What Was Stalin’s Controversial First Five Year Plan?

On 1 October 1928 Josef 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 Josef Stalin came to the fore as the General Secretary and the de facto leader of Soviet Russia.

Mechanisation and collectivisation

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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.”

The Five Year Plan involved the mechanisation and collectivisation of agriculture in a bid to make it more efficient, as well as 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 Urals.

Economic activity was pushed in the direction of the heavy industries, which lead to a 350 percent increase in output, in a bid to prepare Russia for an industrialised war.

It also had a revolutionary effect on society, as millions left the farms to pursue new lives in the cities.

Soviet Propaganda for the Five Year Plan. The text reads, “Plan is law, fulfillment is duty, over-fulfillment is honor!”

The human cost

Despite these successes, the Five Year Plan was not an unqualified success, and in terms of the cost in human life it was a cataclysmic disaster.

Aside from the terrible conditions in the new factories, where unskilled peasants had little idea of how to operate machines, the collectivisation of agriculture was ruinous.

Millions died in the subsequent famine and peasant disturbances, and a whole class of wealthier peasants – the Kulaks — were accused of sabotaging the progress of the Plan and were either massacred or imprisoned in Gulags, so that the state could exploit their land for collectivisation. 

As many of the deaths were in non-Russian areas such as the 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.

Ukrainian peasants starving on the streets of Kharkiv, 1933.

The Second World War

In the Second World War, the tensions caused by the first five year plan flared up, as Ukrainians and others were more willing to collaborate with the Nazis against the USSR.

The first Five Year Plan actually lasted four years, as supposedly it met all of its objectives earlier than expected, although this could be ascribed to Russian propaganda efforts. The first plan and the  subsequent ones which followed 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.

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However, the vast cost in human life of both the five year plans and the invasion of Russia itself remain a dark stain on the history of the 20th century.