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‘Stalin’s Five Year Plans and the policy of collectivisation failed to improve the Soviet
economy by 1941.’ Discuss.
Stalin’s Five-Year Plans are widely considered among historians to be the blueprint for
Russia’s second revolution; its objective was to make the USSR an entirely sufficient military
and industrial power through rapid collectivisation and industrialisation, as well as to ‘undo’
all traces of capitalism that emerged under former Bolshevik and revolutionary Vladimir
Lenin’s New Economic Policy of 1921. Stalin believed that Russia was “50 to 100 years
behind the advanced countries” pushing him towards breakneck industrialization and
collectivisation through the use of force. The first Five-Year Plan - often called a ‘revolution
from above’ due to major political and industrial changes being forced onto the population by
Stalin rather than gradually accepted and absorbed - occurred between the years 1928-33. The
first Five-Year Plan saw immense growth with a 250 percent increase in overall industrial
development and a 330 percent expansion in heavy industry alone; therefore encouraging
Stalin to impose the second Five-Year Plan (1933-7) without hesitation. The third Five Year
Plan only lasted three and a half years (1937-41) as it was interrupted by German
invasion/Operation Barbarossa in 1941, and Stalin’s ambitions for industrial growth were
redirected to the production of weapons to help win what he called the ‘Patriotic War’.
Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan was launched in 1928 until 1932/3 and called for rapid
industrialization of the economy. Though this plan is widely considered a ‘revolution from
above’ among historians, historians such as Stephen J. Lee argued that there were social
pressures outside of Stalin’s own influence that led to Stalin emphasising heavy industry and
armaments. There was tension between agricultural peasants and those working in industry,
so Stalin may have felt the need to accommodate for both working-class groups alongside his
desire to develop the Soviet economy ‘on to a war footing’ (Lee, Stephen). The goals set
were extremely unrealistic, with aims for a 250 percent increase in overall industrial
development and a 330 percent expansion in heavy industry alone. The first Five-Year Plan
was a huge economic success, with coal production increasing by sixfold and steel production
by fourfold; coal increased from 35.4 million tons to 64.3m tons, and steel rose from 4 to 18
million tons between 1928 and 1933. However, to maintain the huge increase in production,
the protection and quality of life of workers was ultimately sacrificed. Huge dormitories were
established for industrial workers however the immense pressure on industrialisation meant
that accommodation was extremely overcrowded and filled with squalor. The economic
system which emphasises the protection of workers as one of its core beliefs was now being
manipulated to harm workers in attempts to disintegrate the NEP system and any leniency to
capitalism under it. Over 100,000 workers died between the years 1931-3. Additionally,
despite the economic successes of the first Five-Year Plan, it is not safe to say that economic
success under this plan was consistent. The overwhelming focus on heavy industry resulted in
industries such as textiles, housing and other consumer industries plummeting. This only
made life more difficult for consumers and workers, and lack of motivation to work further
weakened the economy due to mass worker absenteeism.
Alongside rapid industrial growth, Stalin utilised the first Five-Year Plan to reverse the
effects of Lenin’s New Economic Policy; this included a mixed economy that allowed
peasants to profit from selling their grain. Stalin viewed agricultural collectivisation as
essential to eliminating the mixed market economy and achieving great economic
transformation. Collectivisation was initially promoted through propaganda but not enforced,
however according to historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, many peasants were not willing to give up
their farms and livestock. This only encouraged Stalin to resort to force, and 100 million
farmers were forced into collectivisation. The proportion of collective holdings increased
from 23.6 percent in 1931 to 66.4 percent in 1933, and grain collection rose from 10.8 million
tons in 1929 to 22.8 million tons in 1932. However, due to the pre-existing economic systems
of the NEP, Stalin and local officials could not manage the collectivisation process without
getting confused, and according to Stephen J. Lee, the result was ‘administrative chaos.’ Not
only was productivity significantly diminished, but defiance increased. Between 1928 and
1932, sheep and goats declined from 146 million to 42 million; some historians argue that
this was self-induced by peasants as a form of deliberate defiance against collectivisation.
