An Economic History of Russia: 1924-1953

Based on Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 (Metropolitan Books, 2014); Alec Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R. (Pelican Books, 1969); Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War (Basic Books, 2021).

Jump to: From the NEP to the Command Economy, The Command Economy, The Great Patriotic War, The Postwar Economy, Was Stalin Necessary?


Lenin died in 1924, leaving no clear successor. Leon Trotsky, the commander of the Red Army, was a candidate. The government had been run during Lenin’s illness by a triumvirate consisting of Joseph Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, and each of them was a potential leader. So was the moderate communist, Nikolai Bukharin.

Stalin was the least polished member of this group — “his political horizon is restricted, his theoretical equipment primitive,” wrote Trotsky1 — but he was a political animal. He had become General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, and had used the powers of his position to build up a clientele throughout the country. He was in complete control by the early 1930s.

Stalin did not tolerate dissent, or even the possibility of dissent. Trotsky was removed from office in 1925, expelled from the Communist Party in 1927, deported in 1929, assassinated in 1940. Zinoviev and Kemenev were accused of plotting to overthrow the state in 1936, convicted at a show trial, and executed. Bukharin was likewise tried and executed in 1938.

The killing of Zinoviev and Kemenev foreshadowed the Great Terror (1937-8), during which the state executed at least 700,000 people. This number aligns with official Soviet histories, but the expatriate historian Roy Medvedev considers it to be far too low. He calculates that roughly one million people were executed, and another four million to six million people were sent to labour camps where deaths from exhaustion and deprivation were routine.2

The Great Terror started with attacks on insiders. Of the 139 Communist Party members elected to the Central Committee in 1934, 102 were shot. Of the Red Army’s 767 senior commanders, 512 were shot. Two successive bosses of the NKVD were shot.3 But the Great Terror was not simply a purge of the Communist Party. Mass killings of kulaks, Poles, “bourgeois specialists,” and other disfavoured groups were also carried out.

The Great Terror appears to have arisen out of Stalin’s recognition that the Soviet Union would soon be at war with Germany.4 He feared that insurgents would use the chaos of war to overthrow both his government and the Bolshevik revolution — just as the Bolsheviks had used the chaos of World War I to overthrow the tsar. Stalin believed that every potential insurgent had to be eliminated before the start of war:

To win a battle in wartime several corps of soldiers are needed. And to subvert a victory on the front, all that is needed are a few spies somewhere in army headquarters.5

Since insurgents would not willingly reveal themselves, even a very little evidence — even an anonymous denunciation — warranted a guilty verdict and an execution. “Better too far than not far enough,” warned Nikolai Yezhov, before he too was shot.6

Stalin launched the first command economy and accelerated the industrialization of the Soviet Union. He drove back the German invasion of 1941, and in the war’s aftermath, he formed the Eastern Bloc and the “iron curtain” that isolated it from the West. He armed the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons, initiating a superpower rivalry with the United States. But the Great Terror was an indelible part of his legacy, and a decade after his death, every trace of Stalin would be scrubbed from the public life of the Soviet Union.

From the New Economic Policy to the Command Economy

The NEP (here) left some decisions to markets and other decisions to administrators. It was not entirely successful. The Bolsheviks tended to attribute unsatisfactory market outcomes to class conflict, and imposed additional restrictions on the market whenever they could.

From 1923, the state set low prices for most consumer goods. Shortages of these goods quickly developed. Party members and other favoured groups had preferential access to them, but everyone else queued in the hope that there would still be something available when they reached the front of the line. Goods could also be purchased from private traders, at prices two or three times greater than the state prices.

This “goods famine” was undesirable in itself, but it also had a knock-on effect on grain procurement. Scarce goods tended to be sold near the factories that produced them, so the “goods famine” was more severe in the countryside than in the cities. As well, the state’s procurement price for grain was low. These two factors, taken together, meant that the peasants had little to gain by selling grain to the state. They preferred to sell their grain to private middlemen at significantly higher prices, or to shift production away from grain and toward livestock or more profitable crops. They reduced their need for cash by engaging in home production, or by making do with what they already had. The peasants’ reluctance to sell grain to the state meant that the state often missed its procurement targets, making the NEP’s agricultural policy unsustainable.

The Bolsheviks’ agricultural policies were always premised on “primitive socialist accumulation,” the exploitation of the peasantry to finance investment in the industrial sector. The NEP transferred resources from the peasantry to the state in two ways. First, a tax was imposed on agricultural production. Second, the state purchased grain from the peasants at low prices and sold manufactured goods to them at high prices. The second channel only operated if the peasants willingly sold grain to the state.

The NEP’s impact on investment was secondary to the existential need to feed the cities and the soldiers. This need was central to Bukharin’s vision of agricultural policy. Poor peasants have no surpluses, he said, so a successful procurement policy requires the participation of the middle and upper income peasants. They would willingly sell their grain to the state only at high procurement prices, but high procurement prices would slow the pace of industrialization — the Soviet Union would be “riding into socialism on a peasant nag.”7 Stalin wanted the Soviet Union to industrialize as quickly as possible, so he opposed Burharin’s position. Bukharin moderated his views, but was nevertheless attacked as a right-deviationist in 1928.

Stalin was fiercely disdainful of the peasantry, which “produces capitalists from its midst, and cannot help producing them, constantly and continuously.”8 He revived the hatred of the kulaks (wealthy peasants) that Lenin had kindled under War Communism (here).

Stalin believed that if the peasants would not willingly sell their grain, the solution was to take it against their will. He tested this approach in early 1928, when there was a severe shortfall in grain procurement. Stalin took charge of procurement in the Urals and West Siberia. He expelled private grain traders and closed private markets. The peasants were ordered to deliver grain, and when not enough grain was delivered, their grain was confiscated. According to the historian Alec Nove, the “Urals-Siberian method” was

…a great turning point in Russian history. It upset once and for all the delicate psychological balance upon which the relations between party and peasants rested, and it was also the first time that a major policy departure was undertaken by Stalin personally, without even the pretence of a central committee or politburo decision.9

From this time, the role of the politburo as a decision-making body declined. Stalin became increasingly dictatorial, although he often consulted with his subordinates before announcing his final decision.

The idea underlying the NEP was that the state would control the “commanding heights” of the economy while markets handled routine economic matters. By 1923, 75% of retail trade was conducted by private agents.10 However, private trade came to be seen as incompatible with the state’s low-price policy and the shortages that it entailed. Rationing was introduced in the cities in 1928, and the scope of the rationing was extended as more shortages became apparent. In this environment, private trade was deemed to be speculation. It was made illegal in 1930. Employing labour for private gain was made illegal in the same year.

