How far did the achievements of Stalin’s economic modernisation programme justify the costs

Stalin once said the USSR was fifty to a hundred years behind the west: either the USSR caught up or they would be crushed. As a consequence an extremely rapid economic modernisation programme was introduced. Stalin succeeded brilliantly turning the USSR from a backward country to the leading world power. However this came at a severe cost of millions and millions of lives, at the outset it may seem clear that the achievements of modernisation do not justify the costs for the Soviet people. However without it the Allies might have lost the Second World War.The main attribute of the economic modernisation programme was Stalin’s five year plans. The first one began in December 1927 after the end of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (N.E.P.). This point is known as the start of the great turn where the direction of the Soviet economy changed towards a central planning ‘Command economy’. Many historians maintain that this is the point where communism ‘went wrong’ and that they now only left themselves to rule by tyranny and totalitarianism and where they would have been better off to continue with the N.E.P. Stephen Cohen suggests the USSR would have done better with the limited market economy of the 1920s, they accept the pace would have been slower but far fewer waste would have been produced.1 However this view is contradicted by R. W. Davies who suggests that N.E.P had limitations such as “serious unemployment and an unfavourable effect on other sectors of the economy, such as education and the railways”2 Davies believed that decision to begin a rapid industrialisation programme was made because of the political judgement of how essential it was for the USSR to increase their defences and establish a heavy industrial sector.Targets for the plans were set for industrial enterprises and were backed by law so failure to meet them was treated as a criminal offence acting as a very effective motivator. The first plan’s main emphasis was on heavy industry with electricity production trebled, coal and iron output doubled, steel increased by a third, huge new industrial complexes and tractor works were built. Stalin’s overall aim was to increase heavy industry by 300%! However, many historians have questioned the reliability of Soviet statistics.There was such fierce pressure on plants that managers were known to hi-jack lorries of materials destined for other plants so they would have the resources to meet targets.3 Also mistakes were covered up under the mass of paperwork because the only thing managers cared about was showing they met targets even if this was untrue; this led to the system showing that it was working where in fact this was not the case. The scapegoat for these shortcomings was the ‘bourgeois specialists’. They were accused of deliberately holding up supply and causing breakdowns. After many had been imprisoned and put on show trials it was apparent that the loss of so many valuable workers caused so many problems that Stalin ordered the offensive to be dropped.4 Overall though not all targets were met mainly because they were far too unrealistic, massive growth was achieved in certain sectors which led the way for further growth in Soviet Union. To add to this the western capitalist countries were suffering the effects of huge unemployment and economic recession.5The second five year plan was planned a lot better to ensure that the problems of shortages and miscalculations didn’t happen again. There were still many problems with it involving shortages and wastage but not anything like on the scale as the first plan. The second five year plan concentrated mainly on new industries such as communications and transport which grew rapidly however did still include some heavy industries. By the end of the second plan in 1937 the USSR was almost self sufficient in machine making and metal work. In the years 1934-36 known as the ‘three good years’ there was less pressure of industrialisation, and families had more disposable income.The third five year plan started in 1938 when the Soviet Union was experiencing a ‘slowdown’ in the economy where heavy industries almost stopped growing. It ended after only three and half years because of the German attack on the USSR. The main area focused on was armaments and defence with the increasing out look of the USSR being invaded. The other problems with the third five year plan were the shortage of qualified and experienced workers for the Gosplan because many had been killed due to the Purges. Overall the economic situation after the interruption of the third plan was even more chaotic with shortages and wastes. The whole three five year plans were known as the ‘planned economy’ this phrase is a entirely misleading as there was very basic planning if any. However Stalin had succeeded in industrialising the USSR in order to have a basis for a powerful arms industry.6In terms of contemporary Soviet historians the five year plans were a huge success but as David Evans says they were far less creditable due to the plans being affected by “Confusion, waste and inefficiency”7. Also due to the population increasing from 147 million to 170 million is a large factor to the rapid modernisation resulting from the extra labour available. The best explanation of the success of the five year plans I feel comes from Evans “If the success of the five year plans is to be measured against any immediate increase in the prosperity of the Russian people then they were a resounding failure. On the other hand it might be argued that millions had died and the people forced to endure hard labour, shortages m reduced living standards and the loss of personal liberties in order to create a better life for the future generations of Russians”.8The other main section of Stalin’s economic modernisation programme was collectivisation; however this was not an achievement because of the huge human and economic