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The First Soviet Five-Year Plan

The First of Many

”We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries” once said Joseph Stalin, the man who ruled over the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953 – not so much with simply an iron fist, but a total maniacal control that cost the lives of millions of people. 

“We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or they will crush us.” – he went on to add. His vision to do this: the Five Year Plan. A hugely ambitious idea that called for the country to double its real national income over five years and to treble investment, with consumption per head to rise by two thirds. These were targets that few have ever attempted in such a short space of time. Ambitious doesn’t quite seem enough of a word here.  

The Soviet leader presided over a period which included just about every extreme you can imagine. The horrors of starvation during the famines caused by the forced agricultural collective came just a decade before what happened to Soviet citizens during World War II and the eventual triumph of the Red Army.  

Stalingrad – even to those who have never visited, or who don’t really know much about what happened – the name seems laced with pain and suffering. The Battle of Stalingrad remains one of the bloodiest, longest and largest battles the world has ever known. An estimated 2 million people died in or around the city. That’s more than the total number that currently lives in Milan or Barcelona – it’s only slightly more than the entire population of Paris. 

The chaotic nightmare of what happened between 23rd August 1942 and 2nd February 1943 will forever be remembered as one of the most appalling acts that humans have ever taken part in. And while it would be a dark overstatement to suggest there was much of a winner that emerged, the Soviets not only held off Hitler’s vast army but eventually crushed it. Not too bad for a country fifty or a hundred years behind the more advanced German nation. 

Operation Barbarossa 1941
Operation Barbarossa 1941 by Bundesarchiv is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The truth was that much had changed in the Soviet Union between the mid-1920s and when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941, breaking his non-aggression pact with Stalin and invading the USSR with over three million men. The rapid industrialisation, collective farming and general modernisation had transformed the Soviet Union in the years leading up to World War II and its doubtful such resistance could have been summoned had many of these changes not taken place. 

But there was an awful cost to all of this. Yes, the Soviet Union emerged stronger as a collective and as a country, but the millions who died along the way are a testament to the crazed drive for improvement which swept the USSR along. This is a dark story, but one that must be viewed evenly.  

Lenin’s Death

Bolshevik leader Vladamir Lenin died in 1924, leaving a power struggle which eventually disgorged a certain Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin as Communist Party General Secretary. It was a position he would remain in for the rest of his life. 

Now, you might imagine such a man would immediately get down to business, but the early years of his reign, perhaps as he bedded himself in, experienced relatively liberal economics. But the country faced some formidable problems. 

Perhaps the most significant was the serious economic downturn that had occurred since the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Years of conflict followed by bad management and hyperinflation had left the young Soviet Union on shaky ground. 

The nation also began to experience a growing dissatisfaction among the peasantry. The communist revolution had promised a more equal society, but for those nearer the bottom of that society, things remained much the same.

Lastly, there was a growing fear that the Soviet Union would be attacked and this glorious experiment in socialism would come crashing down with other democratic nations eager to see it fail. The USSR had certainly begun to flex its muscles (and some might say get involved in other nations’ business) which had begun to irritate other countries. There’s no doubt that many countries would have been more than happy to see the Soviet Union fall flat on its face and so prove their doctrine to be completely wrong or unattainable, but how many would have backed that up with war is debatable. 

Nevertheless, the War Scare of 1927, in which rumours of planned invasions circled through society, caused panic across the Soviet Union and with it came the realisation that the country was hopelessly unprepared should such an invasion ever take place. Now, let’s remember, this was the USSR and any slight cause was more than enough to paint a convenient propaganda picture, one that would leave the Soviet people with no doubt that radical industrialization was the only way forward. That’s not to say that industrialisation wasn’t needed, but the timing and methods used to convince the people were dubious, to say the least.  

1928   

The first, or 13 five-year plans that would eventually happen in the Soviet Union, began in 1928. The goal was quite straightforward, albeit insanely complex. The USSR would transition itself over five years from a weak, backward agricultural state, to an industrial powerhouse capable of taking on the world. While the wording and ideals were often lofty and worthy, the planning and execution were regularly ineffective. 

