Gorbachev’s Agriculture Agenda: Decollectivization and the Politics of Perestroika
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Gorbachev’s Agriculture Agenda
Decollectivization and the Politics of Perestroika

“Whenever I talk to Sovietologists,” wrote the economist Abel Aganbegian in 1989, “they always return to the same question: why did we not do as in previous reforms and start out perestroika with agriculture?”1 When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and launched his program of perestroika, it was widely recognized that the Soviet Union’s agricultural system needed to be made more efficient. Since Iosif Stalin collectivized farmland in the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union had suffered repeated crop failures and persistently low agricultural productivity. Grain had been one of Russia’s main exports under the tsars, but during the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union had to import food to feed its population. Such grain as was produced domestically required increasingly large capital inlays. Fixed capital investment in agriculture increased by 4.7 times from 1965 to 1981, even though output less than doubled. That meant capital investments were becoming much less productive.2

Despite declining returns to investment, Moscow’s central planners plowed tremendous resources into the agricultural sector during the postwar period. Soviet farms used tractors, fertilizer, and labor at far higher rates than comparable countries.3 During Leonid Brezhnev’s premiership, fertilizer usage [End Page 95] doubled and tractor deliveries tripled, even as productivity stagnated.4 This nearly limitless supply of funds supplied to the Soviet countryside constituted the largest farm subsidy program in history.5 But because Soviet farms were so wasteful, new investment did relatively little to boost farm output. If perestroika was to succeed in lifting the Soviet Union out of stagnation, the country’s farms would have to be made more efficient.

It is often argued, as Aganbegian noted, that Gorbachev did little to address the USSR’s agricultural problems. Many scholars have suggested that, had Gorbachev focused on farms rather than industry, perestroika might have succeeded.6 In fact, this article suggests that Gorbachev had a clear policy toward agriculture, dating from the early years of perestroika, which was far more radical than many realized. Historians of the perestroika era have long relied on published sources—newspapers, public statements, and memoirs—to understand Gorbachev’s policies.7 But Gorbachev was a wily political operator, and he knew better than to show his cards to the public before assembling the coalition needed to operationalize his ideas.

That was particularly true in agriculture, where Gorbachev’s vision diverged sharply from the long-standing Soviet consensus, which backed collective farms and permitted individual farming only in limited circumstances. Thousands of pages of documents from the perestroika era are now available to historians, but scholars studying the economic policies of perestroika have barely begun to make use of them. That is particularly true of documents from Gorbachev’s personal archive—above all, notes from perestroika-era Politburo meetings, some of which have even been published.8 [End Page 96] Historians who study Soviet foreign policy have long treated the Gorbachev Politburo notes as a central source for understanding the 1980s, but few scholars of Soviet economic policy have yet made use of them. Given how rarely they are cited in the literature, many historians appear to be unaware that they exist. Yet the Politburo papers are a goldmine for scholars seeking to understand the politics and policies of perestroika—far more useful than the often unreliable memoir literature and contemporary journalism upon which existing accounts of perestroika are based. The papers of Gorbachev and his advisers show a general secretary striving toward a market economy in the face of tenacious political opposition, not the indecisive ditherer that most accounts of Gorbachev’s tenure suggest.9

Agriculture is a prime example. The Politburo notes and other archival sources demonstrate that Gorbachev long wanted to decollectivize agriculture and to provide farms with market incentives. As early as 1986, during the initial days of perestroika, Gorbachev set forth to his Politburo colleagues an agenda of far-reaching agricultural transformation. Many other top officials, however, disagreed with Gorbachev’s agricultural ambitions for reasons of ideology and bureaucratic politics. Gorbachev’s proposals to empower individual farmers against the collective-farm leadership not only...