Stalin and the First Five-Year Plan

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Author: Mark Rathbone
Date: Jan. 2005
From: Hindsight(Vol. 15, Issue 2)
Publisher: Philip Allan Updates
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,040 words

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By 1928 Josef Stalin had won the struggle for power in the USSR against Trotsky. The fight for the leadership had followed the death, 4 years earlier, of the first Soviet leader, Lenin. Stalin was ready to initiate the next stage in the Soviet Union's development--massive economic expansion.

Since the October Revolution in 1917 progress in both agriculture and industry had been sluggish. It had not been helped by the Civil War of 1919-21, which caused a disastrous slump in both industrial and agricultural production, nor by several U-turns in economic policy: initially, workers had been allowed to take control of factories and peasants to occupy land, but 'War Communism', imposed by Lenin in mid-1918, brought all aspects of the economy under strict centralised state control. Then in March 1921 Lenin had announced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed private trade and lifted some other restrictions--a retreat from full-blooded communism.

Aims of the Five-Year Plan

Stalin had never liked the capitalistic features of the NEP and his approach was characteristically authoritarian. The Five-Year Plan, announced in 1928, set targets for the expansion of production which each industry had to achieve within 5 years. The targets were ambitious (see Source A)--coal production was to double, steel production was to increase by 160% and electricity generation was to more than quadruple. The target for agricultural production was more modest, but even this was to increase by 55%.

Why did Stalin adopt this strategy? There were a number of reasons, some of which he himself outlined in his report on the completion of the plan (see Source B). They were to modernise a technologically backward country, to make the USSR self-sufficient and free it from dependency on capitalist countries, and to build a fully socialist society. Stalin might also have added, to destroy opposition to Stalinism and to increase his own power.

The targets seemed absurdly optimistic, yet those who called for a more cautious and realistic policy were accused of being 'Mensheviks', enemies of the revolution or 'bourgeois specialists'. For the First Five-Year Plan was accompanied by a massive increase in the centralisation of power and the subordination of the needs of ordinary Russians to the will of the state.


This was most obvious in the agricultural sector. In order to meet the agricultural targets in the plan there had to be a large increase in grain production. Forcible collections of grain quotas began early in 1928: villages were forced to hand over large quantities of grain to the state at low prices to fulfil the requirements of the plan. The problem with this approach had been demonstrated by the experience of the Civil War of 1919-21, when similar grain requisitioning had taken place. If the peasants knew that any surplus grain they produced would be seized by the state, there was no incentive for them to produce more. In fact, they tended to produce just enough for their own subsistence: in 1919-21 food production had gone down disastrously.

This time Stalin was determined to avoid this by removing the independence of peasant farmers and bringing them all into collective farms (kolkhoz), tightly managed by the state (see Source C). Starting in November 1929, what Stalin called the 'great turn' began, in which peasants all over Russia 'spontaneously' decided to pool their individual landholdings into collective farms. The proportion of peasant households that had been collectivised rose from less than a quarter in 1930 to over 60% by, the end of the First Five-Year Plan in 1932, and to almost 90% by 1936.

In fact, this process was anything but spontaneous. Most peasants were far from happy to give up their own landholdings, but they were forced to do so. In just 7 weeks half of the peasant population had been collectivised. The result of the collectivisation, poorly planned and clumsily implemented, was chaos: thousands of peasants resisted and were even ready to set fire to their crops and kill their cattle rather than hand them over to collective farms.

By March 1930 even Stalin realised that collectivisation was being applied too quickly and he called a halt to the process, blaming overzealous officials for using too much force. This, however, was only temporary and by the end of 1930 compulsory collectivisation had begun again. Slogans like 'He who does not join a kolkhoz is an enemy of Soviet power' were used to justify compulsion.

Peasants who continued to resist were labelled 'kulaks'. This term, literally meaning 'fists', applied to wealthier peasants who by skill and careful management had managed to acquire quite sizeable holdings of land. These people were living proof that free markets and capitalism could produce prosperity and they had long been a target of Communist propaganda. As early as February 1918 Lenin had called for 'a ruthless war against the kulaks', and now Stalin called for their liquidation as a class (see Source E). Their land was seized and they were excluded from the collective farms. Millions were deported to labour camps and, although records are scarce and estimates vary widely, many died. The definition of 'kulak' was imprecise and in reality any opponent of collectivisation was liable to be labelled a kulak and treated accordingly.

'Shock workers' In industry too, the methods used to meet the targets demanded by the Five-Year Plan were often brutal. Labour was directed by the state and individuals had no choice as to where they worked. Hours of work were increased and the number of rest-days reduced. Workers who failed to achieve their set targets were often subject to public criticism and humiliation. Ultimately, they could be labelled saboteurs and anti-Communists, and sent to labour camps or shot.

Elite groups of 'shock workers' were given plentiful resources to complete prestige projects and others were expected to match their achievements without special training or adequate materials. This developed during the Second Five-Year Plan into the Stakhanovite movement (see Source D). Alexei Stakhanov was a miner who in one shift in September 1935 achieved the remarkable feat of producing 14 times his quota of coal. Enormous publicity was given to this achievement, and only much later was it revealed that Stakhanov had had a team of workers to assist him.

