In 1929 around 80% of Russia’s population worked the land. Their way of life had been largely unchanged for generations, until Stalin launched what has been described as a civil war against the peasant class.
Stalin’s goal was to modernize agriculture in order to drive the rapid industrialization he saw as essential to the Soviet Union’s future. The wealthier peasants, denounced by Stalin as rural capitalists, were executed or deported to prison camps in Siberia. The remainder were stripped of their land and livestock and forced to work the fields of vast state-run collective farms.
Many peasants chose to slaughter their livestock rather than hand it over to the state, resulting in catastrophic shortages. Grain production fell, but state quotas had to be met. The army and the secret police took all that could be found, leaving whole villages to starve. Any peasant found to be stealing a single grain could be shot.
In cities and towns, mass graves were dug. In villages, the corpses were often left piled by the side of the road, the living too weak to bury the dead. As his people suffered and starved, Stalin exported huge quantities of food abroad to fund the industrialization of the Soviet Union. The famine of 1932-33 had been entirely preventable, but it caused the death of millions.