Collectivization

At the end of the NEP era, Soviet agriculture was still predominantly small-scale and traditional. In 1927 individual peasants cultivated 98.3% of the sown land. Half of the grain harvest was reaped with sickles and scythes, and forty percent of it was threshed with flails.11 Almost all of the cartage was by horse-drawn wagons.12

The NEP had not reformed the organization of Soviet agriculture; instead, it had reinforced the traditional “repartitional commune.” Each village’s farm land was communally owned. It was divided into strips, which were then allocated to the villagers on the basis of the number of workers and “eaters” in each family. Each family was assigned a number of strips, often widely separated. The strips were periodically redistributed, to satisfy some principle of fairness and to accommodate changes in family composition. The repartitional commune led to inefficiency in a number of ways. The peasants spent too much time getting to and between their strips. Their transient possession of any given strip made land improvements unprofitable. The small size of each strip prevented economies of scale from being realized. Many decisions — what and when to plant, when to harvest — were communal, so there was little opportunity to experiment with alternative crops or techniques. The state’s appropriation of “surplus” also impaired efficiency, by discouraging the peasants from investing in their own livelihood.

The breakdown in the NEP’s agricultural policy led to the complete reorganization of Soviet agriculture. Stalin proposed that the communes be replaced with collectives, in which all of the land was held in common and worked by peasant labour. The peasants who joined the collectives would give up their land, their homes, their livestock, and their tools. They would give up the mir and the church, the institutions around which they had long organized their lives. They would become dependent upon a government that had exploited them ever since the revolution. The peasants resisted collectivization as long as they could.

Stalin had initially announceded that membership in the collectives would be voluntary, but in November 1929, he pressed for immediate and complete collectivization. His ultimate aim was the elimination of the peasants as a social class — their conversion into workers — and his method was unrelenting brutality.

The kulaks were immediately targeted.

The war against the “kulaks” was not a side-effect but the driving force of collectivization, which was conducted as a war against the revolution’s enemies. It had two aims: to remove potential opposition; and to serve as an example to other villagers, encouraging them to join the collective farms in order not to suffer the same fate.13

The kulaks were not permitted to join the collectives and not permitted to continue as independent peasant farmers. Instead, they were deported to the Soviet Union’s margins. There was

…an overall plan for 1 million “kulak” households (about 6 million people) to be dispossessed and sent to labour camps or “special settlements.” The fulfilment of the quotas was assigned to OGPU (the political police), which raised the target to between 3 and 5 per cent of all peasant households and then handed quotas down to local OGPU and Party organizations (which frequently exceeded them to demonstrate their vigilance). The rural Soviet, Komsomol and Party activists drew up lists of “kulaks” for arrest in each village. In many the peasants chose the “kulaks” from among their own number (isolated farmers, widows and old people were particularly vulnerable). In some they drew lots to decide.

…At the height of the campaign the country roads were jammed with long convoys of deportees, each one carrying the last of their possessions or pulling them by cart. One eye-witness in the Sumy region of Ukraine saw lines “stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions, with people from new villages continually joining,” as the column marched towards the collecting points on the railway. By 1932 there were 1.4 million “kulaks” in the “special settlements,” mostly in the Urals and Siberia, and even larger numbers in labour camps attached to Gulag factories and construction sites, or simply living on the run.14

Activists pressured the remaining peasants to join collectives, and the peasants recognized that they risked exile if they offered too much resistance. During the first six months of 1930, about 60 million peasants in 100,000 villages (about half of all peasants) were formed into collectives.15

Stalin had hoped that the collectives would be more efficient than the communes had been. But the collectives were often managed by Party loyalists who had little knowledge of farming, and operated by peasants who had been robbed of all incentives.

Harvests were poor. The peasants were demoralized. Collective farms were inefficient, the horses slaughtered or starving, tractors as yet too few and poorly maintained, transport facilities inadequate, the retail distribution system (especially in rural areas) utterly disorganized by an over-precipitate abolition of private trade. Soviet sources speak of appallingly low standards of husbandry…Very high exports in 1930 and 1931 depleted reserves, and the rapid growth of the urban population led to a sharp increase in food requirements in towns…The government tried to take more of a smaller grain crop.16

By 1932 there was widespread hunger, especially in the countryside. Hunger turned to starvation in 1933, with as many as 8.5 million people dying of starvation.17 The dead were predominantly rural people, because the state did whatever it could to protect its industrial workforce. Nevertheless, the push for collectivization continued, and by 1935, collectives farmed 94.1% of the crop area.18

The Gulag

The Gulag was a system of prisons and labour camps. The internees were required to work, often under extremely harsh conditions. They were routinely deprived of adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Many of them died by accident, disease, or exhaustion, and others were deliberately killed. They were expendable.

The internees made an important contribution to the Soviet economy, in part because of their numbers. By the late 1930s, about 2% of the Soviet labour force was composed of imprisoned or “resettled” (internally exiled) workers. The Gulag workforce continued to grow through the war years and reached its peak in the early 1950s. Between 1940 and 1951, one in five construction workers was a Gulag labourer.19 But their contribution wasn’t just a matter of numbers. The far north of the Soviet Union was rich in timber, oil, and minerals. These resources were largely unexploited because free workers shunned the north’s isolation, primitive living conditions, and harsh climate. But the Gulag’s workers were not free to choose. They cut timber, developed and operated mines, processed fish, and built settlements, roads and railways. The resources that they brought out of the north enabled the growth of the Soviet economy.

The tsars had used both concentration camps and forced labour camps to deal with Russia’s malcontents. Even then, the need to exploit the far north had been evident. The tsar’s prisoners were often sentenced to forced labour in the north. Other prisoners (and in many cases, their families) were permanently “resettled” in remote areas, isolation and watchful officials substituting for prison walls. Prisoners could also be exiled for fixed terms: Dostoevsky spent four years in Siberian exile, writing The House of the Dead after his release.

The Bolsheviks were well aware of this system — both Stalin and Trotsky had spent time in internal exile — and quickly revived it after the revolution. By the end of the civil war there were 84 concentration camps spread across 43 provinces.20 The claim, slowly abandoned over the next decade, was that the camps’ purpose was the rehabilitation of “enemies of the people”: kulaks, nobles, White Army officers, merchants and speculators, “wreckers” and “saboteurs,” Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. The camps were under the control of the secret police, the OGPU. An entirely separate prison system, controlled by the commissariat of the interior, dealt with criminals.

Collectivization brought a large number of prisoners into the system, and throughout the 1930s, the vast majority of prisoners would be peasants. There was an early decision (1929) that the influx of prisoners would be housed in large camps built in underpopulated areas. The prisoners would labour, and after their release, they would be “resettled” in the same area. It was also decided that the two prison systems would be united, with all prisoners under the control of the OGPU. The OGPU’s subsequent re-organization gave rise to the term “GULAG,” an acronym meaning “Main Camp Administration.”

