“Stalin transformed the Soviet Union from a backward country into a strong modern state but the price of this was misery for the Soviet people.” How accurate is this view of Stalin’s rule of the USSR between 1928 and 1941?
This statement about Stalin’s ruling of the USSR between the years 1928 and 1941 is more than just black and white. The preceding social influences of the Communist Party, coupled with the practical side of putting all of these ideas into use caused an extremely complex situation. Stalin’s ideas benefited some, greatly disadvantaged others and completely changed the way the USSR was run and how all sectors of public life were organised. In the process of ascertaining how important each of the factors such as the industrial base, the agricultural system and control of society, a view of Stalinist rule between these years is created. The issues that affected Stalin’s rule and decisions are more numerable than simply the welfare of the Soviet people.
Undertaking the task of analysing Stalin’s regime in this period of 13 years is not an easy feat. There are a broad range of subjects and ideas to comprehend and attempt to convey to begin to understand the overall view of Stalinist Russia. A logical starting point for the consideration of Stalin’s actions as he sought to drag the Soviet Union into a position where it stood amongst equals on the international stage is the impact of Stalin’s rule when compared to the wider history of Russia. In the beginning, five years into the new 20th Century was the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. The Tsar’s trial of ruling Russia as an autocracy failed, but in the future, Stalin would succeed where he failed. A figure always closely linked to any of Stalin’s actions is Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik movement that took control of Russia in late 1917. Lenin, as the leader of the Bolshevik’s, laid many of the foundations on which Stalin built upon in his time in control of Russia. The Bolshevik’s quashed Russia’s involvement in the First World War and also the subsequent insurrection of the White army before introducing the New Economic Policy. The NEP is the main groundwork that Stalin took and based his Five Year Plans on, as Lenin managed to bring about increases in all of the raw materials that were necessary to the revival of Russia.
Taken from this base, ignoring all of the repercussions of the actions of Stalin, it is quite clear that Stalin did indeed advance Russia’s socio-economic development a significant amount. In Stalin’s period of control between 1928 and 1941, there was the most increase in all major materials such as grain, steel, iron ore, coal and oil. Conversely, removing the objective view of what Stalin achieved through his methods, the results of his work seem appalling. Stalin’s method of bringing Russia up to speed with other dominant countries of the world led to the most deaths and the highest amount of famine than in any other ruler’s time. The biggest question any historian is faced with is; did the ends justify the means in Stalin’s case? Looking separately at both overall achievement and price of progress, the position of Stalin in the context of wider Russian history seems to support the statement made about success at the cost of misery for the population.
Furthermore, the effects of Stalin’s policies for industry, agriculture and how these policies relate to the state of each of these core areas pre-Stalin that is important in finding out how successful the plans made for Russia were. As stated, taking the basic idea that Stalin caused an increase in the USSR’s industrial output, it is plain that the Five Year Plans had a positive influence. In 1933, when the results of the first Five Year Plan were assessed, it was seen that all of the major industrial areas had seen an increase, electricity output more than doubled in this first five years. Although the results of the first plan did not meet the targets set by the Communist Party, the increase was dramatic. Perhaps the targets had been set unrealistically high, but the industrial area had leapt up in sheer amount of production. The Communist industrial work ethic was highlighted by the reported “true” story of Alexei Stakhanov. It was reported in national newspapers (controlled by the Government) that Stakhanov had shifted 102 tons of coal in one shift, apparently 14 times that a regular man would move.
This example of heroism and Stakhanov’s subsequent use as a guiding light to all Russian workers is just an example of what the Government aimed to get out of the workers at the end of the first Five Year Plan. Corollary, for the industrial situation to improve, Stalin needed more workers and to have more workers Russia needed to produce more food. In order to produce the amount of grain needed for this concentrated upheaval of industrial Russia, the farming system was forced to change from a selection of individual farms to a series of collective farms where land, equipment and workers were pooled together for the greater good of Communism. Taken at face value, the bulk of grain produced did indeed increase rapidly, but at great expense to the Russian people. Stalin wanted the USSR to produce enough grain to feed itself, and enough surplus grain to export to other countries to maximise the amount of money flowing into the Russian economy. Problems aside however, Stalin did in fact achieve what he set out to do in respect to increasing industrial output and agricultural production. The USSR was well on its way to being on level footing with international superpowers as far as industry and import/export was concerned.
The overall increase in production in both industrial and agricultural sectors inevitably came at a price. The effects of Stalin’s policies on the people of the USSR were profound. Under the Bolshevik’s New Economic Policy as a replacement for War Communism the peasant’s were doing extremely well. They had enough grain for themselves and their family, and could sell part of their grain for profit. At the end of all that the Government brought about, the quality of life the average Russian citizen was much reduced. Although the country was produced far more steel and iron, each household had become progressively poorer, as collective farms had taken away personal grain stores and belongings and given them to the people. Also, in urban areas of the USSR factory workers had experienced a decline in their working lives. When the Government set targets for the nation to meet at the end of five years, these targets were sub-divided into regions, towns, factories, shifts and sometimes individual workers. This led to an immense amount of pressure being placed upon a factory to perform, and on each individual worker to meet his target. Workers that did not meet their targets or failed to work a full amount of time in a factory were dealt with severely. First offence of absenteeism was heavily punished with fines, loss of ration cards and/or dismissal. The punishment for a second offence was prison and a forced labour camp.
