When Joseph Stalin rose to power in 1929, he instituted the first of a series of five-year plans designed to transform the Soviet Union's largely agricultural peasant society into a global military and industrial power. Stalin introduced unprecedented levels of governmental control over society as a whole, building a highly centralized command economy that focused on heavy industry.
A Great Leap Forward
Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, had polices in effect that nationalized larger businesses generally but made room for private enterprise and private ownership of farms. Stalin rejected this more gradual socialization of the economy in favor of rapid, forced development. Stalin called the first of his five-year plans a "revolution from above," emphasizing the need of the country to industrialize so it could compete and outpace capitalist countries. While Marxist philosophy provided no basis for Stalin's economic plans, in his mind it was important to prove to the world the strength of a communist system. Stalin's plans resulted in generally industrializing the Soviet economy by the 1930s, but at great cost to the nation's people.
Stalin's plans for industrialization focused almost exclusively on heavy industry, causing shortages in many basic consumer goods. Gone was the tolerance, under Lenin, for small-scale private industry. All of these smaller businesses and services were immediately nationalized. Workers were subject to demanding, strictly enforced labor codes. Production quotas were set by government committees organized by Stalin. Under the first five-year plan, overall goals were impossibly unrealistic, such as the demand for a 330 percent expansion in heavy industry. After refinement in successive plans, heavy industry eventually exceeded Stalin's targets, but at great cost to other areas.
Stalin was particularly aggravated by the persistence of peasant culture and small, subsistence farming. In his view, their backward production methods kept the Soviet Union from reaching its true capabilities. His plans forced peasants in the countryside to combine their lands and livestock into larger collective units and state-run farms. The theory was that larger units would produce more efficiently. In reality, though, the people resisted. Many peasants refused, destroying crops and slaughtering livestock rather than turning it over to collectives. Stalin's forced collectivization didn't stop with agriculture, however. Ultimately, the collective replaced the individual in all sectors, from small businesses to science and literary efforts.
The Cost of Progress
Though Stalin's plans to rapidly socialize the Soviet economy ultimately achieved some measure of success, forced industrialization and collectivization did much damage to the people and their way of life. Throughout his reign, the government consistently shifted resources to support heavy industry, shafting consumers. Stalin ruled by terror, ordering the murder of Soviet citizens who he and his operatives deemed dangerous to the state and the communist cause. Millions of farmers who refused to collectivize their crops or animals were shot or exiled. Stalin focused in particular on the kulaks -- the wealthiest of the peasants who were, in reality, only marginally better off than other farmers. When they resisted, their executions served as examples to the rest of the peasantry to fall in line.
- Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook Series: Russia -- Transformation and Terror
- Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook Series: Russia -- The Economy Historical Background
- History.com: Joseph Stalin
- Library of Congress: Revelations from the Russian Archives -- Collectivization and Industrialization
- Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook: Josef Stalin (1879-1953) -- Industrialization of the Country, 1928
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images