With Stalin’s rise to power, the Soviet Union embarked on a rapid course of industrialization. Both factory and farm production were centralized. Agriculture was to be carried out on a mass scale rather than relying on a patchwork of small farms. Privately owned land was consolidated into state farms (sovkhozy) and collective farms (kolkhozy) through a process known as collectivization, which Stalin set in motion in 1928.
In Ukraine, where the fertile black soil known as chernozem yielded superior harvests, thriving farmers were branded as “kulaks” and summarily executed, jailed, or exiled to remote parts of Siberia and Central Asia. Enforced grain requisitions meant that those who remained on the land slowly, and painfully, starved. Stalin’s brutal agricultural policies resulted in the terrible famine of 1932-33, and as a result of collectivization, roughly 10 million people died. The campaign was also disastrous for Soviet agriculture. With little individual incentive, insufficient equipment, and unrealistic production quotas, the collective farm system led to widespread corruption and meager harvests.
It is against this grim backdrop that Sergei Gerasimov’s painting, A Collective Farm Holiday, must be understood. By 1937, the year he painted it, 90 percent of the Soviet Union’s farms had been collectivized. That year was also the height of the Great Terror, in which millions of Soviet citizens were arrested and executed or sent to labor camps. Stalin’s famous slogan of “Life has become better, comrades, life has become more joyous!” takes on tangible form in Gerasimov’s painting, rendered in the Socialist Realist manner. In 1932, the government had declared Socialist Realism the official mode of artistic production. Though painterly styles could vary, artists were charged with conveying the idealism and joy of the “radiant future” that lay just ahead. Gerasimov’s painting captures this sentiment in its portrayal of a celebration among collective-farm workers.
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