Russia under Joseph Stalin

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Russia under Joseph Stalin

Stalin gained the effective leadership of Russia in 1929. Stalin's time as leader of Russia was to gain fame for three reasons:

  • 1. The Five Year Plans

  • 2. Collectivisation

  • 3. The Purges

But what do we know about Stalin?

• he was born in 1879

• he came from a poor background; his father was a cobbler and his mother was a peasant

• his real surname was Djugasvili

• he did well at school and won a scholarship to go to a seminary where priests were trained

• it was at this seminary that Stalin turned to Marxism

• he became a follower of Lenin and went to secret meetings and distributed leaflets

• between 1902 and 1913 he was arrested 8 times and exiled to Siberia. He escaped 7 times!!

• in prison he adopted the name Stalin which translated as "Man of Steel". He felt that it would be good for his image

• he was a very good organiser and the part he played in the November 1917 Revolution was probably small. But the skills he gained while helping to organise the Bolshevik Party were to prove invaluable

• after 1917, he was rewarded with a number of seemingly unimportant party positions which nobody else wanted. But they gave Stalin a perfect insight into who could be trusted to support him and who could not

• Stalin was seen as dull by the intellectual elite of the Bolshevik Party. They all made a fatal mistake in assuming that he was stupid.

When Stalin became the undisputed leader of Russia in 1929, he realised that Russia was far behind the west and that she would have to modernise her economy very quickly if she was to survive. Also a strong economy would lead to a strong military if Russia was going to survive threats from external forces. A modernised Russia would also provide the farmers with the machinery they needed if they were going to modernise their farms - such as tractors.

The Five Year Plans:

Stalin introduced the Five Year Plans. This brought all industry under state control and all industrial development was planned by the state. The state would decide what would be produced, how much would be produced and where it should be produced. An organisation called Gosplan was created to plan all this out.

The first five year plan was from 1928 to 1932.

The second five year plan was from 1933 to 1937.

The third five year plan was from 1938 to 1941 when the war interrupted it.

Each plan set a target which industries had to meet. Each factory was set a target which it had to meet. The targets were completely unrealistic and could not be met but vast improvements were made. The emphasis was on heavy industries such as coal, oil, iron and steel and electricity.

The following table gives some idea of what progress was made when the base line figure is 1927 - before the five year plans. The target for both plans is in brackets.






35 mt

64 mt (75 mt target)

128 mt (152 mt target)


12 mt

21 mt (22 mt target)

29 mt (47 mt target)

Iron Ore

5 mt

12 mt (19 mt target)


Pig Iron

3 mt

6 mt (10 mt target)

15 mt (16 mt target)


4 mt

6 mt (10 mt target)

18 mt (17 mt target)

mt = millions of tons

Though these appear excellent results, it must be remembered that the base line for 1927 was small by west European standards. However, the improvements did represent a massive jump forward.

The second five year plan continued to emphasise heavy industries but there was also a commitment to communication systems such as railways and new industries such as the chemical industry.

The third five year plan put an emphasis on weapons production (which required an input from heavy industries) as war did seem to be approaching.

Stalin brought in experts from foreign countries to help them, and he introduced single managers to run factories whereas one of the main beliefs of Lenin had been the running of factories by soviets (workers councils who would come to a joint decision on how things should be done). These managers were directly responsible for fulfilling the targets set for their factory. Good managers were well rewarded. Unsuccessful managers could pay a severe price for failure.

For all the apparent success of the five year plans, there were serious flaws. Parts for industrial machinery were hard to get and some factories were kept idle for weeks on end simply because they did not have parts to repair worn out machines. Ex-peasants were used as skilled workers. This simply did not add up. Despite their valiant efforts, many machines were damaged because those using them had no idea on how to correctly use these machines. There were also no parts to repair this damage.

 Factories took to inflating their production figures and the products produced were frequently so poor that they could not be used - even if the factory producing those goods appeared to be meeting its target. The punishment for failure was severe. A manager could be executed as an "enemy of the people". Workers could be sent to a prison camp in Siberia. Nobody was allowed to condemn or criticise the five year plans as they were Stalin’s idea.