These unrealistic pressures that were placed upon factories and factory managers led to a great deal of things. Morale sunk lower and lower as targets were consistently not met, and many goods were ruined through over-speeding the work on them. Hurried work by unskilled workers could also wreck machinery in factories. Times like these led many factories to invent their production figures and dramatically inflate the amount that their factory was contributing. Looking back to collectivisation and its effect on different people, it is immediately obvious that some people benefited from collective farming whilst others lost everything. Those who had very little in the ways of land and machinery stood to gain the most from collectivisation as the poorest peasant would receive the same as the richest kulak in a collective farm. The kulaks were the better off farmers, either those that had prospered from generation to generation, or those who were the most efficient farmers who worked hardest. These people were especially opposed to collectivisation as they stood to lose the most from it. Often farms would seize all a kulak had and use it to form the base for a new collective farm. When the peasants, especially the kulaks believed that they stood to lose everything from collective farming, they started to burn their crops and slaughter their livestock, preferring to destroy and eat their possessions rather than let the state take them. As a result of this, Stalin started what was called dekukalisation.
This consisted of developing class-hatred of such ferocity that kulaks were believed to be unclean and disgusting. Often entire families of kulaks had all of their possessions stripped from them and were deported far away from their village. The kulaks were used as scapegoats by Stalin and were blamed for everything that went wrong in collectivisation. People were denouncing fellow villagers as kulaks all over Russia, with children being encouraged to inform on their own parents in order to liquidate the kulaks as a class. The reason for all of these methods of enforcing collectivisation was that Stalin simply could not afford to keep agriculture as it was. Collectivisation was so urgent to him because of the food crisis of the 1920’s and because he was tired of the yearly struggle to collect grain that was desperately needed to feed the workers and to pay for the programme of industrialisation. Stalin needed the grain to feed the workers and he needed the workers to keep the industrial side of the USSR expanding. Because of this, collectivisation was the most important part of Stalin’s drastic remodelling of Russia, which was why he sanctioned so much brutality to and killings of the kulaks as a class.
A contra-argument to all of these negative points about Stalin’s plans and collectivisation would be showing who stood to gain from his overhaul of the industrial and agricultural system. Even though there were many who suffered terribly as a result of Stalin’s plans, there were some people who benefited. Firstly, the role of women in Russia was markedly raised during all of this as a result of Stalin and his ideas. Women were employed in construction and in factories, and were overall on a much more even-footing with their male counterparts as a direct result of Stalin’s policies. Also, contrasting the punishments that were handed out to those who were absent or did not meet their target, workers or managers who excelled were richly rewarded. The Stakhanovite Movement was a system where great individual feats in factories were widely reported in the press and Stakhanovites were rewarded well. The Stakhanovite Movement, named after the original extreme worker Alexei Stakhanov, caused deep unrest amongst other workers though, as these ‘heroic’ workers could push up individual targets and increase the amount of work each person was supposed to do each day.
The words “misery for the Soviet people” are incredibly emotive and strong ones. They also imply that all of the Soviet people were unhappy during Stalin’s regime. There are certainly several arguments for and against that statement, but nevertheless during Stalin’s autocracy he was loved and worshipped in an almost God-like capacity. There are many possible factors that could have contributed toward this; propaganda, terror tactics or a genuine love of the leader to name but a few. Throughout his plans for the empowerment of the USSR Stalin believed he needed to be the sole chief and he wished to be adored by his public for being that chief. He set into motion a huge propaganda campaign, comprising of censorship of those who would make him seem less important, and pride of place being awarded to his supporters. For example Stalin commissioned several paintings to be drawn of him, his deeds and the Soviet people. They portrayed Stalin as a wise and benevolent ruler who was in tune with his nation and was dearly loved for what he was doing for the good of Russia. Also, because Lenin had been raised atop a mountainous social plinth of respect posthumously, Stalin ordered and doctored photographs and paintings of himself and Lenin.
These appeared to show the two side by side, approaching things in the same way and holding the same beliefs. Although this could not have been further from the truth, Lenin actually having all but decreed Stalin should not take over the Communist Party, the pictures that public saw created an impression that Stalin was carrying on Lenin’s great work. There were always a number of people in the USSR who opposed Stalin, and who disagreed with what he said or did. Many peasants for example hated the idea of collectivisation and spoke out and demonstrated their contempt for Stalin. On them he used terror tactics, threats and promises to harm relatives and farms in order for them to declare their love for the state and specifically for him. There was a whole new generation of Russians however that were learning in school and were being brought up to love and respect Stalin. These children would have genuinely loved the man that they believed was acting in the best wishes of the USSR and would help create a better country for them all. This ideal was shared by many youngsters and was a main reason in many who volunteered to work in the harshest of conditions in the most dangerous of jobs. They believed that Stalin shared their view of creating a better country for their children to live in.
