Kulaks (Russian: , kulak, "fist", by extension "tight-fisted"; kurkuls in Ukraine, also used in Russian texts in Ukrainian contexts) were a category of relatively affluent farmers in the later Russian Empire, Soviet Russia, and early Soviet Union. The word kulak originally referred to independent farmers in the Russian Empire who emerged from the peasantry and became wealthy following the Stolypin reform, which began in 1906.
According to the political theory of Marxism-Leninism of the early 20th century, the kulaks were class enemies of the poorer peasants. Vladimir Lenin described them as "bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten on famine.  Marxism-Leninism had intended a revolution to liberate poor peasants and farm laborers alongside the proletariat (urban and industrial workers). In addition, the planned economy of Soviet Bolshevism required the collectivization of farms and land to allow industrialization or conversion to large-scale agricultural production. In practice, these Marxist-Leninist theories led to disruption of agriculture as government officials violently seized kulak farms and murdered resistors.
According to the Soviet terminology, the peasants were divided into three broad categories: bednyaks, or poor peasants; serednyaks, or mid-income peasants; and kulaks, the higher-income farmers who had larger farms than most Russian peasants. In addition, they had a category of batraks, landless seasonal agriculture workers for hire.
The Stolypin reform created a new class of landowners by allowing peasants to acquire plots of land for credit from the large estate owners. They were to repay the credit (a kind of mortgage loan) from their farm work. By 1912, 16% of peasants (up from 11% in 1903) had relatively large endowments of over per male family member (a threshold used in statistics to distinguish between middle-class and prosperous farmers, i.e., kulaks). At that time an average farmer's family had 6 to 10 children.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks considered only batraks and bednyaks as true allies of the Soviets and proletariat. Serednyaks were considered unreliable, "hesitating" allies; and kulaks were identified as class enemies because they owned land. But, often those classified as kulaks were not especially prosperous. The average value of goods confiscated from kulaks during the policy of "dekulakization" ( ) at the beginning of the 1930s was only $90 $210 (170-400 rubles) per household. Both peasants and Soviet officials were often uncertain as to what constituted a kulak. They often used the term to label anyone who had more property than was considered "normal," according to subjective criteria, and personal rivalries played a part in the classification of enemies. In the early years, being classified as a kulak carried no penalty other than mistrust from the Soviet authorities. During the height of collectivization, however, people identified as kulaks were subjected to deportation and extrajudicial punishment. They were often murdered in local violence; others were formally executed after conviction as kulaks.
In May 1929, the Sovnarkom issued a decree that formalised the notion of "kulak household" ( ). Any of the following defined a kulak:
- use of hired labor
- ownership of a mill, a creamery ( , butter-making rig), other processing equipment, or a complex machine with a mechanical motor
- systematic renting out of agricultural equipment or facilities
- involvement in trade, money-lending, commercial brokerage, or "other sources of non-labor income".
By the last item, any peasant who sold his surplus goods on the market could be automatically classified as a kulak. In 1930 this list was extended to include those who were renting industrial plants, e.g., sawmills, or who rented land to other farmers. Grigory Zinoviev, a well-known Soviet politician, said in 1924, "We are fond of describing any peasant who has enough to eat as a 'kulak'." At the same time, the ispolkoms (executive committees of local Soviets) of republics, oblasts, and krais were given rights to add other criteria for defining kulaks, depending on local conditions.
Izvestia, November 1928
In 1928 there was a food shortage in the cities and in the army. In response the Soviet government encouraged the formation of collective farms and, in 1929, introduced a policy of mandatory collectivization. Many peasants were attracted to collectivization by the idea that they would be able to afford tractors to generate increased production.
In July 1929 it remained official Soviet policy that the kulak should not be terrorised and should be enlisted into the collective farms. Joseph Stalin disagreed with this, saying, "Now we have the opportunity to carry out a resolute offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their production with the production of kolkhozes and sovkhozes."
