Written by Collin Fifer
Russia in the 1930s was a country engulfed in struggle. Just over a decade before, they had emerged from World War I nearly crippled; not just due to the unfathomable human loss they suffered, but also from the political and social turmoil it sparked.
As of 1917, Russia was no longer ruled by the Tsar. It now had a communist party in charge with grand socialist dreams of the future. Almost immediately, though, the country was thrown into more struggle.
Russia was wracked with a long and bloody civil war: a five year conflict that eventually led to Lenin’s new party cementing their rule and forming the Soviet Union in 1922. Soon after that, Lenin’s death threw the top levels of government into a free-for-all power struggle. It ended with Stalin seizing all but absolute control of the party.
Toward the end of the roaring twenties, Stalin brought a completely new type of struggle to the new socialist union. His institution of the first Five Year Plan forced his citizens to work for the good of the Soviet Union; to struggle to meet lofty goals put forward to drive the country past its historical turmoil and into a great socialist future.
We’ve already covered the first Five Year Plan in a previous post; its ups, downs, and effect on the country. Be sure to go back and watch if you want to follow from the beginning.
Today, we are continuing our look at Soviet economic planning. We will examine how the newly formed union, fresh off its success—officially, at least—with its first Five Year Plan, jumped headfirst into its second.
Why Five Year Plans?
After the civil war ended, Lenin put an end to war communism—almost total state control of every aspect of the economy—and implemented the New Economic Policy, or NEP. This brought with it limits on state control of businesses and the amount of agricultural output the state took from farmers. It also allowed farmers to sell what they didn’t give to the state on the open market.
It was an uncharacteristic Soviet incorporation of free-market–dare we say capitalist–practices.
However, many farmers hoarded their grain in response to low market prices. Low economic activity meant less domestically sold grain to feed workers in the city and less income for farmers to use to modernize their agricultural methods and equipment.
When Stalin took power, he at first upheld the NEP put in place by Lenin. However, he began professing a need to catch up to the USSR’s capitalist enemies.
As he put it, “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We need to make up this gap. Either we do it or they will crush us.”
Stalin believed that the Soviet Union was facing imminent threats. He believed there was a war coming that the USSR was woefully unprepared for. He saw the need to take his nation from one of agrarian roots to a future of industrial manufacturing power. In Stalin’s view, the NEP was not spurring enough progress. The Five Year Plans were his way of modernizing the Soviet Union. It was a way of pushing the country toward a socialist future. Less so a detailed plan with specific economic strategies, the Five Year Plans simply laid out goals the central planning committee and Stalin wanted to see achieved.
When Stalin implemented the first Five Year Plan, it reinstated much of the state control that the NEP limited. It did away with private land ownership and pushed for farm collectivization. It set lofty goals for industrialization. It got rid of the capitalist, free-market practices the state had briefly dabbled in.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the first Five Year Plan brought tremendous growth to the Soviet Union. Economic output, specifically in industry, grew at a dizzying rate. In fact, the First Five Year Plan took the USSR from fifth to second in the world in terms of industrialization. Only the U.S. was ahead of it.
However, these economic developments brought unimaginable political and economic chaos. Purges and famines took the lives of millions. As the quote often attributed to Stalin goes, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
But overall—according to Stalin, at least—the statistics were good enough to warrant the plan a success. It’s hard to believe that the lofty goals set forth were met, especially considering the unreliable nature of Soviet statistics. But, all things considered, nearly a year ahead of schedule, Stalin proclaimed they were indeed fulfilled. It was against this backdrop that he immediately began implementation of the second Five Year Plan.
Five Year Plan, Take Two
Similar to the first one, the second Five Year Plan placed great emphasis on heavy industry. The preparation for war was still ongoing, especially as Hitler rose to the chancellorship in 1933. The government push for agricultural collectivization continued.
Both events meant factories churned out industrial materials and heavy machinery nearly non-stop. The large collectivized farms needed tractors to work the land, and the developing Red Army needed tanks to match the capabilities of their capitalist counterparts.
