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Re-examining Post-War Soviet History through the Lens of Corn

Challenging traditional explanations of history and taking a new view on the past is the hallmark of a good historian; re-examining the history of post-war Soviet agriculture and economics is no exception, according to Aaron Hale-Dorrell, who recently received his PhD in History from the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill and will begin a post-doctoral fellowship at the HSE International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences in September. Aaron Hale-Dorrell recently agreed to speak with the HSE news service about his research interests, his plans while at HSE, and his experiences living and working in Russia.

— Your dissertation is an exploration of the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s through Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s corn campaign, which envisioned spreading this quintessential American crop across the length and breadth of an immense and environmentally diverse country. How does corn become a tool for helping to understand the post-Stalinist period?

— Perhaps surprisingly, the corn campaign offers a window into much larger issues about the Soviet Union’s place in the world, and the direction it evolved after 1953. More than a 'hare-brained scheme,' as contemporaries labelled it, it was an integral part of a larger programme to solve the agrarian crisis inherited from Stalin, ensuring social stability by enriching a hitherto monotonous diet. Giving substance to the communist version of the good life, the USSR could prove its superiority to its American counterpart, winning a competition conceived as a peaceful alternative to the Cold War arms race.

My research shows that Khrushchev and his policies proved capable of negotiating only some of the obstacles ingrained in the Soviet system

Instead of being symptomatic of Khrushchev’s behaviour, long characterized by scholars as erratic and even irrational, the corn crusade was a quite rational adaptation of the modern factory farming methods proven by farmers in the United States. Thus, a history of corn shows us that the USSR readily participated in global trends, rather than cloistering itself behind an impenetrable Iron Curtain. That bundle of factory-farming technologies raised output while economizing on production costs, and spread from the US to industrial countries and then to Third World nations. Everywhere, they transformed rural communities — often painfully by forcing farmers from the land — while equipping those farmers who remained to feed a global population that swelled from 2 billion in 1950 to more than 7 billion today. Thus, Khrushchev’s agrarian reforms appear far more sensible if considered part of these global trends in technology. Seeking to apply factory farming to a range of activities, especially corn growing, Khrushchev sent representatives to the US beginning in 1955. He befriended Iowa seed-corn magnate Roswell Garst, the most prominent of many figures who provided technical guidance and facilitated trade. Because Khrushchev expanded and intensified Soviet experts’ existing fascination with American practices, the history of the post-war Soviet agrarian system cannot be told without accounting for its ties to the models defining modern farming in the US, Western Europe, and beyond.

In light of the 20th century revolution in crop yields and farming productivity, Khrushchev’s crusade seems overambitious, but hardly emblematic of an ‘incoherent’ set of agrarian reforms, as critics and scholars have long held. Revealing the workings of the agrarian economy and Khrushchev’s programme, a history of corn sheds light on the forces that robbed the Soviet factory farming system of the potential proven by the success of kindred systems in nonsocialist contexts abroad. True, the harsh climate and the unfamiliarity of corn traditionally cited by critics and scholars did limit the effectiveness of corn. Locales with enough warmth suffered from long dry spells in critical summer months when corn matured. Areas with sufficient rainfall experienced summers far too cool for corn to ripen.

Impeding efforts to mend the economy’s weakest link, its farms, these obstacles remained embedded in the system, outlasting Khrushchev, withstanding Leonid Brezhnev’s substantial capital investment programme of the 1960s and 1970s, and beleaguering Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform attempt of the late 1980s

