On 1 October 1928 Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Russia launched the first Five Year Plan, a series of revolutionary economic reforms which transformed Russia from a peasant society into a power capable of resisting the might of Hitler’s Germany.
Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had died in 1924, and in the ensuing power struggle the Georgian Joseph Stalin came to the fore as the General Secretary and the de facto leader of Soviet Russia.
What was Stalin’s Five Year Plan?
Between 1928 and 1932, Stalin’s Five Year Plan was targeted at collectivizing agriculture and developing heavy industry. This was the first of four so-called plans, which took place in 1928-32, 1933-37, 1938-42 and 1946-53.
After a period of relative economic liberalism Stalin decided that a wholesale restructuring of the economy was needed, claiming that unless the Soviets caught up with the capitalist western powers they would be destroyed.
Stalin famously stated: ”We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or they will crush us.”
Mechanisation and collectivisation
Stalin’s first Five Year Plan involved the mechanisation and collectivisation of agriculture in a bid to make it more efficient. It also involved the opening of huge new industrial centres in previously uninhabited areas rich in natural resources, such as Magnitogorsk, built near huge iron and steel reserves east of the Ural Mountains.
Economic activity was pushed in the direction of heavy industries, which lead to a 350 percent increase in output, in a bid to prepare Russia for an industrialised war. The first Five Year Plan also had a revolutionary effect on society, as millions left the farms to pursue new lives in the cities.
The human cost
Despite these successes, Stalin’s Five Year Plan was not an unqualified success. In addition to mechanisation and collectivisation, key features of the first Five Year Plan included the disastrous impact it had on human lives. Aside from the terrible conditions in the new factories, where unskilled workers had little idea of how to operate machines, the collectivisation of agriculture was ruinous.
Millions died in the subsequent famine and peasant disturbances. An entire social class of wealthier peasants – the Kulaks, who had accumulated more land, livestock, or wealth than their fellow peasants — were accused of sabotaging the progress of the Plan. Consequently they were either massacred or imprisoned in Gulags, which were forced labour camps, so that the state could exploit their land for collectivisation.
As many of the deaths were in non-Russian areas such as Ukraine, the Five Year Plan created lasting divisions between Russians and non-Russians.
The policies also played a role in causing the Holodomor, a mass famine in the Ukraine, and Soviet inactivity in response to the catastrophe has lead to a recent re-categorisation of events as a genocide against the Ukrainian people.
World War Two
In World War Two, the tensions caused by the first Five Year Plan proved consequential. Ukrainians, for example, who were subject to its disastrous effects were more willing to collaborate with the Nazis against the USSR.
The first Five Year Plan actually lasted 4 years, as it supposedly met all of its objectives earlier than expected. On the other hand, this can be ascribed to Russian propaganda efforts. Nevertheless, the first plan and those that followed, which continued the general objectives of the first while also emphasising the production of military hardware, were critical in preparing Russia for an industrialised war.
It seems unlikely that Russia could have resisted Nazi invasion without the immense industrialisation program that had been undertaken in the years prior. However, the vast cost in human life of the Five Year Plans and the invasion of Russia itself remain a dark stain on the history of the 20th century.