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Essay: Stalin and rapid modernisation

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  • Stalin and rapid modernisation
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Stalin once said the USSR was fifty to a hundred years behind the West, either the USSR caught up or they would be crushed. Consequently, a rapid economic modernisation policy was implemented under Collectivisation and the Five-Year Plans. The aims were to collectivise agriculture and freeing labour to work in the cities, which would enable large upscales in industrial production and as a result amass the materials necessary to develop a military economy that could sustain a war that Stalin had predicted. Stalin succeeded brilliantly, turning the USSR from a backward country to the leading world power albeit this came at a severe cost of millions of lives. At the outset it seems clear that the achievements of the policies do not justify the methods used due to the costs for the Soviet people, however, without it the Allies might have lost the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of Soviet Russia would have remained.

It has been suggested by David Hoffman that Stalin’s policies cannot be justified by the economic achievements since the nature of the methods used to implement them were too extreme. Hoffman argues that “the means and ends were themselves in contradiction. State coercion by its very nature could not create social harmony. The arrest and execution of millions of people only sowed hatred, mistrust and disharmony in Soviet society.” Hoffman’s interpretation is certainly credible when observing the accounts collected by Brian Moynaham, who described how “in some villages, a Party activist would arrive from the city, produce a pistol, and say that any peasant who refused to join a kolkhoz would be sent immediately to Siberia,” showing the party’s use of arbitrary punishment and imprisonment to subjugate the peasants. Moynaham’s description has strength since he collected multiple accounts of people that experienced the events. However, it is inherently limited in its scope since it depicts the events in one village and may not reflect the entire Ukraine or the USSR, albeit there are accounts of the terror used to enforce collectivisation in the countryside. The source is limited further since it was written in 1975, therefore it was recollected many years after the period described and certain aspects may have been forgotten or exaggerated for publicity. However, Hoffman’s interpretation is further testified by the events of ‘The Great Turn.’ Party officials returned to the countryside in an all-out drive to collectivise agriculture with a special levy of 25,000 industrial workers, many with military experience, known as the ‘25000ers.’ They were dispatched to intimidate peasants that had resisted, demonstrating that Stalin’s method to collectivise agriculture was implemented by coercing the peasants, since if they were not compliant, they faced extreme consequences. Therefore, the achievements of collectivisation cannot be justified by the methods because they were too extreme, and majority of the peasants were intimidated into joining commune farms in fear being sent to a gulag or executed. As a result, by 1931 2 million were sent to gulags and 7 million were executed. Regardless of the economic gain resulting from the policies the methods used went beyond what was acceptable in human terms therefore it cannot be justified to any extent.

However, Hoffman’s argument can be contradicted by a speech given by Stalin on agricultural reform. He suggested, “the way out is to unite the small and dwarf peasant farms gradually but surely, not pressure but by example and persuasion,” suggesting that the peasants and government needed to cooperate in order to successfully integrate the small peasant farms into communes. However, it is vital to consider that the speech was delivered in December 1927 which is significant since Stalin had not consolidated his power and major debate had occurred on the future of Lenin’s New Economic Policy. By this stage Stalin was empathetic towards the policy of collective agriculture but there still remained opposition. Thus, this speech may have been created to glorify the process of collectivisation in order to amass enough support from the party to advocate it as an economic doctrine.

