It is doubtless that Russia had made huge strides in developing industry by the end of the ’30s. However, this progress had not been followed by the society, and therefore despite achieving an industrialized society, the rest of the elements in the society had not achieved that standard.
A modernized country is one which has of course a developed, efficient economy, and this economy functions to serve its people. It can be said therefore, that although Stalin had managed to modernize Russia’s economy by 1938 (which is in fact also quite questionable when the imbalance between the industrial sectors is taken into account), he did not provide for the society as a whole, having actually trampled all over the traditional structure of Russian society. From this perspective, Russia’s “modernization” can be seen as a failure, both in the sense of the human cost involved but also in the sense that Stalinist tactics were terribly inefficient – there need not have been such huge suffering to achieve what Russia had in the industrial sector. Failure exceeded success, something that we can see from the fact that grain production levels after collectivization took decades to reach the same levels as before collectivization. Essentially, the problem with Stalinist tactics was that despite their good intentions, the way they were carried out led to more harm than good.
Collectivisation is something that displays this clearly. It was a great plan, one that would evidently help transform the peasants into socialists and prospering components of the society. However, the lack of careful planning and the megalomania of the state led to unrealistic expectations which eventually led to more backwardness than modernization. Bad planning meant that the entire system did not function smoothly, as there were no specialists to guide the process. Russia did not have the capacity to carry out reform on such a scale, leading to destructive results. Party fanatics such as the Twenty-Five Thousanders were placed in charge of collective farms, but as they were not specialized in agricultural methods, they only led to more inefficiency, and wrong moves, making matters worse. An example is how the theories of one “scientist” were applied to farming, but because they were absolutely fantastical, destroyed several crops. To add to this, the tactics that Bolsheviks officials used to quench peasant resistance were quite medieval – anyone who reacted was sent to the Gulag for slave labour, while class warfare, with the extinction of the “kulak” as main focus, raged over the countryside.
However, the kulaks were the most entrepreneurial farmers who had managed to make something more for themselves out of agriculture. In search for a scapegoat, therefore, the government had chosen to purge the only class that had the ability to bring them out of this predicament. Fifteen million kulaks were killed, a huge loss not only because of their specialized knowledge which would make collectivization work, but also as a percentage of the class that produced food. We can see their importance from the fact that the poorer peasants (who were supposedly being exploited by kulaks and therefore meant to hate them) and local party officials (who were meant to see the harm they were doing) were completely unwilling to turn such entrepreneurial farmers in as kulaks, because they knew exactly how essential they were.
This total annihilation of the traditional practice of agriculture meant that despite the (remaining) population being collectivized, there was still resistance in the form of the peasants not trying very hard to do any better. In a country where food levels were always quite low, and were now even lower, this was catastrophic, and goes to show how collectivization had not achieved any of its goals – there was less food than before, and the peasants were not “happy socialists”. In fact, looking at the figures, despite the falling grain harvests, state procurement was only rising and at a very steep rate. In 1928, 73.3 million tones were produced, and 10.8 of them were seized by the state, while in1932 69.6 were produced, and 22.6 – more than double – was exported. What we conclude, is that the state was letting the peasants starve, to complete the industrialization process they had in mind.
As Roy Medvedev estimated, about 10 million people were victimized during collectivization, with 3 million losing their lives. What is greatly ironic is that the Great Socialist State had seized all that grain away from the peasants at a time of famine – 1932 was the start of a terrible famine that lasted until 1934. About 7 million people are estimated to have died from this famine and it was unquestionably brought on by the excessive grain requisitioning. The fact that the Law of the Seventh-Eighths was applied in the worst of the famine goes to show exactly how “modern” the government’s way of thinking was. In the end, the effect of collectivization was a failure on a huge scale. Production fell dramatically in all sectors – grain, cattle, and pigs – and more than 50% of food was supplied by the private plots of the farmers, not the collective farm, with the long queues and food scarcity not growing any less. The fact that there was not enough food to go around, and that it was still decreasing so the state was going to war with the peasants goes exactly to show how collectivization had completely failed in playing its part in modernizing the society.
This huge failure of collectivization could be justified by the fact that the main focus of Stalinist modernization was to bring industry up to speed with the rest of Europe. Indeed Russia had made huge developments in heavy industry: by 1938, electricity production trebled, coal and iron output doubled and steel production had increased by a third, new cities – such as Magnitogorsk – were being formed and at last society was becoming mechanized. However, it was exactly only industry that had seen progress. Consumer industries were sacrificed in the name of developing the heavy industries, and this led to a huge imbalance between sectors, which undoubtedly created a gaping social problem. Despite the successes, the Five Year Plans were largely unplanned and unrealistic. It is a known fact that the Vesenkha and the Gosplan were competing as to who would set the highest targets.
It is highly unlikely that they actually expected these to be fulfilled. On the one hand, this could be taken as a good thing which would push people to exceed their limits, as the Stakhanovite movement did. On the other hand however, the implications of such a situation were something Russia could not handle: with such limited resources and the central planning the government insisted on having, the Five Year Plans contained an alarming lack of co-ordination of resources and specific goals. As with collectivization, the Bolshevik government threw themselves into an extremely rapid reforming era, without really knowing if they would be able to pull it off. The successes could be offered to prove that they did succeed, but the fact that the population was so suppressed and its needs brushed aside go to show exactly that they failed. The result of this loose central planning was that there was a great deal of wastage. Whereas some industries were lagging due to the shortage of materials, others were overproducing and their products went to waste.
