The Green Revolution and Soviet Agriculture

By Sasha Cottle 

By 1945, the world population had reached 2.5 billion.  World War II had just ended with the surrender of Germany and Japan, and most of Europe was in ruins.  In less than a decade, the world had been transformed from a multipolar system of international powers into a playing field for two polar hegemons.  Over the next forty five years, both the United States and the Soviet Union would seek to expand their particular influence across the globe, using strategies as brusque as proxy wars and as subtle as political manipulation. As a part of their plans, each nation would also have to have an idea for how to deal with the world’s growing population.  While the Soviet Union supported their system of collectivized proletariat farmers working for their nation, the United States supported a group of initiatives aimed at improving agricultural yields which became known as the Green Revolution.  This paper seeks to compare the two agricultural models and look at their effects in a couple of case studies to gauge their efficacy.

The Cold War: A war of many battlefields
The period after the Second World War became known as the Cold War primarily because most of the battlefields on which it was waged were not literal battlefields at all.  This new conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was rather an ideological variety show, with each side striving to out-do the other in areas like education, social reform, and most relevant to the topic of this paper, economic strategy.  In the new bi-polar world however, which had just seen two massive global conflicts on an unprecedented scale, the chief concern was national security.  As part of this new global concern, attention was soon turned to the problem of overpopulation and hunger.

U.S. economic policies prior to the Green Revolution and the development of the Green Revolution model

The connection between overpopulation and national security is not immediately clear and sounds somewhat far-fetched at first, but in reality is quite straightforward.  The overpopulation-national security theory was created and used by policy strategists in the U.S. as a framework for driving foreign aid following World War II.  This theory posits that global overpopulation leads to resource exhaustion, a result of which is hunger.  Hunger then leads to political instability as people demand assistance from a government which cannot provide for them and potentially overthrow it, and could choose a communist form of government out of desperation to replace it.  Communism in any form was seen as a threat to American interests, disagreements over which would lead to war (Perkins 1997).  In this manner, overpopulation could rapidly escalate into open conflict as the United States moves to secure its national interests.

Many theories for long-term economic growth revolve around the creation of ideas and technology as the primary catalyst, and some theories claim that a larger world population leads to more ideas.  As a result, it is an unsatisfactory solution to solve world hunger by stopping population growth.  At the same time, this growing pool of human resources was sought after as part of each hegemon’s global strategy.  Specifically, with the world’s growing population to think about, each side had to consider how they would feed the people under their influence.

The Green Revolution started as an effort during the 1940s to develop wheat growing techniques for Mexico.  This project was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and was in effect the exportation of American methods of production to Mexico.  It is significant that the U.S. provided this aid during this time because it came during the middle of the Second World War.  In other words, the U.S., in order to help its neighbor, was forced to expend resources better employed in the production of defensive goods and the war effort to feed another country.  The danger of such a practice did not escape the U.S., and so the overpopulation-national security theory was born (Perkins 1997).  This, in turn, was a part of the larger anti-communist initiative by the United States during the Cold War.

If the ideological battle lines were not officially drawn before 1949, they certainly were following Harry Truman’s reelection.  In his 1949 inaugural address, President Harry Truman cited the need for the United States to provide support for developing countries.  Calling communism a false philosophy which “misleads people to sacrifice liberties only to find out that deceit and mockery, poverty and tyranny are their reward”, Truman then declared that the growth of agriculture and free enterprise were the best ways to raise the quality of life around the world (Truman 1949).  Though it did not set any policies by itself, Truman’s inaugural address established economic strategy (and indirectly, agriculture) as one of the major battlegrounds of the Cold War.  Specifically, his call to assist other nations particularly with growing food became known as his ‘Point Four Plan’, and was more or less the start of official U.S. attention to the Green Revolution.

Another economic stimulus plan was already in motion.  In 1947, the European economy was still struggling to bounce back after having been utterly destroyed by the Second World War.  Most European cities were devastated by intense bombings, and growth trundled along as a very slow pace.  If the overpopulation-national security theory was to be believed, Europe was dangerously close to the “political instability” stage of the theory, which meant that the possibility of communist uprisings were not far behind.

In a bold effort to strengthen Europe and bring more of its nations under the U.S. sphere of influence, the United States invited all the states of Europe (including those under Soviet control) to a series of conferences to discuss a stimulus plan.  The Soviet Union and many of its satellite states refused outright, as they accused the United States of anti-Soviet propagandizing (which was not too far off).  Eventually, most of the nations of Western Europe would participate in and be given aid by the Marshall Plan.  All of these countries would see a rapid increase in growth and some would even see the significant decline or elimination of local communist parties.  This was an interesting precedent, and supported the idea that communism was only seen as a last resort.  The Soviet Union, understanding this economic package as an attempt to begin politically outmaneuvering them, created their own series of reforms and economic packages.  Soon, each country would begin exporting its economic style, including its views on agriculture.