At Stalin’s command, the OGPU undertook the construction of the White Sea Canal. The canal linked the Baltic Sea to the White Sea (an inlet opening onto the Barents Sea), so that timber and minerals could be moved out of the north without passing through the Arctic Ocean. The entire canal was 227 kilometers long, although only 48 kilometers of the canal were manmade. Five dams and nineteen locks were also built. The canal was completed in 21 months. The project employed 170,000 prisoners and exiles using “wooden spades, crude handsaws, pickaxes, and wheelbarrows.” These tools were generally handmade. The surviving tools include

…pickaxes [that] are actually slices of barely sharpened metal, tied to wooden staves with leather or string. The saws consist of flat metal sheets, with teeth crudely cut into them. Instead of dynamite, prisoners broke up large rocks using “hammers” — hunks of metal screwed on to wooden handles — to pound iron bars into the stone.

The broken stone was carried away on dollies with “small solid wooden wheels made out of tree stumps.”21

The excavation of the White Sea Canal
The excavation of the White Sea Canal

The project had a tight deadline, so the workers were fed relatively well to maintain their productivity. Nevertheless, about 25,000 workers died over the course of the project. When construction was completed, about 80,000 workers were “resettled” in adjoining areas to undertake their economic exploitation.

The White Sea Canal was just one of many ventures undertaken by the OGPU to exploit previously untapped resources.

[The OGPU] planned and equipped geological expeditions which sought to identify the coal, oil, gold, nickel, and other metals that lay beneath the frozen tundra of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the Soviet far north. They decided which of the enormous stands of timber would be the next to be cut into valuable raw-wood exports. To move these resources into the Soviet Union’s major cities and industrial centers, they set up a huge network of road and rail links, carving out a rudimentary transport system across thousands of kilometers of uninhabited wilderness.22

In 1934 the OGPU became the NKVD. It had more than a million prisoners under its control at that time. A few years later, Stalin instigated the Great Terror, bringing about another massive expansion of the Gulag.

Starting in 1937, he [Stalin] signed orders which were sent to the regional NKVD bosses, listing quotas of people to be arrested (no cause was given) in particular regions. Some were to be sentenced to the “first category” of punishment — death — and others to be given the “second category” — confinement in concentration camps for a term ranging from eight to ten years.23

The Great Terror was also the period during which Gulag policies became actively malevolent.

The Soviet camps temporarily transformed themselves from indifferently managed prisons in which people died by accident, into genuinely deadly camps where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered, in far larger numbers than they had been in the past.24

The Gulag continued through World War II and the period of reconstruction that followed it. Khrushchev started to draw down the Gulag population after Stalin’s death, but the system did not entirely disappear unto Gorbachev dissolved it in 1987.

The Command Economy

Stalin’s economic goals were to industrialize the Soviet Union as quickly as possible, and to implement a “command” economy. There was a degree of conflict between these goals. There were no prior instances of a command economy, so the Soviet Union’s leaders had to develop their own rules and procedures. They would quickly discover that “command” doesn’t mean “we say it and it happens.” Productivity fell in both the agricultural and industrial sectors. On the other hand, their ability to shift resources away from consumption and toward investment accelerated the Soviet Union’s industrialization.

All market economies introduce elements of planning in times of war. The Soviet Union’s move to planning in the early 1930s would enable it, only a few years later, to speedily arm itself when war with Germany became inevitable.

How successful was the Stalinist economy? The graph below shows the per capita GDP of the Soviet Union, or its territorial equivalent. The graph is log-linear, so rates of growth are proportional to slopes.25 World War I and the revolution sharply reduced per capita output. It was not until 1929 that the Soviet Union’s per capita output equalled the peak per capita output of tsarist Russia. There was slow growth in the first few years of Stalin’s policies, rapid growth during the period 1933-1939, and then slow growth again leading into the war. The Soviet Union’s growth during its best years was comparable to that of Germany, but both were growing faster than the United Kingdom. The war was immensely damaging to both the Soviet Union and Germany, and both countries experienced rapid growth during their post-war reconstructions.

This graph shows the progress of the Soviet economy as a whole: it doesn’t show the pace of Soviet industrialization. The Soviet economy was still primarily agricultural, and collectivization produced wild gyrations in agricultural output. Per capita GDP combines the ups and downs of agricultural output with the steadier growth of industrial output.

Five Year Plans

The Soviet economy was officially centrally planned, but it was never able to produce consistent and detailed plans of the country’s economic activity. In Stalin’s time, such plans could scarcely even be imagined. Input-output analysis — the mathematics of planning — was not developed until the 1940s, and was never fully embraced by the Soviet Union. Even simple planning required more computational power than the mechanical adding machines of Stalin’s time could provide. Planning also required detailed information about the linkages between industries. This information was imprecise, or widely dispersed, or entirely speculative. The Stalinist planners made due with “materials balance,” a highly aggregated, ledger-based system that roughly balanced the production and distribution of broad categories of goods.

Stalin’s Five Year Plans did not lay out specific plans for the economy because specific plans were not possible. Instead, they laid out broad goals for the economy. They gave each ministry a sense of what had to be done, and mobilized the Soviet people by giving them a clear national mission with an explicit deadline.

The targets set out in the Five Year Plans were often not achieved:

[The Five Year Plans] were not translated into operational plans and their record of fulfillment was poor. The targets of the first five-year plan (1928–1933) were fulfilled, on average, less than 60 percent. The second five-year plan of 1933–1937 set more modest industrial goals, but was fulfilled slightly over 70 percent. The third five-year plan was interrupted by World War II. The fourth five-year plan (1945–1950) showed the same pattern of nontranslation into operational plans. The defense plan of the fifth five-year plan fell way below targets.26

Targets were not reached because anticipated productivity gains were not realized, but also because the targets themselves were wildly ambitious. The table below shows some targets and results for the first Five Year Plan.27 The politburo decided that the plan’s initial targets were not sufficiently demanding, so it raised them substantially. At the end of the planning period, even the initial targets were not met — but actual output in each category was almost double what it had been in 1927-8.

The first Five Year Plan: targets and realizations, in millions of tons
The first Five Year Plan: targets and realizations, in millions of tons

The Five Year Plans specified both sectoral output targets (“control figures”) in physical units and sectoral investment targets in roubles. A comprehensive plan would have linked the two: the increase in plant and equipment would enable the increase in output. But there was no comprehensive plan. The politburo gave a great deal of attention to the sectoral allocation of investment, and little attention to the output targets.28

Control figures were set haphazardly. Stalin, acting often as an oracle from Sochi, appeared to pull the “optimal” number out of the air. We suspect that Stalin’s oracle figures were based only on experience, intuition, and bargaining.29

The emphasis on investment followed from Stalin’s belief that the Soviet Union’s survival depended upon its rapid industrialization:

We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do so, or we shall go under.30

Investment rose from 13% to 26% of national output between 1928 and 1937.31 The Soviet Union’s real output almost doubled over the same period, so real investment almost quadrupled.

Operational Plans

In an ideal command economy, an operational plan would lay out the responsibilities of the various ministers and managers. Instructions would be passed downward through a network. At each level a manager’s responsibilities would be less wide-ranging but more detailed than those of his superiors. But for the reasons set out above, the Soviet economy could not approach this ideal. The instructions passed downward were often inconsistent and incomplete. Managers could not delegate and move on, but instead had to continually revisit and revise past instructions.

