Narratives of collective
farms in life stories
Stories about the Soviet period
and life in kolkhozes (1) have
always intrigued me. This period is so unique and virtually incomprehensible
to an average modern European that any attempt to find out more
about it is a pure pleasure. Life stories, however, reflect much
more than just pleasure. In the following I will describe the
contents of kolkhoz narratives.
My study is based on biographies
collected during the 1990s and filed in the collection of Estonian
Life Stories in the Estonian Cultural Historical Archives.
In their biographies narrators have touched the subject of kolkhozes
varyingly: some have described it in length and in a very interesting
manner, others summarise or mention passingly some more important
things. I have taken greater interest in biographies that elaborate
on the subject more thoroughly.
There are three different levels
- factual, structural and evaluative - in life stories. My main
focus is on the third level, where biographers pass judgement
on past events. From their evaluations we may infer the general
attitude towards the kolkhoz system, towards public figures and
themselves in this period: Who was I, the person who lived and
worked in the kolkhoz system? In the narratives the role of kolkhoz
foremen is somewhat different: representing a foreign rule they
were still native Estonians and shared a common background with
the workers. For the sake of clarity I will first introduce the
spheres of life that were connected to the kolkhozes, then the
central figures of kolkhoz life and describe how narrators look
back at their own life.
Life at the collective
The general attitude towards
the kolkhoz system was negative rather than positive. Feelings
towards the initial period of collective farms, when kolkhozes
had no assets of their own and the possessions of people were
collectivised or taxed, etc., were particularly hostile. The
public opinion became somewhat more lenient when kolkhozes had
secured their position: people were paid wages, manual labour
substituted machine-operated work, etc.
Entering a collective farm
aroused feelings of anxiety - widespread collectivisation occurred
after mass deportations of March 1949. The population was overcome
with despair. People never had a choice - those who refused to
enter the kolkhoz had to pay high kulak taxes and lived
in danger of repression. Entering a kolkhoz gave people a vague
sense of security and hope that they will not be deported to
Siberia. Times were rough and nobody joked about it. The worst
ordeal people had to go through was giving up their possessions
- domestic animals, farm tools and foodstuff. This had a destructive
effect on both the emotional and economic life of people.
The descriptions of kolkhoz
life aim to show how desperate the situation at the beginning
was - many write about it, bring examples to illustrate their
narration, emphasize the injustice, etc. - and how the situation
gradually improved until life was relatively easy. Narrators
regard hardships as strokes of fate, as something inevitable.
An anecdote embedded in one of the life stories nicely illustrates
A conversation between a
foreigner and a Soviet production manager. The foreigner is visiting
the Soviet Union; the manager asks him: "What might be the
thing that amazes you most about us?" hoping the answer
would be the enthusiastic working or something in this line,
but the foreigner's reply is altogether different. "I am
amazed how the Soviet people overcome the hardships they have
(EE 610: 93)
People began to desert villages
fleeing from injustice and hard labour. Mobilisation and deportations
also played an important role. Apparently, working at the kolkhoz
was not very prestigious after all. The general view was that
those who worked at the collective farm had in a sense adopted
the new regime. Narrators felt the need to emphasis that they
had been forced into the circumstances and were given no choice.
Thus those who had the opportunity to escape from the kolkhoz
had a certain advantage over all the others - they did not have
to suffer the hardships experienced by those who stayed. And
more importantly, they feel the need to explain that they, the
workers of collective farms did not support the Soviet rule but
were unfortunate victims of fate.
One of the topical narrative
subjects was and still is the stealing from the kolkhoz. People
adjusted them to the collective farm system - if they were not
paid wages, or even in kind, they had no choice but to steal.
Looking back people do not feel proud about it, but justify themselves
by saying that they could not help - those were the times. Stealing
had become a norm. The attitude towards stealing was in a sense
also connected to the question of ownership. Before entering
a kolkhoz people gave most of their possessions to the kolkhoz,
the assets of which were therefore formed of the property of
individuals. People kept working with their own horses and machines,
although not on their own field but on the kolkhoz field. Stealing
from the collective farm therefore did not mean taking someone
One of the keywords of kolkhoz
life was the organisation of campaigns with a purpose to promote
economy. Generally known examples here are the cultivation of
corn, planting potatoes using the square-cluster method, etc.
Such campaigns always involved a sense of competition. A kolkhoz
could reach the top in almost anything:
In 1958 we were the first
to relinquish the normative workdays and began to pay regular
salary in the district of Tartu.
In 1954 we began to merge
kolkhoz lands to the lands of our sovkhoz. (2) [---] Soon our sovkhoz
was the largest in Estonia, consisting of more than two dozen
former collective farms. (EE 883: 18)
I emphasised rationalisation
also at increasing the collective farm's production and improving
the management. [---]
In 1965 I was ranked among the merited rationalisers of the ESSR.
Looking positively at hardships
is as important as describing this hard life. The period between
the establishing of collective farms and the late 1950s was the
most difficult. The situation improved a little after Khrushchev's
'thaw': stagnation decreased, those deported to Siberia were
rehabilitated, the salary of kolkhoz workers was paid in money,
etc. People looked more optimistically to the future. Amateurism
became an important symbol of the time. Collective activities
and parties became increasingly popular. Life at the collective
farm was determined by two main factors: the personality of the
kolkhoz foreman and relations between kolkhoz workers.
members of the kolkhoz receiving their salary (1959). Postcard
from the photo collection of the Läänemaa Museum.
The narratives show a tendency
to characterise people on the basis of 'we' - 'they' relationship.