A counter argument is suggested by Jean Elleinstien who argues that Stalin methods included “increasing taxation on the rich and abolition taxation on the poor, stepping up aid to collective farms and state farms,” suggesting the government and peasants remained compliant with each other which means that the methods can be justified since they were beneficial. Her argument can be credited by the accounts that suggest the farms had access to clean water and electricity and schools and health centres were established on the farms in order to incentivise more peasants to join. Even women were allowed to work instead of staying at home. As a result, nearly 50% more of the population in the countryside could be mobilised to work the fields. This allowed the transition of labour from the countryside to the cities. These methods of incentivising collectivisation confirm some validity to her argument since it testifies that the state not bullying the peasants but helping them transition into collective farm. Therefore, the methods are justifiable since they were not brutal but only an aid for the peasants. However, Elleinstein’s argument can be heavily contradicted. For example, the interview of an OGPU colonel who in an interview commented, “did I do all that in order that I should now surround villages with machine-guns and order my men to fire indiscriminately into the crowds of peasants?” This undermines Elleinstein’s case that there was cooperation because it explicitly highlights the use of violence to subjugate the peasants and the results if they resisted. His interview can be considered credible since he referred to himself an as “old Bolshevik,” and told how he “worked in the underground against the Tsar,” and “fought in the civil war,” therefore his ideology would have been of a true Bolshevik and despite remaining in the Party under Stalin would give a true representation of the events that occurred. In addition, the number of organised rural mass disturbances increased from 172 for the first half of 1929 to 229 for the second half which corroborates the source since he was referring to the execurtion. Therefore, there is little support for Elleinstein’s argument and for the cooperation between the peasants and the Bolshevik but were more Methods that cannot be justified regardless of achieving a collectivised countryside.

Further support of the unacceptable human cost of the policies implemented has been suggested by Perry who argued that the achievements cannot be justified since the policies Stalin implemented had a cost to human life that was too significant. Perry argues that collectivisation resulted in, “a tragedy for Russia… and Stalin, ignorant on economic matters, launched policies which brought about disaster,” regarding to the millions of lives that were ruined and lost as a result of the policy which cannot be justfied. There is significant credibility to Perry’s interpretation that is demonstrated by the adverse impacts of collectivisation, which led to famine in 1932. In particular, the Holodomor crisis was a result of Stalin imposing a man-made famine on the country by excessive requisitioning of grain which resulted in mass starvation with deaths maximising at 25,000 per day and Ukraine’s population fell by 25%. This shows the severe loss of life that was caused by requisitioning to achieve higher grain yields. Perry’s interpretation is corroborated by an examination of Nina Lugovskaia’s experience during the crisis. She described how the Bolsheviks couldn’t “clear all the dead bodies off the streets fast enough,” and all that remained was “starving peasants,” in the “lifeless empty villages,” which suggests that immoderate requisitioning resulted in mass loss of life. She suggests that Stalin’s policy was to blame since the “Bolsheviks were prepared for this disaster.” There is definitely truth to Nina’s account since the party ordered the Red Army to prevent any Ukrainians from fleeing the country. The source is considered reliable since it originates from a diary entry of a Nina who experienced the events first hand. Therefore, it provides an intimate glimpse into the effects Stalin’s policy had on the people of Ukraine. In addition, it was not intended for public consumption thus it can be assumed that the account is genuine, and the death tolls mentioned are not exaggerated. However, the diary is a personal document therefore is inherently narrow in its scope. The death tolls are undeniable, but it does not suggest that all of the Soviet Union was suffering as a result of collectivisation. However, the historian Robert Conquest provides evidence that credits the source. He calculated that 7 million people were killed as a result of the famine. Therefore, it is clear the achievements of Stalin’s policy cannot justify the methods because they were undoubtedly too extreme and resulted in the murder of millions and this loss of human life cannot be justified by any achievements no matter how impressive.

A further argument is suggested by Wood who argues the economic achievements cannot be a justification since the methods used were aggressive in their nature and gave the Russian people little choice in the way they lived. Wood argues that “collectivisation was in effect a civil war unleashed by the Party on the peasant population,” since the policy had a large social cost and the ‘civil war’ that he referred to is policy of dekulakisation. This is clearly supported by a closer examination of Stalin himself when he announced on the 27th of December the “liquidation of the kulak class,” and followed in his speech to proclaim that, “now we have the opportunity to carry out a resolute offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their production with the production of kolkhozes.” WIKI