Delving deeper than these traditional explanations, however, my research shows that Khrushchev and his policies proved capable of negotiating only some of the obstacles ingrained in the Soviet system; these findings have implications for our understanding of Soviet socialism and society. Expecting little of corn, local leaders and farmworkers alike deemed the crusade another unrealistic but temporary campaign imposed by Moscow. Even in south-western locales where corn could grow, it required timely planting, cultivation, and harvesting. Yet those responsible often devoted only the minimal effort necessary to fulfil the planting plan, meeting none of the crop’s needs and ensuring that it yielded only the lacklustre results they had expected. A few outstanding collective and state farms broke this vicious circle, harvesting vast quantities of livestock feed and raising output of milk and meat. However, most failed to grow even 30 percent of the yield needed to make corn a cost-effective alternative to hay and oats, the standard feed crops. This dismal performance was the result of flawed incentives that encouraged farmworkers to privilege personal interests over the needs of the kolkhoz, deficiencies in accounting for production costs, bureaucratic inaction, and the balky mechanisms of local governance. Rural areas were only partially responsive to Moscow’s commands, rather than subject to the central authorities’ top-down control, as scholarly orthodoxy has long presumed. Impeding efforts to mend the economy’s weakest link, its farms, these obstacles remained embedded in the system, outlasting Khrushchev, withstanding Leonid Brezhnev’s substantial capital investment programme of the 1960s and 1970s, and beleaguering Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform attempt of the late 1980s.

International research holds out great promise for those interested in studying Russia’s history because scholars are increasingly viewing Russia, although subject to its own unique past, as an integral part of the world

What is going to be in the focus of your attention while working in the HSE Moscow?

— At HSE, I will concentrate primarily on this research project. In practical terms, this means working on transforming the existing research and the text of the PhD dissertation I defended in 2014 into a draft of a manuscript for publication as an academic monograph, which has the working title ‘Corn Crusade: An Industrial Farming Revolution and the Soviet System after Stalin.’ In addition, I envision beginning a new research project, participating in the many events relevant to my field at HSE and the International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences, and potentially fulfilling some teaching duties.

— How is being an expat from the U.S. these days in Moscow? Have you experienced any problems when it comes to your life and work here?

— Although each of the six previous trips I have made to Russia as a student and teacher over the last eleven years has been different, I do not anticipate any major problems other than, perhaps, adapting again to the famously harsh winter. After many years living in the American South, where “winter” usually means temperatures rarely lower than 0 degrees Celsius, it will be a real challenge! In all seriousness, though, I anticipate that HSE and the other professional settings I will enter will be as welcoming and stimulating as could be imagined. I spent a couple of months in Moscow in the summer of 2014, and found it as exciting a place to be as in each of my visits to the city in past years, full of welcoming archivists and scholars in my field conducting fascinating research in pursuit of innovative knowledge.

In Moscow, I cannot imagine ever reaching the end of the city’s ever-changing cultural scene, especially its museums and galleries

— What would you consider the most important skill for an international researcher in the 21st century?

— In a word (or two): the ability to see the big picture. By this, I mean that perhaps more than ever, international research holds out great promise for those interested in studying Russia’s history because scholars are increasingly viewing Russia, although subject to its own unique past, as an integral part of the world. This means not only that scholars from Australia and China to the United Kingdom and the US are partnering with Russians to write new histories of Russia, but that we can all team up with colleagues studying other parts of the world to bring new perspectives to the study of almost any issue.

To offer a small illustration, as I travel to Moscow to begin the fellowship at HSE in September, I will be stopping in Beijing, China, to present my work and engage with the work of other scholars at a workshop held at Tsinghua University called ‘Twentieth Century Socialism: Ideas and Practices in Soviet-Russia and China’. It promises to bring together scholars who study each country within a larger world context characterized by modernization, social change, and multiple models of development.

— Do you have any specific travel or cultural plans while you are in Russia?

— Although I have not yet made any specific plans, I am eager to reconnect with Russian colleagues and with friends made during past visits to the country. In Moscow, I cannot imagine ever reaching the end of the city’s ever-changing cultural scene, especially its museums and galleries. I always love a chance to visit St. Petersburg, because it was my first ‘home’ in Russia, and it never fails to be an exciting destination for its museums, its culture, and its beauty in general. I also look forward to the opportunity to introduce more and more of the country to any friends and family who might visit during the course of the year, a prospect I always encourage!

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service 

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