Achievements of the First Five-Year Plan

Many of the targets set in 1928 were later revised upwards and the duration of the plan was shortened to 4 years. Eventually, the plan was officially declared to have been completed on 31 December 1932, 9 months early. According to the official figures, some targets (such as overall industrial production and oil production) were met or nearly met, but many of the statistics are suspect. Others (such as electricity and steel) were missed by a huge margin while agricultural production fell disastrously, even according to the official figures, leading to a famine in 1933-34 in which millions died.

Does this mean that the First Five-Year Plan was a failure? Not necessarily. To set an ambitious target and to fall short of it may achieve more than to go for a more modest one and reach it. Certainly, there were tangible achievements of the plan (see Source F). The enormous Dnieper dam was built remarkably quickly and produced hydro-electric power for a wide area. A canal was built from the River Volga to the White Sea. New factories were built and many, such as the iron and steel plants at Magnitogorsk, were on an enormous scale (see Source G).

The increases in output may have fallen far short of the unrealistic targets set in 1928, but by any normal standards many of them are pretty impressive, especially when you consider that during the same period the capitalist world was experiencing the deep depression that followed the Wall Street Crash in 1929. The Russian economy was not growing as fast as planned, but those of the USA, Britain, Germany, Japan and most other countries were shrinking rapidly. While unemployment reached 13% in Britain and 24% in the USA, in the USSR it was almost eliminated by 1932.

Furthermore, lessons were learned from the shortcomings of the First Five-Year Plan. The Second Five-Year Plan (1933-37) was more carefully constructed, with greater detail by region and by industry. It came much closer to fulfilment in most respects, although during the life of the plan priorities shifted away from consumer goods towards heavy industry and defence as the threat of Nazi Germany grew. The USSR's ability to defend itself against the German invasion, which began in 1941 and which proved so crucial to the outcome of the Second World War, depended heavily on the economic growth whose foundations had been laid by the First Five-Year Plan.

Whether all this was worth the enormous sacrifices made and the terrible suffering endured by so many of the Russian people remains, of course, debatable. But the likelihood that, without the Five-Year Plans, Hitler might have occupied Moscow in 1941 and added the USSR to the long list of countries conquered by Nazi Germany sheds a different light on the debate.


Targets and achievements of the First Five-Year Plan

                             1927-28   1932-33   % target
                             actual    target    increase   1932 actual

Industrial production           18.3      43.2       136        43.3
  (billion roubles)
Agricultural production         16.6      25.8        55        13.1
  (billion roubles)
Electricity                     5.05      22.0       335        13.4
  (billion kilowatt-hours)
Coal (million tons)             35.4      75.0       111        64.3
Oil (million tons)              11.7      22.0        88        21.4
Iron ore (million tons)          5.7      19.0       233        12.1
Steel (million tons)             4.0      10.4       160         5.9

Source: Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR 1917-1991, 1992.


What is the five-year plan? What was the fundamental task of the five-year plan?

The fundamental task of the five-year plan was to transfer our country, with its backward, and in part mediaeval, technology, onto the lines of new, modern technology,

The fundamental task of the five-year plan was to convert the USSR from an agrarian and weak country, dependent upon the caprices of the capitalist countries, into an industrial and powerful country, fully self-reliant and independent of the caprices of world capitalism.

The fundamental task of the five-year plan was to completely oust the capitalist elements, to widen the front of socialist forms of economy, and to create the economic basis for the abolition of classes in the USSR, for the building of a socialist society.

Josef Stalin, Report of the Results of the First Five-Year Plan, 7 January 1933.


Workers on a collective farm, c. 1930.


A poster urging Azerbaijani cotton workers to boost production levels.


Now we ore able to carry on a determined offensive against the kulaks, eliminate them as a class ... Now dekulakization is being carried out by the mosses of poor and middle peasants themselves ... Now it is on integral port of the formation and development of collective forms. Consequently it is ridiculous and foolish to discourse at length on dekulokization. When the head is off, one does not mourn for the hair. There is another question no less ridiculous: whether kulaks should be permitted to join collective farms. Of course not, for they ore sworn enemies of the collective form movement.

Josef Stalin, December 1929. Quoted in Alec Nave, An Economic History of the USSR 1917-1991, 1992.


'On the Leninist path.' In this 1933 poster Stalin is pictured with some of the achievements of the First Five-Year Plan, such as a huge dam and a steel factory.


The Magnitogorsk steel factory.

* 1 Study Source A. (a) Draw graphs showing the 1927-28 actual figures, the 1932-33 target figures and the i932 actual figures for the industries mentioned. (b) What conclusions do you draw about the success or otherwise of the First Five-Year Plan?

* 2 Study Source B. List the adjectives used to describe Russia before the First Five-Year Plan; then list the adjectives used to describe Russia after the completion of the First Five-Year Plan. What does Stalin's use of language tell us about the purpose of the source?

* 3 Write two contrasting newspaper articles that might have appeared in January 1933 commenting on the completion of the First Five-Year Plan, one from a Russian newspaper, the other from a British newspaper.

* 4 Study Source E. (a) How useful is this source to a historian of Soviet Russia? (b) Explain what Stalin meant by 'When the head is off, one does not mourn for the hair'.

* 5 Study Source F. What impression does the poster give of Stalin's role?

* 6 'The main purpose of the First Five-Year Plan was to increase Stalin's grip on the USSR.' Using the text and sources in this article, and any other information you have, explain whether you agree with this statement.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A127937437