Industry in Stalin's Russia

In the mid-1920s, Trotsky’s left opposition argued with Bukharin and Stalin’s centre party over the industry, with the Left campaigning for increased industrialisation, and the centre supporting maintaining Lenin’s legacy. However, by April 1925, Bukharin’s policies were becoming more rightist, and he was drifting away from Stalin.

In the 14th Party Congress in December 1925, Stalin had come around to accepting the need for economic modernisation, but the criticisms of the NEP made by Zinoviev and Kamenev were rejected.

Having planned its first economic plan in August 1925, Gosplan – the Soviet Union’s state planning commission responsible for economic development, the organisation of social services, etc – released a second plan in 1926, focusing on the development of the Soviet economy. At this time, conservative non-party specialists were concerned about short-term economic development and possibilities, whilst party specialists believed in rapid industrialisation, which was being blocked by the New Economic Plan.

Although the existing industry had practically been restored to pre-war levels of production, in 1927, Stalin used the rising fear of war to spark policies for rapid industrialisation, for the Soviets to meet any possible invasion. Stalin began to adopt some of the economic policies that were proposed by the Left Opposition. These involved cutting administrative costs to increase funding for industrial development and introducing a ‘Hero of Labour’ medal to promote productivity and labour discipline. Despite this, there were no major targets put in place for industry, aside from the development of some hydroelectric projects and railway and canal routes.

It was not really until the grain crisis of 1927 and 1928 that Stalin came around to abandoning Lenin’s NEP and favouring rapid industrialisation. This caused a major conflict between Stalin and Bukharin, with Stalin’s supporters accusing opponents of having a lack of faith in the Soviet people and betraying the Socialism of the Bolsheviks.

The Five Year Plans

After practically defeating the right faction, Stalin advocated for higher production targets from Vesenkathe superior state institution for management of the economy – and Gosplan. Together, they developed two five-year economic plans; the ‘basic variant’ and the ‘optimum variant’, which was accepted by Politburo.

• The First Five Year Plan (October 1928 – December 1932)

The first Five-Year Plan launched on 1 October 1928 with a focus on heavy industry. The target for overall production was an increase of 300%. To provide for this, electricity production was to increase sixfold. With many industries expected to increase, workers were inspired by the vision of a strong, united Soviet economy in which they worked hard to meet the yearly targets.

This was important as, according to Stalin in 1931, the Soviet Union’s economy was up to 100 years behind. There were significant achievements toward transforming the Soviet economy, including the establishment of hundreds of new factories and mines in previously unexplored regions.

In December 1932, Stalin accounted that the First Five-Year Plan had been achieved. In reality, no major targets had been achieved, and despite the incredible growth that was seen, problems were introduced by the successes of the Five Year Plan.

The costs for implementing the plan were larger than initially planned for by Gosplan, whilst the high increases in coal, iron and industrial goods overwhelmed the under-developed railway system. Meanwhile, urban populations were increasing rapidly, and the issue of housing shortage soon emerged, threatening the progress of industrialisation. Moreover, forced agricultural collectivisation resulted in food shortages, rationing and famine. This contributed to the issue of workers changing jobs frequently, which in turn, led to managers having to increase wages and benefits to retain the skilled workers required to achieve the new targets.

Stalin’s propaganda soon emerged, parading the idea that targets were being exceeded, and as proclaimed by the posters saying ‘2+2=5’, parading the idea that the plan would be fulfilled in four years, rather than five.

• The Second Five Year Plan (1933 – 1937)

Despite the problems of the First Five-Year Plan, Gosplan drew up the Second Five-Year Plan in 1933, which initially had the main aim of transforming the Soviet Economy into a fully Socialist one. However, the final draft only called for progress on the first plan, an increase in production and an improvement in living standards. From 1934 to 1936, the successes of the plan included the rise in machine production, and iron and steel output, which allowed the Soviet Union to become self-sufficient.

Linked to the successes of the Second Five Year Plan, The Stakhanovite Movement represents the huge increase in labour activity from 1933 to 1937. Many industries had model workers who received higher bonuses, housing and other benefits, and ‘Heroes of Socialist Labour' medals, to drive labour productivity. This originated in August 1935, when a miner in the Donbas mining region, Aleksei Stakhanov, dug up 102 tonnes of coal in one shift, much higher than the usual 7 tonnes. Following this, production targets were increased and workers were encouraged to meet his example. Meanwhile, the worst effects of agricultural collectivisation were over, which allowed for rationing to end in 1935.

Despite the achievements made through the Second Five-Year Plan, industry ran into problems again in 1937, including the growing impact of Stalin’s purges of those in charge of Gosplan, and the escalating international situation.

• The Third Five Year Plan (Disrupted)

The third plan was supposed to be in place from 1938 to 1942, but it was not officially approved until the 18th Party Congress in March 1939 and was even disrupted by the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. The plan undermined light industry and the increasing production of consumer goods as huge increases in production for heavy industry and defence were planned. Molotov believed that the third plan would complete the process of a transition to a fully Socialist economy, and aid the Soviet Union in becoming properly communist.

How successful were the Five Year Plans?

For the period of 1928 to 1940, the Soviet Union claims that industrial production increased by 852 per cent, whilst the West estimates that the actual increase was just 260 per cent.

There are a few reasons for this disparity.

  1. The higher figure served as propaganda for the Soviet Union to show how successful communism was and how strong the Soviet Union was under Stalin’s leadership.

  2. Factory managers deliberately estimated production capacity or claimed that their production figures were higher than they had actually been able to achieve because they feared the punishment they would receive for failing to meet the high targets.

  3. The 9 million ex-peasants who had little basic training and experience in factory work joined the workforce during the First Five Year Plan also had little acceptance of factory disciplineespecially being forced to work for 24 hours or more at a time in order to meet targets– a practice which led to machines breaking down frequently and further disrupting production.

• Electricity

Coal

Oil

Pig Iron

Steel

* 5YP = Five Year Plan, t = tonnes

All of these high targets had a significant impact on workers, with the ‘uninterrupted week’ introduced in 1929, with shift work planned over the weekend in order to stop factories from being idle at any time.

Being absent or late was initially punished by workers being fired, or having their factory housing taken away, but by 1931, these offences were criminalised, and those convicted were sentenced to imprisonment or a labour camp.

  • Timber camps were established as early as 1929, and these became controlled by the Gulag. Initially, historians estimated that up to 8 million were imprisoned in these forced labour camps, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this number has been estimated to be under 3 million.

  • Those who were in these labour camps were subject to harsh conditions, including poor living conditions and a lack of food, whilst undertaking huge construction tasks of railways and canals.

Overall, under the Five Year Plans, the rapid industrialisation led to reduced living standards as the issues of food shortage, rising prices and housing shortages created huge problems. However, the plans did result in the end of high unemployment rates as the increase in factory workers contributed to the increase in joint family incomes. A good number of workers also had greater opportunities in education, as it was designed to improve the skills and productivity of the workforce.