He brought his country and his people nothing but harm. To what extent do you agree with this assessment of Stalins domestic policies in the USSR between 1929 and 1953?
‘He brought his country and his people nothing but harm.’ To what extent do you agree with this assessment of Stalin’s domestic policies in the USSR between 1929 and 1953?
‘Life has become better comrades; life has become more joyous’ addressed Stalin in 1935, to a population overworked and underfed. For by 1935, let alone the early fifties, Stalin’s Russians were far from joyous, living under a dictator and his despotic whims with the austere domestic policies of collectivisation and rapid industrialisation, the Great Terror and High Stalinism. Although Stalin’s agricultural and industrial methods raise contention as to whether they really benefitted the USSR, the most unambiguous evidence for Stalin’s disregard for his country and his people was described by Service as ‘the most thorough repressive project in history’; the dictator’s Great Terror. This terror was defined by the brutal purges and show trials which succeeded in little besides creating a festering atmosphere of apprehension and undermining any stability within the Soviet Union. It was this domestic policy of terror, described by Volkogonov as ‘waging war on his own people’, that created the foundations for collectivisation and rapid industrialisation as well as the climate that allowed High Stalinism to develop in the aftermath of WWII. It also ensured that any successes in these policies were obtained at such a high cost to the people of Russia and Russian security that is indubitable that Stalin did indeed bring his country and his people little else but harm.
Throughout his rule, Stalin’s domestic policy had two aims at its heart, to consolidate his own power as well as boost the Russian economy so that it could compete with more modernised western powers. Collectivisation was introduced early in Stalin’s regime with the aim of combating inefficient farming and, as agriculture was virtually the only source of Soviet income, it was relied upon to raise funds for investment in an industrialisation drive. Further to this, it was hoped that the merging of private plots into large state-run farms would increase the motivation of the peasantry with the return to Marxist principles it appeared to symbolise. However for Stalin the symbolism was not of a victory for Socialism, but one for his regime, which now had taken power away from the peasants with regards to the food production necessary to feed the cities’ workers. However, the aims of collectivisation were purely based in the interests of industry, with little regard for the welfare of the people; therefore, due to his disregard for their welfare, Stalin certainly was not protecting them from the harm that was to come.
Through the policy of collectivisation, there were some successes, with various new plans benefitting the people, as well as Stalin himself. For the peasants, the amenities available at some kolkhozes increased literacy rates, although these were few and far between. Collectivisation also played a role in modernising farming methods, with machinery becoming more readily available from the MTS on each farm as the years went on. For the dictator, there was now no political threat from Bukharin or Nep-men now that the NEP was gone. Further to this, the peasants were eventually fully socialised thanks to collectivisation, and another positive for Stalin was the speed of the process; by 1941, virtually all farms were collectivised. Eventually, Stalin’s aim was achieved as seventeen million peasants were freed up to work in towns and agricultural production increased sufficiently to fund industrial growth, yet at a great cost to both peasant livelihood and lives.
Despite from Stalin’s perspective the scheme being a success, the policy had significant limitations that ultimately countered any success it had had. The most significant occurrence of this was the significant lapse in production figures that, in the opinion of Lee, ‘showed collectivisation to be a disaster’ as the grain harvest declines from the already modest 73.3 million tonnes in 1928 to 67.6 by 1934. By 1929, only 20% of the population had been collectivised, which prompted Stalin to use a force so harmful against his people that it caused a severe drop in agricultural output as peasants preferred to kill their animals rather than allow them to be repossessed, causing the slaughter of 26.6 million cows and 63.4 million sheep between 1928 and 1933. Further to this a famine occurred that would claim the lives of tens of millions; Ward asserts that ‘scarcely a single hamlet escaped the terrors of arrest, execution or deportation...and the mayhem and confusion could not last long without fearful consequences’. Stalin later calmed the force, proportioning responsibility for it on local administrators ‘dizzy with success’. After the publication of this article in 1930, Kitchen concludes that the number of collective farms fell by 50%, which evidences the peasantry’s dissatisfaction with the domestic policy, although it soon intensified again. Nevertheless the relaxing of the Terror campaign only occurred in some aspects; in its worst form, Dekulakisation, Stalin made the mistake of continuing to deport the country’s best workers, even when production levels fell with growing stagnation amongst the peasantry in 1933 to the extent that 1.1 million suspected Kulaks were sent to the collectives or exiled to the gulags. In order to placate the peasants, who fiercely resisted collectivisation, private plots were introduced and compromises made in a distinctly un-Marxist fashion. The ineffectiveness of the collectives can be seen from the fact that by 1937, the output from private enterprise was bigger than that of the state farms. Overall, Stalin’s lack of foresight failed to see that agriculture’s inefficiency problems were often more to do with the methods rather than the distribution of land, and that this was the problem that had to be primarily combated, rather than being the secondary effect of a collectivisation process that rapidly reduced the quality of life of the peasantry.
