The name Stalin means “Man of Steel”, of course. It was a nickname –much like Superman’s tagline- designed to evoke unyielding strength. And Stalin’s famous quote, “You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves”, suggests that same ruthlessness, though with a worryingly unpleasant edge.
There’s no doubt that after the wreckage of the First World War and the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, a strong hand was necessary to hold things together. When Stalin emerged as Lenin’s somewhat unlikely successor in 1924 he wanted to promote himself as the man of the hour, setting wrongs to right with a firm economic grip. One of the most significant plans for improving the failed economy was to introduce a series of a series of Five Year Plans, beginning in 1928. We’ll just consider the first three of these, (running in sequence from 1928 up to 1941) in the context of the title question: Did the Five Year Plans save the USSR from Nazi Germany?
After taking over from Lenin, Stalin endlessly repeated the mantra that the Soviet Union was at least 50 years behind other developed countries. Only 20% of a vast land-mass was actually urbanized. His first target was the development of heavy industry in order to lay the foundation of solid industrial growth. It was a kind of protectionism; a fear that Soviet Russia could be at a risk from industrialized capitalists such as the USA, the UK, France and –particularly- Germany. He fostered that fear, anticipating future conflict. The first five year plan proved to be a success, with the poor, experiencing an improvement in their economic status. The production of both iron and coal quadrupled. Simultaneously, electric power production increased and fifteen hundred new large-scale industrial plants were built across the nation. Imagine that.
Gradually, Stalin introduced the policy of ‘collectivization’ which meant that individual land labour was to be consolidated into collective farms. It was supposed to be a solution for the crisis of agricultural distribution. And it was believed that replacing the individual land and labour with collective farms would immediately increase food supply for urban population. The policy, unfortunately resulted in the imprisoning, murdering and torturing of thousands of “kulak” farmers, which led to famine and abject poverty for a large section of the population.
The consequence was that, the economy was unable to cope up with the disastrous situation, even before collectivization started. Still, it is remarkable that between 1928 and 1940, the number of workers in the transport and construction industries almost tripled in Russia. Factor output increased, and Soviet Russia was catapulted into being a leading industrial nation.
The second five year plan started in the year 1933, with a focus on the steel industry and the rail network. This made the USSR Germany’s closest competitor in steel production. Efforts were made to revivify the agrarian sector, but to no avail. All in all, the standard of living fell during this period, and women were drawn into the labour sector to supply labour shortages.
The Third Five Year Plan (1938-1941) covered the period when Soviet Russia entered the Second World War. Naturally, all the economic resources contributed to the development of arms, armament and weaponry. In terms of the fulfillment of proclaimed production goals, initially, this plan was a disappointment. But, the industrial growth rate of the economy during the 1930s was still going strong at 12% to 13%. And this continued even after the Second World War.
We can conclude that Stalin’s Five Year Plans did indeed create an industrialised country that could effectively combat Hitler. This was achieved in a relatively short period of time-a single decade- and no doubt explains the devotion that so many Russians subsequently felt towards their leader. Against this has to be balanced the cost of terms of bloodshed, famine and sheer cruelty that Stalin inflicted on his people.
The silk glove held an iron fist.