To add to this, the tremendous pressure from above to fulfill the (unrealistic) quotas meant that production was often of low quality, which goes to show further shortage. It is situations such as these that make us see how unnecessary the cost of the Stalinist modernization era was. As with collectivization, terror was not absent during the Five Year Plans either. The equivalent of the kulak for the cities was the “bourgeois experts”, who were basically factory managers from before the revolution and had the necessary expertise to run the factories. As was common Bolshevik practice, all problems, instead of being solved, were piled onto these “counter-revolutionaries” and they in turned were eradicated. This was destructive on its own, but its implications reached much further as well. Managers, in fear of their lives, would hijack trains destined for other factories to complete their own quotas, and would also fudge the figures to present a positive result to the government.
The government was driving a sector of the economy that was already quite modern – in the sense of organization – backwards. Lawlessness had become the only option, and imaginary production numbers were handed over to government, something that could only lead to chaos, and huge mistakes. However, whereas in the countryside they could kill the kulaks, starve the peasants but still get their grain, in the cities they couldn’t just let the factories run on their own, and the effect of not having specialized personnel around and its further implications was beginning to show by 1931. Problems were becoming so serious, that the government stopped the vigorous campaign against them. To add to this chaos, the government not only ignored the consumer industry (which was quite a heavy blow in a centrally planned economy) but it actively supported its weakening.
The cottage industry as it was known, was considered capitalistic (because it was run mostly by Nepmen), but also it could not be provided with materials, so it was closed down. However, this lack of consumer good had caused such a crisis by 1932 that the economy was on the verge of collapse. As is logical, heavy industry could not clothe or warm or house the people – consumer industry was a necessity. This was accounted for in the Second Five Year Plan, but again heavy industry received priority and consumer goods lagged behind. This constant imbalance meant that the workers suffered terribly. Estimates show that in Leningrad between 1928 and 1933 meat, milk and fruit consumption declined by two-thirds. By 1935, there was a shortage of water and shops, and accommodation extremely low quality for the majority of the population.
This situation is proven by the fact that in the 1930s acquired what can be described as the “quicksand” society. There was an incredibly large turnover of labour at the time, which can only suggest that there was great dissatisfaction going on. This also goes to show the incoherence and lack of organization of the country – people barely learned the job and then left, and therefore there was never any real progress. To add to this, was the fact that a huge percentage of the workers were untrained. There were, it must be said, programs to train willing workers, but the fact remained that bad quality products were created, and machines abused because they were used wrong. This goes to show how despite success in industry, the society was lagging a long way behind – progress was not equal, and as with collectivization the problems that were created or that remained greatly outweighed any success in modernizing the country.
The Russian people were the most critical component of the modernization process, and as above, the intended reforms were great in theory, but the problems thrown up were such that they instead lead to more of a failure in the attempt. First of all, the Stakhanovite movement, in itself, goes to show that something was wrong, as wherever there is propaganda or fanatical fervour, it means the government is trying to keep the people from seeing the real problem. The “quicksand society” phenomenon goes to show this, as the people went to work in the big fancy factories, and expected the glorious work of the poster boy, but as soon as they realized it was not like that, they moved on in search of El Dorado. In the same way, the government kept up the Stakhanovite movement, and the high targets, so the people would be too obsessed with the revolution to see that they were starving and in a predicament worse than before the revolution. Housing was terrible, they were working far harder and for more hours than before, they were starving and freezing more than before, and they had a much higher chance of being shot or arrested arbitrarily than before.
There is no question that the people had simply transferred their medieval feudal tendencies, where the poor people held an inexplicably masochistic adoration for the king that oppressed them, from the Czar to the Bolshevik state, and the state was using this to serve their imaginary goals. There were of course promises for a more liberated society in the form of the emancipated woman and marriage in the name of love, but once again, the Bolsheviks forgot to plan before they threw out reform. The intention was to bring the women out of the home, and onto the working place, but without burdening her with double the work. There were promises of canteens to take the place of cooking, and crï¿½ches to take care of the children.
However, to do this, it would need the country’s entire GDP – for nurseries, and soup kitchens. So the women were burdened after all. In addition to this, the emancipated society could now have postcard divorces. What this led to essentially, was a lot of pregnant women, who received the postcard the day after. Many women were forced into prostitution as a result – the emancipated woman wasn’t paid as much as the emancipated man – with the children getting into gangs that terrorized the people to the point that they were eventually being tried as adults to deter them. Another result of postcard divorce was that due to limited housing divorced couples were forced to live together, leading to high incidents of violence. Not particularly modern. Apart from the fact that living conditions were horrendous, the corruption that went with it was goes to show exactly how out of place things were.
Party officials received houses of seven rooms, while the working class hero – meant to be on that pedestal he was promised – had his family of seven crammed into one room, sharing a house with another dozen families. To add to this, all was not well and rosy at the workplace. Workers were constantly in fear of their lives – one slip, one mistake, a day sick, and you were a counter-revolutionary to be sent to the Gulag to be a state slave, or shot on the spot. Wage differentials were introduced, and better trained workers received better housing, more food, cinema tickets and other such priviledges. Of course, this acted as instigation to work hard, but when socialism is your ideology, you don’t ignore the majority of the population that doesn’t know someone on the inside to say a good word or two. Needless to say, the Great Socialist State did not achieve to provide for the Great Proletariat.
The successes of the Stalinist modernization were not enough to justify the appalling human cost they brought on. It did not create an emerging super-efficient state, with the perfect economy to say that they needed the rigor of terror to achieve this. In many cases we see that actually the tactics used pushed Russia backwards, into irretrievable losses, and for this reason it is only fair to conclude that although Stalin’s tactics were genius in theory, he did not take into account the people they were about, and his excessive megalomania did more to take Russia back than forward. Ironically, collectivisation and the Five Year Plans were more so “two steps back, one step forward” than the NEP had been.