Kulaks (from the Russian кулак (kulak, "fist")) is a pejorative term extensively used in Soviet political language, originally referring to relatively wealthy peasants in the Russian Empire who owned larger farms and used hired labor, as a result of the Stolypin reform introduced since 1906. Among Peter Stolypin's intentions was a creation of a group of prosperous farmers. In 1912, 16 per cent (11% in 1903) of Russian farmers had over 8 acres (32,000 m²) per male family member (a threshold used to distinguish middle-class and prosperous farmers in statistics).
The peasantry was tentatively divided into three broad categories: bednyaks, or poor peasants, seredniaks, or medium-prosperity ones, and kulaks, the rich farmers. In addition, there was a category of batraks, or landless agriculture workers for hire (farm hands).
After the Russian Revolution, Bolsheviks considered only batraks and bednyaks as true allies of the proletariat. Serednyaks were considered unreliable, "hesitating" allies, and kulaks were class enemies by definition. However, often those declared to be kulaks were not especially prosperous. Both peasants and Soviet officials were often uncertain what constituted a kulak, and the term was often used to label anyone who used hired labor or had more property than considered "norm" according to some criteria.
In May 1929 the Sovnarkom issued a decree that formalized the notion of "kulak household" (кулацкое хозяйство). Any of the following characteristics defined a kulak:
- regular usage of hired labor;
- ownership of a mill, a creamery (маслобойня, butter-making rig), or other complex equipment, or a complex machine with mechanical motor;
- systematic letting of agricultural equipment or facilities for rent;
- involving in commerce, money-lending, commercial brokerage, or "other types of non-labour occupation".
By the last item, any peasant who sold his surplus on market could be automatically classified as kulak. In 1930 this list was extended by letting of an industrial plants, e.g., sawmill, and land for rent. At the same time, ispolkoms (executive committee of local Soviets) of republics, oblasts and krais were given rights to add other criteria, depending on local conditions.
By 1928, there was a food shortage in the cities and in the army. The Soviet government encouraged the formation of collective farms and in 1929 introduced a policy of forced collectivization. Some peasants were attracted to collectivization by the idea that they would be in a position to afford tractors and would enjoy increased production.
However, many peasants were reluctant to give up their property and form collectives. Some of them attempted to sabotage the collectives by attacking members and government officials, burning crops and destroying property. Many peasants chose to slaughter livestock, even horses, rather than to pass it into common property, which caused Sovnarkom to issue a series of decrees to prosecute "the malicious slaughtering of livestock" (хищнический убой скота).
Stalin requested harsh measures to put an end to the kulak resistance. The kulaks were to be liquidated as a class and subject to three fates: death sentence, labor settlements (not to be confused with labor camps, although the former were also managed by the GULAG), or deportation "out of regions of total collectivisation of the agriculture". Tens of thousands of alleged kulaks were summarily executed, property was confiscated to form collective farms, and many families were deported to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia.
The same fate met those labelled "kulak helpers" (подкулачник), those who sided with kulaks in their opposition to collectivisation.
A new wave of repressions, this time against "ex-kulaks", was started in 1937 after the NKVD Order no. 00447. Those deemed ex-kulaks had only two options: death sentence or labor camps.
According to data from Soviet archives, which were published in 1990, 1,803,392 people were sent to labor colonies and camps in 1930 and 1931. Books say that 1,317,022 reached the destination. The remaining 486,370 must have died or escaped. Deportations on a smaller scale continued after 1931. The reported number of kulaks and their relatives who had died in labor colonies from 1932 to 1940 was 389,521.
It is difficult to determine how many people died because of the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class". The data from the Soviet archives do not tell us exactly how many people escaped and survived and what number of deaths would have been if there had been no deportation. These data do not include people who were executed or died in prisons and gulags rather than died in labor colonies. Many historians consider the great famine a result of the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class" and therefore they estimate the death toll at about 7 million. A collection of estimates is available at this site (http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat1.htm#Stalin).
The majority of "kulaks" were hard workers. This sometimes led to situations hard to believe. When resettled to Siberia and Kazakhstan, after some time many "kulaks" gained prosperity again. This fact served as a base of repressions against some sections of NKVD that were in charge of the "labour settlements" (трудовые поселения) in 1938-1939, which permitted "kulakization" (окулачивание) of the "labour settlers" (трудопоселенцев). The fact that new settlers became more prosperous than the neighboring kolkhozes was explained by "wreckage" and "criminal negligience".