The cornerstone of this first Five Year Plan was the rapid expansion of the heavy industry. Even Lenin, shortly before his death said, “Modern industry is the key to this transformation, the time has come to construct our fatherland anew with the hands of machines”. What happened to the Soviet industry in less than five years was probably the most important era of industrialisation the nation will ever see. 

And there’s nothing like an unrealistic target with the fear of death if you fail to light a fire under those taking part. The USSR set itself a target of a 350% increase in output by the end of the Five Year Plan. It was these kinds of absurd targets that may have driven the nation on but ultimately led to chaos. By 1933, the USSR had increased its heavy industry output by 50% – which is still astonishingly high, but a full 300% below what was planned.    

80% of total investment during the Five-Year Plan was spent on improving heavy industry. Sometimes this took the shape of huge revamping operations on current factories, but for others, the Soviets simply built entirely new, monstrously large factories, and cities, from scratch. We’ve recently done a video on Magnitogorsk, which is probably the most famous example. The city, built to house a population that would work at the gargantuan steel plant nearby, was meant to be a model, one-industry city – a socialist utopia if you will. Quite the opposite happened, and the early days of Magnitogorsk were simply hellish with prisoners and hungry peasants forcibly relocated to construct a city that would go on to be one of the most polluted in modern Russia.

The Stalingrad Tractor Plant also emerged in this era and quickly became the largest tractor manufacturing plant in the entire USSR. Tractors, along with materials to be used in war, were a particular focus at the start of the Five Year Plan. The tractor plant was built with the expertise of several foreign experts, mostly from the U.S, and cost in the region of $30 million (about $450 million today). As the Soviet Union went to war, the factory seamlessly shifted to tank production and became one of the most important producers in the USSR.     

Propaganda

Soviet propaganda came into its own during the first Five Year Plan. Much of it painted industry in the same way as war – an effect which urged the Soviet people on, and made them believe they were part of something bigger. Words like ‘fronts’, ‘campaigns’ and ‘breakthroughs’ became common. Workers were urged to work frantically to help the war effort – but of course, the Soviet Union was not a war, and wouldn’t be for another decade. 

But this didn’t seem to matter. A them vs us mentality quickly emerged and those seen as being against the great plan were deemed, traitors. And we all know what happened to traitors in the Soviet Union. 

This plan was not simply about economics and industry, it involved a large scale re-organisation of the Soviet Union. Where people lived and what they did for work suddenly didn’t really matter. If the state wanted you to work in a factory, whether you knew anything about the industry, you would quickly find yourself covered in soot and breaking your back. During this time the industrial workforce rose from 3.12 million in 1928 to 6.01 million by the start of 1933. 

The Farming Collective 

Redirecting so many resources towards heavy industry was already putting a strain on many aspects of Soviet society, but it was an addition to the Five-Year Plan in 1929 that caused unimaginable hardship. 

A kolkhoz was a type of collective farm that emerged in the Soviet Union after Stalin decided to collectivise farming a year into the Five-Year Plan. If we completely remove the fact that this caused a famine that decimated parts of the Soviet Union, you can kind of, sort of – maybe – see what they were trying to do. But in terms of human loss, it was catastrophic.  

Stalin’s plan called for the vast majority of farms across the Union to be collectivised, meaning that they would give (I really can’t think of any other word than that) large portions of their produce, animals or production over to the state. This was needed because of the vast numbers who were now heading to the industrial centres, and who no doubt would not be planting their own crops. 

USSR Republics numbered by alphabet
USSR Republics numbered by alphabet by Master Uegly is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Hard-working factory folk needed to be fed, and fed well to keep production high. By 1929 it had become clear that food production could not keep pace. But this wasn’t the first time a farming collective had been attempted in the USSR. A land decree in 1917 had essentially banned private ownership of land but attempts to distribute food and crops more evenly failed horribly. State farms set up often floundered, either down to poor management, lack of motivation or lack of expertise. 

Wealthier peasants who farmed well were reluctant to make up the shortfall – as you might expect. While stockpiles in the countryside grew and grew, people in the cities were going hungry. To address the issue, Lenin established the New Economic Policy. This was a program that allowed peasants to sell their produce to the state rather than simply handing it over, and one that was far more capitalist than communist but kept the country afloat.  