The Soviet Model of Agriculture
While the United States industrialized in the mid-19th century, the revolution did not take effect in Russia until later.  The Russian industrial economy, though having access to enormous resources and significant amounts of labor, did not institute enough reforms to take advantage of new technologies until later.  This stagnated the economy, especially in the agricultural sector, where technology had not improved much since the Middle Ages.   Significant change was achieved in 1861, when Alexander II passed judicial reforms freeing serfs, upon which almost the entire agricultural sector was based.  This action saw a rapid increase in productivity as peasants worked harder to make their own land productive.  However, this was not totally advantageous for the Bolshevik leadership when they sought to reform Russia following their Revolution.

Since the early stages of the Bolshevik Revolution, the revolutionary leaders relied very heavily (although somewhat reluctantly) on the peasantry for support, particularly those of middle wealth (Fainsod 1953).  This was because a vast portion of the population consisted of such rural farmers, and because the key to their support was the promise of land redistribution from large upper-class estates into smaller holdings for individual peasants.  While this could bring many of the poorer peasants into the fold, it was not an appealing change for some of the wealthier landowners.

The Soviet leadership was eager to transform all sectors of the economy into their ideological dream.  One of the basic tenets of communist theory included common ownership of the means of production, which effectively meant the nationalization of all sectors of the economy.  This was easier said than done, as although the pre-Soviet Russian economy had not modernized or industrialized significantly (especially in the agricultural sector), it was still based on private ownership of property, and the property owners who remained after the Revolution were not happy to give up their land.  Implementation of Bolshevik ideology was not helped by the demands of the civil war, which required Soviet authorities to requisition crops, especially grains (Fainsod 1953).  Significant uprisings followed, which led the new Soviet leadership to implement the New Economic Policy in 1921, which replaced the irregular seizure of crops with a tithe system to be paid in kind with agricultural products.  This led to a partial reconciliation with the Soviet leadership, but was only meant as an intermediary measure until full transition into socialism could be organized.

This full transition was accelerated very suddenly in 1929, disregarding earlier plans for slower, smoother collectivization (Fainsod 1953).  Many individual peasant farms were forced to join into either kolhozy (collective farms ostensibly organized by the people) or sovkhozy (state-operated collective work farms).  The actual difference between these became less and less pronounced as the Soviets imposed their bureaucracy on the kolhozy, which were meant to be operated by the local people, and eventually phased them out in favor of sovkhozy (Stuart 1974).

In either case, there was significant resistance to this forced collectivization.  Following the abolition of serfdom in 1861, some freed serfs were able to acquire relatively large tracts of land, and became relatively wealthy.  These rich peasants, or kulaks, were initially disturbed by the slow redistribution of land that occurred naturally shortly after the Revolution, and fiercely resisted the forced collectivization following the NEP (Fainsod 1953).

Attempts at improving Soviet agricultural yields were severely hindered by the persistent tendency of the Soviet style of government to ensnare economic activity in bureaucracy.  Upwards of half a million people were ostensibly involved in the administration of the agricultural sector of the Soviet economy (Prybyla 1962).  Technological improvements which could have helped the economy were not spared from this stranglehold.  A prominent example of this was the tractor, which was introduced into Soviet agriculture in the early 1920s.  Between 1924 and 1934, the number of tractors in use in the Soviet Union increased from 1,000 to over 200,000 (Dalrymple 1964).  These tractors and other agricultural machines were pooled together into ‘machine-tractor stations’, or MTS, which were then to service multiple farms.  While this seemed like a good idea and epitomized the socialist ideology, the number of sovkhozy and kolhozy to be serviced by each MTS was disproportionally large, with a ratio of ten collective farms spanning upwards of 3,000 acres each per MTS in 1953 (Opdahl 1960).  The MTS system was in use until 1958, when machinery was transferred to the farms; however, this transfer posed its own set of problems, and many poorer farms were quite suddenly burdened with the additional cost of maintaining this machinery (Prybyla 1962).

Other problems arose with Soviet experiments in collectivized agriculture.  Following the kulak purge of the 1930s, very few skilled peasants remained, and as a result management of the farms was abysmally inefficient, considering around half a million administrators were assigned to deal with agriculture.  Further inefficiencies came from the lack of incentives for kolhozniki to work the land.  Disproportionate amounts of labor were spent on the individual private plots allotted each worker, and fertilizer, machinery and other assets were often appropriated for use on these individual plots rather than the collective acreage (Prybyla 1962).

