Collectivization of Estonian Agriculture

Initially, after occupying the Republic of Estonia in 1940, the Soviets tried to gain support from the poorer strata of rural society by conducting land reform. They divided the farmland over 30 ha (later over 20 ha) among the so-called new settlers. This continued after the disruption caused by the German occupation (1941-1944). It was initially confirmed that the system of individual farms would be maintained, and the farmers were given special rights, granting them permanent use of the land. Still, the majority of peasants remained hostile towards the regime because of high procurement norms and agricultural taxes, while the forced-delivery crops received a price which was too small even to cover production costs. Some of those fixed prices were, in fact, less than five percent of the level of the late 1930s. All peasants, including those who had received land from the Soviet authorities, were exploited by the state and faced a severe decline in their real incomes. However, the state was not satisfied with the amount of forced-delivery crops it could extract from the peasantry in the newly acquired territories. In 1947, preparations for collectivization included a more than threefold increase in agricultural taxes, destruction of the kulak (better-off peasants) class and the opening of model kolkhozes. Kulaks had to pay taxes in the amount of two or three times the average annual wages in industry. Two years of protest and appeals started, largely to no avail. Kulaks were deported along with ‘nationalists’ or ‘collaborators’ in March 1949. On the whole, the majority of the rural population did not voluntarily join the model collective farms.

In January 1949, Stalin decided to organize a mass deportation in the western borderlands of the USSR, to prepare for collectivization, cleanse the countryside and weaken resistance. More than 20,000 persons were deported from Estonia alone in March 1949. Shortly afterwards, in meetings all over the countryside, the establishment of kolkhozes was announced and the majority of the peasants joined ‘voluntarily’, fearing that they would be deported if they did not sign up. While the regime justified collective farming as achieving economies of scale and modernization, actually output, productivity, and the level of mechanization declined in Estonian agriculture, especially after 1951. During the 1950s, masses of farm animals would starve to death in late winter or early spring because of a lack of fodder. Overall agricultural production declined to less than half of the pre-war level and, for many peasant families, the years after the collectivization were the poorest in their lives.

Private production on the garden plots owned by the entire rural population and a part of the urban population remained very important. In 1955, for example, private agriculture had a higher net output than the state or collective sector, according to Soviet statistics. Private and state agriculture existed in symbiosis. Without private production, the population would starve, but state or collective production generated most of the state revenues from agriculture. To maintain private plots, along with many farm animals, the peasants needed to steal regularly from the state and the kolkhoz.

With increasing state subsidies for agriculture beginning in the 1960s, the situation in the countryside improved. Some model kolkhozes could even pay higher wages than in industry. Completing the collective farm centres drastically changed the built-up area in the countryside. However, this ‘blossoming’ of the kolkhoz system, remembered by many former members today, was due to subsidies and not efficient production. Agriculture remained a low productivity sector in Estonia, as in the rest of the Soviet Union.

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