Soviet Economic Growth Under Stalin

Since the late 1920's Soviet economic planners almost obsessively concentrated on the development of heavy industry. They did this for the sake of developing more heavy industry--especially the expansion of steel production.

Under the First Five-Year Plan Soviet steel production (5.9 million tons) fell far short of the prescribed target of 10 million tons: but large-scale industrial production more than doubled, new blast furnaces were constructed and old ones modernized, and the foundations were laid for a Ural iron and steel center at Magnitogorsk and a western-Siberian one in the Kuznetsk basin (Kuzbas).

The Second Five-Year Plan brought a spectacular rise in steel production more than 17 million tons, placing the Soviet Union not far behind Germany as one of the major steel-producing countries of the world. As was the case with the other five-year plans, the second was not uniformly successful, failing to reach the recommended production levels in such crucial areas as coal, oil, and cement production.

The first two years of the Third Five-Year Plan proved to be even more of a disappointment in terms of proclaimed production goals. Even so, the value of these goals and of the coordination of an entire economy's development of central planning has been undeniable. For the 12% to 13% rate of annual industrial growth attained in the Soviet Union during the 1930's has few parallels in the economic history of other countries. What is more, this high rate of growth was resumed after World War II and continued into the early fifties, after which it has gradually declined.

The collectivization of agriculture seems to have been a necessary prerequisite for the launching of the First Five-Year Plan. In 1928 80% of approximately 150 million Soviet citizens were engaged in agriculture. By the late twenties the peasant population, which was broken up into 25 million families, had greatly improved its relative position in Soviet society as a result of the Revolution and NEP. Peasants were no longer forced to surrender a large part of their surplus income to the state, as they had been during tsarist times, in order to finance the government's industrialization program; and they lived better and consumed a greater part of their own agricultural production than ever before.

In 1928 the peasants demonstrated their ability to organize effective resistance when the Soviet state tried to collect grain forcibly and at prices unfavorable to the peasants. Collectivization was calculated to eliminate effective peasant opposition to the policies of the Soviet state by reducing the number of separate units in the agricultural population from 25 million independent families to several hundred thousand collective farms.

Although state control over these collective farms was by no means complete, it was effective enough to assure the delivery to the state of compulsory quotas of agricultural products and to oblige the peasants to accept the discriminatory taxation and the low prices for agricultural products Soviet leaders considered necessary in order to finance rapid industrialization. Furthermore, after 1928, the lowering of the peasants' standard of living and the tightening of political control over the peasant community produced conditions that made life in the country less attractive than before and, therefore, helped to increase the rate of migration into towns.

Between 1929 and 1935, 16.6 million former peasants left the countryside and moved to urban centers, where they became part of the expanding labor force of Soviet industry. This was, of course, a highly desirable development from the point of view of the Communist elite which ruled in the name of the "dictatorship of the proletariat."

In the thirties collectivization proceeded rapidly but in the face of bitter and costly peasant resistance. By Jan. 1930, 21% of peasant households had been collectivized, a percentage that dramatically rose to 58% in March as a result of the intensified application of force and coercion by overzealous local party officials during the late winter of that same year.

Stalin temporarily called a halt to forcible collectivization with his famous ''Dizziness with Success'' article of March 2, 1930, but massive peasant abandonment of collectivization during the ensuing months led to renewed administrative pressure and violence against ''kulaks,'' the term then indiscriminately used to label all peasants who opposed collectivization.

In mid-1931 53% of the peasants once again lived on collective farms. After this the same combination of persuasion and coercion that had been applied earlier steadily raised the percentage of peasants on collective farms until it reached 94% in 1938. In many cases military units were called on to subdue unruly peasants, and decrees for the protection of socialist property sanctioned the shooting of thousands of peasants for stealing such trifles from kolkhozes as rope or sheaves of straw or for the ''hoarding of small coin.'' Hundreds of thousands of other peasant households were deported to Siberia or other remote areas of the Soviet Union.

When the peasants retaliated by destroying crops and killing their animals, the Soviet state confiscated foodstuffs the peasants needed to feed themselves. A particularly serious crisis developed in the Ukraine and northern Caucasus during the famine winter of 1932-1933, when apparently millions of peasants starved to death. The exact human toll resulting from collectivization is not known, but estimates run as high as 5 to 10 million. A recent study by Robert Conquest suggests the real figure is closer to 20 million.