Stalin and the First Five-Year Plan

"The fundamental task of the five-year plan was to transfer our country, with its backward, and in part medieval, technology on to the lines of new, modern technology.... The fundamental task of the five-year plan was, in converting the USSR into an industrial country, to completely oust the capitalist elements…for the building of a socialist society." -- Joseph Stalin, January 7, 1933

The “Roaring Twenties” ended in a tailspin when the collapse of the stock market in the United States triggered an international economic crisis. This momentous event would have a profound impact on the two places where Lotte Jacobi worked in the early 1930s, Germany and the Soviet Union. The economic disaster played an integral role in shaping her decisions to travel to the Soviet Union in 1932-33, as well as the kinds of subjects that were the focus of her camera there. Within several years after this trip, Adolf Hitler’s subsequent rise to power caused her to flee to the United States in 1935.

When the stock market collapsed on Black Tuesday, October 29th, 1929, Americans watched their investments, life savings, and retirement funds disappear into thin air. Runs on the banks ensured that many Americans were left with no hard currency. As the banks ran out of liquid capital, they failed one by one. Industrial production in the United States dropped by 50 percent in three years, while the unemployment rate rose to 25 percent (Iriye 119). President Herbert Hoover assembled teams of economic specialists in the hopes of finding quick solutions, but none were to be found. Over the next five years in Europe, banks from England to Austria failed; the gold standard economies of many countries fell like dominos.

As the Great Depression took hold of the western world, many in the affected countries watched the Soviet Union’s rapid expansion of heavy industry. For Stalin, industrial production showcased the full power of a socialist, rather than capitalist, society, with people working together for the common good and progress of the federation. Many people wondered what could be learned from the industrial and social upheavals in the Soviet Union at this time of economic crisis elsewhere. 

The Rise of Joseph Stalin 

Stalin’s rise to power in Russia and the Soviet Union is remarkable in light of his modest beginnings. First, he was not a Russian. Born Iosif (Ioseb) Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia, on December 6th, 1879, he was the third and only surviving son of Georgian parents. Both of his parents were descendants of serfs. His father, an abusive alcoholic, was a shoemaker, while his mother, a domestic servant and seamstress, became the young Iosif’s greatest advocate.

Iosif overcame a childhood marked by poverty, illness, and physical infirmities that left him with a withered arm, a limp, and a face marked by small pox. When his parents’ marriage collapsed, he lived with his mother, who pushed for her young child to have an education. Although his father made him work in a tannery factory for a year, Iosif was able return to his parish school in Gori; there he learned Russian and became an award-winning student. He passed his examinations and was accepted by the Tiflis (now Tbilisi) Spiritual Seminary, the highest level of education available in Georgia at the time (Kotkin 20-27).

However, the life of a priest was not for this intelligent and militant young man. Iosif became involved in socialist student groups, prompting him to leave the seminary and choose the life of a revolutionary. It was during this period that he came into contact with other revolutionaries in Russia, such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. His status as a non-Russian was considered important by Lenin, since he had written a treatise on the idea of unifying nationalities under a centralized bureaucracy (Kuromiya 20, 21).

In the autumn of 1912 at the age of thirty-four, Iosif was visiting countries in Europe while working on his treatise when he adopted the pen name “Stalin.” Roughly translated, Stalin means "steel" or "man of steel." The name suited him. As a child, he had been known as a vicious fighter, perhaps because of a chip on his shoulder due to his physical deformities and abusive father. Within the Russian Communist Party, Joseph Stalin was known for being brutal, far more brutal than Lenin. He "...spoke rudely and crudely, a habit he retained until his death and justified as the speech of workers who spoke the truth straightforwardly and bluntly and were unfamiliar with the delicacy of manners" (Kuromiya 12).

It was this brutality that would come to define Stalin’s tenure as general secretary of the Communist Party. Historians must juxtapose Stalin’s unbelievable cruelty and penchant for sacrificing the many for the good of the party and his own security against the undeniably impressive results of his industrialization campaign. It can’t have been a coincidence that "the man of steel" would do his utmost to drag the Soviet Union, perhaps kicking and screaming, into the industrial age.

After Lenin’s death in 1922, the Communist Party leadership fought among themselves for control of the party and the federation. Stalin was pitted against Leon Trotsky, former general of the Red Army during the civil war. Stalin sided with Nikolai Bukharin, another member of the leadership, and together they prevailed in sidelining Trotsky and his left-leaning compatriots in the party. By 1926, Stalin had cemented himself as Lenin’s successor and began the process of carrying out his vision for the country.

Stalin recognized the backwardness of the Soviet Union and looked to the West. In 1926, the United States and other western countries maintained successful, productive economies. The US had managed to switch its manufacturing focus from heavy industry to consumer goods after the end of World War I. Thus, modernization and industrialization became central to Stalin’s plans for the USSR.