costs. It was started in mid-1929 for two reasons, firstly because it was part of Marxist theory that all land had to be owned by the state, with no private land being used to make profits on goods farmed there. The second reason was that Stalin wanted a platform to kick start the largest sector of the economy which was agriculture and he wanted this to assist the five year plans by providing enough food to feed the workers and providing surplus to sell to buy modern equipment to industrialise. Many historians see collectivisation as the most extreme and rapid part of Stalin’s modernisation programme. The idea of it was to make the agricultural sector more efficient by combining many small peasant farms to large state run collective farms (kolkhoz). This links in with theory of economies of scale and the use of modern machinery to increase production. In November 1929, Stalin wrote, ‘By the spring of 1930 we shall have 60,000 tractors in the field’.9 This vision of such rapid growth was completely unrealistic with this number of tractors not existing and nor even the factories to produce them.In order for collectivisation to be successful living standards throughout the Soviet Union would have to remain low to make sure that food prices did not rise. If the USSR could buy and then sell food (at a profit), money could be made to help finance industrialisation. Very few peasants actually joined the collective farms voluntarily because they would lose their equipment and land to the state, so on the 7th November 1929 Stalin ordered ‘mass-collectivisation’ which forced peasants to join the farms using military forces this continued through the winter of 1929-30. Stalin wanted the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class!”10 The kulaks were used as scapegoats for the grain shortages with many deported to ‘GULAGS’, shot on sight or forced to starve to death. There was resistance to ‘de-kulakisation’ however with kulaks burning their crops and slaughtering their animals as they would only lose them to the state anyway (there was 50% less livestock in 1932 than there was in 1928). Jerzy Karcz claims that Stalin actually helped the crisis by lowering payments for grain allowing meat prices to raise therefore encouraging peasants to switch from grain farming to livestock.11 The forced collectivisation was a political success in spring 1930 with 60% of peasants now on collective farms, this figure rose to 77% in June 1930 and 90% in 1936.12Soviet propaganda was used to cover up the failure with focusing on the intense hate-campaign against the ‘Kulaks’. There was an extreme human cost to collectivisation especially in Ukraine and Kazakhstan where there was mass famine, this was kept a secret to the world therefore tragically no foreign aid was received. To add to this, Kazakhstan was where greatest depletion of livestock occurred more than anywhere else in the USSR with high 80’s% of all livestock destroyed.13 “It was made an offence punishable by five years in prison simply to refer to it” (the denied famine)14. “Families died lying outside warehouses full of grain but under armed guard”15 Estimates of the deaths vary wildly and are impossible to verify as with all communist figures; a figure of five-million overall is a reasonable average.16 However Chris Ward has investigated the human cost and believes the figures could be as high as 20.1 million deaths including famine caused by collectivisation, de-kulakisation, gulags, collective drive, and terror.17Overall collectivisation was a disaster. Stalin confessed to Churchill that it had caused more damage to the Soviet Union than the German invasion. Urban workers could not manage collective farms. In 1932, the private plot allowance was given: half a hectare on which produce could be grown. It is no surprise that the peasants devoted all of their energy to their private plots and the barest minimum to the collectives. Therefore the majority of agricultural goods came from the peasant’s plots rather than the collective farms; furthermore it took until 1940 for grain to reach the 1914 level and took until 1953 for livestock to reach the pre-collectivisation levels. Additionally the peasants fared atrociously, even worse than the workers of the five year plans because of the mass numbers killed or sent to labour camps. Finally Stalin purposely caused a famine in the Ukraine to destroy the people there seeking independence from his rule; the result was that an estimated 7 million people starved to death in the area known as ‘the breadbasket’ of Europe, Stalin deprived these people of food that they had grown themselves!18 Simply no-one gained from collectivisation proving it was a complete failure.19Workers also suffered in the economic modernisation programme. At first many supported the plans with thousands of young workers volunteering to work on remote projects, they simply wanted a better society for them but mostly for their children.20 The conditions and pay of the collective farms were so bad in some places that peasants kept moving on to different factories and lodgings until they found the best of a bad bunch or whatever was left. “In the coal industry in 1930, the average worker moved jobs three times in a year”.21 This is supported by Oxley who states that average real pay in 1932 was only half of what it had been at the end of N.E.P because of rising inflation.22 However workers with skills or even semi-skilled were being sought by many factories and managers and therefore commanded higher wages and perks such as extra food rations, this is because less than 7% of the work force were skilled.As the USSR had little money in modern machinery most of the work had to be done by hand therefore needing millions of workers a figure that could not be met by volunteers. That’s why Stalin ordered forced labour to be introduced. Millions of ‘kulaks’ were used as a great part of the forced labour completely against their will, showing any lack of freedom and independence. Also ‘enemies