Professor Michal Spakowski (Jastrӗbie Droj, Poland) was speaking to Rev Dr Kenneth Baker (Roscommon, Republic of Ireland)
MS “Stalin knew that the Five Year Plans were annihilating the rural infrastructure of the country. Why did he persist?”
KB Interesting question. But that presupposes that a prime objective was to build the rural economy, whereas…
MS Or re-build. Or re-invent.
KB Yes, yes. Accepted. But given the impoverished state of rural Russia after 1917 something radical had to be attempted. The new government had to start from scratch, with almost insuperable problems.
MS It’s interesting to note that we are the first generation of historians who are able to make a critical judgment on these events. The secret Communist archives are only now available. Previous writers made judgments based on little or no evidence.
KB And astonishingly, previous historians -Władysław Konopczyński?- often gave Stalin the benefit of the doubt: that at least part of the failure of the Five Year Plans was down to the rural populace. To their ignorance and obduracy.
MS I believe the archives indicate that Stalin took a personal control and hence bore personal responsibility. And so the question holds: why did Stalin persist when they are seen to fail?
KB I think we can also conclude that “Collectivization” and “Dekulakisation” were not strategies to create a new society at all. At least, not in Stalin’s eyes. They were all about control. Control by any means necessary. Control even if it meant wiping out whole villages and towns by induced famine.
MS Was he destroying his own past? Was Stalin wiping out provincial Russia? Ashamed of his Georgian background? Etc. Like part of “The grey man” myth? “Death is the ultimate silence.”
KB Perhaps that’s a step too far! But it’s true that he went to extraordinary lengths to cover up his own rural beginnings. No, the Five Year Plans had a single objective: get the maximum agricultural produce at the minimum price. An artificially deflated price. He read the rural situation as an opportunity to establish absolute control over the countryside in order to ensure the steady flow of agricultural “surplus,” needed for his larger project to industrialize the country. “Fifty years behind”, remember?
MS Part of this ignorant persistence is the application of a single policy to multiple situations. It’s like in your country, applying a policy to Wales, Scotland and Ireland without considering local conditions. In Russia it was much worse. There were whole cultural, linguistic, religious differences that were simply swept aside…
KB I think that situation did change, maybe by the early thirties. There were some situations where Stalin did begin to listen to the voices of local soviets.
MS Even then, only marginal concessions.
KB Perhaps so. But Stalin’s simplicity was part of his genius. And yet he only had one come-back: the increase of repression against both the population and the party apparatus that was supposed to carry out his orders.
MS Genius? The implacable repression of a whole class? Over 6.8 million deaths in the Ukraine alone? Stalin maintained a simple, brutalized policy that prioritized procurement aims, and used fatal pressure as a means to enforce it. And, as I said, the fact that the specific structure of each local society, culture and economy was largely ignored exacerbated the scope of the results.
MS On a huge scale. The archives reveal that even with local information available, and the disastrous local consequences evident, Stalin’s order of priorities was not shaken. He stuck to the policy of forcedly extracting agricultural production even after it had become obvious that this was thwarting any effort to create stable, functioning collective production structures in the countryside, and that it was even destroying those at places where they previously had been set up. Even less did he seem to care about the mass starving that went on in many regions. Stalin made no effort to find an intelligent way of developing a new model of rural society, based on Soviet ideology, not to talk about the even more sophisticated task of turning a traditional, semi-nomad population in rural areas into socialist farm workers. Instead, -as you suggested- he was waging a war to achieve full control over the agricultural sector, with the ultimate aim to achieve the extraction of the resources he needed, and he was fully aware of it. If he had miscalculated something, then this was the costs and the benefits of this strategy. Economically, the collectivization campaign was a total failure.
KB And morally?
MS Morally, it bears no words. Only the memory of grief.