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The outcomes of collectivisation caused harm to the peasantry, and their reaction the severity of collectivisation caused damage to the economy that lasted for decades. The already low living standards of the peasants were further reduced as a result of the new agricultural policy, to the extent that between 1928 and 1932, the consumption of meat and lard fell from 24.8 million to 11.2 million, and the consumption of bread also fell by several tens of millions. With these shortages in mind, the toll the 1932 Famine took on the peasants is unsurprising; the great cost to human life caused by the famine can be directly related to collectivisation and its failings. Further to this, it took seven years for grain production to reach the same modest levels it experienced in 1928, and livestock levels failed to return to that of 1928 until 1953 after 46% and 65.1% of cattle and sheep flocks respectively were slaughtered as the peasants resisted a ‘Second Serfdom’ being forced upon them. Nevertheless, within the first five years of collectivisation, the urban population grew by 12 million as ‘having been bludgeoned into joining kolkhozes, hundreds of thousands of peasant families left the countryside rather than endure further hardship’ according to Service; this was a move Russia needed in order for her backward predominantly agricultural nation to catch up with the west. Yet although Stalin did partially achieve something beneficial for the Russian economy, he did so using a completely ill-suited policy that caused far more harm to the country and the people than it benefitted them and the damage inflicted by it took decades to recover from.
Throughout the period 1929-53, Stalin’s aim for Russia was to rapidly industrialise, yet due to the emphasis put on heavy industry rather than consumer goods, it is clear that Stalin aimed only to secure his dictatorship with the series of Five Year Plans implemented rather than improve the deplorable quality of life the people were subjected to. Within these Plans, heavy industry was constantly emphasised, and to a lesser degree communications sources such as railways, which helped with the deployment of resources across the country. Similarly, Stalin’s lack of foresight regarding industrialisation also became apparent, as the implementation of such a frantic industry drive had less to do with careful planning and more do with propaganda, and less to do with the welfare of the people as it did with Stalin’s wish to consolidate his own power.
Nevertheless, the Soviet Economy was kick-started as a result, with impressive growth in certain sectors and substantial achievements such as reaching an export level of 70 million tonnes of pig iron by 1937. Electricity generation trebled in the first Five Year Plan and went on to rapidly expand in the second Plan as well, which then had a knock-on effect in other industrial areas using this source of power. The total employed labour force, which had dwindled for years under poor economic circumstances, went from 11.3 million under the NEP to 22.8 million during the first Five Year Plan. Another success of the rapid industrialisation, albeit short-lived, was the propaganda success portraying industrialisation as defining a new period in Russian history, which was characterised by the emergence of the Stakhanovite movement. Following the well-documented efficiency of coalminer Alexei Stakhanovich, millions of workers were inspired to follow his example and dedicate themselves fully to aiding this industrial growth; J Schott describes this phenomenon as ‘each believed this was making history and that he personally had a part to play’. The extent to which Stalin’s pursuance of industrialisation benefitted Russia takes on an altogether more important facet in the opinion of historians such as Lee who conclude that ‘heavy industrialisation translated into ultimate survival’ during WWII. This therefore evidences that through industrialisation, despite it not being a well thought out policy, Stalin’s aim of protecting his own dictatorship was successful; ‘his gamble was paying off for him,’ according to Service, ‘albeit not for his millions of victims’.
The limitations of industrialisation was acutely felt by these millions of victims, the Russian people, due to the fact that with increased employment in the cities, there was increased demand for public services, food and particularly living space. Yet because none of these were a priority to maintain they became decrepit and the people suffered, to the extent that in Magnitorsk, one of Stalin’s best examples of his successful industrial drive, 20% of the population were living in mud huts. Further to this, the Great Depression on 1929 had driven down the price of exports like grain and raw materials so the USSR couldn’t earn enough from them in the first Five Year Plan. The rapid increase in industrialisation was only felt in some sectors; industries like oil, for example, continually failed to meet their production targets, which eventually led to a fuel crisis. The excelling in only certain areas of industry created a bottleneck crisis after the third Five Year Plan, so that any advancement in industrialisation was delayed. Even the initial success of the Stakhanovite movement was countered by its consequences; so anxious were managers to play upon the efficiency of individuals that normal working schedules were disrupted and overall money and time was lost in the disorganisation. The organisation failures were prevalent throughout all Five Year Plans, particularly in the setting of production targets, which were wildly unrealistic in a multitude of cases; in the words of Service, ‘disruption was everywhere in the economy’.