Food production consequently reduced - both due to defiance and Stalin’s focus on
industrialisation over grain production - and during the years 1932-3 Ukraine experienced a
major famine. About 10 million people died of starvation, and a particular enmity was
exacerbated onto the wealthier peasants/kulaks, with over one million kulak households
(around five million people) being deported. Overall, the first Five-Year Plan’s impact on
agricultural productivity and collectivisation was catastrophic, as Stalin’s use of rapid force
and distortion of policies only resulted in a constant fluctuation between agricultural growth
and loss, and inevitably resulted in the loss of millions of lives.
The second Five-Year Plan (1933-8) behaved as a consolidation of the problems caused by
the first Five-Year Plan. Forced collectivisation under the first Five-Year Plan eventually led
to rationing, food shortages and famine, and the railway system in place wasn’t able to
endure the increase in traffic due to millions of workers constantly moving around. The
second Five Year Plan therefore concentrated on water, road and rail transport to increase
worker determination and morale. Successes under the second plan can be mainly attributed
to the completion of economic projects under the first Five-Year Plan; the construction of
industrial city Magnitokorsk and the Dnieper Dam under the first plan meant that steel
production and water transportation was already established. There were significant gains,
particularly between the years 1934-6, in machinery, chemicals and metallurgy. The second
Five-Year Plan witnessed gross agricultural production increase by just under 54 percent,
while gross industrial production doubled. However, though the initial aims of the plan were
to alleviate the conditions of consumers, there were still problems of shortages and lack of
consumer goods due to Stalin’s fixation on heavy industry. The plan ultimately did not
achieve its intentions of providing for consumers, other than ‘some gain in textiles and the
opening of a few bakeries.’ It is also important to note that the second Five-Year Plan was
occuring at the same time as the campaign of political oppression and terror known as the
Great Purge of 1938-8 - while Stalin was attempting to boost the economy, he was also
eliminating valuable personnel and causing panic among workers and everyday civilians. The
fear of failure and execution potentially led to mistakes under the second Five-Year Plan
being covered up.
The third Five-Year Plan of 1938-41 set ambitious targets for industrial growth; Stalin aimed
to achieve a 92 percent growth for industrial output, 58 percent for steel, and 129 percent in
machinery and engineering. This was particularly due to the growing threat of war eventually actualising as World War II emerged a year later - as well as Stalin’s desire to
maintain Soviet Russia’s status as a global superpower. By 1938, the USSR was above
Britain and Germany in industrial output. There were localised improvements under the third
plan, with rationing in Russia ending and free medicine/education becoming available to
more of the population. However, any economic growth was inevitably crushed by the
outbreak of war - especially Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941,
which is what eventually led to the plan’s termination after 3 and a half years rather than 5.
Targets for industrial growth were diverted to the production of weapons and other
armaments, and so consumer growth remained very slow. Oil production failed to reach its
targets and there was even a fuel crisis under the plan. The third Five-Year Plan was therefore
unsuccessful in advancing the Soviet economy.
In conclusion, Stalin’s Five-Year Plans were able to make Soviet Russia a global superpower
and on the same level as top industries worldwide, however the policy of collectivisation
resulted in extreme worker defiance and uncontrollable failure, leading to millions especially kulaks - deported, starved and killed. There were arguably many more victims of
Stalin’s plans than there were benefiters, with long-term impacts on the civilians. R.W.
Davies noted ‘in 1947 at least a million people died of starvation and diseases related to
malnutrition’ which could be attributed to the mass starvation that occurred under the process
of collectivisation. Other economic successes of the Five-Year Plan were eventually
overshadowed by the outbreak of war, and the USSR never reached a point of stability in
which all its industries were prospering under Stalin’s Five-Year Plans. It is also evident that
Stalin’s purges - implemented to discipline the Soviet population from opposition towards
Stalin - negatively affected the ability for the Five-Year Plans to boost the economy, as
skilled workers and valuable personnel were either not present or too fearful to admit failures.