When Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s, the Soviet Union was a vast but under-developed country, mostly agricultural with little industry. Russians had been through World War 1, two revolutions in 1917, civil war and famine. These events had left their impact on the state of the economy.
From 1928 Stalin began a state-run programme of rapid industrialisation. Factories were built, transport networks developed and workers encouraged, even forced, to work harder. Stalin intended to turn the economy around and make the USSR competitive with capitalist countries. To bring about this huge change, he acted ruthlessly.
Whether as a result of his direct orders or as a result of his policies, it is possible that 20 million people died during Stalin’s reign. He was hated and feared as a dictator. He was also adored. During his lifetime he was glorified in newspapers and films, cities and streets were named after him, and statues of him were put up around the USSR. He was seen as the man who turned an undeveloped and divided nation into an industrial super-power.
The USSR became strong enough to help defeat Germany during World War 2 and after the war was one of the most powerful nations in the world. Stalin's policy of industrialisation helped achieve this, but at the cost of many Russian lives. Did the ends justify the means?
I. Why did Stalin want to industrialize Russia?
In 1928 Stalin began one of the most dramatic transformations of a country's economy that the world had ever seen. There were political and ideological reasons for putting communist theories into practice. There were also practical reasons to change the economy of the USSR.
World War I devastated Russia. Towns, factories, roads and railways were destroyed. Farmland was ruined. Millions of people died. The Bolshevik revolution also caused havoc and then revolution turned to civil war. A drought in 1921 led to famine. All this meant that economic rebuilding was necessary.
After the death of Lenin in 1924, there was a power struggle from which Stalin gradually emerged as winner. Stalin was aware that he had to assert his leadership. One way he could do this was to make a success of his policies, especially by making the USSR strong through industrialisation.
The USSR had a large population, but the majority of people worked in agriculture. A small amount of industry existed in the west of the country. Stalin wanted to create more industry and industry in the east. To do this, transport links between the regions had to be improved and peasants had to be turned into industrial workers. He wanted Russia to catch up with the West and to turn it into a military power. This would make it worthy of the largest country in the world.
The race to industrialise was spurred on by the fear that capitalist countries would try to destroy communism in the USSR. At the First Conference of Workers in 1931, Stalin delivered a passionate speech, commanding workers to play a crucial role in industrialisation. He said: "We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or they will crush us."
II. How did Stalin industrialize Russia? a. Industrialization / Five Year Plans
Every five years the Soviet government, under Stalin's instruction, set detailed targets that industry and agriculture had to meet. These Five Year Plans aimed for a great increase in production.
The first Five Year Plan was launched in 1928, the second in 1932 and the third in 1937. Each plan laid out targets for industrial production. Targets were set for each factory in the USSR, every shift of workers and even for every individual worker.
The plans aimed at producing a surplus or overproduction. Production targets were set very high to give the workers something to aim for. If workers did not achieve their targets, they were punished. Desperate factory managers fiddled the books or committed suicide as the pressure to produce more and more became too great. If the workers succeeded in reaching targets, they might be rewarded with increased wages. But usually their targets were increased as well.
Each year Stalin's government produced a report on progress. These reports were made available for foreign governments to see how successful communism was. Stalin was careful not to publicise any failures to the rest of the world. The picture that emerged from the USSR during the 1930s was one of success.
It is clear that production greatly increased and new factories, dams, railways and roads were built. However, there were problems with wastage and inefficiency in the plans. Official figures were exaggerated or gave only a partial picture of the targets met, so it is difficult to know the extent to which production increased.
Focus on Heavy Industries
The key to industrialisation was heavy industry. Every year the amount of steel, coal, iron and oil that was produced rose. New factories were opened, especially in the east. More railways were built to transport the goods produced. New industrial centres sprang up in Kuzbass and the Volga. An entire city called Magnitogorsk was constructed in the Ural Mountains, with a steel mill (in a process that involved great hardship for the people involved). One great achievement was the Dnieper dam, built between 1927-32 to provide hydro-electricity.
Propaganda and the Stakhanovite Worker
In 1935 a coal miner called Alexei Stakhanov was reported to have dug 102 tons of coal in a single 6-hour shift. This was many times more than a miner was expected to cut. Stakhanov was rewarded and praised as an example to all other workers. The public were not told that Stakhanov had two co-workers, plus machinery in perfect working order, to help him achieve so much.
Russians were told to model themselves on Stakhanov. They rose to the challenge in what became known as the Stakhanovite Movement. Stakhanovites tried to perform feats of great productivity, through working harder and also through reorganising the way things were done in their place of work. They were rewarded with better pay and also lots of praise and publicity. This was just one way in which Stalin attempted to persuade his new industrial labourers to work more efficiently.
