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Explain how Russia and the Soviet Union modernised from the
Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 until 1941.
Despite its sometimes tortuous path, Russia’s economic development in the period
between 1917 and 1941 could be said to have been a qualified success. This is largely
due to the pragmatism of Lenin, whose New Economic Policy stabilised the nation
following the Civil War, and the determination of Stalin, whose industrialisation
program pushed Russia forward at a dizzying pace. Russia also modernised in many
other ways, with improvements in health, education, social welfare and the rights of
women. However, politically the country moved backwards under Stalin, as all
vestiges of democracy and free expression were squeezed from the system.
When the Bolsheviks first came to power, they had a clear idea of how to modernise
Russia socially. Among the first things they did was to introduce a series of reforms to
raise education levels, improve working conditions and better the plight of women.
However, economically they were relatively clueless. Their ideological mentor –
Marx – was of little help. He had assumed that socialist revolutions would occur in
nations that were already fully industrialised; socialism would merely redistribute the
wealth those industries had created.
To make matters worse, Russia was convulsed in civil war before the Bolsheviks
had the opportunity to put any new ideas into effect. Hence, by 1921, the economy
was in a worse state than it had been at the end of the Great War – and much worse
than it had been in 1913. The Bolsheviks found themselves having to rebuild what
had been destroyed before they could even think about a strategy to achieve
The system Lenin devised to facilitate recovery was the New Economic Policy
(NEP). It essentially involved a mixed economy under state supervision. At its core
was a system of rural capitalism, in which peasants gave 10 percent of their produce
to the government, but could sell the rest on the market. To maximise output, rich
peasants (kulaks) were even allowed to hire labourers. In industry, there was some
central planning, but production was carried out in state, private and cooperative
The new system produced immediate results. The incentives offered to the peasants
persuaded them to increase agricultural production – so much so that by 1925, output
had returned to 1913 levels. Industrial production rose less rapidly than agricultural
output (because most Russian industries were not subject to the NEP reforms), but
still increased sufficiently to allow GDP to surpass its pre-war level by 1928.
Despite these impressive results, it was clear by the late 1920s that NEP would not
produce rapid industrialisation. The Bolshevik leaders faced a choice: continue with
Lenin’s policy, and accept a lower rate of growth and an economy based on rural
capitalism; or pursue a more radical policy, which would deliver higher rates of
growth and a purely socialist system. This policy choice coincided with Stalin’s final
victory in the leadership struggle. For economic, political and ideological reasons, the
general secretary chose the radical path.
Stalin’s economic program was based on the replacement of NEP with command
socialism, under which all industry was nationalised and market mechanisms replaced
by a series of five year plans. Imports were reduced to a bare minimum – mainly
capital equipment – and almost all the nation's resources were concentrated on heavy
industry. This meant extracting very high agricultural surpluses from the peasantry – a
development which provoked widespread opposition. Stalin dealt with this by
collectivising all the land, and unleashing a reign of police terror against all those who
opposed his policies.
As Stalin predicted, the three Five Year Plans were spectacularly successful,
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
each, steel by 267 percent, electricity by 540 percent, and chemicals rose by almost
1000 percent.
These spectacular increases in industrial output were the product of three main factors: the vast investment in science and technology undertaken during the 1930s; the
achievement of economies of scale, utilising relatively unsophisticated technologies
(which could be acquired from abroad); and the decision not to emphasise consumer
goods, which allowed investment spending to reach extremely high levels.
By the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet economy had grown to the
point where Russia was out-producing all other nations in terms of military
equipment. It was this productive capacity that enabled the USSR to withstand the
Nazi onslaught, and achieve victory in 1945.
Even so, Stalin’s achievements came at a terrible price. Economically, the Soviet
people suffered from serious shortages of consumer goods. It was difficult to obtain
even the most basic of household items, like kitchen utensils or formal clothes. In
addition, agricultural production failed to keep pace with the rest of the economy,
mainly as a result of the inefficiencies of collectivisation. Indeed, farm output at the
time of Stalin’s death (1953) was barely above its 1928 level. Socially, some of the
reforms introduced by Lenin were reversed under Stalin. In particular, divorce laws
were tightened and abortion was banned. Although women were still encouraged to
work, they were now expected to devote themselves primarily to the family. As a
result, married women often found themselves with two jobs – one in the workforce
and one at home (housework). Politically, Stalin eliminated all democratic processes
within the Party and replaced them with a brutal dictatorship which enforced a rigid
conformity upon society. Finally, in human terms, the impact of ‘modernisation’ was
appalling, with up to 20 million people dying through execution, starvation or being
worked to death in labour camps.
Hence it can be seen that, despite the chaos caused by the Civil War, collectivisation
and the purges, the Soviet Union had achieved considerable success in its quest for
modernisation by 1941. It did this as a result of the Lenin’s NEP, which rebuilt the
economy after the ravages of two major wars, and Stalin’s Five Year Plans, which
mobilised the nation and concentrated resources on the industrial sector of the