With the announcement of the Five-Year Plan on Oct. 1, 1928, the Soviet Union descended into a new level of terror and human suffering. Under this new economic and social scheme, Joseph Stalin and other communist leaders hoped not only to industrialize the nation, but also to complete the process of implementing Marxism that had begun 11 years earlier with the Russian Revolution.
Shortly after the Bolshevik regime had come to power under Vladimir Lenin, the Soviets faced a counter-revolution by monarchists, Russian liberals and even those on the left who despised the new government. In a state of civil war, Lenin introduced the economic principle of War Communism — a centralized, government command economy empowered to do whatever was necessary in order to defeat the “White” Russians.
With the defeat of the regime's enemies in early 1921, Lenin realized that War Communism had largely failed because it was unable to produce consumer goods in sufficient quantities. Appreciating that the people required things like shoes, clothes and food, which had not been produced in mass quantities under War Communism, Lenin decided a temporary retreat from Marxist principles was in order. To that end, the regime introduced its New Economic Policy, or NEP.
Implemented in March, 1921, the NEP held that heavy industry, factories, mines, and railroads would remain tightly controlled by the government while allowing for limited free markets and the selling of excess agricultural products for profit. Merchants sprang up all over Russia and soon were known as NEPmen. How ironic that communist leaders like Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev debated Marxist theory in the Kremlin even as the NEPmen hocked their wares outside in Red Square. Lenin died in early 1924 and soon, communist leaders began to seriously consider abolishing the limited market system and adopting a system more in line with Marxist ideology. Stalin, one of Lenin's most devoted followers, had maneuvered his way slowly into power and by 1928 was the leading figure of the regime. Stalin, who had been as orthodox in his adherence to the NEP under Lenin as any communist functionary, now became one of the radicals calling for sweeping economic changes.
In his book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” historian Timothy Snyder writes: “By the terms of his first Five-Year Plan, Stalin proposed to seize farmland, force the peasants to work it in shifts under state control, and treat the crops as state property — a policy of 'collectivization.'”
Though the plan was announced on Oct. 1, and almost immediately began to function, it was not formally adopted until several months later. Stalin felt a pressing need to get moving on a system he deemed essential the Soviet Union's very survival.
During the end of World War I, American, British, and Japanese forces had invaded small sectors of Russia and aided the Whites against the Bolsheviks. Stalin never forgot these foreign invasions and appreciated only too well that the West was developing far faster than the Soviet Union. It was his hope that the Five-Year Plan would industrialize the USSR to the point where it could easily stand up to any other power who dared cross its borders.
The month following the announcement, Stalin made a speech to communist leaders where he asserted, “To secure the final victory of Socialism in our country, we must also overtake and outstrip all these (capitalist) countries technically and economically. If we do not do this, we shall find ourselves forced to the wall.”
The Soviet Union did make remarkable strides toward industrialization under the plan, but not so much because of its sound economic policies, but because of the threat of force and violence inherent in the Soviet system. Forced labor camps blossomed like flowers. The NKVD, the dreaded secret police closely monitored the population for signs of dissent. Peasants gave up family plots of land for the criminally inefficient collectivized farms.
Robert Conquest writes in his book, “Stalin: Breaker of Nations,” “One of the 'gigantic' projects of the Five-Year Plan was the Baltic-White Sea Canal. Started in 1930, it was built entirely...with slave labor. The workforce at its largest seems to have been about 300,000, mostly 'kulaks' (better-off peasants and therefore class enemies)...who hacked it out of the earth and rock under appalling conditions — deaths are reckoned at about 200,000.”
In order to pay for the massive industrialization project, the Soviet Union was forced to sell the only commodity it could produce in mass quantities — agricultural products. The horrifying level of government grain requisitions from the countryside ensured millions of peasants, mostly Ukrainians, starved to death in an entirely avoidable man-made famine.
Despite the plan's successes, the results were not enough for Stalin. Though the plan was intended as a one-time scheme to industrialize the nation, a second Five-Year Plan went into effect in 1933. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was working on its 13th Five-Year Plan.
Snyder writes of Stalin's responsibility for the human catastrophe: “He had transformed the market into the plan, farmers into slaves, and the wastes of Siberia and Kazakhstan into a chain of concentration camps. His policies had killed tens of thousands by execution, hundreds of thousands by exhaustion, and put millions at risk of starvation.”
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org