Life for the workers:

Life was very hard for industrial workers. Their pay was poor and there was barely anything they could spend their money on even if they had any. Consumer goods were simply not produced. Working conditions were very dangerous and the hours were long. The homes that were provided were poor. So why did they work so hard?

• the young were still idealistic. The whole concept of communism was still intoxicating. Stalin was known as ‘"Uncle Joe" and they were willing to suffer a few years of hardship if they were going to get to the promised land of a better society.

• people were encouraged to work hard by propaganda which bombarded the workers in all directions. This played on the belief that if most did it, the rest would follow on as they did not want to be seen as different.

• rewards were given to the best workers. Groups of workers were encouraged to compete against each other. The most famous worker was Alexei Stakhanov. He was said to have mined 102 tons of coal in one shift. This was fourteen times the amount expected from one person. Logically if he could do it, so could others. To be rewarded for hard work meant that you were a Stakhanovite. In fact, Stakhanov was not a popular man with the workers - for very good reasons, as this put the burden on them of working harder. Stakhanov, in fact, was frequently not mining after this record. He was allowed to tour Russia to be greeted as a hero and to give lectures on how to work hard and there is no clear evidence that he did what was claimed.

• another way of persuading the workers to work hard was to pay by results. Successful managers were also paid more though whether this extra money was shared by the workers in a factory or mine is unknown.

• punishment was also used by those who did not work hard. The fear of the labour camps was usually enough to get people working hard. Absenteeism from work was punishable by being fined or having your ration book taken from you. In 1940, it carried a prison sentence. All workers had to carry labour books which stated whether you had worked hard or not. Bad comments from your manager could also lead to prison

• a lot of hard physical labour was done by prisoners. It did not matter if they died - only that the task was completed. The fact that these people were in prison, was enough for the government to use them as it saw fit.

For all the problems and hardship caused by the Five Year Plans, by 1941, Stalin had transformed Russia into a world class industrial power. This was to be vital for Russia as the war was about to test her to the extreme.

The Collectivisation of Agriculture in Russia

Collectivisation was Stalin's answer to his belief that Russia’s agriculture was in a terrible state. Stalin believed that Russia had to be able to feed itself - hence collectivisation - and that at the very least the peasant farmers should be providing food for the workers in the factories if the Five Year Plans were going to succeed.

In 1928 Stalin had said:

"Agriculture is developing slowly, comrades. This is because we have about 25 million individually owned farms. They are the most primitive and undeveloped form of economy We must do our utmost to develop large farms and to convert them into grain factories for the country organised on a modem scientific basis."

Stalin’s description of the state of Russia’s farming was very accurate. There was barely any mechanisation, the use of scientific measures was minimal and peasant farmers produced usually for themselves and the local area. This was not good enough for Stalin.

To change all this and update Russia’s agriculture, Stalin introduced collectivisation. This meant that small farms would be gathered together to form one large massive one. These bigger farms would be called collectives. As they were large, there was every reason to use machinery on them. The more food that could be grown the better as the cities and factories could suitably be fed. Hungry factory workers would not be in a fit enough state to work effectively. If this happened the Five Year Plans would not succeed.

If this happened then Russia would not advance.

The key to collectives would be the use of science and machinery. Tractors stations were created to hire out tractors, combine harvesters etc. Collectives were up and running by 1930 when over 50% of all farms had been grouped together.

How did the peasants react to this policy?

Lenin had given the peasants their land in 1918. By 1924, even the poorest peasant owned land. There were those who had worked hard and done well. These were richer peasants and were called kulaks. This group in particular was very much against collectivisation. They felt that their hard work was being taken advantage of. Stalin tried to turn to poorer peasants against the kulaks. In 1928, he said at a speech:

"Look at the kulaks farms : their barns and sheds are crammed with grain. And yet they are holding onto this grain because they are demanding three times the price offered by the government."

However, many peasants, ‘rich’ or poor, were against collectivisation. The land that Lenin had given them was now being taken away by Stalin. Villages that refused to join a collective had soldiers sent to them and the villagers were usually shoot as "enemies of the revolution" or "enemies of the people". The land, now freed from ownership, was handed to the nearest collective farm.