A surprising feature of the working archives of ministries and enterprises is the near total absence of final “approved” plans. All plans were labeled “draft” or “preliminary.” The draft plan was no more than an informal agreement which could be changed subsequently by virtually any superior. The “correcting” and “finalizing” of plans was a never-ending process; the “final” plan remained always on the horizon. Searches in the ministerial archives have located only one finalized annual plan, that for light industry in 1939…

The archives provide thousands of cases of plan revisions. Ministers ordered last minute changes; factories were shuffled from one authority to another; one factory was ordered to increase its production post haste to make up for production shortfalls in another factory.32

The flow of instructions passing downward was matched by a flow of problems passing upward. Some of these problems went all the way to the politburo, which made “infrequent major decisions relating to investment and innumerable detailed interventions relating to outputs and inputs.”33

Unrealistic production targets created further difficulties for the system. Managers demanded the inputs that they would need to reach their targets, but their demands could be satisfied only if the input producers reached their own targets, which they often failed to do. Input shortages were frequent, so managers were forced to compete for inputs. The ultimate allocation of inputs owed more to the savviness of the individual managers than to economic efficiency.

A “good” manager was expected to get the job done by all means necessary and at any price. The minister of heavy industry, for example, bluntly relayed this message to his managers: “We will not listen to those people who say our materials have not been delivered, but we say that a good manager, a good shop director, a good master technician knows how to organize things and produce the required results.”34

The need to get the job done caused the hierarchical structure of the command system to break down at the bottom end. A maze of horizontal linkages emerged as managers secured inputs by contracting directly with the input producers. Inputs officially traded at prices set by the state, but in reality, they were often sold to the highest bidder. A “good” manager knew how to bend the rules just enough to ensure that input producers were, one way or another, adequately rewarded.

The Workers

Real investment almost quadrupled between 1928 and 1937. How was it financed? The Bolsheviks had always emphasized “primitive socialist accumulation,” the extraction of agricultural surplus to finance industrialization. Collectivization was supposed to facilitate this process, both by increasing the surplus and by making it easier to appropriate. The opposite occurred: Soviet agriculture contracted so much that just feeding the people was difficult. The investment funds had to come from some other place. In the end, they came from the workers: real wages in 1932 were half of what they had been in 1928.35

Workers also struggled with the effects of rapid urbanization. Large-scale industry had employed 3.1 million people in 1927-8. It employed 6.4 million people in 1932.36 The concentration of labour around the factories stressed the urban infrastructure.

Trams (there were few alternative means of urban transport then) were packed to suffocation. There was a shortage of water, shops, catering facilities…Lack of space, shared kitchens, the crowding of several families per apartment, often divided rooms, were the lot of the majority of the urban population for over a generation.37

Rationing had first been introduced in 1929, and became more extensive as further shortages emerged. Queuing for unrationed goods became commonplace.

The Five Year Plans, and the sense of national mission that they aroused, helped to maintain the workers’ productivity even as their own living conditions worsened.

The Five Year Plan promised to create a society of abundance for the proletariat. Soviet propaganda persuaded people that hard work and sacrifice would be rewarded in the future, when everybody would enjoy the fruits of their collective labour…But when the Five Year Plan had been completed, this paradise had not been reached, and another plan was introduced. By the carrot and the stick the Soviet people were driven by the state to go on working for the Communist utopia, which was always imminent but never came.38

Even so, Stalin recognized that the workers’ productivity would fall if their living conditions became too straitened. He carefully monitored their productivity, not just in the aggregate, but also on a city-by-city basis.

Stalin interpreted declining labor productivity as a sign that workers “were not provisioned as well as last year,” and personally ordered the delivery of consumer goods to cities where labor productivity was declining.39

There were two years (1933 and 1937) in which aggregate investment was cut back. In these years the all-out drive for investment appears to have imperilled the workers’ already frugal living conditions. Investment was cut back to forestall a general decline in worker morale and productivity.40

The workers’ morale was only one aspect of the labour problem.

The productivity gains were very far below expectation and on occasion even negative. Vast numbers of peasants coming in from the country, sometimes as refugees from collectivization, immensely complicated the problems of elementary labour discipline, time-keeping, training. The planned expansion of the labour force called for great efforts to teach new skills, to increase the inadequate numbers of engineers and technologists, to expand educational establishments. This proved extremely difficult to achieve in practice, and mere statistics cannot measure the hasty mass-production of semi-qualified personnel which was rushed into the breach. 41

Worker absenteeism was very high, and after 1930, was punished with dismissal. Turnover was also very high.

The peasant-workers, bewildered by their new surroundings, often short of food and adequate lodging, rootless and unsettled, wandered about in search of better things…The average worker in the coal industry, to take the worst example, left his employment almost three times during 1930.42

A new wage scale was introduced to encourage workers to stay in one place and acquire on-the-job skills: the most skilled workers earned 3.7 times more than the least skilled. The most productive workers were sometimes rewarded with privileges such as

…access to “closed” shops, allocations of tolerable housing, a permit to buy a good suit, and so forth. Under conditions of universal shortages, money alone could not do much.43

The Soviet economy faced enormous challenges, but it didn’t have to be efficient to grow rapidly. In the early years the state’s ability to shift resources out of consumption and into investment, as well as its (incomplete) control over the allocation of labour, were enough to ensure growth. Many of the problems of the first Five Year Plan were resolved over the span of a very few years: peasants became accustomed to urban life, technicians and engineers were trained, factory workers were equipped with better tools.

War on the Horizon

The Soviet economy was more orderly in the mid-1930s. There was strong growth from 1933 to 1937, but then growth was abruptly checked.

The second Five Year Plan had initially envisaged greater production of housing and consumer goods, but it was gradually amended to emphasize heavy industry. Hitler had come to power in 1933, and spoke openly about gaining “living space” (lebensraum) in the Soviet Union. Once its agricultural lands had been captured by German forces, the “inferior” Slavic populace would be killed or deported, and German settlers would take their place. The Soviet Union had to respond to this threat. Its armed forces doubled in size between 1934 and 1939, taking manpower away from industry. It also invested heavily in industries that were essential to armaments production. The production of coal, copper, and steel doubled between 1934 and 1939, while pig iron production rose by 40%. The production of machine tools tripled between 1932 and 1937. The production of electricity rose by 70% over the same years. And, of course, there was a shift towards actual armaments production. Defence constituted 3.4% of the budget in 1933, 16.1% in 1936.

Although the Soviet Union became increasingly adept at satisfying its own needs, it relied on outside experts to design and organize a number of its most ambitious industrial projects. American installations, with their emphasis on scale, sometimes served as models for Soviet projects.

