Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949-1962

Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949-1962

Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949-1962

Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949-1962


In 1949, Romania's fledgling communist regime unleashed a radical and brutal campaign to collectivize agriculture in this largely agrarian country, following the Soviet model. Peasants under Siege provides the first comprehensive look at the far-reaching social engineering process that ensued. Gail Kligman and Katherine Verdery examine how collectivization assaulted the very foundations of rural life, transforming village communities that were organized around kinship and status hierarchies into segments of large bureaucratic organizations, forged by the language of "class warfare" yet saturated with vindictive personal struggles.

Collectivization not only overturned property relations, the authors argue, but was crucial in creating the Party-state that emerged, its mechanisms of rule, and the "new persons" that were its subjects. The book explores how ill-prepared cadres, themselves unconvinced of collectivization's promises, implemented technologies and pedagogies imported from the Soviet Union through actions that contributed to the excessive use of force, which Party leaders were often unable to control. In addition, the authors show how local responses to the Party's initiatives compelled the regime to modify its plans and negotiate outcomes.

Drawing on archival documents, oral histories, and ethnographic data, Peasants under Siege sheds new light on collectivization in the Soviet era and on the complex tensions underlying and constraining political authority.


Peasants have been under siege since time immemorial by those intent on prying from them agricultural surpluses or the means of agricultural production. Sometimes the weapons used against them were tithes and taxes, sometimes agrarian reforms, sometimes enclosures and privatization. This book concerns a form of siege warfare specific to the twentieth century: the collectivization of agriculture. Invented in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the late 1920s, it entailed wrenching from peasants’ control the land, animals, and implements with which Russian and other Soviet villagers, as well as those in Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere, had sustained their households across generations. We ask how that was accomplished, and with what effects, in Romania between 1949 and 1962, but our ambition is much greater: to illuminate a policy experienced by millions of peasants worldwide.

The book thus deals with two immense themes: communism and property. Although the communist idea lost some of its power to frighten (or inspire) in 1989, its impact on property will not soon be forgotten. We turn to Romania for our investigation because its form of collectivizing was very similar to that of the Soviet Union, yet importantly different: somewhat less violent, more protracted, and, in a country dominated by smallholders rather than communal villages, more individualized. To the extent that there was anything to be said for collectivization—and in principle there was, though the devastating manner of its execution largely nullified its benefits—the comparisons are worth exploring. We find that when applied in a context where the Communist Party was weak, the policy imported from the Soviet Union resulted in complex patterns of bargaining and negotiation that—especially in the formative years— change our picture of communist dictatorship. That is the story we tell here.

This book has been long in the making, almost as long as the collectivization campaign itself. It is the fruit, on the one hand, of our individual research in Romania, and, on the other, of a multidisciplinary collaborative project entitled Transforming Property, Persons, and State: Collectivization in Romania, 1949– 1962, which we initiated in 1998 with a group of Romanian and other scholars. Each of us had worked with Romanian villagers under socialism and developed deep attachments to them, inspiring our interest in joining efforts to recover some of their “hidden histories” after 1989. We had no thought of writing a comprehensive history of collectivization—it is too early for that—but only of offering our own perspective on the process, based on a combination of archival and ethnographic research and on social science notions concerning person, property, and state. By inquiring into what collectivization reveals about the nature of the Party-state, we hoped to contribute some perhaps novel ways . . .

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