The industrialization of the Soviet Union proceeded at a rapid pace between the two World Wars, starting in 1929. Within an historically short period of twelve to fifteen years, an economically backward agrarian country achieved rapid economic growth, created a more modern industrial sector, and acquired new technologies that changed it from an agrarian to an industrial economy.
At the turn of the century Imperial Russia was lagging behind its neighbors to the west in practically all aspects of economic development. Weakened by World War I and the civil war that followed, Russia was in ruins in 1918. The Communist Party that seized power after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 initially proclaimed a world revolution as its goal. The first socialist revolution occurred in Russia, the weakest link among the world capitalist states. However, later failures to propagate communist rule in Germany, Hungary, and Poland demonstrated that the export of revolution required not an ideological dogma, but a powerful economy and military might. Both required powerful industry.
Soviet industrialization was organized according to five-year plans. The first five-year plan was launched by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1928. It was designed to industrialize the USSR in the shortest possible time. The plan, put into action ruthlessly, aimed to make the USSR self-sufficient and emphasized heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods. The first plan covered the period from 1928 to 1933 but was officially considered completed in 1932, although its achievements were greatly exaggerated. One objective of the plan was achieved, however: the transformation of agriculture from predominantly individual farms into a system of large collective farms. The communist regime thought that the resources for industrialization could only be squeezed out of agriculture. Moreover, they believed that collectivization would improve agricultural productivity and produce sufficient grain reserves to feed the growing urban labor force caused by the influx of peasants seeking industrial work. Forced collectivization also enabled the party to extend its political dominance over the peasantry, eliminating the possibility of resurrection of market relations in agriculture. The traditional Russian village was destroyed and replaced by collective farms (kolkhoz ) and state farms (sovkhoz ), which proved to be highly inefficient.
Although the first five-year plan called for the collectivization of only 20 percent of peasant households, by 1940 some 97 percent of all peasant households had been collectivized, and private ownership of property was virtually eliminated in trade. Forced collectivization helped Stalin achieve his goal of rapid industrialization, but the human costs were huge. Stalin focused particular hostility on the wealthier peasants or kulaks. Beginning in 1930 about one million kulak households (some five million people) were deported and never heard from again. Forced collectivization of most of the remaining peasants resulted in a disastrous disruption of agricultural production and a catastrophic famine in 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, one of the richest agricultural regions in the world, which exacted a toll of millions of lives. The rationale for collectivization in the Soviet Union, with all of its negative consequences, was its historic necessity in communist terms: Russia had to engage in rapid industrialization in order to create a massive heavy industry and subsequently powerful modern armed forces.
The second five-year plan (1933–1937) continued and expanded the first, albeit with more moderate industrial goals. The third plan (1938–1942) was interrupted by World War II. The institution of the five-year plan was reinforced in 1945, and five-year plans continued to be published until the end of the Soviet Union.
From the very beginning of industrialization, the Communist Party placed the main emphasis on the development of heavy industry, or, as it was called in the Soviet literature, "production of means of production." Metallurgical plants that included the whole technological chain from iron ore refining to furnaces and metal rolling and processing facilities were constructed or built near the main coal and iron ore deposits in Ukraine, the Ural Mountains, and Siberia. Similarly, production plants for aluminum and nonferrous metals were constructed at a rapid pace. Electric energy supply was ensured through the construction of dozens of hydroelectric and fuel-operated power stations; one of them, a Dnieper plant, was canonized as a symbol of Soviet industrialization. Railroads and waterways were modernized and built to ensure uninterrupted flow of resources. Automobile and aviation industries were built from scratch. Whole plants were purchased in the West, mostly from the United States, and put in operation in the Soviet Union. Stalingrad Tractor Plant and Gorki Automotive Plant began production in the early 1930s. Many American engineers were lured by promises of high wages to work at those plants and contributed to a rapid technology transfer to Russia.
New weapon systems were developed and put into production at the expense of consumer goods. On the eve of World War II the Red Army had more than twenty-three thousand tanks—six times more than Fascist Germany. Similar ratios applied for artillery, aircraft, navy vessels, and small arms. Substantial resources were materialized and frozen in the stockpiles of weapons. Nonetheless, World War II did not begin according to Stalin's plans. The USSR was unprepared for Hitler's invasion.
During the first period of war a substantial portion of the European territory was lost to Germany. During the second half of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, industrial facilities were relocated to the east (beyond the Volga river and the Urals) from European Russia, Central and Eastern Ukraine (including major industrial centers of Kharkov, Dniepropetrovsk, Krivoy Rog, Mariupol and Nikopol, Donbass), and the industrial areas of Moscow and Leningrad; this relocation ranks among the most difficult organizational and human achievements of the Soviet Union during World War II. The industrial foundation laid between 1929 and 1940 proved sufficient for victory over Fascist Germany in World War II.
See also: industrialization; industrialization, rapid
Gregory, Paul R., and Stuart, Robert C. (2001). Russian and Soviet Economic Performance and Structure. Boston, MA: Addison Wesley.
Nove, Alec. (1965). The Soviet Economy: An Introduction, rev. ed. New York: Praeger.
Paul R. Gregory