As Wood suggests the policy was nothing more than the elimination of a section of the peasants and was considered viable by Stalin if it achieved the collectivisation of agriculture. The speech clearly demonstrates that Stalin saw the eradication of the kulaks as a necessity that would have achieved a collectivised countryside and enabled workers to transition into industrial manufacturing. However, this is undoubtedly too extreme to be considered justified. This achievement was Stalin’s justification of the elimination of an entire class and his justification alone. The speech is credible since it was delivered at the time when Stalin had no challenge to his leadership, reinforcing that the view he portrayed was his genuine opinion and not one needed to raise support from the party. In addition, this source is supported by the formalisation of the Politburo’s policy titled. “On measures for the elimination of kulak households in districts of comprehensive collectivisation.” The resolution originated from the Politburo therefore it is definitely true in representing the methods deemed viable by Stalin – he had significant influence within the Politburo since the Left and Right Opposition had been eliminated. The resolution categorised kulaks into; those that were to be shot or imprisoned, those that were to be sent to Siberia, the North, the Urals or Kazakhstan after confiscation of their property and those to be evicted and used in labour colonies. As a result, 500,000 kulaks were killed. The advocation of social cleansing as a policy firmly demonstrates that the policy of collectivisation was incredibly extreme; too extreme to ever be considered justifiable by its achievements.

However, even if there is evidence explaining the significant injustices of the methods of collectivisation, the achievement cannot be disregarded. Ward argues “there were some dramatic advances. In these four or five years the Soviet economy was fundamentally transformed.” If the morality debate of the methods is removed, then there is little challenge to Ward’s argument and the achievement of collectivisation from an economic standpoint. Albeit it yielded less than expected, the key objective was to free labour to move to the cities. This is definitely credited by statistics. In 1930 23.6% of farms were collectivised and by 1941 98% had been, although it must be acknowledged that by this stage the USSR had just declared war against Nazi Germany. Hence, many of the peasants could have opted to join the kolkhozes in an act of patriotism and this could distort the statistics. It does indicate an almighty achievement to have nearly all farms collectivised in a 10-year period. As a result, it enabled 25 million small holdings to convert into a quarter of a million collective farms freeing up millions of peasant workers that were relocated the cities for factory work. Hence, it can be argued that the methods of collectivisation can be justified by the achievements since the key objective was achieved. The mass movement of the population into kolkhozes was successful to the point of freeing up workers to enable the industrial growth that was needed to advance USSR and give the country a strong footing to kept up with the West and especially its German counterparts.

Peter Gattrell acknowledges that Stalin was coercive in his methods but stressed that the outcome was an economy strong enough by 1941 to sustain the USSR through four years of the most demanding of modern wars. He suggests that although it is difficult for many Western liberals to accept, it may be that Russia could not have been modernised by any other methods. There is overwhelming support for Gattrell’s argument when considering that the objective of collectivisation was to free a large proportion of the agrarian labour force to move into the cities for the purpose of increasing production of industrial goods. From this aspect the methods of collectivisation resulted in significant achievement. By 1941 98% of farms had been collectivised. As a result, by the end of the First Year’ Plan half the urban labour force had been made up of peasants. Therefore, Stalin’s policy may have been the only viable option to achieve his objectives despite how horrendous they have been considered. His methods were brutal and resulted in the breakdown of traditional living in the countryside but in doing so they overcame a far greater problem; the backwards system of agriculture which tied so many to the land yet yielded so low since the rule of the Tsar. The upheaval of the peasants forced them to migrate into the cities and take up positions in factories. However, this ultimately enabled one of the largest growths in heavy industrial output; levels of growth not seen since the years of the western industrial revolution. This enabled the achievement of Stalin’s remaining objectives; the development of an arms industry that prepared the USSR for war, and to economically catch up with the western imperialist powers. Therefore, the achievement of collectivisation cannot be understated since it enabled the Five-Year Plans to become a success necessitating the strong war effort of the USSR and these achievements could stand as testament for the methods.