The First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932)

In the mid-1920s, the Soviet Union was operating under the New Economic Policy, or NEP, that had been introduced by Lenin. Slowly, between 1926 and 1937, Stalin and the Politburo used official policies to contradict fundamental assumptions of the NEP until it ceased to be relevant or enforced (Kenez 80, 81). NEP had been a very liberal policy, both economically and socially, yet it was not designed for longevity. As Stalin studied western countries and their economies, it became clear to him how important it was for the Soviet Union to successfully industrialize.

Doing so would be a massive undertaking, requiring a complete break from the traditional Russian agricultural lifestyle that was still prevalent in the many rural parts of the federation. Likewise, Stalin would have to successfully unite the working class of the entire federation, from the breadbasket of Ukraine to the tundra in Siberia, to the Ural Mountains, the Caucasus, down into the arid landscapes of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and east to Vladivostok. The First Five-Year Plan consisted of the centralization of agriculture in the rural farm lands, a further equalizing of the peasants, and a massive industrialization initiative.


In the late 1920s, most of Russia's population lived outside the cities. Though serfdom had been abolished for close to 70 years, the peasants still worked the land and lived much as they had before the October Revolution and the civil war. These were the same peasants that Lenin had seen as incapable of leading the revolution. Now, Stalin tried his hand at forcing change upon a group of people whose lifestyle essentially hadn’t changed in hundreds of years.

The peasants were the food producers for the Soviet Union. It was their grain, their farm animals that fed the majority of citizens. Yet, as 1927 passed into 1928, famine struck parts of the country and a grain crisis arose (Kuromiya 77). Grain production was 90 percent what it had been in 1913, yet the peasants were no longer selling much of that at the market. Rather, they were eating the surplus grain or selling it to private buyers that would pay more (Kenez 82). The peasants up to this point worked on their own farms. However, to Stalin this was a serious problem.

Perhaps the most important hallmark of communism is the abolition of private property. The way forward was clear: to ensure a constant supply of food for the Soviet Union, and especially Russia, and to embrace communism, the peasants could no longer farm their own individual lands. Instead, the Soviet government would force the peasants into large farms, one for each town. This process became known as collectivization.

In theory, collectivization would have solved many of the problems the Soviet Union faced in 1929. Joining the peasants together onto massive, state-run farms allowed the government control over agricultural production and ensured that the people of the Soviet Union would be fed. Yet, in order to collectivize, Stalin first had to level the playing field. He encouraged class warfare among the peasants by offering rewards for turning in kulaks, who were ostensibly rich peasants, farmers who had done well for themselves.

However, the term kulak was interpreted loosely and could mean people who resisted collectivization as well (Kenez 83). By inciting rage against them, Stalin hoped to unify the lower-class peasants. At the time that collectivization began, it was estimated that one million kulak households, containing approximately five million kulaks, were spread across the Soviet Union (86). By the end of the First Five-Year Plan, the kulaks had been stripped of their possessions, which were redistributed to the collective farms. Millions were exiled to Siberia, Uzbekistan, and other inhospitable regions, or killed.

In a move that would come to define government structure in the Soviet Union later in the 20th century, Stalin mobilized 25,000 workers for permanent jobs in the villages in November of 1929 (Kenez 87). This led to a bloated bureaucracy, a system too complicated to work efficiently. Control over the collective farms was not just exerted by the bureaucracy that ran them. The Soviet government decided to centralize heavy agricultural equipment, such as tractors. The creation of Machine Tractor Stations (MTS) allowed the government another modicum of control (97). Farmers now had to go to these stations to request tractors for use on the collective farms.

The peasants, upset about government interference in their lives, rebelled in any way they could. Stalin and his government feared organized resistance and worked to remove traditional institutions, such as the village commune, to ensure that peasants would be unable to organize. Instead, the peasants voiced their discontent with forced collectivization by destroying their own farm equipment and killing most of their animals. These actions left the newly formed collective farms under equipped to handle the amount of agricultural production they were expected to meet. And while the peasants may have hoped that their acts of resistance would slow down Stalin’s push for collectivization, they in fact did nothing. By February of 1930, 60 percent of peasant households were collectivized (Kenez, 85). By 1937, private agriculture was destroyed.


Stalin’s plans to industrialize the country produced better outcomes than the collectivization campaign. To justify the need for rapid industrialization, Stalin invoked Russian national humiliation. He played on the embarrassment that the Russians would feel should they be unable to industrialize like the West. They would "fall behind, [and] would be beaten" (Kenez 89). He promised retribution for past humiliations suffered by Imperial Russia. The planners who had come up with ambitious but reasonable plans for implementation of mass industrialization were removed because Stalin feared they were wrecking his Five-Year Plan. Instead, he improvised, demanding speedy results that were impossible to achieve. Soviet tallies from the first four years of the First Five-Year Plan are notoriously suspect, as each department in the pyramidal bureaucracy padded the numbers they reported to the next highest level.

Stalin revived the war economy, hoping to achieve success like the United States had after World War I by keeping manufacturing at a record high. Soviet industry was split into two classes, Class A and Class B. Class A industries focused on producer goods and heavy industry, with class B industries on consumer goods. For the first few years of the Plan, it was necessary to give preference to Class A industries, as heavy industry was necessary to build the factories that would go on to produce consumer goods. However, Class A continued to receive preference even as the industrialization process slowed, meaning that consumer goods were few and far between. The Soviet Union’s heavy industry was dynamic and powerful, yet consumer production stagnated (Kenez 91).

