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Inventing a Soviet Countryside: State Power and the Transformation of Rural Russia, 1917-1929

Author(s):Heinzen, James W.
Reviewer(s):Wheatcroft, Stephen

Published by EH.NET (June 2004)

James W. Heinzen, Inventing a Soviet Countryside: State Power and the Transformation of Rural Russia, 1917-1929. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. x + 297 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8229-4215-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stephen Wheatcroft, Department of History, University of Melbourne.

James W. Heinzen of Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey has written a very interesting book on several aspects of the history of the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture of the RSFSR (NKZem-RSFSR) from 1917 to 1929. This was the main state agency in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic that was involved in agricultural administration during the period of War Communism and the New Economic Policy (NEP). The contribution of People’s Commissar A.P. Smirnov, 1922-28 in protecting agricultural specialists, and in promoting a cautious rightist economic policy has been underestimated and Heinzen’s book is welcome in providing us with more detail about the internal vedomstvennii (departmental) politics that surround developments that have generally been seen from the central party position. Such a broadening of the picture is necessary because the political conflict of the time, and the infamous struggles between the Rights, the Left and the Party Center have tended to dominate most accounts of this period, and to give the opinion that it was these struggles that dominated everything that was happening at the time.

A few historians, including R.W.Davies, E.A. Rees and myself have argued that while the party struggles determined who the political leader would be, policy was often determined on the ground in the key state agencies in a sort of political vacuum. Heinzen’s book is therefore a welcome addition to the growing number of vedomstvenii histories that are beginning to transform our understanding of how NEP worked, and why it collapsed.

The description of the early years of the People’s Commissariat and the precarious transition from Tsarist Ministry to Revolutionary People’s Commissariat is generally fine, but it is marred by an early blunder about the nature of this particular commissariat. On pages 21-22, when discussing the birth and early activities of the Commissariat, 1917-20, it is stated that “Unlike some commissariats, which were headed by an agency at the national level, the Commissariat of Agriculture was one of the so-called non-united commissariats, for which separate commissariats were established in each republic.” This is confused. In 1917-20 there was no Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The country at this time was known as the RSFSR and federated with it Republics. NKZem-RSFSR was an agency at the national level. The distinction that Heinzen has introduced here at the birth of NKZem only became apparent after the formation of the USSR in 1922, when the decision was made not to create a People’s Commissariat at this time at the Union level. There was a reason for this, which relates to the fear that Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks had in the early stages of NEP that Party extremists would attempt to impose unrealistic universal plans on agriculture if an appropriate mechanism for this could be found. This is important for Heinzen’s story, because his story leads up to the establishment of an All-Union NKZem in 1929 precisely when such extremist and unrealistic plans were being launched.

My main criticism of the book is that it claims to be far more than it really is, that it doesn’t really cover all, or even all the important activities of NKZem RSFSR, and even more so does it fail to cover all the important aspects of state power and the transformation of rural Russia during this period.

I will just provide a few examples of the shortfalls in each of these cases.

The book spends little time looking seriously at the plans that were drawn up for the transformation of agriculture and how NKZem fitted into these plans, it also fails to provide much of an indication of the work actually carried out by NKZem, and it tends to suggest that very little was done.

Much of the planning for agricultural development was carried out in Gosplan, which was a universal centralized planning commission, which was set up at the same time that the policies which became known as NEP were accepted. Lenin initially opposed the creation of a Universal planning body, and only appears to have accepted it as a compromise for the party’s acceptance of NEP. Having been forced to accept Gosplan, he was keen to influence how it worked and was particularly anxious to ensure that it was staffed by cautious specialists. Lenin insisted that P.I. Popov, the non-party head of TsSU be the head of Gosplan Agricultural Sector. Popov, in his turn was determined to block any plan that required unrealistic surpluses of agricultural products to be extracted from agriculture. He quite reasonably insisted that major central planning needed to await improved statistical materials. There were at the time massive disputes over the size of grain harvests and even over the size of the population. Popov was also holding out for a midterm 1925 series of censuses to provide a serious basis for planning. The first multi-sectoral plan was drawn up as OSVOK in VSNKh because of Popov’s intransigence. Neither the Party Right, nor Smirnov in NKZem came to the support of Popov when he was attacked by Yakovlev and NKRKI in early 1926.