The most harmful outcome of industrialisation was ‘the generation of a quicksand society’ according to Lewin. This was generated by the instability created as workers constantly changed jobs, and indeed the lack of skilled workers became a constant problem and worsened as industrialisation developed further. By 1931, less than 7% of workers had skills relevant to their employment, and by 1933 only 17% of workers had any skills at all. Despite some industrial successes, especially the ‘Three Good Years’ during the 1930s, the living standards of the working class were deplorable, and in the words of Ward ‘the three good years did nothing to improve matters – housing conditions worsened as the decade wore on’. Further to this, the financial gains made by the rapid industrialisation were not passed on to the workers as any rise in their wages was cancelled out by the equally high rises of food prices. ‘Sacrificing peasant and working class consumption would become the price of overcoming Russia’s backwardness’ according to Ward; industrialisation was yet again a Soviet domestic policy where Stalin’s aims were achieved at the expense of the people. These were Stalin’s aims, not Russia’s, and actually benefitted the country little overall; Shapiro asserts that industrial growth under the Tsars, had it continued uninterrupted, would have reached the same level as Stalin’s did, and also highlights the fact that Stalin went about the wrong way implementing this rapid industrialisation, an assessment backed up by Conquest who asserts that ‘Stalinism is one way of attaining industrialisation just as cannibalism is one way of attaining a high protein diet’. Overall, in Stalin’s badly organised industrial policies, any successes were balanced out by the immense sufferings of the people and overall he inspired little gain for his country.
However, the most harmful domestic policy in Soviet Russia between 1929 and 1953 was the Terror that destroyed social and moral values in society as well as undermining the strength of the country. The fact that Stalin relied so heavily on his domestic policy of terror as a means of enforcing collectivisation and industrialisation shows that the policies weren’t working on their own and had be implemented using force. Rather than being one of the Seven Pillars of Stalinism, Terror was the foundation for all other policies and characterised Stalin’s despotism better than anything else. The frequent purges of the party left virtually every prominent Bolshevik feeling they were living on borrowed time, as, according to Service, Stalin ‘delighted in keeping even his closest associates in unrelieved fear’. Much like the necessity in a war to kill or be killed, the desperation to denounce or be denounced that swept the party prompted many to betray their colleagues or superiors; this, as a direct result of Stalin’s domestic policy, brought the people nothing but harm.
The purges had the purpose of eliminating traitors within the party, but within a matter of years, ‘terror would become an indispensable sector of the Soviet economy’ according to Service, with the denounced people regularly exiled to Siberia to slave in the gulags. Show trials were used to play upon the atmosphere of fear prevalent in society by publically highlighting the dramatic fall from grace prominent Bolsheviks experienced when they went against Stalin’s wishes. The consequences of the purges and the resulting fear created led to those responsible for finding those disloyal to the regime so terrified to protect themselves that they ‘undoubtedly bothered less about arresting individuals who fell into the designated social categories than in meeting the numerical quotas assigned to them’. The whole situation soon spiralled out of Stalin’s individual control so that by the dawn of WWII in 1939 there were an estimated 3 million dead and 9 million in labour camps, although historians such as Conquest state the totals as much higher values. These people came from all groups of society, and as Lynch asserts ‘no area of Soviet life escaped the purges’. Purges of the scientific world and military officers were especially harmful to Russia as they meant that the best qualified people could no longer oversee industrial development and defend the country as the prospect of a World War loomed. Therefore, through this loss of many important and highly competent figures, Stalin succeeded in making his own position more secure by making his country much weaker.
Although Stalin’s destructive Terror regime was called to a halt just before WWII, it resumed again after the war with a vengeance to develop into the new domestic policy of High Stalinism. ‘The 1945-53 period was one of hysterical isolationism’ according to Levada; it marked Stalin, still unsatisfied with his hold on power, succumb to paranoia and further deprive his people and his country of security, rights and adequate living conditions. High Stalinism represented a move back to a terror state with a particular focus on cultural and ethnic cleansing as well as routine purges of the party, and brought terror to directly affect ordinary people. The climate of fear became worse than ever before as purges of society started in 1946. Strict censorship of all media combined with minimal rights for workers and a highly centralised government ensured freedom of speech and thus the potential for resistance was suppressed as a system of privileges was used to keep the nomenklatura loyal to Stalin. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in society with Stalin referring to Jewish people as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, as well as 2 million members of National minorities deported and a further half a million killed. The strict censorship laws ensured that anything foreign, be it in the form of radio broadcasts, literature or international travel was banned; Stalin’s paranoia about the threat from the west was evident from his instruction to citizens to be on guard against ‘hidden agents of western imperialism’. The fact that Stalin subjected his people to such terror displays how he had ‘unmistakably become the country’s despot’ according to Service and did indeed bring them little else but harm.
The harm High Stalinism caused to the Russian people is clear from the extensive reliance on the gulags to keep the economy afloat; slave labour became an economic essential rather than just the basis. Thus it is evident that even by 1953 the significant economic failings of collectivisation and rapid industrialisation were apparent because an increased level of terror was needed to maintain them, and the cost of human life overwhelmed any successes they may have had. From his securing of power in 1929 until his death in 1953, Stalin was constantly preoccupied with two issues, neither of which prioritised the welfare of his people; seeing Russia catch up with the west in terms of industry and modernisation, and the further consolidation of his own power, with the latter taking supreme importance in the final decade of his rule. Although with almost instantaneous impact on the Russian economy, Stalin’s domestic policies ultimately failed as a result of the lack of adequate economic and social planning behind them, and Stalin’s lack of foresight ensuing that he, according to Figes, ‘had caused through his policies abuses and chaos’, ultimately undermining the security and success of the USSR at the expense of the people themselves, and causing his country and his people little else but hardship and suffering.