07 — Stalin’s economic policies pt 1

Study Overview

  1. The state of the USSR in 1924: the power struggle after Lenin’s death, and Stalin’s victory
  2. Economic policies: collectivisation and the Five Year Plans
  3. State control: the purges and the cult of personality
  4. Daily life in Stalin’s USSR
  5. The Soviet experience of WW2, and how it shaped the USSR after the war

Rapid Industrialisation and the Five Year Plans

In this unit:

  1. Nyet to the NEP, Da to Industrialisation (The reasons for rapid industrialisation)
  2. Building Stalin’s Dream (The processes of rapid industrialisation)
  3. Assessing the Fruits of Industrialisation (successes and failures of rapid industrialisation)

Questions to consider

  1. Why did Stalin support rapid industrialisation by 1928?
  2. How far do you agree that this was a pragmatic, political move by Stalin? 
  3. How successful were the Five Year Plans in industrialising the USSR by 1941?

Warmup what were the characteristics of the Five Year Plans, according to the following posters? 

Soviet poster, 1930. The caption reads “Complete the Five Year Plan in Four!” To the right, enemies of the state are trying to stop the train

Soviet poster, 1930, titled Congratulations. Note the factory on the right, and the mechanised farm on the left

Soviet poster, 1928. The red pamphlet at the top reads “Five Year Plan” while the man in the hat says “Fantasy, nonsense, utopia.” The banner below him reads “Industrialisation, collectivisation of farms”Soviet poster, 1931. The caption on the giant 5 reads Victory of the Five Year Plan”, while the caption at the bottom reads “A blow to capitalism”. Note the men crushed by the giant 5

Nyet to the NEP, Da to Industrialisation

By the late 1920s the NEP was increasingly seen as an ineffective policy within the Party, which greatly helped Stalin when he turned on Bukharin and the right wing (who were NEP supporters). Even as early as 1927 there seemed to be good reasons to pursue rapid industrialisation, since the NEP:

  1. Was a capitalist idea! The NEP was only ever meant as a temporary compromise with capitalism as the USSR recovered from the ruinous Russian Civil War; but now that the NEP was failing to revitalise the country, and what’s worse, had created a despised class of bourgeois experts and businessmen (Nepmen), more and more Party members supported rapid industrialisation as an alternative; this could also take the country one step closer to communism (which required industrialisation)
  2. Had failed to strengthen the economy. The Soviet economy in 1928 was not even back up to pre-October Revolution levels, nevermind pre-WW1 levels; if the capitalist-style elements of the NEP (eg private ownership of businesses, private sale of grain) had failed to achieve economic recovery and growth, and had even resulted in high unemployment, maybe an alternative might succeed?
  3. Was not making the USSR secure in a hostile world. The Soviets had never forgotten how the armies of the capitalist great powers had intervened in the Russian Civil War; then in 1927, a brief invasion scare hit the country. This proved to be a false alarm, but it did highlight the woeful backwardness of the USSR’s armaments industry (especially compared to those of the industrialised great powers), vital in wartime. Rapid industrialisation would be needed to remedy this quickly

Stalin made use of this sentiment for his own political goal of eliminating Bukharin and the Party right wing, and securing the Party leadership. Having done this, he began in 1928 to speak of a Second Revolution, this time of quickly industrialising the country. This shrewd move not only placed him on a par with Lenin (leader of the October Revolution) but also consolidated Stalin’s position, portraying his reign as a fresh start; none of his opponents dared voice any opposition. The USSR would now embark on her first Five Year Plan as she raced toward industrialisation

Building Stalin’s Dream

The key method to achieving rapid industrialisation was the Five Year Plan, a five-year project on a national scale that was designed to boost all areas of production, with a special focus on heavy industry production. The USSR completed three Five Year Plans from 1928-41, the third one cut short by the Nazi German invasion of 1941, while two more were completed after WW2. Several key features of the Five Year Plans stand out:

  • Gosplan and the command economy — In keeping with Lenin’s Marxist vision, the USSR now operated under a command economy: Gosplan would set overall production targets for each industry in the USSR, which would be divided and filtered down through regions, organisations, and managers, until they were handed to the workers themselves. In this way, the state commanded and oversaw all areas of production. In keeping with Stalin’s vision, heavy industry (especially coal, oil, and steel) was prioritised, while light industry (especially textiles) and consumer goods production were neglected
  • Special workers — Many ordinary citizens ardently supported Stalin’s vision for an industrialised USSR: the Communist youth group (Komsomol) sent work brigades on difficult construction projects, women were encouraged to work while their children were sent to state-run nurseries, and shock worker teams were assigned to the most difficult and urgent projects.
    The Stakhanovite movement also received much publicity, inspired by Alexei Stakhanov, a legendarily productive coal miner. Stakhanov received handsome rewards from the state for his quota-busting work, and workers who followed his example (Stakhanovites) were promised the same; in time however Stakhanovites were seen more as pushy tryhards than committed workers

Soviet poster, date unknown. Captions read: “Join today! Want to beat the cold? Beat hunger? Want to eat? Want to drink? Hurry up and join the shock workers!”

