|To what extent did collectivisation and industrialisation change Soviet society by the end of the 1930s?
Collectivisation and industrialisation had profound effects on Soviet society during the 1930s. Indeed, by 1939 they had transformed the country from a predominantly agricultural economy, based on the private ownership of land, to an industrialised society, based on the principles of command socialism.
Collectivisation involved the elimination of private ownership of agricultural land, and its replacement with a system of state-owned and collectively-owned farms. This policy represented the greatest transformation of Russian society since emancipation (in 1861). It changed who owned the land, how the land was worked, and how the peasants lived.
While the poorer peasants tolerated collectivisation (because they had little land and few animals to lose), the wealthier ones (the kulaks) bitterly opposed it. These farmers had supported NEP and refused to accept its abandonment.
When the time came to part with their land, many kulaks refused to comply, reducing production to subsistence levels as a form of protest. Many also burned their farm equipment and killed their cattle in preference to handing them over to the state.
At first Stalin reacted cautiously, fearing the fall in agricultural production would jeopardise his industrialisation plans. As such, he called a halt to collectivisation, and allowed the peasants to reclaim their land. The kulaks thought they had won, and immediately began to replant. However, once the harvest had been safely collected, Stalin accused them of being counter-revolutionaries, and set about eliminating them as a class in society. Their possessions were confiscated and they were prevented from joining collectives. Those who continued to resist were exiled to Siberia or shot; whole villages were burned.
The result of these changes was a precipitous decline in agricultural production. The number of sheep and goats in Russia fell from 146 million in 1928 to 42 million in 1933. Cattle numbers fell from 70 million to 34 million over the same period. The amount of grain produced also fell.
Because of this the USSR was hit by famine in 1932-33. The worst hit region was the Ukraine, where resistance to Soviet rule had been strong. Stalin was furious that the area had failed to meet its grain requisition targets, and decided to use the famine as a means of punishing those he held responsible. All grain was confiscated by the state, and troops were stationed on the Ukraine’s borders to prevent people from leaving. The peasants were then left to starve. About 7 million people died in the USSR during the famine, 5 million of them in the Ukraine.
By 1933, all agricultural land had been collectivised. Peasants now worked for state farms or collective farms, sharing their land and equipment. The government exercised significant control over their lives, telling them what to produce and how to produce it, and enforcing strict penalties for those who failed to comply.
Rural life in Russia had been transformed – socially, economically and politically. Socially, the human cost was undeniable. However, the socialist experiment in agriculture was also a failure economically, as total production did not recover to the 1928 level until ten years later. Collectivisation did not bring with it increased production. But it did give Stalin increased political control – enough to allow him to exploit the peasants sufficiently to permit rapid industrial expansion.
The impact of industrialisation on Soviet society, while nowhere near as profound as that of collectivisation, was still significant.
At an economic level, the three Five Year Plans succeeded in transforming Russia from a backward semi-developed nation to one which could match the West in industrial output. For example, by 1933 output levels were four times that of 1913. Production of oil and gas rose by 130 percent between 1929 and 1938. Over that same period, production of coal and iron ore rose by 230 percent, steel by 267 percent, electricity by 540 percent, and chemicals by almost 1000 percent.
At a social level, rapid industrialisation created a large working class, as millions of people left the land to work in the new industrial complexes that were appearing.
However, working conditions were hard and living standards low. People had to work for seven days a week in many factories, and were not permitted to leave their jobs without government permission. Internal passports were introduced as a means of keeping controlling the movement of labour around the country. There were also harsh penalties for breaches of labour discipline, such as damage to tools or theft of state property.
Unfortunately, workers received few rewards for their efforts. Living standards remained low, since few consumer goods were produced; instead, resources were channelled into heavy industry and the expansion of infrastructure. Only the most productive workers received wage increases, bonuses or special privileges. Even so, the quality of life of the 17 million peasants who moved to the cities did rise, as they were given apartments which, though small, were far superior to anything they had lived in before.
Unfortunately, industrialisation and collectivisation created a new social class in Russia – slave labourers. During the 1930s, there were 8 million people working in the labour camps, performing some of the hardest, most dangerous jobs in the country. Not surprisingly, many died of cold, malnutrition, disease and overwork.
Another important social change in Russia during the 1930s was the increased pride people took in their nation’s achievements. Literacy and numeracy increased dramatically, as did the number of university graduates – developments that was necessary to facilitate industrialisation. Most Russians were proud of their social and economic successes – something which gave credence to the Stalinist propaganda they were fed on a daily basis.
Finally, industrialisation helped transform Russia politically, giving Stalin justification for centralising power in his own hands and unleashing a reign of terror on those he perceived to be his enemies.
Both collectivisation and industrialisation transformed Soviet society in the 1930s. Russia became a strong, developed, socialist nation. But it also became a rigid, totalitarian regime, led by a brutal, heartless dictator with messianic vision for the future.