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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.
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.
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
farms and killed their cattle in preference to handing them over to the government.
Stalin’s reacted harshly, accusing the kulaks of being a counter-revolutionary force.
As such, he decided to eliminate 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.
Because of the fall in agricultural production, the USSR was hit by famine in 193233. 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 the people. All grain was
confiscated by the state, and troops were stationed on the borders Ukraine’s borders,
to prevent people from leaving. The peasants were then left to starve. About 7 million
people died during the famine, 5 million of them 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 less damaging.
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 each, steel by 267 percent,
electricity by 540 percent, and chemicals rose by almost 1000 percent.
However, these successes were achieved by great sacrifices on the part of the
working class. Most production was of industrial 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. In fact, by 1937, living
standards 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.
For most workers, however, conditions were harsh. People were required to work
for seven days a week in many factories, and were not permitted to leave their jobs
without government permission. Internal passports were introduced as a means of
keeping controlling the movement of labour around the country. There were also
harsh penalties for breaches of labour discipline, such as damage to tools or theft of
state property.
For some, the conditions were even 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, performing some of the
hardest, most dangerous jobs in the country. Not surprisingly, many died of cold,
malnutrition, disease and overwork.
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 external attack. In
this he undoubtedly succeeded, but a terrible price was paid in terms of human lives.