Under Lenin's New Economic Plan (NEP), peasants had held on to small plots of land. Many had prospered. Stalin saw that system as being inefficient and a threat to state power. Stalin wanted all peasants to farm on either state-owned farms or collectives, large farms owned and operated by peasants as a group.
On collectives, the government provided tractors, fertilizers, and better seed, and peasants learned modern farm methods. Peasants were permitted to keep their houses and personal belongings, but all farm animals and implements had to be turned over to the collective. The state set all prices and controlled access to farm supplies.
This propaganda poster supports one element of Stalin's Five-Year Plan for industry: the creation of an industrial area in Siberia that took advantage of the region's vast coal reserves.
Many peasants resisted collectivization by killing farm animals, destroying tools, and burning crops. The government responded with brutal force. Stalin targeted kulaks, or wealthy farmers.
In 1929, Stalin declared his intention to “liquidate the kulaks as a class.” To this end, the government confiscated kulaks' land and sent them to slave labor camps, where thousands were executed or died from overwork.
Despite the repression, angry peasants continued to resist by growing just enough to feed themselves. In response, the government seized all of their grain for the cities, purposely leaving the peasants to starve. In 1932, this ruthless policy, combined with poor harvests, led to a terrible famine. Later called the Terror Famine, it caused between five and eight million people to die of starvation in the Ukraine alone. Millions more died in other parts of the Soviet Union.
Although collectivization increased Stalin's control of the peasantry, it did not improve farm output. During the 1930s, grain production inched upward, but meat, vegetables, and fruits remained in short supply. Feeding the population would remain a major problem in the Soviet Union.
How did Stalin take control of the Soviet Union's economic life?
In addition to tactics like the Terror Famine, Stalin's totalitarian state used secret police, torture, and violent purges to ensure obedience. Stalin tightened his grasp on every aspect of Soviet life, stamping out any signs of dissent even within the Communist elite.
The Gulag was the system of Soviet forced-labor camps. It housed political prisoners as well as actual criminals and became a symbol of political repression in the Soviet Union.
Stalin ruthlessly used terror as a weapon against his own people.