Those villages that were due for collectivisation but did not want to join a collective, killed their animals and destroyed their grain so that they could not be taken by the soldiers and secret police. Thus began an era of almost unparalleled slaughter of farm animals and the systematic destruction of grain.


1928 = 73.3 million tons

1934 = 67.6 million tons


1929 = 70.5 million

1934 = 42.4 million


1928 = 26 million

1934 = 22.6 million

Sheep and goats

1928 = 146.7 million

1934 = 51.9 million

For a more detailed table, click here

The 10% reduction in grain collected was a significant decline. The secret police took to confiscating what they could find and feeding the collectives that were loyal and the factory workers. Therefore many peasant farmers who were anti-collectivisation starved or died in the labour camps of Siberia. It is estimated that 7 million people were killed or died in the labour camps. This figure is almost certainly higher when those who starved to death are included or died of diseases induced by malnutrition.

The worst area was in what is now Kazakstan where more than 80% of animals and grain were destroyed.

Young people went to the towns and cities to get jobs as they felt that these were better than working on the farms. Therefore, collectivisation lead to a reduced population in the countryside. Those who were left had to work harder on the collective farms for little reward.

Between 1931 and 1932, there was a famine in Russia as not enough food was being produced. Between 10 to 15 million people died.

By 1939, Russia was producing the same amount of food as it had in 1928. Collectivisation was clearly a disaster and the problem was even worse as her population had increased by 20 million - all of whom needed feeding.

So why was a failure of policy allowed to continue? Simply because it was Stalin’s idea and nobody would dare tell Stalin that one of his ideas was a mistake.

Life in Russia under Stalin

Stalin's control over Russia meant that freedom was the one thing that people lost. The people of Russia had to read what the state allowed, see what the state allowed and listen to what the state allowed. The state’s control of the media was total. Those who attempted to listen, read etc. anything else were severely punished. Everybody knew of the labour camps and that was enough of a deterrent.

Stalin developed what became known as a "personality cult". Artists painted pictures glorifying Stalin  and he dominated many pictures. It was not unusual for Stalin to be in a white suit so that he stood out from the crowd. He gained the nickname "Uncle Joe" which was an attempt to develop an image of a kind, homely man who was the ‘father’ of all Russians. This was all called "Social Realism". Those who wrote poems and novels had to do the same - write about Stalin in a manner which gloried him. Some artists and authors were so depressed by all this that they committed suicide rather than do what the state ordered them to do. Many others tried to leave the country.

Education was strictly controlled by the state. In 1932, a rigid programme of discipline and education was introduced. Exams, banned under Lenin, were reintroduced. The way subjects were taught was laid down by the government - especially History where Stalin’s part in the 1917 Revolution and his relationship with Lenin was overplayed. Books were strictly censored by the state and Stalin ordered the writing of a new book called "A short history of the USSR" which had to be used in schools.

Outside of school ,children were expected to join youth organisations such as the Octobrists for 8 to 10 year olds and the Pioneers for the 10 to 16 year olds. From 19 to 23 you were expected to join the Komsomol. Children were taught how to be a good socialist/communist and an emphasis was put on outdoor activities and clean living.

There was a marked increase in the attacks on the churches of the USSR throughout the 1930’s. Communism had taught people that religion was "the opium of the masses" (Karl Marx) and church leaders were arrested and churches physically shut down. Stalin could not allow a challenge to his position and anybody who worshipped God was a challenge as the "personality cult" was meant for people to worship Stalin.

For a short time under Lenin, women had enjoyed a much freer status in that life for them was a lot more liberal when compared to the ‘old days’. Among other things, divorce was made a lot more easy under Lenin. Stalin changed all this. He put the emphasis on the family. There was a reason for this. Many children had been born out of marriage and Moscow by 1930 was awash with a very high number of homeless children who had no family and, as such, were a stain on the perfect communist society that Stalin was trying to create.

