In 1861, Emperor Alexander II of Russia emancipated the serfs. Serfs, slaves in all but name, were finally given permission to marry without consent of the nobility, own land and property, own a business, and freely move. For the next 50 years a new class of middle class peasant arose in Imperial Russia, the “kulak”, who owned land and livestock, hired laborers, and upon whose backs was the agricultural foundation of the Imperial Russian Empire.
During the Bolshevik Revolution toward the end of the First World War, the kulaks were generally allied with the Red Army despite the socialist rhetoric. Bolshevik socialists prioritized organization and collectivization of the urban workers, the cities, and factories. In 1918, the Bolsheviks needed food for the Red Army and attempted to “organize” the countryside. They seized land and foodstuffs from the wealthier kulaks and organized peasant committees among the rest. Food production dropped, and in 1919 the Bolsheviks eased the pogroms against the kulaks to prevent famine.
In the 20s, “kulak” became a pejorative term used for any peasant who owned a certain amount of land, generally about ten acres or more, but the standards were lowered as the years went by. By the late 20s, Soviet collectivization was prepared to move into the countryside in earnest. In 1928, Stalin announced his “revolution from above”, the first “Five Year Plan” for Soviet industrialization, and this included rural collectivization. In December 1929, Stalin announced the collectivization of the kulak’s land and on 30 January 1930, the Soviet Politburo formally approved “Dekulakization” in the entirety of the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The kulaks’ land was collectivized at gunpoint. Kulaks who were not outright killed were sent to camps where they worked as slaves, sometimes in their own communities. Many were sent to camps in the arctic or Siberia, where they froze or were worked to death. As is normal for matters regarding absolute power, Dekulakization quickly spiraled out of control. Soviet commissars and peasant committees quickly found there was no check for their abuses of power. First the definition of “kulak” was broadened as to be meaningless. “Kulak” was first expanded to any peasant who hired labor, then to any peasant who owned any land at all, then to owners of just livestock, then to any who possessed property, and eventually to any peasant who disagreed with collectivization. By 1931, “Kulak” was a not a class but simply a “rural enemy of the state”. Eventually, strongmen on the Soviet peasant committees and secret police deemed anyone who disagreed with their rule a “kulak”, which was effectively a death sentence. Scores were settled with a simple denunciation of “kulak”.
About two million men, women and children across the Soviet Union were deemed kulaks and killed in 1930 and 1931. Millions more were deported, fled, or emigrated to other countries. The resulting famine that gripped the Soviet Union the next year was a direct result of Dekulakization. The Soviet Famine of 1932/33 killed another eight million people. In 1933, 30,000 people a day died, primarily Ukrainians and Kazakhs, from being deliberately starved to death by the prioritization of food to ethnic Russians.
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