It’s 1985 and Soviet Farms Still Suck

The stagnation of the agricultural sector during Brezhnev’s tenure was one of the abject failures of his catastrophic regime. The farming question has existed in the USSR since it’s inception, as  infrastructure , land realignments, and human capital relocation projects have been attempted to convert this abundance of land into reliable arable farmland.

Brezhnev was also stumped by this problem, as agricultural growth slowed down despite the greatly expanding demand of the urban areas.  The Soviet failed to meet their goal consistently, forcing them to import foods from other nations. Many resorted to private farms and small gardens to meet their needs (Freeze 441).   One article from 1983 points to some potential causes of this as the organizational disarray of local agricultural administrations that had become complacent and inefficient:

Initiative has been stifled, dependent attitudes and administrative meddling have been fostered, and people are being held accountable not for end results but for carrying out certain prescribed farming operations. Some leading officials have grown accustomed to drawing on state funds as if they were their own and have shown little concern for utilizing loans and credits to greater advantage.


Constant changes in Soviet policy along with the uncertainty of the agricultural structure created many “push” factors that led to the social upheaval of the small village. The rural population within Russia was nearly cut in half  between 1939 and 1989. This mass exodus was problematic, as many younger people continued to leave for urban areas, leaving older generations to handle agricultural duties. Brezhnev was forced to commit resources to the development and restructuring of the agrarian sector that absorbed a lot of investment and time with little result.

Brezhnev saw the continuation of the USSR attempting to utilize its land, their most plentiful resource, and again the Soviet authorities were unable to find ways to make the land suitable for mass collective agriculture. In fact, these attempts proved disastrous in Central Asia when excessive irrigation causing the Aral Sea dried up, producing a variety of airborne toxins that had long-term health effects for those in the region. All in all, another chapter in the tragic saga of rural land management in Russia.


A House Provided Must be Planned

The passing of Stalin was a pivotal point in the USSR’s history, with a cultural “thaw”occurring that shifted the ideology from Stalin’s cult-driven collective to a renewed focus on the Party and the Soviet People. Khrushchev and the Party Congress worked diligently to remove Stalinist concepts that had been contrarian to the original Soviet cause.

One area that the new leadership had to address was a housing crisis that was developing in many urban areas.. The rapid movement from rural to urban areas that reflected the USSR’s industrial, but this provided an enormous challenge for giving these people better living conditions. Housing was a major investment of the fifth five year plan (1951-1955) put into place under Stalin failed to adequately address the issue.

housing crisis
“Meet the housing construction plan” from October 19, 1955 (Source) There were major concerns about the cost and availability of housing that were supposed to be prioritized.
Khrushchev Slums
An image from the Manhoff Collection (Source), showing the housing situation in the Tagansky district of Moscow in 1954. The insufficient housing for the immense urban population was a critical component of Khrushchev’s policy making.

Khrushchev sought to reemphasize the housing projects, putting an astonishing 23.5% of total capital investment for the next 5 year periods towards various urban housing projects (Source). This led to the development of the “kommunal’ki”, the construction of four and five story apartment complexes that could hopefully accommodate all of the immigration from the countryside and other republics into the cities. These had a reputation for being uncomfortable, cramped residencies. These apartments built on the exterior of the city, rather than removing inadequate/inefficient housing areas in the city, but this expansion still failed to meet the housing needs of people in many urban areas.

us projects

ussr projects
A picture of the “projects” in New York City, juxtaposed with this depiction of state housing construction in the USSR. These massive housing projects, which create hundreds of nearly identical buildings, are common in many countries that are in a housing shortage. A prevalent theme among urban areas, space can be hard to come by, and this scene is a popular refrain for many urban areas.


Saying Yep to the NEP

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was supposed to be a stabilizer while the government struggled to meet the demands of the ongoing Civil War. The policies of War Communism that had been instituted after the October Revolution were inadequate for overcoming the chronic shortages that plagued the Soviet Union. This forced the Bolsheviks to relinquish assets that had not been fully nationalized back into the hands of their former owners, putting many resources back in the hands of the open market.

