[Maggie Burke]

From the Russian word meaning “fist”, the term kulak was used in Soviet-era Russia to designate certain elements of the peasant population as “enemies of the state.” In the strictest official terms, a kulak was defined as:

a peasant farmer having one or more of the following characteristics: (1) employment of two agricultural laborers, one of them hired for not less than one half of the year; (2) possession of not less than three head of draft cattle, in some regions not less than four, and the cultivation of more than 10, 12, 14 or 16 desiatins [1 desiatin = 2.7 acres], depending on the region; (3) ownership of a small processing plant with at least one hired laborer, or even without one in case there is a hired laborer in some other branch of the farm; (4) ownership of some commercial enterprise, even without the assistance of a hired man; (5) individual ownership or large share ownership of modern agricultural machinery. (Larin, cited Ladejinsky, 16)

The term kulak was also used in some cases to refer to a village usurer (Mace, 488), or someone who “engaged in commercial activities… or [obtained] other income not from work – specifically including the priesthood,” and the above definition was continually reshaped by local and state leaders to suit their needs (Conquest 100). Through these ever-changing definitions, kulaks were identified not only with excessive affluence but also with parasitism and the Soviet war on religion. As time went on, the term kulak was used broadly to indicate any peasant who was either wealthier than others in his village or resisted the process of societal transformation. A dichotomous relationship was established in Soviet thought regarding types of peasants: the kulaks who were uncooperative and resisted collectivization and the poorer, ‘good-hearted’ and ‘civic-minded peasants’ whom they had oppressed. Calls were made for heavy taxation of the kulaks to bring them down to the level of the other villagers and to punish them for their greed and selfishness (Chamberlin, 480-481).


See also Deportations

Because the term kulak came to be defined so broadly, it was a useful rhetorical and political tool in the transition to collective farming. In 1929, Josef Stalin issued a

statement that kulaks were not fit to be included in the new collective farms, and a subcommittee on the kulak question was established to determine the best strategy for their elimination. The final decision included a range of methods for dealing with different types of kulaks depending on their recalcitrance, ranging from summary execution to exile and imprisonment to rehabilitation into the collective farm system (Conquest 114-115). In addition to those who had already been considered kulaks, all those who objected to the initial push for collectivization were labeled as kulaks and subjected to deportation or execution (Conquest 4). The purpose of the program of dekulakization was to eliminate the “kulak class” from Soviet society (Fitzpatrick, 757). Although deportation began as early as 1929 in Ukraine, dekulakization in its earliest form was a system of heavy taxation and fines designed to run kulaks into the ground financially. Accounts from various regions report so-called kulaks being required to contribute “thirty times as much tax per head” or being “obliged to deliver corn at the 40% rate,” with failure to comply punishable by large fines or dispossession (Conquest 101).

Kulaks who were deported ended up in the northernmost parts of Russia – at least that was their intended destination. In practice, many of them did not make it all the way there but were instead left to die of starvation near train stations and in transit prisons. Those who reached their final destination found themselves in forced labor camps called settlements – a part of the so-called gulag archipelago, but generally separate from the camps housing criminals or political prisoners – working in mines or on large-scale building projects such as digging canals or harbors (Conquest 138-141). What set these camps apart from the rest of the gulag was that in many cases the entire kulak family was deported together. Many children who were raised in the settlements survived to see the dissolution of the camp system after Stalin’s death, although few of them moved back to their native homelands (Kaznelson 1164-1165, 1173-1175). Thus, the system of dekulakization contributed in large part to the massive ethnic and socio-cultural reorganization of the early Soviet Union.


See also Collectivization

Following collectivization, scapegoats on failing collective farms were accused of hiding grain from the state and labeled kulaks. In some cases these accusations were true, as collective farming resulted in overly ambitious grain quotas which, after the state took its share, left the farmers with little or nothing to feed themselves. Cases like Pavlik Morozov, a young pioneer boy from Belarus who denounced his family as kulaks and class enemies for hiding grain from the state and was later killed (allegedly by his own family members) and became a saint-like figure in Soviet national mythology (Druzhnikov, vii), reveal both the impact of collectivization on the hungry peasants and the effectiveness of anti-kulak rhetoric.


Works Cited

  • William Henry Chamberlin, “The Russian Peasant Sphinx,” Foreign Affairs 7, no. 3 (1929): 477-487. Accessed 14 February 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20028708.
  • Robert Conquest, Harvest of Sorrow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
  • Yuri Druzhnikov, Informer 001 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1997).
  • Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Ascribing Class: The Construction of Social Identity in Soviet Russia,” The Journal of Modern History 65, no. 4 (1993): 745-770. Accessed 14 February 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2124540.
  • Michael Kaznelson, “Remembering the Soviet State: Kulak Children and Dekulakization,” Europe-Asia Studies 59, no. 7 (2007): 1163-1177.
  • W. Ladejinsky, “Collectivization of Agriculture in the Soviet Union I,” Political Science Quarterly 49, no. 1 (1934): 1-43. Accessed 14 February 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2143326.
  • James E. Mace, “The Komitety Nezamozhnykh Selyan and the Structure of Soviet Rule in the Ukrainian Countryside, 1920-1933,” Soviet Studies 35, no. 4 (1983): 487-503. Accessed 14 February 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/151256.