Rapid industrialization was possible in part because of a diversifying of the labor force. As more and more manufacturing and construction jobs became available, peasants moved from the countryside into the cities to find work. The Soviet Union had suffered from unemployment through the 1920s, but by 1930 a labor shortage actually existed (Kenez 91). To control the large group of people moving between the countryside and the cities, Stalin reintroduced the domestic passports that had been used by the Tsars. Passports for the peasants were kept in their collective farms’ offices, negating their ability to travel freely. Women began to increase their numbers in the workforce. By the end of the 1930s, 82 percent of the newly employed were women (94). This glut of workers allowed the government to boast in 1930 that unemployment had been eliminated (Kuroyima 93).

However, while impressive factories and foundries were being constructed, the government shielded the truth of the matter. The massive amounts of materials needed to complete the industrialization process led to shortages across the board. The workers that were hired were often unskilled, and not used to the responsibility associated with a regular job. Some drank while working, and their inexperience led to the breaking of expensive, foreign-made machinery (Kenez 95). To keep up with the burgeoning economy, the state bank increased the number of bills in circulation, leading to inflation (Kuromiya 93). Wages for workers declined between 1928 and 1932. In Moscow, workers made 50 percent less over that four-year span. The government did little to accommodate the number of people moving to the cities during the First Five-Year Plan, leaving workers with shrinking living spaces and less money.

Success or Failure?

In theory, the First Five-Year Plan could have been executed in a more precise and orderly fashion. With proper planning and adherence to those plans, campaigns to educate the peasants about collectivization, and a well-constructed bureaucracy to handle both the influx of workers and the change in economic structure, the Soviets could have emerged in 1932 with much to showcase. Though the Soviet Union developed a strong, dynamic heavy industry sector, agricultural production continued to suffer, consumer goods continued to be under-produced, and the cities became even more crowded, dirty, and cramped. In the countryside, life carried on, albeit with the peasants now forced to work on the collective farms rather than on their own individual plots. Education in the furthest parts of the federation increased, as did the literacy rate. However, the nationalist policies created at the beginning of the 1920s and supported by Stalin himself until his ascension to general secretary were abandoned for purely Russian nationalism.

The bloated bureaucracies created to oversee industrialization and collectivization created further problems. Inspired to impress superiors in part due to the fear of being labelled a “wrecker” and removed, bureaucrats unilaterally padded numbers they received and reported on. When these numbers reached the top, they were used to expound the virtues of communism and a socialist society. A final number on annual growth of heavy industry during the First Five-Year Plan was reported to be 19.2 percent (Kenez 91). In the report detailing the outcomes of the Plan that Stalin gave to the Communist Party in 1933, he notes that in terms of industrial output, the plan had been fulfilled by 108 percent (Stalin 40). In the next line, he admits that overall they fell 6 percent short of completing the total plan, but he blames it on other countries’ refusals to sign non-aggression pacts and on issues in the Far East. While his estimate of incomplete goals sits at 6 percent, target figures for many of the areas of improvement weren’t hit until 1960, twenty-eight years after the plan was declared successfully completed ahead of schedule (Kenez 90). 

The failures of the First Five-Year Plan outweigh the successes. Forced collectivization began poorly, and turned into a disaster. By the end of 1932, parts of the Soviet Union were two years into famine. The industrial successes came at the expense of the peasants. Extraordinary pressure was put on the collective farms to be successful, but sabotage and acts of rebellion by the peasants put the farms at an early disadvantage. While destroying the kulaks showed the young communist revolutionaries that the government still embraced the ideals of a classless society, it ultimately did little to help collectivize the peasants. Unreachable delivery quotas for grain and other crops maxed out farms, and due to shortages of materials, tractor production slowed. Of course, the government refused to acknowledge any significant failure in the implementation of the Five-Year Plan. Villages struck hard by famine were still expected to deliver their quotas of grain (Kenez 100). Ukraine was hit hardest by famine in the early 1930s, and historians estimate that between five and seven million peasants died due to inactivity on the part of the Soviet government.

The First Five-Year Plan laid the groundwork for future Five-Year Plans. The strong industrial base that was created served the Soviets well following the surprise attack by the Germans in World War II. Likewise, industrial production after the war continued to be the strongest suit of the Soviet economy. Thanks to projects like Magnitogorsk, the largest iron and steel works factory in the country, the Soviets were able to contend with the United States during the Cold War, the Space Race, and the Arms Race. Unfortunately, the Soviets were never able to fully recover from collectivization, and consumer goods production always lagged behind. Empty shelves in supermarkets and lines of people stretching for blocks came to characterize life in the cities during the Cold War. A bureaucracy too complicated for its own good, and with a penchant for misrepresenting the facts, continued to control the country. Long after Stalin had passed away, all that he had accomplished, and all that he had irreparably damaged, continued to influence the legacy he left behind.

Contributors: Charles True, Eleanor Hight

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