On 30 January 1930 the Politburo approved of the extermination of kulaks as a class. Three separate categories for the kulaks were designated. The first consisted of kulaks to be sent to the Gulags, the second was for kulaks to be relocated to distant parts of the USSR (such as the north Urals and Kazahkstan), and the third to other parts of their province.
Other peasants were outraged by the idea that other people would use their tools/animals as common property; they often retaliated against the state by destroying their tools and killing the livestock. They would have to give their animals to the collectives, but the people could eat the meat; they could also conceal or sell both meat and hides. Many peasants chose to slaughter livestock rather than allow them to become common property. In the first two months of 1930, peasants killed millions of cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, and goats. Through this and a severe winter, a quarter of the nation s livestock died. It was a greater loss than during the Civil War, and herds did not reach previous levels until the 1950s.
In response to the widespread slaughter, the Sovnarkom issued decrees to prosecute "the malicious slaughtering of livestock" ( ). Many peasants attempted to sabotage the collectives by attacking members and government officials.
Stalin requested severe measures to put an end to the kulak resistance. In 1930, Stalin declared:
- In order to oust the 'kulaks' as a class, the resistance of this class must be smashed in open battle and it must be deprived of the productive sources of its existence and development... That is a turn towards the policy of eliminating the kulaks as a class. The Communist party agreed to the use of force in the collectivization and dekulakization efforts. They intended to eliminate the kulaks as a class by the following: 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 collectivization of the agriculture". Tens of thousands of kulaks were executed, property was expropriated to form collective farms, and many families were deported to unpopulated areas of Siberia and Soviet Central Asia.
Often local officials were assigned minimum quotas of kulaks to identify, and were forced to use their discretionary powers to "find" kulaks wherever they could. This led to many cases in which a farmer who employed only his sons, or any family that had a metal roof on their house, was labelled as kulaks and deported. The same fate was the end of those labeled as podkulachniks ( ), so-called "kulak helpers".
A new wave of persecution against "ex-kulaks" was started in 1937. It was part of the Great Purge, conducted by Nikolai Yezhov after the NKVD Order no. 00447. Those deemed ex-kulaks were either executed or sent to labor camps. With few rich or middle-class peasants left to arrest, to satisfy the conviction quotas demanded by Stalin and Yezhov the NKVD terrorized more of the peasantry to induce more denunciations. In the wave of round-ups that followed, the term 'kulak' lost its previous distinction and became a general accusation (like wrecking), which could be leveled at anyone whom the troikas wished to convict. During the Great Purge, hundreds of thousands of peasants were falsely accused of being ex-kulaks and sent to the Gulag or executed based on circumstantial evidence, forged evidence or none at all.
After being resettled to Siberia and Kazakhstan, many kulaks managed to renew their prosperity. Their fortitude was the basis for recriminations against some sections of NKVD that were in charge of the "labor settlements" ( ) in 1938-1939, as they were considered to have permitted "kulakization" ( ) of the "labor settlers" ( ). The new settlers' ability to exceed the prosperity of the neighboring kolkhozes was attributed to "wrecking" and "criminal negligence".
The overwhelming majority of kulaks executed and imprisoned were male, but precise numbers have been difficult to obtain. Many historians consider the Great Famine a result of the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class." This has complicated attempts to distinguish the executions of kulaks. A wide range of death tolls has been suggested, from as many as 60 million suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to as few as 700,000 by Soviet news sources. A collection of estimates is maintained by Matthew White.
According to data from Soviet archives, which were published only in 1990, 1,803,392 people were sent to labor colonies and camps in 1930 and 1931. Books based on these sources have said that 1,317,022 reached the destinations. The remaining 486,370 may have died or escaped. Deportations on a smaller scale continued after 1931. The reported number of kulaks and their relatives who died in labor colonies from 1932-1940 was 389,521. Former "kulaks" and their families made up the majority of victims of the Great Purge of the late 1930s, with 669,929 arrested and 376,202 executed.
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