The ultimate achievement of Stalin’s industrial economic policies was the preparation of the USSR for World War II, and in doing so can be used as a firm justification for all methods however atrocious. It has been suggested by Terry Fiehn that “Stalin had succeeded in industrialising the USSR in order to have a basis for a powerful arms industry.” This interpretation is given its strongest credibility by the success of the Five-Year Plans which is depicted in Appendix A. Clearly, the interpretation is corroborated by the statistics since it indicates a remarkable increase in the production of heavy industry. In just over 12 years coal production quintupled, steel grew by six times, oil doubled, and electricity generation quintupled. These four products provided the essential foundations for the military economy, the production of arms, munitions and vehicles, that enabled the USSR to successfully survive four years of German occupation during World War II. Fiehn’s interpretation is given even greater credibility when considering that the USSR eventually had enough resources to launch operation Uranus; the counter-offensive against the Nazis, and these resources were enough to drive the German army out of Soviet territory. Fiehn is proven correct since the USSR’s military economy grew substantial enough that it enabled the Soviet invasion and defeat of Germany in 1945. Therefore, the argument that the achievements justify the methods used is definitely testified by Fiehn’s interpretation, since industrialisation achieved a developed arms industry which enabled the prevention of the German conquest and an Allied victory, which can be justly considered the greatest achievement of Stalin’s policy.

There is further support for the achievements of Stalin’s economic policy. Fiehn’s argument is shared by McCauley who argued “The first Five-Year Plan was a period of genuine enthusiasm and prodigious achievements were recorded in production.” McCauley’s view is strengthened by John Scott, an American Communist and one of the pro-Soviet Western industrial advisers who described how the city of Magnitogorsk was built from scratch, “Within several years, half a billion cubic feet of excavation was done, forty-two million cubic feet of reinforced concrete poured, five million cubic feet of fire bricks laid, a quarter of a million tons of structured steel erected,” This illustrates the size of the construction work necessary for the initiation of Magnitogorsk and since it was operational within a few years it stands as a testament to the achievements of the Soviet economy. However, it is vital to consider that the source was written by an American pro-Soviet who had recently moved to the USSR due to his sympathies for the Communist idealism and could have been tied by censorship to only give a positive account of the construction. As a result, his account may glorify the process of industrialisation and exaggerate the achievements of the workforce. However, McCauley’s interpretation is further supported by the successful operation of large industrial projects such as Magnitogorsk. The city produced nearly 10% of the Soviet Union’s steel and pig iron and became a show piece for the USSR as a symbol of the achievements Communism could make. However, this can be contrasted by Sheila Fitzpatrick who referred to what Stalin called “the grand projects of communism,” such as Magnitogorsk as nothing more than gigantomania. McCauley’s interpretation fails to consider that predominant focus was directed at the quantities produced and not the quality of the products which distorted the economy. Proper planning and investment were necessary for the economic progress of the USSR which Stalin had forsaken for the large-scale projects which deprived the USSR of any genuine chance of competing with the modern economies of Great Britain and the USA as the plans had set out to achieve. This is supported by David Evans who succinctly commented that the plans were affected by “confusion, waste and inefficiency.” Overall, there is limited support to McCauley’s argument since the large-scale production, which was apparent in some industries resulted in an unbalanced economy which is not a positive achievement. Since there was little achievement in the entire economy and only in heavy industry, the achievements cannot justify the methods since they are not great enough to outweigh the brutality of collectivisation and the hardships the Five-Year Plans caused.

In conclusion, it is obvious that the extent of the justification is not simple. Stalin’s understood that the USSR had to be fully prepared for war on a massive scale. Therefore, it is understandable why historians justify the human cost of Stalin’s economic modernisation programme because without this rapid transition being in place by 1941, it seems very likely that the USSR would have been quickly overpowered by Nazi forces. When Stalin realised the ever increasingly likelihood of war, rapid modernisation was the only way for the USSR to survive, therefore it had to be achieved no matter what the human cost. His gambit paid off when the German’s invaded and albeit Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people in the preparation, the war resulted even more, and more would have died had the USSR been defeated. Furthermore, the transition of the USSR from a backward country overcame its deep-rooted agricultural issues that had plagued all governments prior to his. Although his policy uprooted the peasant’s traditional lifestyle and caused phycological distress he alleviated the problem that constrained the Soviet economy. Consequently, the USSR became a leading world power that could rival the USA and Great Britain.

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