'We' marks the village community, kolkhoz workers, i.e. common
people who had suffered the Soviet repression together. 'They'
represent the (foreign) power, the Russian immigrants. 'They'
represent nothing good, and general prejudice towards 'them'
is often negative. The mediator between these two character groups
is the kolkhoz foreman, who represented the power, but often
came from among 'us', the village people.
People among 'us' are seldom
talked about, perhaps only if they had done something wrong,
like village drunkards or just greedy men. One such negative
character was villager Kusti, who is described as follows:
It was a common knowledge
that Kusti was a bad and greedy man, but there was more about
him, people found out only during and after the war. He had a
leading position during different administrations, he was a delator
and sycophant, nearly illiterate himself. (EE 787: 8)
In kolkhoz narratives 'they'
seem to have much more colourful personalities than 'we' do,
because as representatives of foreign power 'they' were often
in conflict with the locals, providing thus a productive narrative
material. People communicated regularly with their direct superiors
- party leaders, agitators:
I also remember a thin grim-looking
man riding around in the village on a motorcycle, leather boots
and riding breeches with leather patches on. He sneakily warned
us: "Who will not enter the kolkhoz, will be sent to Siberia!"
People were afraid of him. Nobody wanted to go to Siberia. (EE Women talking: 135)
People were also cautious of
spies, all kinds of investigators, party officials, and tried
to keep out of their way. Mysterious strangers, who appeared
from god knows where, caused more fear than any others:
It was raining. Mother was
weeding the bed of beetroots. I was standing on the stairs, under
the shelter, watching her. Suddenly a tall woman dressed in flapping
clothes appeared in our garden. She was stamping restlessly,
hiding one hand behind her back. Asked for some water to drink.
Mother took her to the well, we had a new bucket and mug. The
woman had a deep manly voice and she told us she was a fancy
townswoman and wanted to drink from the glass. Wanted to get
inside the house at any cost. Mother told her that she had no
intention to stop working because of her, but looked towards
the road (and saw a man approaching) and said: "See, that's
my husband coming home, he'll give you some water." But
the "thirsty" woman left in a hurry along the path
towards the woods, didn't even look back. When she was gone,
mother, all pale in the face, came to the stairs and sat down.
Mother asked, all frightened: "Aino, did you notice that
she had hairy legs, dark moustache line under her nose and a
sheath knife in her hand?" I had thought too that it was
a man. I'm sure he would have killed us inside the house. (EE 572: 17B)
Kolkhoz foremen stand between
the two character groups mentioned above. They did not belong
to either group. The most serious problem at the establishing
of kolkhozes was finding qualified leading administrators, because
candidates were required to: 1) have managing skills; 2) be familiar
with local problems; 3) be well-liked by the kolkhoz workers
and 4) political loyalty. Few people met these requirements and
conflicts occurred frequently. Kolkhoz foremen perceived that
Managing a collective farm
can be compared with the rapid rotation on a wheel, where it
is impossible to step down from.
(EE 610: 106)
Three biographies of former
kolkhoz foremen that were in my disposal describe the problems
how to get along with kolkhoz workers and appear loyal to the
Soviet regime at the same time.
To sum up the chapter we might
say that kolkhoz narratives in life stories centre on disagreement
and conflicts with representatives of foreign power, whom they
often regard with prejudice. Negative attitude towards them cannot
exclusively be connected to politics or their general conduct,
they deserve it because of their wrong actions.
How narrators of biographies
Narrators often prefer to conclude
their life story with a generalising remark on their whole life.
This is closely connected to nostalgia for the past and conveys
the narrator's (writer's) moral values and views, which we may
also call self-esteem. Self-esteem is life a principle for doing
the right thing. Many narrators have stressed that they wrote
their biography to inform the future generations of what really
happened, to show them the injustice they had to endure. This
might suggest that they had been misunderstood and they need
to be rehabilitated in society like those who were deported to
Siberia. On the other hand they do not seem to need the 'acquittal',
as they do not feel guilty in their hearts:
For all those years our
generation lived in the time and glow of Communism. We should
leave this glow back to those years. (EE 222: 38)
Writers-narrators of biographies
emphasize that they were victims of circumstances, even though
the younger generation may accuse them of letting the Soviet
power gain control over Estonia and destroy the country's economy
with the collective farm system. Writing about kolkhozes and
Soviet regime in general sounds like an explanation to younger
generations, who might misinterpret the past. Most narrators
feel that what once happened cannot be changed. There is always
a touch of positive in negative things, it all comes down to
one's attitude towards life.
Writing about his or her life
the narrator focuses on things that are important to him or her.
If the narrator mentions the life at the collective farm, then
it must have affected his/her life, and he wishes to share it
with others. This somewhat moralising advocation of principles
is especially characteristic of the conclusions of biographies,
where the narrator looks back at and evaluates his or her life.
The narrator's aim is to communicate truth, to teach how the
future generations should regard the period of Soviet collective
Translated by Kait Realo
EE - Eesti Elulood (Estonian
Life Stories). The collection is available in the Estonian Cultural
Historical Archives in the Estonian Literary Museum, Tartu, Estonia.
EE 222; EE 398; EE 554; EE 570; EE 572; EE 573; EE 609; EE 610;
EE 612; EE 787; EE 883; EE 935.
Annuk, Eve (toim.) 1997.
Eesti Elulood. Naised kõnelevad. Tartu.
References from text:
The Soviet period in Estonia lasted during 1940-1941 and 1944-1991.
Kolkhozes are collective farms formed with the inventory and
livestock acquired through enforced mass liquidation of farmsteads
in the late 1940s. Kolkhozes dissolved at the end of the Soviet
Sovkhoz - 'a state-owned collective farm, state farm' - Transl.