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How did collectivisation and industrialisation affect the lives of
people in the Soviet Union during the 1930s?
Collectivisation and industrialisation had profound effects on the lives of people in
the USSR during the 1930s. While industrialisation was beneficial for the nation as a
whole, few workers saw its benefits during the years of Stalin’s rule. Collectivisation,
on the other hand, had disastrous consequences for the peasants – in the short-term at
least – particularly for the wealthier ones, the so-called kulaks.
Collectivisation involved the elimination of private ownership of agricultural land,
and its replacement with a system of state-owned and collectively-owned farms.
Stalin hoped it would raise production, by consolidating small plots of land into large
estates where tractors and other types of farm machinery could be used more
effectively. He also hoped it would hastened the march to socialism by eliminating
capitalism in the countryside.
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 – not surprising, when one
considered that land reform was one of the Bolsheviks’ key promises in 1917.
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 the
battle, 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 being in the Ukraine.
Total agricultural production did not recover to the 1928 level until 1938.
While collectivisation had a disastrous effect on the lives of large numbers of
Russians, the impact of industrialisation was more ambiguous.
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.
However, these successes were achieved by great sacrifices on the part of the
working class. Most production was of capital goods, and did not raise living
standards of the common people. Similarly, wages were kept in check in order to
generate the high savings needed to finance investment. And even where workers did
have money to spend, there was little to buy in the shops. Money simply had to be
banked, where it could be used to finance further investment. Hence, by 1937 living
standards (as measured by the availability of consumer goods) were lower than they
had been in 1928. Even so, the more productive workers were rewarded with higher
wages, bonuses or special privileges; their living standards did rise. So too did the
quality of life of the 17 million peasants who moved to the cities to find work in the
factories. They were now allocated apartments which, though small, were far superior
to anything they had experienced before.
Working conditions, however, were harsh. People were required to labour for seven
days a week in many factories, and were not permitted to leave their jobs without
permission. Internal passports were introduced as a means of controlling the
movement of labour around the country. There were also harsh penalties for breaches
of discipline, such as damage to tools or theft of state property.
For some, the conditions were far worse. These were the inmates of the labour
camps, who were forced to work for only their daily ration of food. During the 1930s,
there were 8 million people working as slave labourers at any one time, performing
some of the hardest, most dangerous jobs in the country like logging and mining. Not
surprisingly, many died of cold, malnutrition, disease and overwork.
Hence, both industrialisation and collectivisation had profound effects on the lives
of workers and peasants during the 1930s. Both were part of Stalin’s program to build
a strong, developed, socialist nation that could defend itself against attack. In this he
undoubtedly succeeded, but a terrible price was paid in terms of lives.