How accurate is this assessment of the impact of Stalin’s economic policies from 1928 to 1939?

The political and economic circumstances in Russia by 1928 appeared to necessitate rapid change in economic policy for a number of reasons. The 1927 war scare, and the nature of Marxist ideology, assuming as it did an inseparable relationship between capital and war, encouraged support for rapid industrialisation to ensure Russia was economically developed enough to survive against her enemies (as Stalin famously proclaimed, “We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries… We must make good this distance in ten years… or we will be crushed”). Economically, the scissors crisis, which thus far was being solved by cutting industrial prices, meant that the urban centres of Russia faced food shortages and low wages while the peasants “got rich”.

This crisis, crucially, stoked opposition to the New Economic Policy, viewed as a concession to the peasantry who were holding the government to ransom (thus their inability to procure enough grain for industrial development, leading to the grain procurement crisis) at the expense of the proletariat. In addition to these problems with industrial development, Russian agriculture itself was still extremely backward; the least productive of all the major European countries and with 74% of its crop hand-sown, and 44% hand-reaped. It was viewed that for there to be a revolution in industry there must be a revolution in agriculture – therefore, to assess Stalin’s economic policies one must examine both the agricultural and industrial. How far collectivisation and the Five-Year Plans solved Russia’s purely economic problems is debateable, but there is no doubt that as a political instrument it was incredibly successful for Stalin and the Party (although far less so for the peasantry and the proletariat), crushing the resistance which had brought about the concessions of the NEP, and consolidating state control over the countryside.

Collectivisation of farming came at a devastating cost to the economy and in terms of lives. The policy of forced formation of the kolkhozy was met with stubborn resistance from the peasants, who burned crops and slaughtered their animals en masse rather than hand them over to the government – 46% of cattle, 47% of horses and 65% of sheep in agricultural Russia were lost in this way, and neither the numbers nor the Russian diet recovered their numbers until the 1950s. Despite the far lower grain harvest government quotas for grain procurement remained the same and the amount recovered increased after requisitioning was reintroduced. This, of course, meant the peasantry had to make up the deficit of grain by starving. The resulting famine, caused and exacerbated by government policy, killed around six million people, mostly in the Ukraine and some surrounding regions (e.g. the Volga). The USSR gained little economically from this; although it continued to export grain throughout the famine, the Great Depression had lowered prices considerably and so the capital raised was limited, and the policy ineffective at funding foreign machinery for industrial development. Collectivisation also did little to increase the efficiency of agriculture – the most effective (richest) peasants, the kulaks, had either been liquidated or deported to Siberia where they died of exposure, or had fled to towns (twelve million peasants were urbanised during this period); the fabled tractors were largely unused except for in propaganda films and Russian productivity was actually lowered for a time.

Although from the perspective of the peasants, much of whom were expropriated, murdered or starved by the policy, there was little if any benefit (even the diet of the urban population suffered, meaning the proletariat, who were supposed to be the beneficiaries whereas with the NEP they were the sacrifice), for the Communist Party and Stalin himself it represented a political victory, over the countryside, for ‘Socialism’, and against the right-wing opposition in the party. It created in the form of, for example, Machine Tractor Stations and the kolkhozy and sovkhozy, a definite party presence in the countryside through which the peasantry could be controlled (and crushed). The use of collectivisation policy against all manner of enemies is apparent – the disobedience of the Ukrainian arm of the Communist Party led to a purge of it and a concentration on the breaking of Ukrainian nationalism in particular; with travel out of the Ukraine banned (the introduction of internal passports strengthened state control of movement), as well as relief operations (since as far as the state was concerned no famine was occurring).

The result of Stalin’s economic policy here was the establishment and consolidation of Party control over the part of Russia it had previously failed to conquer. Presented by the government as a war against the countryside, collectivisation “broke” the peasantry. It was a vengeance, an solution to the concession both to the country and capitalism that was the New Economic Policy, and to the party members who espoused it (e.g. Bukharin; later purged). As a great political victory for Stalin it made his position as leader more secure.

Despite the failure of agricultural policy to raise any significant benefits for industrial development, the Five Year Plans did see remarkable output increases in heavy industry – coal, iron and steel, electricity. State control over the labour environment meant that the drive to meet the Plans’ targets turned into a culture of productivity – work was rewarded by production rather than by hours, and the Stakhanovite movement (which, while of some superficial benefit to workers in elevating their status in Soviet mythology, was probably outweighed by their appalling working and living conditions) was an example of the way in which the Soviets used propaganda to effect change in the social world of the factory. The social and cultural obsession with industrialisation benefited the party and Stalin by providing it with a framework from which to direct the country to a stated goal, creating and encouraging motivation and devotion to work, to the state and to the party.

State propaganda furnishing this mythological miracle of development would often resort to falsehoods – for example, claim machinery output had quadrupled over a period when growth in steel and pig iron was not nearly enough to make this possible, or declare the first Five Year Plan targets met early when they had all been missed – to bolster its own image and exaggerate its achievements. However, growth was uneven and many areas, for example consumer goods, were neglected – 80% of investment was in heavy industry (this resulted in very poor living standards for workers; rationing was common). It is also debateable how far the Five Year Plans were successful in increasing production – “figures for overall industrial production do not in fact show any marked increase between the NEP period and the first two Five Year Plans (though the rate of growth increased by about 2-3% in the first few years” (JP Nettl, The Soviet Achievement).

Other actions by the state also – wittingly or unwittingly – sabotaged the efficacy and success of industrial development policy. The extensive scapegoating of skilled engineers and managers in the factories (when, for example, poorly built machinery or machinery imported and used without proper training, went wrong, or when a factory missed its targets) by making them personally and criminally responsible for failures and missed targets gutted the sector of large numbers of the only people who knew what they were doing (although it usefully deflected criticism of the party or the policy itself as the reason for failures), while employment instability meant workers continually changed jobs and thus did not develop specialised skills. The speed of construction and development encouraged meant that safety and maintenance were neglected; in Magnitogorsk, for example, intended to be a utopian “workers’ city”, was extremely poorly built and almost uninhabitable, as well as incurring huge casualties in construction. This fault was also visible in the mechanisation of agriculture: tractors were poorly maintained and peasants often had no idea how to run them.

Overall, whilst the Five Year Plans saw substantial and undeniable progress in industrial production, the big picture was far bleaker in agriculture. Since Stalin’s economic policy as a whole rested on the horrendous failure (economically) of collectivisation, no matter the political benefits, one cannot help but conclude that the costs largely outweighed the benefits. It is arguable that the industrial “revolution” was indeed a necessary and crucial aspect of Soviet policy, and that had the NEP continued for another 25 years as Bukharin advocated, the Soviet Union would have been completely unable to have won the Great Patriotic War. However, it is also arguable that given the massive human cost (later Soviet policies designed to alleviate the massive population loss of the War, which placed punitive taxes on those with fewer than two children and outlawed abortion, may well have been less- or unnecessary had millions of Russians not been slaughtered or starved during the 1930s) of collectivisation, that it was simply not worth it. The benefits for Stalin, however, who would become the undisputed dictator of the USSR, and the Party, who finally consolidated their control over the country, are undeniable.