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Kulak, in Russian, means a "fist." When used for rich peasants, it alludes to their alleged fist-like hold on their poorer brethren. Vladimir Lenin saw the kulak as a "village bourgeoisie" that would be crushed by a socialist revolution. This was achieved during Joseph Stalin's "revolution from the top" that mandated collectivization and dekulakization.

When the Bolsheviks assumed power, peasants made up 85 percent of Russia's population. Peasants were tied to village communes that practiced the joint ownership of land with periodical redistribution for individual exploitation. The 1906 Stolypin reforms encouraged peasants to establish separate farms, but eleven years later communes were still the norm in Russia. Only in Ukraine and other non-Russian regions did individual farming prevail. Most peasants remained poor, but many made a decent living and some even became wealthy. The kulaks were rich enough to hire farm help and lease out agricultural machinery. Less than a tenth of the peasant population belonged to this group. There were significantly more middle peasants whose holdings made them economically self-sufficient. More numerous than the other two groups combined were the poor peasants. They could not support their families with the earnings from their meager farms, and often they had to supplement their income with outside employment.

During the Russian civil war, the reconquest of break-away non-Russian republics, and the struggle with interventionist forces, kulaks became a target for the Bolshevik policy of "war communism" or the requisitioning of foodstuffs for and by the armies and urban population. Meanwhile, incited by socialist agitators, poor peasants began to seize land and farm implements from their richer neighbors. Some kulaks were killed, others fled, and still others lost some or all of their holdings. Their numbers dwindled to less than half of what they had been before the revolution. The poor peasants improved their situation by appropriating land and other property from large landowners. Eventually, the middle peasants outnumbered the other two groups combined. Their numbers and economic importance assured them a certain tolerance on the part of the Soviet state. However, the position of the middle peasant remained ambiguous: While not an enemy like the kulak, he or she was also not a fellow proletarian like the poor peasant. The middle peasant could only be an "ally" and a temporary one at that.

The New Economic Policy adopted in 1921 put socialized agriculture on hold and encouraged private farming. In 1925 the leading spokesman for the right, Nikolai Bukharin, urged the Russian Communist Party to adopt a pro-peasant policy with an "enrich yourselves" slogan. The kulaks won a temporary reprieve, but in ideological terms they remained class enemies. The revival of Soviet agriculture after the famine of 1921 through 1923 benefited the peasants although it did little for Stalin's ambitions. Peasants now consumed more of what they grew and this left little for export, the main source of capital for industrialization. Stalin intended to reorganize all of agriculture into large estates, the so-called state farms (sovkhozy) and collective farms (kolkhozy). All peasants would eventually be included in these two systems, particularly the second one. Collectivization would achieve the regime's ideological, economic, political, and social goals: socialized agriculture, direct access to cereals for export, the elimination of the village bourgeoisie, and Party control over the peasantry. Collectivization meant the destruction of the kulaks as a class and thus the elimination of peasant elites that could oppose the regime.

The difficulties in grain procurement experienced in 1927 prompted the government to return to a policy of requisitions. Facing exorbitant taxes and other repressive measures, many well-off farmers sold inventory and livestock, liquidated their land, and moved to industrial centers. This was called "self-dekulakization." Stalin announced an all-out, state-enforced policy of dekulakization on December 27, 1929. The following month the Party and state machinery was set in motion, under the watchful eyes of Viacheslav Molotov and other Party leaders, to prepare plans for full-scale dekulakization and deportation. Quotas were worked out for each region, and it was stipulated that the number of kulak households was not to exceed 3 to 5 percent in grain-producing areas and 2 to 3 percent in non-grain-producing areas. In regions selected for wholesale collectivization, kulak property was to be confiscated and its owners driven out.

Kulaks were divided into three categories. The OGPU (political police) drew up lists of the most dangerous counterrevolutionary activists for inclusion in the first category. The heads of these households were to be arrested and executed or sent to a concentration camp, and the rest of the family would be deported outside the region. The second category, picked by local authorities, included large-scale exploiters and the active opponents of collectivization. These enemies of the state would also be exiled outside the region, but together with their families. The least anti-Soviet kulaks formed the third category; they would be resettled in their own region, but given land of inferior quality and not allowed to join the collective farms.

