "From a policy of limiting the exploitative tendencies of the kulaks, we have gone over to a policy of liquidating the kulaks as a class." The party agreed to the use of force in the collectivization and dekulakization efforts. The kulaks were to be liquidated as a class and subject to one of three fates: death sentence, labour settlements (not to be confused with labor camps, although the former were also managed by the GULAG), or deportation "out of regions of total collectivization of the agriculture". Tens of thousands of kulaks were executed, property was expropriated to form collective farms, and many families were deported to unpopulated areas of Siberia and Soviet Central Asia.

Often local officials were assigned minimum quotas of kulaks to identify, and were forced to use their discretionary powers to "find" kulaks wherever they could. This led to many cases where a farmer who only employed his sons, or any family with a metal roof on their house, was labelled as kulaks and deported.

The same happened to those labeled as podkulachniks (подкулачник), so-called "kulak helpers".

A new wave of persecution, this time against "ex-kulaks," was started in 1937. It was part of the Great Purge, after the NKVD Order no. 00447. Those deemed ex-kulaks had only two options: death sentence or labour camps.

After being resettled to Siberia and Kazakhstan, many "kulaks" gained prosperity again. This fact served as a base of recriminations against some sections of NKVD that were in charge of the "labour settlements" (трудовые поселения) in 1938-1939, which permitted "kulakization" (окулачивание) of the "labour settlers" (трудопоселенцев). The fact that new settlers became more prosperous than the neighbouring kolkhozes was explained by "wrecking" and "criminal negligence".

Numbers executed

According to data from Soviet archives, which were published in 1990, 1,803,392 people were sent to labor colonies and camps in 1930 and 1931. Books say that 1,317,022 reached the destination. The remaining 486,370 may have died or escaped. Deportations on a smaller scale continued after 1931. The reported number of kulaks and their relatives who had died in labour colonies from 1932 to 1940 was 389,521.

It is difficult to determine how many people died because of the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class." The data from the Soviet archives do not tell us exactly how many people escaped and survived, or what number of deaths would have occurred if there had been no deportation. These data do not include people who were executed or died in prisons and gulags rather than dying in labour colonies. Many historians consider the great famine a result of the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class," which complicates the estimation of death tolls. A wide range of death tolls has been suggested, from as many as 60 million suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to as few as 700 thousand by Soviet news sources. A collection of estimates is maintained by Matthew White.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Robert Conquest (1986) The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505180-7.
  2. ^ a b Mikhail Gorbachev. Memoirs. 769 pages. Publisher: Doubleday; 1st ed edition (September 1, 1996) ISBN 0385480199
  3. ^ Strobe Talbott, ed., Khrushchev Remembers (2 vol., tr. 1970–74)
  4. ^ Dmitri Volkogonov. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, 1996, ISBN 0761507183
  5. ^ "On the characteristics of kulak farms subject to the Labor Code", Sovnarkom resolution, May 21, 1929, in: Collectivization of Agriculture: Main Resolutions of the Communist Party and Soviet Government 1927-1935, Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Institute of History, Moscow, 1957, p. 163 (Russian).
  6. ^ "On measures against malicious slaughter of livestock", Central Executive Committee and Sovnarkom resolutions, January 16, 1930; November 1, 1930, in: Collectivization of Agriculture: Main Resolutions of the Communist Party and Soviet Government 1927-1935, Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Institute of History, Moscow, 1957, pp. 260, 336 (Russian).

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