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Book review 215: Soviet Agriculture

September 29, 2011 - Harry Eagar
SOVIET AGRICULTURE, by Zhores A. Medvedev. 464 pages. Norton, $27.50

“Soviet Agriculture” by the plant physiologist turned historian in exile Zhores Medvedev was written shortly before Bolshevism lost its power in the U.S.S.R. Medvedev did not foresee that, but he did identify agriculture as the critical failure of the government and party, which had to be corrected if the the economic system were not to collapse.

Contrary to rightwing myth, Communism did not fall because of outside pressure, and certainly not because of the blather of Ronald Reagan, who is never mentioned. One American, however, is named as precipitating the final crisis of Soviet agriculture: Jimmy Carter, who embargoed grain exports after Russia invaded Afghanistan.

As Medvedev shows, Soviet agriculture had been in crisis from the start, but the country was self-sufficient in food until 1963. The situation became unmanageable after disastrous harvests in 1972. Communism might have collapsed then, or at least would have undergone a grave event with imponderable consequences, except that Richard Nixon propped up the regime (the “great grain robbery”).

A very few capitalists profited, but not the American people as a whole, still less the poorest of the world's poor, who paid more for food in subsequent years as Russian imports exploded.

Carter's embargo was not effective – Lenin was not wrong when he said capitalists would sell the hangman the rope he would use to hang them – but it did push the Soviet economy to the brink. By 1986, transfers internal and external to prop up food deliveries were bankrupting the state.

Star Wars and the American military buildup had no effect. The amount the Soviets spent to counter Reagan's military bluster was about one-fiftieth of what it was spending trying to keep its farms going.

When Poland rebelled – again, not against Communism but part of the ancient resentment of the Russians – the Soviet state had no resources to react. Everything had gone to food.

The great question raised by Medvedev's book, though not by Medvedev, is how much the failure of U.S.S.R. agricultural policy was due to Bolshevism and how much to Russian incompetence.

Russian agriculture was never healthy. It was the world's biggest grain exporter for a while up to 1913, but only because it starved its peasants. It did not have a real surplus.

Stalin created a now-famous famine for policy reasons and is often and loudly condemned for it, but capitalist agriculture created artificial famines in Russia, too, and no one ever mentions those. (It was food failures that led to the Revolution of 1905.)

Almost every move the U.S.S.R. took with food policy turned out badly, but what is remarkable is that the same mistakes were taking place in America. Medvedev says he wrote his book in a fashion that would allow comparisons, although he avoided making them himself.

Not many Americans can make the comparisons, since so few Americans know anything about agriculture. Only one in 50 grows up on a farm, and the number of city people who study agriculture is negligible.

The Bolsheviki, too, were all city boys, except Kalinin and, significantly, Gorbachev, and they really didn't know what they were doing. It did not help that at least through Stalin's time, peasants were regarded as class enemies.

The Politburo understood well enough that its policies were not working. Agricultural policy was changed every three or four years, and that turmoil alone would have been enough to retard the rationalization of peasant agriculture in a peasant land toward a commercial agriculture in an urbanized country.

Output did increase mightily, until the '60s, although not mightily enough. It is not at all obvious that collectivization as such was the cause, although the rural people hated it.

But Hungary and Romania, both collectivized on the Soviet model, kept pace with western European expansion rates.

The self-satisfaction of Americans about their much more productive system is hard to justify. It was capitalist agriculture that created the Dust Bowl. The Bolsheviki ought to have taken notice, but they did not. The “virgin lands” program plowed the Kazahstan desert – Medvedev calls it semi-desert, but it is as dry as southern Arizona, a real desert – and the result was a Kazakh dust bowl in 1969. Americans should have taken notice, but they didn't, and this year capitalist agriculture has managed to create a new dust bowl in Arizona.

That is why it is simplistic to say that Bolshevism ruined Russian agriculture. Both American and Russian governments turned machine guns on their farmers in 1932. Their problems were different – as Medvedev says, it is more pleasant to deal with overproduction than underproduction – but their errors look very much alike.

It is almost amusing, if you know American farming practices, to read Medvedev's long section on the Bolshevik error of building tractors too big. At the very same time, American farmers were also buying tractors too big, and in both places small tractors had to be sent into the fields to pull the big ones out.

What is appalling is that the Soviets made no effort to deal with the resulting erosion. The American government has, since the New Deal, socialized erosion control and fairly successfully, too. The chernozem (black soil) regions of Russia lost 10 percent of their arable to erosion because of bad farming practices.

Since the fall of Communism, Russian agriculture has not made a recovery, another indicator that the problem was fundamentally Russian indifference and incompetence, rather than specifically Bolshevik practices, which can be regarded as a particular kind of incompetence.

Medvedev notes that the Bolsheviks had made war on all classes in rural Russia, successively destroying each, the owners, the richer peasants and lastly the poor peasants. That was different from tsarism only in that the tsars were concerned to protect the landowners (although, as Medvedev's review of Russian agricultural history before the 1917 Revolution shows, the pomeshchiki had done a lot to destroy their own positions, in spite of the state's tender regard for them.)

There is an interesting footnote in “Soviet Agriculture.” Medvedev barely mentions Lysenko, partly because he regards agricultural problems as primarily organizational and managerial. Lysenkoism, while damaging, was minor in effect.

Besides, Medvedev had written that story earlier, in “The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko.” Here he reveals that the English translation omitted a long section in which Medvedev critiqued agricultural organization.

It seems unlikely that the westerners who so profoundly misunderstood – and still misunderstand – Russian agriculture and its economy would have read the earlier Medvedev, but if it had been available 20 years earlier, the collapse of Soviet agriculture in the '80s might have been recognized for what it was.

 
 

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