Again, similar to the first plan, the second Five Year Plan used propaganda, rewards, and punishments to spur adherence to the plan’s goals. However, compared to the first Five Year Plan, the goals set forth were more realistic. But keep in mind, this is realistic from a Soviet point of view.
Or, as they say in Soviet Russia, “Glorious socialist goals put those of lazy capitalist pig to shame.”
Under the first Five Year Plan, the economy and society were under some serious strain. Workers regularly put in seven-day workweeks, often at long hours, performing grueling labor, and living off rationed food supplies. Stalin realized this and relaxed expectations, just a little.
I mean, the aforementioned low living standards persisted. But at least the state’s goals were more likely to be met.
After all, the aim of these plans was not to improve the quality of life, but to rapidly industrialize a state that was, as Stalin put it, “fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries.” And they did just that.
Despite many jobs requiring back-breaking labor, employment numbers sky-rocketed. By the end of the second Five Year Plan in 1937, the number of new jobs per year was at 7.9 million, double that of the 3.9 million expected before the Five Year Plans were implemented.
As with the first plan, industrial outputs continued to grow under the second. By 1937, coal production was at 127 million tons and pig iron came in at 14.5 million tons, almost meeting the plan’s high quotas. Industrial growth during this time rang in at an impressive 12% to 13% annually. Compare that to the U.S. average between 1920 and 2022 of 3.59%.
The second plan diverged from the first in that more emphasis was placed on developing the armament sector—with more factories producing munitions as well—and on the expansion of technical and engineering education.
During the period of the second Five Year Plan, the USSR nearly caught up to Germany as one of the world’s leading steel producers. Improvements in railways led to a better national communication and transportation network, leading to more productivity.
Childcare became more widespread in industrial centers, allowing more women to work. Often, this meant that there was more of an expectation of Soviet women to leave their kids in childcare, making them more able to help contribute to the plan’s success.
Another aspect that set the second plan apart from the first was the focus of industrial output. Besides the emphasis on heavy industry and the new focus on munition manufacturing, factories also churned out more consumer goods.
However, not every sector of the Soviet economy succeeded. The coal and oil industries failed to meet the recommended production levels put forth.
Stalin’s push for collectivization continued under his second Five Year Plan. Introducing this policy led to some pretty disastrous results under the first plan and into the start of the second.
Farmers pushed back against this policy, slaughtering their livestock rather than giving it to the state. In 1930, when the backlash against collectivization was the most severe, a quarter of the nation’s cattle, sheep, and goats and a third of its pigs were slaughtered in protest.
This, coupled with lower-than-expected yields that were over-claimed by the state to meet the demands of growing urban centers, caused a famine in the Ukraine region that killed millions. All this happened just at the start of the second Five Year Plan.
However, in 1935, a new law was passed that allowed individual peasants to own smaller private plots of land not set aside for collectivization and sell the products grown on the open market. There’s that free-market dabbling again. Under the second Five Year Plan, agricultural output in the Soviet Union increased by nearly 54%.
However, by 1936, nearly 90% of all Soviet agriculture had been collectivized. And by 1937, nearly 99% of all cultivated land had been incorporated into collective farms.
Some sources claim the slow growth of output under collectivization was because of a failure of the industrial sector to provide enough tractors. After all, the Soviet government pushed for collectivization on the grounds that large tracts of land would produce more product and owners of large farms were more likely to afford and use large machinery like tractors.
However, prior to 1934, the state could not provide collective farmers with the machinery necessary to produce such output.
Despite a turnaround in the output of collectivized farms during the end of the second Five Year Plan, it would take until 1940 for agricultural production to once again match the levels under Lenin’s New Economic Plan.
One of the defining features of the second Five Year Plan was the state’s crackdown on religion. The official Soviet doctrine was state atheism, which is similar to many other socialist countries that would develop later.
This practice seems to line up with communist ideology pretty well. After all, communist regimes are often associated with crackdowns on religion—think the Soviet Union and modern China, for example. And it was Karl Marx who said “religion is the opiate of the masses.”
