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The term kulak came into use after emancipation in 1861, describing peasants who profited from their peers. While kulak connotes the power of the fist, the nearly synonymous term miroyed means "mir-eater." At first the term "kulak" did not refer to the newly prosperous peasants, but rather to village extortioners who consume the commune, men of special rapacity, their wealth derived from usury or trading rather than from agriculture. The term never acquired precise scientific or economic definition. Peasants had a different understanding of the kulaks than outsiders; however, both definitions focused on social and moral aspects. During the twentieth century Lenin and Stalin defined the kulaks in economic and political terms as the capitalist strata of a polarized peasantry. Exploitation was the central element in the peasants' definition of the miroyed as well as in outsiders' definition of the kulak. Peasants, by contrast, attributed power to the kulak and limited their condemnation to peasants who exploited members of their own community. The kulaks also played an important political role in self-government of the peasant community. In the communal gathering they controlled decision making and had great influence on the opinion of the rest of the peasants.

The meaning of the term changed after the October Revolution, as the prerevolutionary type of kulak seldom survived in the village. In the 1920s the kulaks were in most instances simply wealthier peasants who, unlike their predecessors, were incontestably devoted to agriculture. They often were only slightly distinguishable from the middle peasants. Thus many Bolshevik leaders denied the existence of kulaks in the Soviet countryside. When in the mid-1920s the question of differentiation of the peasantry became part of the political debate, the statisticians had to provide a picture based on Lenin's assumption of class division. As social differentiation was still quite weak, it was impossible to define a clear class of capitalist peasants. The use of hired laborers and the leasing of land was under control of the rural soviets. Traditional forms of exploitation in the countryside, such as usury and trading, had lost their significance due to the growing cooperative organization of the peasantry. Since the use of hired laborersa sign of capitalist exploitationmade it difficult to find a significant number of peasant capitalists for statistical purposes, a mixture of signs of wealth and obscure indicators of exploitation came into use in definition of the kulak: for example, ownership of at least three draught animals, sown area of more than eleven hectares, ownership of a trading establishment even without hired help, ownership of a complex and costly agricultural machine or of a considerable quantity of good quality implements, and hiring out of means of production. In general, the existence of one criterion was enough to define the peasant household as kulak. The statisticians thus determined that 3.9 percent of the peasantry consisted of kulaks.

It was exactly its indefiniteness that allowed the Bolsheviks to use the term kulak to initiate class war in the Soviet countryside toward the end of the 1920s. In order to force the peasants into the kolkhoz, the Politburo declared the almost nonexistent group of kulaks to be class enemies. Every peasant who was unwilling to join the kolkhoz had to fear being classified as kulak and subjected to expropriation and deportation. The justification lay in the political role the stronger peasants played in the communal assemblies. Together with the bulk of the peasants they were skeptical of any ideas of collective farming. The sheer existence of successful individual peasants ran counter to the Bolshevik aim of collectivization.

Due to the political pressure of new regulations for disenfranchisement in the 1927 election campaign and expropriation by the introduction of an excessive and prohibitive individual taxation in 1928, the number of kulaks started to decrease. This process was called self-dekulakization, meaning the selling of means of production, reducing the rent of land, and the leasing of implements to poorer farms. It was easy for the kulak to bring himself socially and economically down to the situation of a middle peasant. He only had to sell his agricultural machine, dismiss his batrak (hired laborer), or close his enterprise for there to be nothing left of the kulak as defined by the law. Several kulaks sought to escape the blows by flight to the towns, to other villages, or even into the kolkhozy if they were admitted.

On December 27, 1929, Stalin announced the liquidation of the kulaks as a class, that is, their expropriation and deportation. For the sake of the general collectivization the kulaks were divided into three different groups. The first category, the socalled "counterrevolutionary kulak-activists, fighting against collectivization" should be either arrested or shot on the spot; their families were to be deported. The second category, "the richest kulaks," were to be deported together with their families into remote areas. The rest of the kulaks were to be resettled locally. The Politburo not only planned the deportation of kulaks, ordering between 3 to 5 percent of the peasant farms to be liquidated and their means of production to be given to the kolkhoz, but also fixed the exact number of deportees and determined their destinations. The kulaks were clearly needed as class enemies to drive the collectivization process forward: After the liquidation of the kulaks in early 1930, and during the second major wave of collectivization in 1931, the Politburo ordered a certain percentage of the remaining peasant farms to be defined as kulaks and liquidated. Even if a peasant was obviously not wealthy, the term podkulak (walking alongside the kulaks) enabled the worker brigades to expropriate and arrest him.

Between 1930 and 1933, some 600,000 to 800,000 peasant households consisting of 3.5 to 5 million people, were declared to be kulaks, expropriated, and turned out of their houses. As local resettlement proved difficult, deportation hit more families than originally planned. By the end of 1931, about 380,000 to 390,000 kulak households consisting of about two million people were deported and brought to special settlements in remote areas, mostly in northern Russia or Siberia. Between 1933 and 1939, another 500,000 people reached the special settlements, mostly deportees from the North Caucasus during the famine of 1933. About one-fourth of the deportees did not survive the transport or the first years in the special settlements. After the new constitution of 1936, the term kulak fell out of use. At the beginning of 1941, 930,000 people were still registered in the special settlements. They were finally reinstated with their civilian rights during or shortly after World War II.

See also: class system; collective farm; collectivization of agriculture; cooperative societies; emancipation act; peasantry; stalin, josef vissarionovich


Frierson, Cathy Anne. (1992). From Narod to Kulak: Peasant Images in Russia, 18701885. Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Lewin, Moshe. (1966/1967). "Who was the Soviet Kulak?" Soviet Studies 18:189212.

Merl, Stephan. (1990). "Socio-economic Differentiation of the Peasantry." In From Tsarism to the New Economic Policy: Continuity and Change in the Economy of the USSR, ed. Robert W. Davies. London: Macmillan Press.

Viola, Lynne. (1996). Peasant Rebels under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stephan Merl

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