If Stalin Had Died…


He would do it. Stalin would force the collectivization of Soviet villages and nomadic steppes inhabited by more than 100 million people between 1928 and 1933. At least five million people, many the country’s most productive farmers or herders, would be “dekulakized,” that is, herded into cattle cars and dumped at far-off wastelands, often in winter; some in that number would dekulakize themselves, rushing to sell or abandon their possessions to escape deportation. Those forced into the collectives would burn crops, slaughter animals, and assassinate officials. The regime’s urban shock troops would break peasant resistance, but the country’s number of horses would plummet from 35 million to 17 million, cattle from 70 million to 38 million, pigs from 26 million to 12 million, sheep and goats from 147 million to 50 million. In Kazakhstan, the losses would be still more staggering: cattle from 7.5 million to 1.6 million, sheep from 21.9 million to 1.7 million.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

Countrywide, nearly 40 million people would suffer severe hunger or starvation and between five and seven million people would die in the horrific famine, whose existence the regime denied. “All the dogs have been eaten,” one eyewitness would be told in a Ukrainian village.

We have eaten everything we could lay our hands on—cats, dogs, field mice, birds—when it’s light tomorrow, you will see that the trees have been stripped of bark, for that too has been eaten. And the horse manure has been eaten. Yes, the horse manure. We fight over it. Sometimes there are whole grains in it.

Scholars who argue that Stalin’s collectivization was necessary in order to force a peasant country into the modern era are dead wrong. The Soviet Union, like imperial Russia, faced an imperative to modernize in order to survive in the brutally unsentimental international order, but market systems have been shown to be fully compatible with fast-paced industrialization, including in peasant countries. Forced wholesale collectivization only seemed necessary within the straitjacket of Communist ideology and its repudiation of capitalism.

And economically, collectivization failed to deliver. Stalin assumed that it would increase both the state’s share of low-cost grain purchases and the overall size of the harvest, but although procurements doubled immediately, harvests shrank. Over the longer term, collective farming would not prove superior to large-scale capitalist farming or even to smaller-scale capitalist farming when the latter was provided with machinery, fertilizer, agronomy, and effective distribution. In the short term, collectivization would contribute nothing on net to Soviet industrial growth.

Nor was collectivization necessary to sustain a dictatorship. Private capital and dictatorship are fully compatible. In Fascist Italy, industrialists maintained tremendous autonomous power. Mussolini, like Stalin, supported efforts to attack inflation and a balance-of-payments deficit despite the negative impact on domestic employment, for he, too, viewed a “strong” currency as a point of regime prestige. But although for Mussolini, too, economics was subordinate to his political power, he was not…

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