Subsequent conflicts over agriculture development were based on very shaky and distorted evaluations of agricultural reality. Lenin’s fear that the extremists would dominate the planning system and agricultural administration was becoming true. Smirnov was more involved in assisting Rykov to restrain the more extreme grain plans proposed for 1926 and 1927, but the failure to accumulate adequate reserves in combination with unwise pricing policy and poor weather, contributed to the grain procurement crisis of 1927/28. Kondratiev was a major victim of this crisis, not because the crisis provided a justification to attack NKZem, but because he was director of the Economic Conjuncture Institute of NKFin, where an article written by Vainshstein in the Bulletin edited by him warned that current policies were likely to lead to a restoration of War Communism.

Smirnov may have been a victim too, but he was probably more of a political figure than Heinzen suggests. His removal from NKZemRSFSR in March 1928 was not accompanied by dismissal, but with a move that could be interpreted as a promotion. He was already a member of the Party Orgburo, and in April he replaced Kubyak as a member of the Party Secretariat. He retained his important position as a member of STO until July 1929. His major demotion came relatively late after the XVIth Party Congress in July 1930 when he lost his place in the Secretariat and was demoted to Candidate member of the Orgburo.

As regards other neglected activities in NKZemRSFSR. One of the major achievements of NKZemRSFSR at this time was the extraordinary achievement of organizing the improvement of seed used for sowing.

Finally, on what may appear to be a fairly minor detail, Heinzen presents a confusing picture of the level of agricultural production in these years. He is generally correct in his text in describing the failure of grain production in the late 1920s to reach the pre-war level, but he does include a very misleading table which provides a totally different indication of the situation.[1] Although this may appear to be a minor matter I would argue that it is extremely important.

The main point about the Soviet countryside that was invented by Soviet State power in the late 1920s lies precisely in this confusion. The State invented a countryside that had abundant grain and where failure to market grain supplies was the result of peasant sabotage. Popov before 1926, and a whole stream of later heroic statisticians, (including surprisingly Osinskii) tried in vain to correct this distorted invention, and the major catastrophe that struck in 1932-33 was a consequence of this false invention. Any account of the politics of Soviet agriculture for this period which fails to describe this distortion is missing the main story. Heinzen’s account of the history of Smirnov’s attempts to protect rural specialists is important, but it does not live up to its claims to be a history of state power and the transformation of rural Russia, and unfortunately it fails to get to grips with one of the main distortions of the Soviet countryside that was invented at this time.

Note: 1. For most of his text Heinzen argues correctly, but in one critical table (table 4-1 on p. 140) he, for some reason, gives a totally misleading series which claims that mid 1920s levels of grain production were above the average pre-war level. The table comes from V.P. Danilov, the leading Russian authority on the Russian peasantry. But it is from a volume published in the USSR in 1977 at a time when the censor did not allow any figures to be published which disagreed with the current official assessments of the Soviet statistical system. So these are the ‘official’ Soviet figures of the time, which have been uncritically cited here. Danilov had no choice but to include these figures. Heinzen, should have known better, and in fact does know better. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the Soviet censor, Danilov was able to support other figures. Volume 3 of the important new series “Tragediya Sovetskoi Derevni,” which was produced under Danilov’s leadership, contains an appendix written by me which explains the distortions that were applied to the grain statistics of the late 1920s to make them appear larger than they were in reality. See V.P. Danilov et al., Tragediya Sovetskoi Derevni, Volume 3, Moscow 2001, pp. 842-865. As far as I am aware Danilov accepts my account of the scale of Russian grain harvests of this period, which is why he commissioned me to write that appendix.

Stephen Wheatcroft, together with R.W. Davies has just completed The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-33, Macmillan/Palgrave, 2004. This is volume 5 of The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia. He is one of the editors of the five-volume series led by V.P. Danilov, Roberta Manning and Lynne Viola, on “The Tragedy of the Soviet Village, 1927-1939,” Moscow, 1999-2004, and he is the author of the two articles on “Grain Balances and Harvest Evaluations” and on “Demographic Evidence of the tragedy’ in volume 3 of these volumes. He has written widely on Stalinist repression, the Famine and Stalinist Politics.”

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII