Against the grain: Wheat and propaganda in the Soviet Union

A gilded sheaf of wheat is offered up to the viewer by a beaming woman standing in front of abundant fields of gold. It makes for a glorious and powerful image. An omnipresent and prevalent theme in Soviet Union, it’s status is elevated by its inclusion and embrace of the hammer and sickle in the official Soviet coat of arms. But what makes it so important?

Wheat are the collective

It was wheat -or lack thereof- that was in part responsible for the collapse of the Russian empire. With millions drafted into the army to fight in the First World War; fewer workers and poor infrastructure meant that the 1917 wheat harvest couldn’t be distributed to where it was needed most. Rural areas stockpiled wheat while urban centres revolted. Ten days later the monarchy was overthrown. Fast forward a few years, the new general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joesph Stalin, aimed to stamp out the “virus of individualism” with collectivism. Collectivism integrated individual landholdings and labour into collective state-controlled farms. Those who resisted, were forced or killed. By the early 1930s, millions were working on collective farms which accounted for over 90% of the Soviet Union’s agricultural production. 

Collectivism was combined with a rejection of science-based agriculture. Trofim  Lysenko, a biologist and the national Director of Genetics for the Academy of Sciences proposed that plants of the same species do not compete with each other but instead help each other to survive. His theory was inspired by Marxism, where members of the same class do not compete but instead help each other. More than 3,000 biologists were dismissed, imprisoned or executed as enemies of the state. Food production dropped dramatically, leading to the 1932 famine which killed between 6 to 10 million. During the height of the famine, the USSR exported millions of tons of grain. 

Fields of Gold

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Virgin Lands program was created to boost agricultural production and alleviate prevailing food shortages. While the Soviet Union covers ⅙ of the world's landmass, just 10% of that land is suitable for growing crops. The Virgin Lands program proposed the ploughing and cultivation of land equal to roughly the size of Poland. To increase output, the production of chemical fertilizer was prioritized, the prices paid for grain were increased, and there was even a move towards private farming. 

Irrigation canals thousands of kilometres long were built by volunteers and prisoners to divert water from the Aral Sea to irrigate the dry desert lands of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Water intensive crops like rice, melons, cereals, and cotton were grown. Uzbekistan even briefly challenging Egypt for its cotton supremacy crown. By the late 1950s, the Virgin Lands campaign had succeeded in increasing agricultural production. However, intensive monoculture farming methods and the overuse of chemical fertilizers depleted the soil of nutrients. By the late 1960s, the Soviet Union had gone from one of the largest exporters of grain to the largest importer in the world. Despite their ideological differences, the Soviet Union looked to their Cold War nemesis, the United States for grain. The United States sold them more than 10 million tons of grain, which in-turn caused global food prices to rise soar by 30%.

Fools Gold

While the Soviet Union struggled with the production of agriculture, it has excelled at the production of iconography which communicated the importance of agriculture. Among striking visions of an agricultural utopia, common themes show smiling workers harvesting wheat in fields, driving combine harvesters, or proudly displaying loaves of bread on sheaves of grain.  Agricultural propaganda posters were first printed in the 1920s, regularly released to encourage support for the next five-year-plan or campaign with slogans like “'Fight for the maximal use of all reserves of collective production for a good harvest!' or “Animal Breeders Are Friends Of Science”.

Giant golden mosaics which graced the entrance to subway stations, elaborate gilded fountains, and soviet coins all served to remind citizens that this golden crop bound them to one another. When production quotas were forged, droughts, a stagnant economy, and long queues for food were plenty, wheat was a vehicle used to paint a convincing picture of a bright socialist future.

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