The construction of Stalin’s huge iron and steel combines…was overseen by the Freyn Engineering Company of Chicago, Illinois, hired in May 1927. Magnitogorsk [then the world’s largest iron and steel works] was designed from top to bottom by Arthur G. McKee and Company of Cleveland, Ohio, based on the prototype of a US Steel plant in Gary, Indiana…The gigantic new hydroelectric plant on the Dniepr River in Ukraine was designed and built by the Hugh L. Cooper firm, based in New York City…The Soviet bauxite-mining and aluminum-smelting industry, critical in the construction of tanks and warplanes, was designed from scratch by the American expert Frank E. Dickie, hired from the Alcoa corporation in 1930.44

The Soviet aviation industry was likewise modelled on its American counterpart. The first Soviet designs were developed by reverse engineering American fighters, light bombers and transport planes.

The shift to a wartime economy was partly responsible for the industrial slowdown that began in 1937. So, too, was the Red Terror, which had decimated the ranks of “army officers, civil servants, managers, technicians, statisticians, planners, even foremen.”

The Great Patriotic War

Hitler and Stalin signed the Nonaggression Pact in August 1939. The Pact committed each country to take no military action against the other for a period of ten years. Neither leader intended to abide by this condition, and neither leader could have realistically expected the other to abide by it. Both leaders were playing for time.

Hitler’s principal preoccupations were lebensraum and Bolshevism. He intended to depopulate and then colonize agricultural lands in Eastern Europe, with the Ukraine being an obvious target. He also believed (correctly) that the Bolsheviks were attempting to export their ideology, and that Bolshevism would destroy the German culture. He intended to “save” Germany by extinguishing Bolshevism. These ambitions made a German invasion of the Soviet Union inevitable.

For his part, Stalin had believed since Hitler’s appointment as chancellor (1933) that war was coming. He expected a war of attrition, much like World War I, in which the capitalist countries would fight to a standstill. When the capitalists were weakened, and when Europe’s workers were ready to rebel against their failing governments, Stalin would attack, extending Communism’s domain into the West. But he would stay on the sidelines as long as he could, building up the Soviet Union’s military capability and letting the West tear itself apart.

The Making and Breaking of the Nonaggression Pact

War is a battle of production as much as it is a battle of men. Hitler recognized that over the course of even a few years, he could not win a battle of production. The combined GDP of France and Britain was 25% greater than the GDP of Germany. If France and Britain went to war, the United States was likely to support them, and its GDP alone was more than twice the German GDP. Hitler’s one advantage was that rearmament had begun in Germany earlier and with greater intensity than it had in France, Britain, and the United States. Germany’s headstart gave it a temporary armaments advantage over potential opponents.

Hitler initially hoped that he would not have to fight in the West — he even imagined that Britain might become an ally. His aggressions were confined to the East. Austria was annexed in March 1938, and a few months later, Germany initiated low-level incursions into Czechoslovakian territory. Britain and France now worried about war returning to the Continent, and a meeting was convened to reach a negotiated solution. The active participants were Britain, France, Italy, and Germany — Czechoslovakia was “represented” by Britain and France. The result was the Munich Agreement (“peace for our time,” said Chamberlain), which transferred the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany. The agreement did not save Czechoslovakia, which was picked apart by Germany, Hungary, and Poland over the next few months.

Hitler reassessed his strategy after the Munich Agreement. He had hoped that Britain and France would not involve themselves in Eastern Europe’s affairs, but the Munich Agreement showed this hope to be false. Hitler decided that his Eastern ambitions would only be realized if he first asserted himself in the West. He contemplated an attack on France, with the threat of a further attack on Britain. Ideally, France would surrender. Britain, having lost its principal ally, would make peace with Germany, retaining its overseas empire in exchange for its acceptance of German dominance on the Continent. And all of this would happen before the United States became so alarmed that it intervened on Britain’s side.

By the time of the Munich Agreement, the Western countries were rearming faster than Germany, and using a smaller fraction of their GDPs to do it. They were overtaking Germany in military preparedness, but in the summer of 1939, Germany still had “the largest and most combat-ready army in Europe, as well as the best air force.”45 Hitler had to go to war soon or not at all. And if he did go to war, he had to win quickly and decisively.

Hitler wanted to be sure that he didn’t end up fighting a two-front war: Britain and France in the West, the Soviet Union in the East. Stalin wanted to give Hitler exactly that security, because he believed that war between “the Reich and the capitalist Anglo-French bloc” was “in the interests of the USSR.”46 And so it was that Hitler and Stalin, each fully committed to the other’s destruction, entered into the Nonaggression Pact.

The “secret protocols” of the Nonaggression Pact divided up the territory lying between the two countries into separate spheres of influence. The German sphere included Lithuania and the western part of Poland; the Soviet sphere included “the eastern part of Poland and Bessarabia as well as Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, up to the river Dvina.”47

Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, inviting — and getting — declarations of war from Britain and France. The Soviet Union was less overt in claiming its share of Poland. It delayed for some days, and then moved troops into Poland on the pretext that it was protecting the people from the German invasion. Soviet troops also moved into Estonia and Latvia as a result of treaties signed under duress. And they moved into Lithuania which, through Stalin’s keenness and Hitler’s indifference, slipped out of the German sphere of influence and into the Soviet sphere. That left only Finland. The Soviet Union placed unreasonable demands on Finland as a pretext for war. The Finns rebuffed them, and Soviet troops invaded in November 1939. The Finnish resistance was ferocious; Soviet casualties were high. Worse still, Britain and France seemed prepared to join the war on Finland’s side, which would bring the Soviet Union into the capitalists’ war too early. Stalin backed down, agreeing to an armistice that gave the Soviet Union small territorial gains. One Soviet officer observed, “We have won just about enough ground to bury our dead.”48

Stalin’s terror tactics were applied in the new territories. The NKVD systematically killed 21,892 Polish prisoners of war, including more than 15,000 officers, in April and May of 1940. This event is known as the Katyn massacre, after the mass graves discovered in the Katyn Forest. The NKVD then tracked down the prisoners’ wives and children — 60,667 of them — and deported them to labour camps.49 The NKVD also undertook purges in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Germany and the Soviet Union signed a trade agreement under which the Soviet Union sent raw materials westward in exchange for manufactured goods and new technologies. The agreement was crucial to both countries.

Stalin’s armament drive had stimulated voracious demand for machine tools and engineering know-how, areas in which German firms excelled. Hitler’s own armament efforts had ratcheted up German demand for oil, manganese, cotton, and grain, all of which the Soviets produced in abundance.50

The Soviet Union also acted as a conduit for German imports of rubber (from Asia), iron ore (from Sweden) and nickel (from Finland). These materials were essential to the German armaments industry, but the Germans had made a deal with the devil. The manufactures sent to the Soviets, their soon-to-be enemy, included “tank, light bomber, and helicopter prototypes, aeroengines and blueprints, artillery pieces, armored vehicles, gun sights, and a battle cruiser.”51

Hitler invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in April 1940, and he got the quick and decisive victory that he had desperately needed. He had thought that this show of strength would induce the British to negotiate a treaty, but it did not — “we shall never surrender,” declaimed Churchill. Hitler would have to invade and conquer Britain, but he did not have the necessary material. His army was on the wrong side of the English Channel, and his surface fleet was far too weak to be matched against the British fleet. The Luftwaffe attempted to break the British through a bombing campaign in the fall of 1940, but was repelled.