Strangely, it could be argued that Stalin’s actions in being so insistent upon building up an army and the means with which to fight a war could have prevented a great amount of loss of territory and honour for Russia. It is difficult to say whether the USSR would have had the means or the equipment necessary to defeat the Nazi’s were it not for the supplies and armaments built up at Stalin’s explicit command. As it was, with the industry of Russia being so in tune with preparation for war before engaging the Nazi’s, Stalin had in fact saved Russia from a great deal of harm and loss to the economy and to the population. This is definitely a point in favour of Stalin’s decisions, but whether or not the saving of the amount of lives in the war could justify the extent to which the Russian population was decimated in the famines created by collectivisation is debateable. Although highly dubious before the war, Stalin’s policy of building up enough weaponry to protect Russia paid off and was undoubtedly one of the major successes of his policies.
Even after all that Stalin was responsible for, some Russian people today look back on his days in power with something approaching nostalgia. I believe that these people would have been the children of the workers on sites such as Magnitogorsk. I think this as the childcare facilities and living conditions in the newly pieced together ‘towns’ found at major construction sites offered unrivalled opportunity at the time. These people would have been young enough to think that the little amount of freedom they had regarding crï¿½ches and the shops of each blocks apartment store as luxuries. Indeed, compared to the squalor of urban areas the living quarters of industrial sites such as the one at Magnitogorsk would have been considered the epitome of comfort. Also, if the child was in education at the time of Stalin’s control of the USSR they would have been brought up and taught to love and respect Stalin. Stalin and the Communist party altered history so that it suited them, and gave reports that magnified the glory of the Communist Party and especially the splendour of Stalin. Growing up with these beliefs and seeing mainly the positive sides of the Communist Government and all that they achieved in their Five Year Plans and collectivisation, it is quite easy to see why some Russians would look back on Stalin’s time with nostalgia, as it was commonly perceived as the time when the USSR had greatly increased its economic position and social pride.
The last important area to look at in relation to how much Stalin destroyed or built up the people of Russia’s lives is how Stalin took control of Soviet society at all levels. Stalin did this in a great many ways, one of which was what has now become called the Purges. The purge of Communist society lasted for four years between 1934 and 1938, during this period millions of Russians were arrested, sent to labour camps or shot. Main features of the purges were extremely public show trials where old Bolsheviks, who could have possibly opposed Stalin, were forced to confess to several crimes against the state. Sergei Kirov, a man who at one point seemed to be becoming a popular alternative to Stalin as leader of the Communist party, was shot and killed in 1934. Stalin claimed there was a conspiracy to murder him, destroy the party and used the ensuing fear to order the arrests of a multitude of people who were believed to have committed crimes against the state. The ensuing show trials of prominent Bolsheviks were used to place the blame of all of the failings of Stalin’s previous policies and also for all the unsolved mysteries such as conspiracies and murders. But the show trials were not all there was to the purges. Anybody who was suspected of opposing Stalin was removed.
Writers, musicians, politicians, businessmen, high-ranking army officers and practically anyone deemed to be of high status lived in fear of the secret police coming to take them away from their family and to a concentration camp without trial. People were being denounced everywhere and any derogatory talk about Stalin was reported, whereupon the speaker was arrested. In the short term this was a wonderful result for Stalin as it gave him the reason he needed to create a nation of sheep that would follow him blindly. In the purges he not only wiped out Russia’s literary and academic population, but also most of those who were capable of taking command. As a result, this led to great difficulties in the war when there were severe problems as a direct result of not having enough officers that could take control who had previous battle experience. To complete his stranglehold on society, Stalin introduced censorship that ensured that only pro-Communist views would be published. Newspapers, books, music, drama, art all had to be in favour of Stalin and of Communism, and many an author was arrested for attempting to publish something that spoke out against Communism.
After analysing carefully all the different sides of the story, the argument and the debate about Stalinist Russia between the years 1928 and 1941 I have reached a definite conclusion. It is true to say that as a direct result of Stalin’s Five Year Plans and collectivisation, coupled with extremely effective propaganda that Russia was advanced considerably in all sectors under Stalin’s rule. However, the cost of this advancement was phenomenal. Basic errors were made and could not be admitted and were blamed on mystery ‘saboteurs’ that were adamant on halting the progress of the Communist party. This disorganisation of both industry and agriculture led to devastating famine and horrific death tolls. Also, Stalin’s method of ensuring his dictatorship, removing all of his opposition, was both brutal and damaging to his own country. His actions in the purges not only weakened his country’s defence, but deprived Russia of over a decade of artistic advancement. Yes, Stalin was responsible for incredible developments in the USSR, and yes he did transform it from a backward country into a strong modern state. But the price for this was the misery of the Soviet people, and the eventual crippling of Russia’s socio-economic growth through bad decisions and brutality. Therefore I believe that the statement about Stalin is highly accurate, but that it was not just the people, but the country also that paid the price.