But to better understand the relationship between communism and religion, and the religious situation in the Soviet Union during this period better, we have to consider Marx’s quote in its entirety.
Marx’s view on religion wasn’t innately against it. He thought it was the “sigh of an oppressed people.” He claimed the abolition of religion was the eventual goal of communism, but not because religion was inherently evil.
He saw it as a reflection of the real, material world that humans live in. Religion was a representation of the suffering humans went through in the everyday world. And, just like opium numbs people to the pain of trauma, so does religion numb the masses to their oppression. To get the masses to rid themselves of their “illusions about their condition” would allow them to examine the real world cause of their suffering and put an end to it–in theory, that is.
In practice, however, the nuance was lost and religion was made out to be the enemy of the people. The real-world implementation of this theory proved to be much uglier. Soviet policy during the second Five Year Plan held as its end goal the closing of churches at the beginning of the plan and the elimination of clergy positions altogether by the end.
During this period, according to some sources, the number of Russian Orthodox Churches in the country dropped from just under 30,000 to less than 500 by 1940. In 1937 alone, an estimated 85,000 Orthodox priests were shot. By the end of the second Five Year Plan, nearly all Orthodox clergy and many believers met the same fate or were sent to work camps.
The campaign against religion only stopped in the 1940s during Germany’s invasion of Russia. I guess the timing is only fitting. If Marx claims religion is an opiate against suffering, the Soviet people would need a lot of that during the coming years.
The people persecuted under the anti-religious campaign were grouped into convenient categories. Clergy and believers were not persecuted for their religion, officially, at least. According to the state, there was no campaign against religion. There was always some other reason for the death or exile of the religious. Propaganda painted them as enemies of the state, law-breakers, or as working against the state’s socialist goals.
Speaking of propaganda, as with all the Five Year Plans, it was an enormous driving force during this second plan as well. Unlike economic plans as we may know them with quarterly projections, dividend measurements, and all those boring statistics, the Second Five Year Plan was painted in an inspirational light.
Propaganda portrayed the plan to the Soviet People as a glorious socialist struggle. Propaganda campaigns claimed it undertook the heroic deed of pushing the Soviet Union into the paradise of a socialist future and the eventual destruction of capitalism.
All the slogans, posters, broadcasts, and publications the state churned out—propaganda blared at the public from every angle—was aimed at inspiring Soviet citizens and workers to sacrifice their personal comfort and liberties for the betterment of the Soviet Union.
Many in the leadership of the communist party had been propagandists prior to the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. Stalin, himself, had been the editor of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist party.
It was at the beginning of the second Five Year Plan that the official artistic style of the Soviet Union—Socialist Realism—started. This style was aimed at shaping the people’s thinking to fit the framework of Communist ideology.
Books, posters, paintings, and many other artistic mediums portrayed an idealistic, classless version of reality. Creators could represent flaws in the reality they were representing to an extent, but were encouraged to promote an overall optimistic view of socialist society and its larger historical relevance. And we all know how the Soviet government encourages people.
The shiny, inspirational face of Soviet propaganda hid a darker underside. The glorious socialist struggle Soviet citizens were encouraged to undertake involved backbreaking labor for long hours seven days a week.
If workers did not meet these intense standards, they would be painted as traitors to the cause in the eyes of propaganda; traitors who would be imprisoned or shipped off to gulags and worked even harder as expendable sources of labor.
The era of propaganda during the second Five Year Plan saw Stalin’s Red Terror take hold. Many of Stalin’s political rivals wound up dead or working in gulags. They, along with large groups of people who had somehow opposed the socialist struggle—similar to the aforementioned religious clergy and believers, all grouped into convenient classes—were effectively removed from society.
In the struggle for collectivization, the Soviet government arrested, exiled, or killed millions of wealthy, farm-owning peasants—kulaks—who opposed the policy. Even if there were poor peasants who opposed collectivization, they were grouped together with the kulaks and given the same treatment. This class of peasant became the easy scapegoat for Soviet propaganda. They were portrayed as greedy reactionaries who were trying to work against the socialist dream.
