Joseph Stalin gained the effective leadership of Russia in 1929. Stalin's time as leader of Russia was to gain fame for three reasons:

1. The Five Year Plans 2. Collectivisation 3. The Purges

But what do we know about Stalin?

• he was born in 1879

• he came from a poor background; his father was a cobbler and his mother was a peasant

• his real surname was Djugasvili

• he did well at school and won a scholarship to go to a seminary where priests were trained

• it was at this seminary that Stalin turned to Marxism

• he became a follower of Lenin and went to secret meetings and distributed leaflets

• between 1902 and 1913 he was arrested 8 times and exiled to Siberia. He escaped 7 times!

• in prison he adopted the name Stalin which translated as "Man of Steel". He felt that it would be good for his image

• he was a very good organiser and the part he played in the November 1917 Revolution was probably small. But the skills he gained while helping to organise the Bolshevik Party were to prove invaluable

• after 1917, he was rewarded with a number of seemingly unimportant party positions which nobody else wanted. But they gave Stalin a perfect insight into who could be trusted to support him and who could not

• Stalin was seen as dull by the intellectual elite of the Bolshevik Party. They all made a fatal mistake in assuming that he was stupid.

When Stalin became the undisputed leader of Russia in 1929, he realised that Russia was far behind the west and that she would have to modernise her economy very quickly if she was to survive. Also a strong economy would lead to a strong military if Russia was going to survive threats from external forces. A modernised Russia would also provide the farmers with the machinery they needed if they were going to modernise their farms - such as tractors.

The Five Year Plans:

Stalin introduced the Five Year Plans. This brought all industry under state control and all industrial development was planned by the state. The state would decide what would be produced, how much would be produced and where it should be produced. An organisation called Gosplan was created to plan all this out.

The first five year plan was from 1928 to 1932.

The second five year plan was from 1933 to 1937.

The third five year plan was from 1938 to 1941 when the war interrupted it.

Each plan set a target which industries had to meet. Each factory was set a target which it had to meet. The targets were completely unrealistic and could not be met but vast improvements were made. The emphasis was on heavy industries such as coal, oil, iron and steel and electricity.

The following table gives some idea of what progress was made when the base line figure is 1927 - before the five year plans. The target for both plans is in brackets.


1927 1932 1937

35 million tons

64 mt (75 mt target)

128 mt (152 mt target)

12 million tons

21 mt (22 mt target) 29 mt (47 mt target)
Iron Ore

5 million tons

12 mt (19 mt target) unknown
Pig Iron

3 million tons

6 mt (10 mt target) 15 mt (16 mt target)

4 million tons

6 mt (10 mt target) 18 mt (17 mt target)

mt = millions of tons

Though these appear excellent results, it must be remembered that the base line for 1927 was small by west European standards. However, the improvements did represent a massive jump forward.

The second five year plan continued to emphasise heavy industries but there was also a commitment to communication systems such as railways and new industries such as the chemical industry.

The third five year plan put an emphasis on weapons production (which required an input from heavy industries) as war did seem to be approaching.

Stalin brought in experts from foreign countries to help them, and he introduced single managers to run factories whereas one of the main beliefs of Lenin had been the running of factories by soviets (workers councils who would come to a joint decision on how things should be done). These managers were directly responsible for fulfilling the targets set for their factory. Good managers were well rewarded. Unsuccessful managers could pay a severe price for failure.

For all the apparent success of the five year plans, there were serious flaws. Parts for industrial machinery were hard to get and some factories were kept idle for weeks on end simply because they did not have parts to repair worn out machines. Ex-peasants were used as skilled workers. This simply did not add up. Despite their valiant efforts, many machines were damaged because those using them had no idea on how to correctly use these machines. There were also no parts to repair this damage.

 Factories took to inflating their production figures and the products produced were frequently so poor that they could not be used - even if the factory producing those goods appeared to be meeting its target. The punishment for failure was severe. A manager could be executed as an "enemy of the people". Workers could be sent to a prison camp in Siberia. Nobody was allowed to condemn or criticise the five year plans as they were Stalin’s idea.

Life for the workers:

Life was very hard for industrial workers. Their pay was poor and there was barely anything they could spend their money on even if they had any. Consumer goods were simply not produced. Working conditions were very dangerous and the hours were long. The homes that were provided were poor. So why did they work so hard?

• the young were still idealistic. The whole concept of communism was still intoxicating. Stalin was known as ‘"Uncle Joe" and they were willing to suffer a few years of hardship if they were going to get to the promised land of a better society.

• people were encouraged to work hard by propaganda which bombarded the workers in all directions. This played on the belief that if most did it, the rest would follow on as they did not want to be seen as different.

• rewards were given to the best workers. Groups of workers were encouraged to compete against each other. The most famous worker was Alexei Stakhanov. He was said to have mined 102 tons of coal in one shift. This was fourteen times the amount expected from one person. Logically if he could do it, so could others. To be rewarded for hard work meant that you were a Stakhanovite. In fact, Stakhanov was not a popular man with the workers - for very good reasons, as this put the burden on them of working harder. Stakhanov, in fact, was frequently not mining after this record. He was allowed to tour Russia to be greeted as a hero and to give lectures on how to work hard and there is no clear evidence that he did what was claimed.

• another way of persuading the workers to work hard was to pay by results. Successful managers were also paid more though whether this extra money was shared by the workers in a factory or mine is unknown.

• punishment was also used by those who did not work hard. The fear of the labour camps was usually enough to get people working hard. Absenteeism from work was punishable by being fined or having your ration book taken from you. In 1940, it carried a prison sentence. All workers had to carry labour books which stated whether you had worked hard or not. Bad comments from your manager could also lead to prison

• a lot of hard physical labour was done by prisoners. It did not matter if they died - only that the task was completed. The fact that these people were in prison, was enough for the government to use them as it saw fit.

For all the problems and hardship caused by the Five Year Plans, by 1941, Stalin had transformed Russia into a world class industrial power. This was to be vital for Russia as the war was about to test her to the extreme.

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