The decision in 1929 to collectivise the farms was met with both resistance and support, often depending on which class of peasant you were from. Those at the top, the Kulaks, resisted forcibly, while the Serednyak (middle) and Bednyak (lower) were more receptive as you might imagine. 

While the participation in the collective system was technically optional to these villages and farms, failure to comply normally led to horrific ramifications. What happened to the Kulak class during the first Five Year Plan, and subsequent plans have come to be known as Dekulakization. The word genocide is often a deeply contested phrase. Some have argued that what happened to the Kulak class between 1929 and 1932 constitutes such an atrocity. Numbers of those who died from execution, hunger or disease ranges from 500,000 to close to 5 million, while an estimated 1.8 million were deported between 1930 and 1931. And this had all come from the mouth of the man himself. 

Stalin had said: “Now we have the opportunity to carry out a resolute offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their production with the production of kolkhozes and sovkhozes”

The Kulaks became the fall people to be blamed when things didn’t go well. The Soviet propaganda machine painted them as selfish people looking to sabotage the grand accession of the Soviet Union. 

While Stalin managed to achieve his goal of eliminating millions of people, the farming collective showed barely any increase in food production. A famine tore through Kazakhstan between 1931 and 1933. The area had been one of the largest grain producers in the USSR but had opposed collectivization and slowly the screw had turned. Food quotes were set impossibly high, a tactic to break the resolve of the people. 

There are no official numbers of those who died from famine during the first Five-Year Plan, but estimates place it between 6 and 7 million.

Successes and Failures

I know leading on from such horrific numbers to talk about successes might seem a little heartless, but in many ways that epitomised what was happening in the Soviet Union at the time. Very little regard for human life was shown, but progress on a state level did occur. 

Certain sectors within the economy saw enormous growth. Capital goods (goods used to produce other goods) increased 158%, consumer goods increased by 87%, and total industrial output increased by 118% – although as you remember heavy industry was much lower. These numbers may seem pretty meaningless but bear in mind that Germany, after the fall of the Berlin wall, saw only 4.6% economic growth. Even China, in the heyday of the late 1980s, was only seeing 11.3% growth. 

We can certainly debate what kind of benefits the average person gained from this kind of success (the answer is probably almost nothing) but what it did do was to establish the USSR as a global power. President Franklin D Roosevelt officially recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, much of it on the back of the success stories that were coming out of the country. 

The last success would not be felt for a decade. In 1941, the Soviet Union went up against the best, most technologically advanced war machine the world had ever known. The early stages went as many had expected, as the Nazis rolled quickly through the USSR. But as the Soviets dug themselves in, organised better and unleashed the full might of their industrial, and human, power, the Germans were halted – then pushed back. Their harrowing defeat at Stalingrad was one they never recovered from and the heavy industries that had been put in place years before certainly proved their worth. 

The many failures of the Five Year Plan are almost always associated with human tragedy. The numbers of those who died of starvation, killed or deported to bolster numbers in the cities are difficult to imagine. At least 23 million Soviets moved to cities during this period, with Moscow alone seeing a population increase of nearly 60% – and these were those who at least had a choice – although in truth there were few other options. Between 1929 and 1931, 1.4 million peasants were deported into cities – that’s more people than currently live in Britain’s second-largest city, Birmingham. 

One Down – Thirteen to Go  

Stalin’s Five Year Plan ended after four years and three months – with the targets apparently met. I say ‘apparently’ in that tone because I trust a Soviet statistics about as far as I could have thrown Joseph Stalin himself. But anyway, things came to an end at the start of 1933 with the plan fulfilled to the extent of 93.7% – if anything I’m just a little suspicious it was that low. 

The Five Year Plan had been a time of chaos, darkness and unimaginable growth. It’s almost impossible to separate the two, which is inconvenient for us because humans love a good vs evil story. The human toll is believed to be similar, if not more than numbers killed a decade later during the holocaust. It left scars on Soviet society that took generations to heal – and some which may never. 

It was truly horrifying how it was all done, but the Soviet Union that emerged from the first Five Year Plan was considerably stronger. It didn’t know it yet, but that strength would soon be tested to nightmarish levels. When a simple tractor factory in Stalingrad began churning out tanks at a dizzying rate to help stop the German Blitzkrieg. The war that the Soviet Union had been preparing for a decade earlier, had begun.   

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