Two waves of dekulakization—the first during the winter and spring of 1930, and the second a year later—netted about 1,800,000 individuals; over the course of the next two years another 400,000 were added. Two-thirds of these kulaks were deported to Northern Russia, Siberia, the Urals, and Kazakhstan; the rest were resettled in their own regions. Between 30 and 40 percent were children, and there were also significant numbers of the elderly. Each family of deportees (on average, five members) was allowed to take a thousand pounds of property, including a two-month supply of food, and 500 rubles. In reality most families lacked adequate food and proper winter clothing. Mortality was high, especially among children and the elderly, in the convoys and places of resettlement.

After the first year of state-run dekulakization, kulaks no longer played a role in the economy. However, class criteria were not rigorously applied to determine who was a kulak. Quotas for dekulakization established by higher authorities were often met at the local level by including middle and even poor peasants. The latter could also be dekulakized for having a kulak mentality, betrayed by their opposition to collectivization. "Kulak" thus became a catch-word for all those whom Stalin's regime considered alien and hostile to the new socialist order: It came to include village priests, village intelligentsia, former members of the Russian White Army, and the anti-Russian national armies. Abuse was widespread, and even families of Red Army personnel and industrial workers were swept up in the fray.

Stalin's dekulakization program had a national dimension. The 400,000 peasants deported from Ukraine were among the most dynamic and nationally minded peoples in the Ukrainian countryside. Their loss to Ukraine had dire consequences. Simultaneously, deportees from Russia were transported to Ukraine (3,500 families arrived in 1930–1931 from Soviet Asia). This policy continued during and after the famine of 1932 and 1933. As a result, the number of ethnic Ukrainians in the peasant population of the Ukrainian republic dropped from 89 percent in 1926 to 71 percent in 1939.

The reaction of the Soviet population toward dekulakization was not uniform. It was mainly positive among the urban and rural proletariat. Some 25,000 socalled activists, mostly Russian city workers, were mobilized and sent to the countryside, where they were joined by the village poor, to help the state and party functionaries carry out collectivization and dekulakization. The kulak property confiscated up to July 1, 1930, and transferred to the collectives was enormous. Its value, taking into account the entire Soviet Union, has been calculated at 175,000,000 rubles, but some historians believe that the more accurate value was two or three times greater. A poor peasant might profit as well from the kulak's misery: take a family's house and farm tools, and join the collective enriched by them. Many poor peasants were enticed by these possibilities, or other more noble if misguided convictions, and gave their support to the authorities in helping to eliminate the kulaks.

Nonetheless, many middle and even poor peasants, especially those who did not want to join the collectives themselves, joined their richer neighbors in opposing dekulakization, seen as part and parcel of collectivization. There were village demonstrations, often organized and led by women. In some cases uprisings arose with hundreds of participants. Such rebellions sometimes lasted for weeks until they were crushed by the army. Historians have calculated that over seven thousand such mass disturbances occurred in 1930 alone. Poorly armed and deprived of any qualified leadership, these uprisings could not succeed; repression inevitably followed. Ringleaders were shot or sent to concentration camps, and the rest of the "rebels" joined the kulaks in those locales where the latter had been deported.

SEE ALSO Lenin, Vladimir; Stalin, Joseph; Ukraine (Famine); Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


Conquest, Robert (1986). The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Edmonton, Canada: Candian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.

Graziosi, Andrea (1966). The Great Soviet Peasant War: Bolsheviks and Peasants, 1917–1933. Cambridge, Mass.: Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University.

Ivnitskii, N. A. (1996). Kollektivizatsiia i raskulachivanie (nachalo 30-kh godov). Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Magistr.

Lewin, Moshe (1975). Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivization. New York: Norton Library.

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

Roman Serbyn