Narratives of collective farms in life stories

Marietta Aardam

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 farm

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 the situation:

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 created themselves." (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 else's property.

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. (EE 398)

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. (EE 883:23)

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.

The 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 opposition:

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 view themselves

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 farms.

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:

(1) 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 rule. Back

(2) Sovkhoz - 'a state-owned collective farm, state farm' - Transl. Back