In 1918, modern-day Russia found itself mired in a bloody civil war. Following the wildly unpopular intervention in the First World War – whereupon Russian soldiers suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the German Empire – Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown, and chaos ensued. Bolshevik forces, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, fought against anti-Bolshevik “White Russians” – a scattered coalition which included multiple foreign powers, Russian monarchists and ultra-nationalists, various Republicanist movements, and multiple states vying for independence. Ultimately, the Bolsheviks would prevail in 1922, after around ten million deaths and the total destruction of the Russian economy. The Soviet Union rose out of the ashes of the former Russian Empire, as an international pariah state, hungry for power and global communist revolution. Vladimir Lenin – a man who truly believed in Marxist theory and the revolution of the proletariat – headed the new USSR.
The Bolsheviks, while communist in name, initially moved in the direction of open markets and small-scale free market enterprise. For example, farmers could now sell food on the open market, helping to relieve the famines wrought by the chaos of the civil war. Small-scale factories were removed from government control, and ownership was transferred to private individuals. While the NEP was successful in helping to partially rebuild Russia, it also strengthened the position of the Kulaks – comparatively wealthy Russian peasants who held large influence over the food supply. As the agricultural sector grew, the already weak industrial sector stagnated, leading to economic imbalance.
Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, leaving the young Soviet Union in the midst of a succession crisis. Lenin’s last testament criticized several powerful individuals within the Bolshevik party – but most notably, Lenin warned of the growing power of Joseph Stalin, who was the General Secretary of the Communist Party at the time. Stalin, however, was a skilled politician, and he spun Lenin’s testament in his favor while simultaneously denouncing his main rival, Leon Trotsky. Upon the death of Lenin, Stalin found himself the new leader of the Bolsheviks, with enemies surrounding him. After a fair amount of dizzying political maneuvering, Leon Trotsky was exiled to Turkey, and Stalin’s two former greatest allies – Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev – would eventually be executed. By 1927, Stalin held absolute power in the Soviet Union.
The prospect of war with foreign powers terrified the Soviets due to the high probability of Soviet military defeat. In 1920, Soviet forces attempted to invade Poland – and failed. Technologically, the Soviet Union was a century behind the Western Powers, as no industrial revolution had occurred under the Russian Empire. To deal with these new challenges, Stalin repealed the NEP and devised the first Five Year Plan – a plan which would turn the Soviet Union into an industrial giant and prove the theoretical legitimacy of “Socialism in One Country”. The Five Year Plan included extremely ambitious targets – a 250% increase in industrial output, a 330% increase in heavy industrial output, and large increases in electricity and steel production. Harsh quotas were imposed to meet these targets – and while workers who failed to meet these quotas were shamed, workers who exceeded production quotas were glorified and turned into celebrities.
The Soviets made many notable accomplishments, especially in the field of heavy industry, over the course of the first five year plan. The city of Magnitogorsk, which was situated next to several mountains comprised of 50-60% iron ore, was rebuilt from the ground up. With the aid of American planners from across the modern day Rust Belt, 250,000 Soviet workers – many of whom were enslaved political prisoners – constructed gargantuan steel plants and built the city of Magnitogorsk into a giant of steel production. During the Second World War, Magnitogorsk would supply the steel required to forge tanks, guns, and ammunition for the Red Army. The town of Kuzenstk underwent a similar transformation, as a rural town rich in coal rapidly grew into a coal-mining and production powerhouse. The Soviets constructed a tractor plant in Stalingrad, capable of producing 40,000 tractors per year. Overall, electricity production tripled, steel and iron production doubled, and the number of metal-working machine tools increased by a factor of ten. The Soviet Union now only trailed the United States in terms of industrial output, whereas previously it stood at fifth in the world.
However, the First Five Year plan also demonstrated the unprecedented brutality of the Soviet machine. Farmers were forced to work on large collective farms, and the Kulaks, who resisted, were slaughtered in the millions. Collective farms wreaked havoc on local traditions and crops, leading to resistance in Soviet republics such as Turkmenistan and Ukraine. In Kazakhstan, a major grain production region, mismanagement led to a famine which killed two million people. Production quotas were set at unrealistic levels, and farmers who did not meet production quotas were severely punished. Many projects had no practical use – for example, the White Sea Canal, painfully constructed using the forced labor of 130,000 gulag inmates, had too shallow of a depth to be useful for commercial shipping. Outputs of consumer goods hardly rose, and quality of life in the Soviet Union likely decreased due to the 1932-1933 famine.
The Five Year Plan undoubtedly transformed the Soviet Union. The USSR evolved from a backwater, rural state, to an industrial powerhouse within merely five years. This industrial success would further evolve during the second Five Year Plan, which once again doubled coal and iron production, and improved rail infrastructure. Yet, living standards decreased, as the combination of harsh working conditions, long working hours, and famines wrought by the transition from individualized to collective farming all created misery. New factories produced heavy goods – such as tanks, steel, trains, and components for other factories – while consumer products were neglected.
Heavy industry likely saved the Soviet Union in World War II. When three million German troops crossed into the Soviet frontier on June 22, 1941, they initially won victory after victory, crushing Soviet forces in Kiev, Minsk, the Baltic States, and reaching the gates of Moscow by December of 1941. Despite their huge successes, however, the Nazis would eventually be crushed by a wave of Soviet manpower and machines. The Soviets, being experienced in rapidly constructing factories, managed to move 1500 large factories from the East to Siberia over the course of the war, which produced tanks and arms in vast quantities. This, along with American shipments of locomotives and trucks to the USSR, allowed for the Red Army to eventually drive the Germans back to Berlin.
The Five Year plans were, therefore, a necessary evil. The ghastly human toll on the Soviet Union as a result of the Five Year Plans serves as a reminder of the challenges of rapid industrialization under a totalitarian regime. Yet, without this rapid industrialization, it is likely that German Forces would have defeated a weak and unprepared Soviet Union – which would directly result in the genocide of hundreds of millions of Slavic peoples. The rapid industrialization of the Five Year Plans allowed for the Soviet Union to avoid a horrific end at the hands of the German Reich and provided for the Soviet Union to become the second-strongest nation on Earth by the end of World War II.