This propaganda, along with the suppression of any critical art and literary form deemed subversive by the government, created a narrative of the Five Year Plans as less of a simple economic plan for the country and more of a heroic effort to establish a socialist paradise.
Successes and Failures
How you view the outcome of this Five Year Plan depends entirely on your perspective. The official line saw it and its predecessor as huge successes. And when you look at the statistics from the point of view of a Soviet official, you can begin to understand.
The aim of the plan was to rapidly industrialize the new Soviet Republic. And it did. Heavy industry continued to grow and churn out more products than ever before. Agriculture began to take a turn for the better under collectivization. Manufacturing could put more focus on consumer goods and munitions. And enemies of the socialist dream were less and less able to obstruct the state’s goals.
However, take away the opiate of propaganda and you start to see actual sources of suffering. Though the plan met its goal of rapidly industrializing the nation, it was done at the expense of everyday workers. Working hours lengthened, conditions worsened, and quality of life dropped.
Agriculture may have been on the upturn, but that was after years of suffering, shortage, and famine. Improvement on that front was relative.
Manufacturing numbers were rising, but unrealistic goals forced many local officials to forge statistics to avoid coming up short and becoming an “agent working against the socialist dream.” The Red Army that was being built up was also subject to Stalin’s purges.
And those enemies of the state’s goals may not have been able to obstruct that glorious work. But that translated to millions of people murdered, imprisoned, or exiled. According to some sources, under the Red Terror, as many as 20 million people were murdered.
The success or failure of this plan depended on one’s perspective. But, at the time in the Soviet Union, the only perspective that mattered was the official state view. And that perspective deemed it successful enough to implement another Five Year Plan right away. And many more after that.
MegaProjects – The First Soviet Five Year Plan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwi1w4uHTyo
Learning Academy – Stalin’s Five Year Plans – A Level History: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpQdU42rwQo
Learning Academy – Were Stalin’s Five Year Plan’s Successful? – A Level History: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scg5eSyWG_o
Wikipedia – History of the Soviet Union (1927-1953): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Soviet_Union_(1927%E2%80%931953)#Soviet_state’s_development
Middlebury – Soviet Union from 1930 to 1940: https://community.middlebury.edu/~beyer/courses/s99412/darambazar/1930.html
Spartacus Educational – Stalin’s Five Year Plan: https://spartacus-educational.com/RUSfive.htm
Wikipedia – Five-year plans of the Soviet Union: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five-year_plans_of_the_Soviet_Union#:~:text=Second%20plan%2C%201932%E2%80%931937,-Further%20information%3A%20Soviet&text=The%20second%20five%2Dyear%20plan,became%20faster%20and%20more%20reliable.
Wikipedia – USSR anti-religious campaign (1928-1941): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USSR_anti-religious_campaign_(1928%E2%80%931941)
Wikipedia – Great Break (USSR): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Break_(USSR)
Global Security – 1933-1937 – Second 5-Year Plan: https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/industry-stalin-2fyp.htm
BBC Bitesize – Five year plan: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z6cfd6f/revision/3
Britannica – Five Year Plans: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Five-Year-Plans
JStor – The Soviet Five Year Plan: https://www.jstor.org/stable/30094685?read-now=1&seq=3
The Christian Science Monitor – Political Misquotes: The 10 most famous things never actually said: https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2011/0603/Political-misquotes-The-10-most-famous-things-never-actually-said/The-death-of-one-man-is-a-tragedy.-The-death-of-millions-is-a-statistic.-Josef-Stalin
Britannica – Socialist Realism: https://www.britannica.com/art/Socialist-Realism
Age of the Sage – Karl Marx: Religion is the opium of the people: https://www.age-of-the-sage.org/quotations/marx_opium_people.html Trading Economics – United States Industrial Production: https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/industrial-production#:~:text=Industrial%20Production%20in%20the%20United%20States%20averaged%203.59%20percent%20from,percent%20in%20February%20of%201946