In the countryside, this led to the reemergence (and the eventual brutal persecution) of  proprietary landed Kulaks, who were now able generate wealth on the market from their excess harvest. In the cities, however, small industrialists and merchants saw ample opportunity in an economy that was not meeting the demands of the citizenry. These so called NEPmen literally capitalized on this opportunity, as the Bolsheviks begrudgingly allowed capitalist activity.

These entrepreneurs going against the grain of tenets of the Bolsheviks government made wildly unpopular. NEPmen were portrayed with fat, wealthy, and self-absorbed caricatures that captured their capitalistic ways that went against the grain of the Revolutionary and Civil War objectives. Below is a cartoon and the film “Soviet Toys” by the Film pioneer Dziga Vertov from 1924, which has a portrayal of a NEPman within the first few minutes.

NEP Photo
The “types of NEPmen” cartoon that appeared in 1922. 

The existence and tolerance of these businessmen flew in the face of what the initial revolution was about, and many workers rightly were justifiably outraged at what was considered to be a “new exploitation of the proletariat” , while others saw this as an adjustment for a historical necessity that was skipped over during the revolution.

This feeling can be seen in the 1925 novel “Cement” by Fedor Gladkov, which shows how Gleb, a soldier returning from the action of the civil war, must readjust to civilian life in the USSR. He is disappointed with the state of the cement factory in his town that is not being run effectively. However, his real disappointment lies within the town, where it seems that the revolutionary zeal has worn off, and elements of capitalism has reemerged:

        Gleb looked round and saw the lawyer Chirskii. With him was a former large wine-grower on the coast. He used to meet him in the Economic Council. He met Chirskii there too. What sort of business had they at the Economic Council ?

To hell with them! In the factory there was still the atmosphere of October, and one’s head had not yet recovered from the Civil War. But when one came to town it seemed as though a strange change had taken place and that the world had altered.

While the NEP did help stabilize what was a floundering Soviet economy, it was not the step that Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted to take, which was reflected in these reactions. The NEP promptly came to an end in 1928, as Stalin began his mass collectivization to meet the requirements of his 5 year plan, and NEPmen and Kulaks  were targeted by the new regime.


Some Irregular Industrialization

Russia through the mid to late 19th century was undergoing the tumultuous process of industrialization, which resulted in the problematic abolition of serfdom, and the strenuous attempt to move traditionally rural citizens into industrializing regions. This process took place with varying degrees of success, but some regions on the peripheries of the Empire experienced the transitions differently than those in core areas of Russia.


This picture was captured by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky in 1905 near the Georgian town of  Borjomi, located in the Caucasus Mountains that had been annexed by the Russian Empire in the early 19th century. Prokudin-Gorsky’s picture shows a small glass industrial complex located adjacent to a passing railroad. The image proposes the modest yet significant growth of industrial capacities of the region, but the changes were somewhat divergent from those that occurred in urban Russian areas.

The first thought when looking at this picture was that a tiny town in Georgia seemed like an odd location for a glass factory. Why is this in the side of a mountain miles away from an urban center? This was certainly not the highly urban industrial center that  many communist theorists thought would inspire revolutionary movement. So why is it here?

A map of the Russian Empire railroad system in 1915. Below I zoomed in on Georgia, and on the middle left “боржомь” can be seen as a spur off of the main railroad.


At first I thought the factory might serve a military purpose due to the proximity to the Ottoman border, but the town of Borjomi is actually developed a highly coveted mineral water industry, and became a popular summer residence for many of those within the Russian bureaucracy. The water eventually became bottled in GLASS containers and was exported to the rest of the empire. You can still buy a pack of 6 on Amazon for $40!

Russian Industrialization was not done to enable the importation of gucci water by the Russian elite. While an unorthodox way to analyze Russian industrialization, it brings to the forefront the leisurely capabilities and delicacies of the elite that the railroad enabled, and it could be argued the accessibility of these southern vacation areas and exquisite goods alienated bureaucrats from the needs of the working class and exacerbated revolutionary tensions.