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Agriculture Policy - Brezhnev

Agriculture continued to frustrate the leaders of the Soviet Union. Despite immense land resources, extensive machinery and chemical support industries, a large rural work force, and two decades of massive investment in the agricultural sector, the Soviet Union continued to rely on large-scale grain and meat imports to feed its population. Persistent shortages of staples, the general unavailability of fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables in state stores, and a bland, carbohydrate-rich diet remained a fact of life for Soviet citizens and a perennial embarrassment to their government.

Although in terms of total value of output the Soviet Union was the world's second leading agricultural power and ranked first in the production of numerous commodities, agriculture was a net drain on the economy. The financial resources directed to this sector soared throughout the 1970s and by the mid-1980s accounted for nearly one-third of total investment. The ideologically motivated policy of maintaining low prices for staples created an enormous disparity between production costs and retail food prices. By 1983 the per capita food subsidy amounted to nearly 200 rubles, which the consumer had to pay in higher prices for nonfood products.

Although gross agricultural production rose by more than 50 percent between the 1950s and 1980s, outstripping population growth by 25 percent, the consumer did not see a proportionate improvement in the availability of foodstuffs. This paradox indicated that the Soviet Union's inability to meet demand for agricultural commodities was only partly the result of production shortfalls and that much of the blame was attributable to other factors. Chief among these were the processing, transportation, storage, and marketing elements of the food economy, the neglect of which over the years resulted in an average wastage of about one-fourth of agricultural output. Soviet experts estimated that if waste in storage and processing were eliminated, up to 25 percent more grain, 40 percent more fruits and vegetables, and 15 percent more meat and dairy products could be brought to market.

The heavily centralized and bureaucratized system of administration, which has characterized Soviet agriculture ever since Joseph V. Stalin's campaign of forced collectivization (see Glossary), was the dominant cause of the sector's overall poor performance. Inflexible production directives from central planning organs that failed to take local growing conditions into account and bureaucratic interference in the day-to-day management of individual farms fostered resentment and undermined morale in the countryside. The result was low labor productivity, the system's most intractable problem. Despite its systemic flaws, however, Soviet agriculture enjoyed certain successes. The standard of living of farm workers improved, illiteracy was reduced, incomes grew, better housing and health care were provided, and electricity was brought to virtually all villages. Farming practices were modernized, and agriculture received more machinery and became less labor intensive. Ambitious irrigation and drainage projects brought millions of additional hectares under cultivation. Large livestock inventories were built up, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s.

In the 1980s, the basic structure and operation of Soviet agriculture retained many of the features of the system that became entrenched during Stalin's regime. Under Stalin agriculture was socialized, and a massive bureaucracy was created to administer policy. This bureaucracy was highly resistant to subsequent reform efforts.

Stalin's campaign of forced collectivization, begun in the autumn of 1929, confiscated the land, machinery, livestock, and grain stores of the peasantry. By 1937 approximately 99 percent of the countryside had been collectivized. Precise figures are lacking, but probably 1 million kulak households with nearly 5 million members were deported and were never heard from again. About 7 million starved to death as the government confiscated grain stores. In defiance, peasants slaughtered their livestock rather than surrender it to the collectives. As a result, within five years the number of horses, cattle, and hogs in the country was halved, and the number of sheep and goats was reduced by two-thirds.

Aside from the immediate devastation wrought by forced collectivization, the experience left an enduring legacy of mutual distrust and hostility between the rural population and the Soviet authorities. The bureaucracy that evolved to administer agriculture was motivated more by political than by economic considerations. Its objectives were to industrialize agriculture, create a rural proletariat, and destroy peasant resistance to communist rule. Once entrenched, the bureaucracy relished its power, dictating policy from the top down with little regard for the opinions of individual farmers and even farm managers, who better understood local conditions. Such policies resulted in abysmally low labor productivity and massive waste of resources. This situation persisted into the 1980s, when the Soviet farmer was on average about one-tenth as productive as his American counterpart.

During Stalin's regime, virtually all farmland was assigned to the two basic agricultural production entities that still predominated in the 1980s--state farms and collective farms. The state farm (sovetskoe khoziaistvo--sovkhoz) was conceived in 1918 as the ideal model for socialist agriculture. It was to be a large, modern enterprise, directed and financed by the government, with a work force receiving wages and social benefits comparable to those enjoyed by industrial workers.

By contrast, the collective farm (kollektivnoe khoziaistvo--kolkhoz) was a self-financed producer cooperative, which farmed land granted to it rent free by the state and which paid its members according to their contribution of work. Although in theory the kolkhoz was self-directed, electing its own managing committee and chairman, in reality it remained under the firm control of state planning and procurement agencies. Chairmen who did not meet ideological purity requirements were removed.

Sovkhozy operated much like any other production enterprise in the Soviet command economy, with production targets and operating budgets determined by distant planning organs. The entire output of sovskhozy was delivered to state procurement agencies. Kolkhozy also received procurement quotas, but they were free to sell excess production in collective farm markets, where prices were determined by supply and demand. Because kolkhozy were self-financed, they received somewhat higher prices for their products. Nevertheless, the income of the kolkhoz resident was usually lower than that of the sovkhoz resident. In general, labor productivity on the sovkhoz was higher, probably because of its access to better machinery, chemicals, and seed and because it could specialize in the crops best suited to its region. The kolkhoz was constrained to produce a variety of crops and livestock, which decreased efficiency.

Several watershed decisions by Stalin's successors reduced the differences between the two types of farms. Among these decisions were the 1958 elimination of state-operated machine tractor stations, which had given the party leverage over the kolkhoz by controlling its access to heavy farm machinery; the establishment in 1965 of a minimum wage, pension, and other benefits for kolkhoz workers; and the 1967 decision to make the sovkhoz a self-financed entity, which in theory the kolkhoz had been from the start. Not only was there a trend toward convergence of the features of the two types of farms, but there was also a pattern of official conversion of smaller, less solvent kolkhozy to sovkhozy. As a result, in 1973 the total sown area of sovkhozy surpassed that of kolkhozy for the first time. The total number of kolkhozy decreased from 235,500 in 1940 to 26,300 in 1986.

But after the March 1989 Agricultural Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), it appeared likely that the proliferation of sovkhozy would cease. Even one of the most conservative Politburo members, Egor K. Ligachev, who was named chairman of the party's Agrarian Policy Commission in September 1988, recommended gradually converting sovkhozy into cooperatives and leasing collectives.

A third production entity that survived from Stalin's era was the private plot, known in Soviet jargon as the "personal auxiliary holding." These plots were ideologically unpalatable to the bureaucrats, but they were tolerated as a means for farmers to produce their own food and supplement their incomes. The plots were small (roughly half a hectare) and were assigned one to a household. Peasants were allowed to consume whatever was grown on the plot and sell any surplus--either at the collective farm markets or to state or cooperative marketing agencies. The contribution of private plots to the nation's food supply far exceeded their size. With only 3 percent of total sown area in the 1980s, they produced over a quarter of gross agricultural output, including about 30 percent of meat and milk, 66 percent of potatoes, and 40 percent of fruits, vegetables, and eggs.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:15:17 ZULU