of the state’ were used as forced labour comprising of various religious groups and former members of the bourgeoisie. They were transported all over the new industrial areas and had fewer rights and were treated worse than the volunteer workers. Workers were worked so hard that in order to receive another days food rations to survive they would have to work to their physical limits. Deaths were very frequent.Targets were set not just for factories and managers but even for individuals, Alexei Stakhanov became a model worker in 1935 when he miraculously cut 102 tonnes of coal in one shift, 14 times the average. He became known as a ‘Hero of Socialist Labour’ and propaganda encouraged all Soviet workers to be like Stakhanov. All over the USSR workers tried to emulate Alexei Stakhanov in every sector of the economy, and managers using it as an excuse to accuse workers of laziness. This shows the degree of propaganda that was used to trick peasants into working to death which can definitely be considered a human cost, J. P. Nettl talks about posters being issued in work places on which the names of the ‘slackers, doubters and ill-disposed persons’ could be publicised and therefore criticised by their work colleagues. “The achievement of plans and work norms has always dominated official propaganda”23Punishment was also used to motivate workers; it was common for workers to hear threats of labour camps if they didn’t work harder. Absenteeism was also almost completely removed with it being punishable by fine or removing the workers ration book. “In 1940 it carried a prison sentence”24. To add to this appalling treatment of the workers they were forced to carry labour books which outlined whether they had worked hard or not, anything but good comments could lead to prison, and with a prison sentence being 3 years or over the prisoners were sent to labour camps to provide cheap labour. Stalin adopted the view that it did not matter if prisoners and workers died working whether from excursion, starvation or the lack of health and safety with many workers dying in accidents, the only important factor Stalin was interested in was that the project was finished and finished on time.Further use of fear to maintain and increase progress was used upon managers and technicians with the failure to meet targets punishable by industrial trials. The only evidence in these trials (which were heavily published to act as a warning to the rest of the workers) was confessions but these were only given because of threats or ill treatment in prison. Another method of implementing fear was the use of the secret police. Firstly they restricted workers freedom by stopping those workers moving jobs because workers required internal passports and in order to receive one needed to register with the police. However, the police often refused out of fear for not meeting their production targets. This is again a human cost as it restricted the workers freedom and job opportunities.Overall the workers fared extremely poorly under the plans. Managers treated their workers extremely badly with dangerous conditions consequently accidents resulting in deaths were very common. The GULAG inmates were worked to death either by starvation or exhaustion. Workers had to work severely long hours at very low wages. Millions of ‘enemies of the state’ and ‘kulaks’ were used in order to fuel this industrialisation with them being treated as slaves. Ridiculous targets were set and punishments were often death for failure to meet them. Absenteeism and low productivity was made a criminal offence during these plans showing evidence of the absurdity of the nature of them. The five year plans had large focus on heavy industries, infrastructure and defence, consumer goods were simply overlooked as was the value of a human life as long as the project was finished that was the most important thing. Stalin saw this as a sacrifice that Russians had to make in order for the Soviets to catch up with the west and be prepared for a Second World War.In conclusion Stalin’s most admirable skill was his ability to predict the altering nature of the world, and his ability to understand that the USSR had to be fully prepared for war on a massive scale. Therefore I can understand historians who justify the human cost of Stalin’s economic modernisation programme; because without this rapid programme being in full swing by 1941, it seems very likely that the USSR would have been quickly overpowered by Nazi forces. In the 1930’s Stalin realised the ever increasingly likelihood of war and rapid modernisation was the only way for the USSR to survive it, therefore had to be achieved no matter what the human cost! Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people; but then the war killed even more, and even more would have died had the USSR been defeated.Stalin’s view of Machiavellianism (where the ends justify the means) clearly justifies the human cost of modernisation for the final result of the USSR claming victory in the Second World War. Furthermore turning the USSR from a backward country to a leading world power. This idea of Machiavellianism also explains Stalin’s view of individuals being unimportant compared to the state. This is supported by him saying “In order to make a good omelette you have to smash a few eggs”.From my western view I cannot justify the human sacrifices for the rapid economic modernisation programme. However Russian society is of such a different nature that individual rights do not matter to the same degree as in western society because there is more focus on the state. Evidence of this, is the support for Stalin on the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, held in Red Square in Moscow with many people holding Stalin portraits. So overall I feel that the achievements of Stalin’s economic modernisation programme did not justify the costs; but I do understand Russian historians who would disagree with me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top