Britain and Germany were deadlocked, and deadlock favoured Britain. As one German general explained,

A victorious end to the war was to be achieved at all costs in 1940, above all to negate American assistance for the Western powers, the acceleration of which…was already then part of our calculations.52

Hitler’s response was to reverse his strategy. He had attacked the West to facilitate his conquest of the Soviet Union. Now he would attack the Soviet Union to facilitate his conquest of the West. He believed that the defeat of the Soviet Union would deter America from entering the war. Britain, isolated, would then surrender.53 And if Hitler were wrong in this prediction, he would at least have gained full control over the Soviet Union’s immense resources. Hitler began planning his attack on the Soviet Union before the end of 1940.54

Stalin, too, revised his strategy. Stalin declared in May 1941 that the “Soviet peace policy” had permitted the Soviet Union to arm itself, and to absorb new territory at its margins, but had now served its purpose.

Not another foot of ground can be gained with such peaceful sentiments.

Now that our army has been thoroughly reconstructed, fully outfitted for fighting a modern war, now that we are strong — now we must shift from defense to offense.

The era of widening the socialist front by force has begun.55

The Soviets immediately began to plan an offensive war against Germany, but they had waited too long. Within a month the Germans had complete invasion plans for themselves and all of their allies (Finland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia). Within two months they had their men and materials in place.

The Soviets’ intensive preparation for war had given them the advantage in both men and materials.

By the end of 1940, the Red Army deployed 23,307 operational tanks, 15,000 45 mm anti-tank guns, and 22,171 warplanes, with thousands more state-of-the-art models of each coming on line in 1941. In these areas, the Red Army was the world’s most formidable.

Soviet superiority in manpower was more obvious still…The Red Army’s projected wartime strength, in case of general mobilization, rose from 5.3 million in 1937 to 6.5 million by 1939, before ramping up to 8.682 million in the mobilization plan for 1941.

The overall strength of the Wehrmacht, as of spring 1941, stood at about 6.7 million men, of which less than half were available on the eastern front against the USSR.56

However, the Germans had the advantage in organization, execution, and experience, and these things would initially be decisive.

From Barbarossa to Citadel

The German attack — Operation Barbarossa — began on 22 June 1941. Three million soldiers pushed forward along a north-south front that extended more than one thousand kilometers. The Germans were confident of victory, but they were operating under two constraints. First, they needed a speedy victory, not only to gain control of vital Soviet resources, but also to discourage American intervention. Their aim was to break the Soviet army within the first few weeks of battle. Second, the Soviet army had to be broken west of the Dnieper and Dvina rivers. Only a quarter of the Wehrmacht was motorized. Most guns and supplies were brought forward by horses — the Germans had assembled between 600,000 and 700,000 horses for this purpose — and most troops marched. The tanks and halftracks at the leading edge of the assault could advance roughly 500 kilometers before they would begin to lose contact with their supply trains and supporting troops.

The Soviets were ill-prepared for a defensive war. Aerodromes, tank parks, and fuel depots had not been camouflaged, and the planned “dummy” aerodromes had not yet been built. The Luftwaffe erased much of the Soviets’ material advantage within days. The Baltic front lost 920 of its 1080 warplanes during the first three days of fighting. The Western front lost almost half of its warplanes during the first week. The majority of these aircraft were destroyed while still on the ground. Hundreds of tank parks and fuel depots were also destroyed.57

Despite its advantage in numbers, the Soviet army did not function effectively. Morale was a problem.

The men were bullied by their officers, who were cowed by their superior officers, who were themselves terrorized by politruks [political commissars].58

The Germans exacerbated the morale problem through an extensive leaflet campaign that highlighted the gap between the promises and reality of communism, and invited the soldiers’ defection.

Whether owing to German propaganda or, more likely, to their desperation to escape Stalin’s murderous tyranny, thousands, and soon millions of his troops either deserted to, or allowed themselves to be captured by, the enemy. By July 9, Soviet losses stood at 589,000 officially and probably as high as a million, against German losses of 23,000 killed and 44,000 wounded.59

The German front moved steadily forward. On 3 July, after less than two weeks of fighting, the German army’s chief of staff declared that “the objective of shattering the bulk of the Russian army in front of the Dvina and Dnieper has been accomplished.”60

The Soviet army continued to retreat before the German assault, losing large numbers of soldiers, tanks, artillery pieces, and warplanes. But it did not collapse, and in late July, the front began to stabilize. The German army had reached the limits of its supply train and temporarily halted its advance. The Soviet army had shrugged off its losses of men and materials, replacing them with reserves that it had previously held back.

When the fighting resumed, the Germans again gained ground. On 10 October the Soviets were forced to establish a defensive perimeter just 65 kilometers west of Moscow. An army of 1.25 million soldiers defended Moscow at the beginning of the month, but nearly 1 million of them would be lost by the end of it.61

No-one was winning this war. The Germans had wanted a short war, decided in a matter of weeks, but the war had now dragged on for months. They were facing a winter war for which they had not prepared. They were fighting on two fronts, something that Hitler had striven to avoid. And their attempt to preempt American involvement in the war had failed, as Britain was now tapping America’s industrial might through the Lend-Lease program. For the Soviets, the war was economically disastrous. The territory that they had ceded by November 1941 had produced 63% of the Soviet Union’s coal, 68% of its pig iron, 58% of its steel, 60% of its aluminium, 84% of its sugar, 38% of its grain, 60% of its pigs. The Soviet Union’s industrial output in November 1941 was little more than half what it had been in November 1940.62

The Soviets did what they could to protect their industrial capacity. Between July and November of 1941, 1360 large-scale installations in the western part of the Soviet Union were disassembled, transported east of the Urals, reassembled, and put back into operation. But the Germans overran the rest of the western factories, including more than 300 armaments factories.63 The Soviets’ loss of industrial capacity, coupled with their loss of access to raw materials, eroded their ability to make war.