The state paid families a child allowance if their were a married couple. It became a lot harder to get a divorce and restrictions were placed on abortions. Ceremonial weddings made a comeback. In the work place, women maintained their status and there was effective equality with men. In theory, all jobs were open to women. The only real change took place in the image the state created for women. By the end of the 1930’s, the image of women at work had softened so that the hard edge of working became less apparent.

Living standards : these generally rose in the 1930’s despite the obvious problems with food production and shortages elsewhere. Some people did very well out of the system especially party officials and skilled factory workers. Health care was greatly expanded. In the past, the poorer people of Russia could not have expected qualified medical help in times of illness. Now that facility was available though demand for it was extremely high. The number of doctors rose greatly but there is evidence that they were so scared of doing wrong, that they had to go by the rule book and make appointments for operations which people did not require!!

Housing remained a great problem for Stalin’s Russia. In Moscow, only 6% of households had more than one room. Those apartments that were put up quickly, were shoddy by western standards. In was not unusual for flat complexes to be built without electric sockets despite electricity being available - building firms were simply not used to such things.

Leisure for the average Russian person was based around fitness and sport. Every Russian was entitled to have a holiday each year - this had been unheard of in the tsar’s days. Clubs, sports facilities etc. were provided by the state. The state also controlled the cinema, radio etc. but an emphasis was placed on educating yourself via the media as it was then.

Was Stalin a disaster for Russia?

•  the country did become a major industrial nation by 1939 and her progress was unmatched in the era of the Depression in America and western Europe where millions were unemployed.

•  those workers who did not offend the state were better off than under the  reign of the tsar.

•  Russia’s military forces were benefiting from her industrial growth.

•  there was a stable government under Stalin.

•  people had access to much better medical care some 10 years before the National Health Service was introduced in GB.


• millions had died in famine after the failed experiment of collectivisation.

• Russia’s agriculture was at the same level in 1939 as in 1928 with a 40 million increased population.

• Russia had become a ‘telling’ society. The secret police actively encouraged people to inform on neighbours, work mates etc. and many suffered simply as a result of jealous neighbours/workers.

Also many of Russia's most talented people had been murdered during the Purges of the 1930's. Anyone with talent was seen as a threat by the increasingly paranoid behaviour associated with Stalin and were killed or imprisoned (which usually lead to death anyway). The vast Soviet army was a body without a brain as most of her senior officers had been arrested and murdered during the Purges.

Russia 1917 to 1939: important terms

Bolshevik : a member of the Bolshevik Party lead by Lenin. It later became the Communist Party. It believed that a small group of intellectuals should lead the fight for the working class as they had the education to know what to do and the poor did not.

Cheka : the name given to Lenin's secret police. It later became the KGB.

Collectivisation : the grouping together of farmland under Stalin so that farm production increased. Land given to the peasants' by Lenin, was taken back by Stalin.

Communism : a belief developed by Karl Marx. It basically stated that everybody is equal and no-one was better than anybody else. One person's luxury lifestyle, lead to another person's poverty and exploitation.

Five Year Plans : the name given to Stalin's industrial plans for the USSR so that she could catch up quickly with the west.

Gulag : the name given to Stalin's prison camps. Many were built in the harshest of conditions - frequently Siberia. The treatment given to these prisoners was harsh and extreme.

New Economic Policy (NEP) : introduced after the failure of War Communism whereby peasants could keep what they grew and sell it for a profit.

Personality Cult : when a country's leader gets the people of that country to all but worship hem/her. Cities, rivers, regions etc are named after him and towns and cities are littered with huge posters of the leader. Stalin tried to do this in Russia.

Purges : the name given to the time when Stalin shot or sent to the gulags those who he felt opposed his rule. Millions were dealt with in this manner after show trials.

Reds : the name given to anything associated with the Bolsheviks; such as the Red Army during the Civil War.

Tsar : Russia's equivalent of king such as in Tsar Nicholas II.

War Communism : the name given to the policy introduced by Lenin at the start of the civil war whereby the Cheka confiscated whatever it needed with regards to food, equipment etc. Those who opposed the Cheka were shot as "enemies of the state".

Whites : the name given to the groups that opposed the Bolsheviks after the overthrow of the Provisional Government and during the Civil War.

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