Case Studies
Since ideological change is often bottom-up, both of these superpowers had to appeal their philosophies to the common people of the Third World.  As mentioned before, one of the battlefields of the Cold War was agriculture, and several countries were used as examples by both sides to showcase their methods.  Two such examples are Angola, which attempted the Soviet method of agriculture, and India, which employed U.S. sponsored Green Revolution strategies.

Following independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola was left in a rather poor state.  The agricultural sector in particular, which had been the chief Angolan economic sector, was devastated by the loss of skilled Portuguese immigrant farmers and their equipment, which they took with them when they left in 1975 (Bhagavan 1988).  Completely lacking any entrepreneurial class, the fledgling government was forced to step in and attempt to organize a revival of agricultural production.  This led to the creation of state-owned collective farms similar to the Soviet sovkhozy.  Although evidence of direct Soviet intervention in Angolan agriculture at this point is lacking, it can be extrapolated that some influence was exerted by the Soviets as they began to supply the Angolan communists with military aid.  Regardless of the direct involvement of the Soviets, the outcome was similar to the collectivization of the Soviet Union: agricultural output fell then stagnated following the introduction of the state owned farms (Hillebrand 1989).

Meanwhile, India was seized by the U.S. as an opportunity to demonstrate Green Revolution growing practices and to establish it as a foothold on the Asian continent counter to the growing influence of the Soviet Union and communist China.  Though initially dismissed as a burden rather than a potential ally (Cullather 2010), India was later seen as the perfect place to demonstrate the superiority of the capitalist system.  Though initial growth was slow and India was forced to import significant amounts of grain from the United States, the agricultural techniques of the Green Revolution as explored by a significant number of other papers facilitated massive improvements in quality of life.  Today, India is the tenth largest economy in nominal GDP valued at $1.85 trillion.

It would appear as though the Green Revolution actually helped slow the growth of communism across the world, due in no small part to the West’s contribution to the Revolution.  While the Soviet communal style was somewhat attractive to very poor, unstable countries such as Angola in which the local government attempted to jumpstart growth through an appeal to collective unity, the Green Revolution was generally more appealing and successful because it would not require the collectivization of property and would allow people to retain ownership while improving yield.  Overall, the key difference between the two styles was the focus on unity and combined labor conquering adversity on the one hand, and the creation of individual incentives for spontaneous cooperation and growth on the other.  Although the basic idea behind Soviet collectivization was admirable, it was inferior to the incentive-based technological push of the Green Revolution.

Works Cited/Consulted

Bhagavan, M. R. “Angola: Survival Strategies for a Socialist State.” Economic and Political Weekly 23.32 (1988): 1630-636. JSTOR. Web. 2 May 2013.

Clairmonte, Frederick F. “Rise and Fall of Soviet Agriculture.” Economic and Political Weekly 24.11 (1989): 555-60. JSTOR. Web. 2 May 2013.

Cullather, Nick. The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.

Dalrymple, Dana G. “The American Tractor Comes to Soviet Agriculture: The Transfer of a Technology.” Technology and Culture 5.2 (1964): 191-214. JSTOR. Web. 2 May 2013.

Fainsod, Merle. How Russia Is Ruled. Cambridge: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1953. Print.

Hillebrand, Ernst. “Die Landwirtschaftspolitik Der VR Angola 1975-1988.” Africa Spectrum24.1 (1989): 71-90. JSTOR. Web. 2 May 2013.

Luke, Timothy W. “Angola and Mozambique: Institutionalizing Social Revolution in Africa.”The Review of Politics 44.3 (1982): 413-36. JSTOR. Web. 2 May 2013.

Opdahl, Roger W. “Soviet Agriculture Since 1953.” Political Science Quarterly 75.1 (1960): 47-65. JSTOR. Web. 2 May 2013.

Perkins, John H. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War. Cary: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Prybyla, Jan S. “Problems of Soviet Agriculture.” Journal of Farm Economics 44.3 (1962): 820-36. JSTOR. Web. 2 May 2013.

Stuart, Robert C. “The Changing Role of the Collective Farm in Soviet Agriculture.”Canadian Slavonic Papers 16.2 (1974): 145-59. JSTOR. Web. 2 May 2013.

Truman, Harry S. “1949 Inaugural Address.” Speech. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Truman Library. Web. 2 May 2013.