Use of force and punishment/ The Gulags
The gulag was a system of hundreds of forced labour camps, plus transit camps and prisons, which held criminals. Increasingly gulag prisoners were political prisoners - people who were opposed to Stalin, people accused of failing to meet their work targets and peasants sent there during the collectivisation of agriculture.
From 1929-32 the numbers of people in the gulag increased greatly, coinciding with collectivisation. It is estimated that there may have been 5-7 million people in these camps at any one time. In later years the camps also held victims of Stalin’s purges, ranging from high officials to intellectuals to ordinary people, as well as World War 2 prisoners.
Gulag prisoners were a useful supply of workers for large projects in remote and inhospitable places in the USSR. For example, the Belomor Canal, which connects the White Sea with the Baltic, was almost entirely constructed by hand, using 250,000 prisoners. Prisoners also worked in mines or cut timber.
They were not paid. They were underfed, housed in poor conditions and worked long hours in a difficult climate. They could be executed if they refused to work. It is possible that around 10% of prisoners in the gulag died each year, although we cannot tell from official figures.
This rapid industrialisation meant that many peasants left the land to work in towns or industrial centres. These workers had to be fed, so agricultural production also had to increase. Stalin ordered the collectivisation of farming, a policy pursued intensely between 1929-33.
Collectivisation meant that peasants would work together on larger, supposedly more productive farms. Almost all the crops they produced would be given to the government at low prices to feed the industrial workers. Fewer workers were needed on these collective farms, so more peasants could become factory workers. By 1936, nearly all peasants had been moved into the collective farms.
In the drive to industrialise Stalin often adopted harsh methods. These methods included forced labour, punishments for those who failed to reach targets and the elimination of those who didn’t fit into his plans. Many kulaks (prosperous peasants) didn’t want to give up their own farms and resisted collectivisation, destroying their animals and equipment in protest. Millions were sent to prison camps. Stalin was able to enforce his power in the countryside and he got hold of the resources he needed to turn the Soviet Union into an industrial power
c. Use of Terror / Show Trials / Purges
Rapid industrialization and collectivization led to opposition. Stalin refused to allow this to halt the pace of his economic plans. He acted to reinforce his own power. Stalin's political opponents were arrested and given show trials before their execution. Many ordinary people were also imprisoned or executed, but few of these had a court trial.
Being accused was enough to convict the innocent as well as the guilty. For example, in March 1928 the NKVD (Stalin's secret police) announced they had found foreign spies in the Shakhty mines who were plotting to stop the mines reaching their targets. Fifty-five people were arrested. For the next two months, newspapers, cinemas and billboards all denounced these 'wreckers' and demanded that they be punished. There was no evidence to convict them, but they all confessed to being enemies of the people and 49 were sent to prison camps, five were shot and one was acquitted.
People lived in terror that some neighbour or co-worker would denounce them to the NKVD. They dared not protest. They became obedient workers. The arrest of other people gave them someone to blame, a scapegoat for the hardship they faced in their everyday lives.
III. Was industrialization a success? Modernization & Industrialization
Centralised decision-making under the Five Year Plans was not always the most efficient way to run an economy. However, particular successes were the improved supply of electricity and the greater number of machines built. Almost all heavy industries enjoyed substantial increases in production. There were many large-scale industrial and building developments, such as the Dneiper dam, the Moscow metro and the steelworks at Magnitogorsk, Gorky and Kutznetsk.
Basic Standard of Living
Life for many ordinary Russians improved after 1917. They had city housing schemes, universal health care, pensions and sickness benefits. From 1934 onwards, it was compulsory for children to receive eleven years of education. Illiteracy declined from about 50% in 1924 to 19% in 1939. The USSR was also largely free from the unemployment suffered in other countries during the 1930s depression.
Shortages in consumer goods
Much of the new wealth of the country was never seen by ordinary citizens. Most of it went to the government to pay for more industrialisation, as well as for military and police costs and the bureaucracy that kept control of the economy. There was little in the way of luxury consumer goods and sometimes there were shortages in the necessities.
The reforms of agriculture that went hand-in-hand with industrialisation actually harmed agricultural production. Collectivisation resulted in a famine in 1932-33, as well as the exile of uncooperative peasants to labour camps where they lived in terrible conditions. Maybe 10 million peasants died as a result of Stalin’s policies.
Harsh punishments / Use of Force
Were the means by which Stalin achieved his goals totally necessary? Does the end justify the means? …. Elaborate…..