Soviet poster, 1935. The caption reads “Work like Stakhanov!” In 1985 a Soviet official claimed that Stakhanov’s achievements had only been possible because of newly developed mining methods, not necessarily because of Stakhanov himself

Nursery at a state-run farm, 1931
  • Forced labour — Many of the Five Year Plans’ greatest achievements were made possible by forced labour from hundreds of thousands of prisoners, including many political prisoners and former peasants in the Gulag. Forced labour was used extensively for dangerous and backbreaking work, especially mining, and highway and railroad construction; it was also heavily used for grand projects such as the construction of the Moscow Canal, White Sea-Baltic Canal, and Magnitogorsk. During the Third Five Year Plan, forced labour was also directed at manufacturing armaments. Forced labourers were unpaid, lived in squalid, miserable conditions, and were usually given only the bare minimum of rations (often less, resulting in many deaths from abuse, malnutrition, and exhaustion)


“There are cases when a prisoner is given only four or five hours out of twenty-four for rest, which significantly lowers his productivity.”
— Gulag official, date unknown (1930s?)

Assessing the Fruits of Industrialisation

First Five Year Plan (1928-32)Focused on heavy industry, especially coal, iron, and steel; marred by mismanagement, poor production quality, and decline in living standards
Second Five Year Plan (1933-37)Further developed heavy industry; made advances in chemicals industry and key infrastructure (eg. railways and transport networks)
Third Five Year Plan (1938-41)Focused on heavy industry and armaments; marred by Stalin’s purges (which removed experienced managers), cut short by German invasion

The Five Year Plans mobilised the Soviet people on an unprecedented scale, harnessing talent and labour from the highest state and Party officials to the lowliest forced labourers. The Plans produced impressive results overall — at staggering cost in human suffering — though they were also marred by several key failures. By 1941 one could say Stalin’s dream of an industrialised USSR had been achieved. Was it worth it? Millions had suffered and died in the name of rapid industrialisation, though arguably it was rapid industrialisation that allowed the USSR to survive the Nazi German onslaught in 1941, and prevent a nightmarish occupation

Successes of the FYPs
  • The mass mobilisation of labour enlarged the working class and almost eliminated unemployment, as everyone (including prisoners and Gulag inmates) was harnessed to work toward the FYPs’ goals

  • Enthusiastic and productive workers were handsomely rewarded by the state, the Stakhanovites and shock workers in particular

  • Women enjoyed a (small) raise in status as they too were mobilised to work; though the state provided childcare services to support them, women were often simply forced to do double duty as workers and housewives

  • Urbanisation took place at breakneck speed as cities and towns (to support factories) were built en masse to meet the demands of the FYPs

  • Impressive results (on paper) were achieved in heavy industry, with coal, steel, and electricity production multiplying several fold from 1927-40, and oil production more than doubling

  • Infrastructure such as roads, canals, and railways were greatly improved (though overall the country’s infrastructure was underdeveloped)

  • Truly impressive Great Construction Projects of Communism were built to showcase the efforts of the Soviet people, including several key infrastructure projects (eg. the Moscow Canal). Eventually gigantomania gripped the Soviet imagination, encouraging ever grander (and costlier) construction projects

  • The FYPs helped the USSR build a modernised armaments industry. This allowed her to not only survive the German invasion of 1941, but to ultimately defeat Germany in WW2
  • Failures of the FYPs
  • Living standards sharply declined as light industry and consumer goods production were neglected, creating goods shortages; workers often faced very long working hours with little rest time; the influx of rural labour into the cities created serious urban overcrowding and the need for internal passports. Forced labour was also used on a massive scale, resulting in tens of thousands of work-related deaths 

  • Mismanagement: the rigid command economy (directed by Gosplan) resulted in a lot of wasted production; transporting and storing goods was made difficult by underdeveloped infrastructure 

  • Corruption: Gosplan often had a poor grasp of the realities of production, and set unrealistically high quotas; as a result officials and managers often turned to bribery to satisfy their superiors, or stole supplies to meet quotas. Or they might overreport production figures and cover up failures — this was done on a massive scale from the foremen on the ground to Gosplan officials, resulting in misleading and inaccurate national production figures

  • Recordmania (encouraged by the state) gripped many workers as they tried to outproduce each other and earn rewards — the Stakhanovites were infamous for this. In time this had a destabilising effect on the workforce, resulting in conflict, corruption, and overreporting

  • Often subpar production quality as recordmania, long working hours, and unrealistic quotas created a ‘quantity over quality’ mindset; as a result many of the goods produced during the FYPs were of mediocre to poor quality
  • The successes (and failures) of the FYPs were however only one of the two legs of Stalin’s economic policy. The second leg, the collectivisation of the USSR’s agriculture, would see similar breakthroughs and horror.

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