In the first six months of the eastern war, the Red Army lost 22,340 tanks, or nearly 91 percent of Stalin’s original tank park, while only 5,400 new tanks were produced…The ratio was still worse with anti-tank guns, with 12,100, or nearly 81 percent of the original stock, lost by December 1941 and only 2,500, or scarcely more than 20 percent, being replenished. Of 8,400 Soviet bombers on hand at the time of the invasion, 7,200 were lost by December 1941, against only 2,500 produced.64

Two things saved the Soviets from defeat. The first was rising tensions between Japan and the United States. Japan’s preoccupation with the United States meant that Japan was very unlikely to attack the Soviet Union, so Stalin moved military units out of Siberia and redeployed them against the German army. The second was the extension of the American Lend-Lease program to the Soviet Union. The initial shipments were small, but grew larger over time, even after the United States had itself entered the war. By 30 June 1942, the Lend-Lease program had already delivered 2,250 tanks, 44,000 trucks, jeeps and scout cars, 168,000 tons of foodstuffs, 56,000 field telephones and 381,000 miles of field telephone wire, 1,285 warplanes, and 300,000 tons of refined petroleum.65

The Soviet army, now stronger, could be more aggressive. On 19 November 1942 it launched a tank-led flanking operation that encircled the German 6th Army in front of Stalingrad. The 6th Army would fight on for two months and then surrender. The Stalingrad campaign was a major defeat for the Germans. Both the Germans and the Soviets subsequently launched offensive operations, but none of them were as significant as Stalingrad had been.

The last major German assault was Operation Citadel, an attack on Kursk. It had been anticipated by the Soviets, and they had heavily fortified the area. They had also concentrated their forces so as to give themselves a very large material advantage over the Germans. The Germans had 2,450 tanks and 1,370 warplanes. The Soviets had 8,200 tanks, armoured vehicles and self-propelled guns, and nearly 6,000 warplanes.66

The Germans began the attack on 5 July 1943. They made some headway, and inflicted huge losses on the Soviets.67 Then, on 12 July, Hitler ordered his forces to disengage. Britain, the United States, and their allies had invaded Sicily. Hitler believed that invasion of Italy and perhaps the Balkans was imminent. He moved forces out of the eastern front in order to bolster his defenses in these areas. It was the beginning of the German army’s long retreat.

The ground war had turned against Germany, and so had the armaments race. The Soviet Union’s industrial capacity had been devastated by the German invasion, but by March 1942, it was rising again. By contrast, from March 1943, the British launched heavy and sustained bombing attacks on the Ruhr, creating severe shortages of steel, coking coal, and manufactured components. As a result, the Soviet Union was able to produce substantially more armaments than Germany in the final years of the war. The table below compares the two countries’ weapons production for the period 1942-4.68

Armaments production, in thousands of units, 1942-4
Armaments production, in thousands of units, 1942-4

In 1942 and 1943, military spending accounted for over 60% of the Soviet Union’s national output.69 Lend-Lease also made a significant contribution to the country’s war readiness. An agreement in December 1941 specified that monthly shipments under the Lend-Lease program would include

…50,000 tons of “metals, chemicals, and other heavy materials,” 20,000 tons of “petroleum products,” 10,000 trucks, 550 tanks (mostly M-3s), 144 pursuit planes, and 133 bombers, along with ten cargo ships full of American “wheat, flour, and sugar.”70

The Expansion of Communism

Germany’s final defeat came almost two years after Operation Citadel. During this time, the Soviet army recovered territory that it had lost to the Germans and then pushed farther west. The army’s advance finally ended on 15 April 1945, when it entered Berlin.

The power vacuum after the defeat of Germany facilitated the rise of communism in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union installed puppet governments in some countries, and facilitated the rise of “homegrown” communist parties in others.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had become independent states after World War I, but were reabsorbed by the Soviet Union after World War II. Byelorussia and Ukraine, liberated from German occupation, returned to their prior status as member republics of the Soviet Union. Communist governments were established in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. These countries and the Soviet Union subsequently formed a collective defense coalition called the Warsaw Pact. (It has been said that the Warsaw Pact is the only military alliance to have invaded only its own members: Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968.) Yugoslavia also established a communist government, but did not align itself with the Soviet Union.

The Postwar Economy

The parts of the Soviet Union that had been under German occupation were completely devastated. The German assault had destroyed 1710 towns and 70,000 villages, and 25 million people had been left homeless.71 The people set about rebuilding their towns. Many of them worked regular jobs during the day, and then participated in the clearing and reconstruction in the evenings.

The war had been a period of extreme deprivation. As much of the country’s resources as possible had been funnelled into armaments production, so there had been shortages of food, clothing and all other consumer goods. Much of the housing stock had been destroyed in the west, and only the most basic housing had been built around the new industrial developments in the east. Nevertheless, Stalin continued to emphasize industrial development. In 1945, 87.9% of industrial investment was allocated to the producer goods sector. The goal of the new Five Year Plan (1946-50) was to reach prewar output levels, and it was largely successful. The fulfillment of the plan was assisted by the Soviet Union’s insistence on taking in-kind reparations from its former enemies.

Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, and especially Germany, were made to deliver all kinds of equipment and materials. Such German factories as the Zeiss works in Jena were dismantled and taken away to Russia, and some of the workers too, to train Russians in their highly specialized trades. Rails were taken up and used to rebuild Russian railways…Even in Manchuria, the incoming Chinese found that many factories had been taken away.72

There were solid gains in aggregate output, but there were problems with the composition of output. The incentives inherent in central planning led to technological stagnation.

Everyone was rewarded above all for fulfilling output plans, and the planners, under pressure to expand production, proceeded on what has been called “the ratchet principle”: that more should be made of everything. This led to several defects. Firstly, the simplest way to produce more is to go on making the same designs. Therefore, unless the particular item was given detailed attention at the very top, there was a marked tendency to go on making obsolete equipment. Secondly, the pattern of production was to a great extent frozen: thus the output of coal, oil and electric current was increased in like proportions, whereas in American non-solid fuels were making spectacular relative gains. New products, such as plastics and synthetics, or a new and highly economical fuel, natural gas, were neglected…Matters were not helped by the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign, which led to the claims that everything had been invented in Russia and that there was nothing to be learned in the decadent West.73

The pure sciences, the basis of so much of modern technology, also struggled under Stalinist ideology.

In these years the political leaders sought to establish “little Stalins” at the head of each branch of science and the arts. It is in this context that Lysenko was allowed or encouraged to destroy genetics. Contacts with world science were systematically broken off. Even Einstein’s theories were attacked, but in most of the natural sciences and in mathematics the top scientists (who were of exceedingly high quality) succeeded in preserving their disciplines from serious damage.

It was not so with economics. The subject was altogether too close to politics, and any serious discussion of economic issues or of objective criteria was inconsistent with the political arbitrariness which reached its peak in the period 1947-53.74

The efficiency of production under central planning would largely determine Soviet Union’s success, but it was an issue that Stalin himself declared to be off-limits for economists.75

Was Stalin Necessary?

When Stalin died in 1953, the people believed him to be the nation’s saviour and Lenin’s equal. The full scope of his repressions — the executions, the imprisonments, the midnight knock on the door — only became widely known after Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956. People were horrified by this revelation, and Stalin was erased from the public record.

The historian Alec Nove has asked the question, “Was Stalin really necessary?” Given the state of the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s, was it inevitable that Stalin or someone like him would rise to power?

The key issue of the late 1920s was the pace of industrialization. Its resolution was inextricably linked to the role of the peasantry in the Soviet Union.

Until about 1927, a rapid rise in industrial production resulted from the reactivation of pre-revolutionary productive capacity, which fell into disuse and disrepair in the civil war period. However, it now became urgent to find material and financial means to expand the industrial base. This at once brought the peasant problem to the fore. The revolution had distributed land to twenty-five million families, most of whom were able or willing to provide only small marketable surpluses. Supplies of food to the towns and for export fell, peasant consumption rose. Yet the off-farm surplus must grow rapidly to sustain industrialization, especially where large-scale loans from abroad could scarcely be expected. As the “left” opposition vigorously pointed out, the peasant, the bulk of the population, had somehow to be made to contribute produce and money, to provide the bulk of “primitive Socialist accumulation.”76

Moderate communists, led by Bukharin, argued that industrialization should occur at a pace consistent with the peasants’ voluntary exchange of grain for goods. This pace would be slow, but the peasants and the workers would be partners in the Soviet Union’s growth. Stalin initially endorsed this policy, but it was unappealing to many communists,77 and Stalin eventually abandoned it. He instead argued for all-out industrialization, which would require the forcible extraction of the peasants’ surplus. When Stalin adopted this position, it probably had the support of the majority of the Party.

The appropriation of rural surplus would be facilitated by forcing the peasants onto collective farms. Collectivization required the use of unbridled power.

Collectivization could not be voluntary. Rapid industrialization, especially with priority for heavy industry, meant a reduction in living standards, despite contrary promises in the first five-year plans. This meant a sharp increase in the degree of coercion, in the powers of the police, in the unpopularity of the regime. The aims of the bulk of the people were bound to be in conflict with the aims of the Party.78

Moreover, once the surplus had been appropriated, only a powerful authority could set aside the urgent needs of the people in order to industrialize with all possible speed.

The strains and priorities involved in a rapid move forward required a high degree of economic centralization, to prevent resources from being diverted to satisfy needs which were urgent but of a non-priority character.79

The Party had the power to subordinate the needs of the peasants, and of the people generally. But it also had to have the will, the unwavering commitment to a single overarching goal.

This, in turn, required hierarchical subordination, and suppression of discussion; therefore there had to be an unquestioned commander-in-chief. Below him, toughness in executing unpopular orders became the highest qualification for Party office. The emergence of Stalin, and of Stalin-type bullying officials of the sergeant-major species, was accompanied by the decline in the importance of the cosmopolitan journalist-intellectual type of party leader who had played so prominent a role earlier.80

Stalin came to power precisely because other Party members understood that he was capable of becoming the “unquestioned commander-in-chief.”

The decision to industrialize rapidly led to the need for a “tough, coercive government,” which led to the need for a single-minded and unbending leader — in other words, to Stalin. This argument explains why the Soviet people ended up with a callous and dictatorial leader. But it does not excuse the sheer brutality of Stalin’s regime: “One cannot possibly argue that all the immense evils of the Stalin era flowed inescapably from the policy decisions of 1928-29.”81


  1. Quoted by Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, p. 126.
  2. Medvedev surveys Stalin’s actions in the 1989 revision of his book, Let History Judge. His main allegations are described in the New York Times article, Major Soviet Paper Says 20 Million Died As Victims of Stalin.
  3. Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, pp. 126 and 191. The NKVD bosses were Genrikh Yagoda (1934-6) and Nikolai Yezhov (1936-8).
  4. For this interpretation of the Great Terror, see Hiraoki Kuromiya, “Accounting for the Great Terror,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas (2005).
  5. Stalin, quoted by Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, p. 194.
  6. Quoted by Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, p. 194.
  7. Burkharin, quoted by Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 124.
  8. Stalin, echoing Lenin. Quoted by Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 158.
  9. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 153.
  10. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 88.
  11. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 106.
  12. This fact is hardly surprising: the whole of the USSR contained fewer than 15,000 cars, trucks and buses in 1925. (Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 90.)
  13. Figes, Revolutionary Russia: 1891-1991, p. 152.
  14. Figes, Revolutionary Russia: 1891-1991, pp. 152-3.
  15. Figes, Revolutionary Russia: 1891-1991, p. 151.
  16. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 177.
  17. Figes, Revolutionary Russia: 1891-1991, p. 155.
  18. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 174.
  19. Paul Gregory, “An Introduction to the Economics of the Gulag,” in Paul Gregory and Valery Lazarev, eds., The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag (Hoover Institution Press, 2003), pp. 19-21.
  20. Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Anchor Books, 2004), p. xvi.
  21. All three quotes are from Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Anchor Books, 2004), p. 64.
  22. Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Anchor Books, 2004), p. 74.
  23. Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Anchor Books, 2004), p. 94.
  24. Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Anchor Books, 2004), p. 93.
  25. One country is growing faster than another when its graph is steeper; and for any given country, its growth rate is faster during periods when the graph is steeper.
  26. Paul Gregory, The Political Economy of Stalinism, p. 118.
  27. This table is from Alec Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 189.
  28. Paul Gregory and Mark Harrison, “Allocation under Dictatorship: Research in Stalin’s Archives,” Journal of Economic Literture (2005), p. 745.
  29. Paul Gregory, The Political Economy of Stalinism, p. 117.
  30. Stalin in 1931. Quoted by Alec Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 189.
  31. Paul Gregory, The Political Economy of Stalinism, p. 83.
  32. Paul Gregory and Mark Harrison, “Allocation under Dictatorship: Research in Stalin’s Archives,” p. 729.
  33. Paul Gregory and Mark Harrison, “Allocation under Dictatorship: Research in Stalin’s Archives,” p. 723.
  34. Paul Gregory and Mark Harrison, “Allocation under Dictatorship: Research in Stalin’s Archives,” p. 748.
  35. Figes, Revolutionary Russia: 1891-91, p. 164.
  36. Alec Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 196.
  37. Alec Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 199.
  38. Figes, Revolutionary Russia: 1891-91, p. 150.
  39. Paul Gregory and Mark Harrison, “Allocation under Dictatorship: Research in Stalin’s Archives,” p. 732.
  40. Paul Gregory and Mark Harrison, “Allocation under Dictatorship: Research in Stalin’s Archives,” p. 733.
  41. Alec Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 197.
  42. Alec Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 198.
  43. Alec Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 210.
  44. Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War (Basic Books, 2021), pp. 28-9.
  45. Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction (Viking, 2007), p. 315.
  46. See Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War (Basic Books, 2021), pp. 83-4, for Stalin’s strategic thinking. The quoted phases are Stalin’s own words.
  47. Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister. Quoted by Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 86.
  48. Quoted by Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 150.
  49. Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 152.
  50. Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 77.
  51. Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 156.
  52. General Georg Thomas. Quoted by Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction, p. 408
  53. Hitler’s argument was more hopeful than logical: “Britain’s hope lies in Russia and the United States. If Russia drops out of the picture, America, too, is lost for Britain, because elimination of Russia would tremendously increase Japan’s power in the Far East.” (Quoted by Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction, p. 424.)
  54. The material requirements of the attack were determined in August 1940, and industrial output was adjusted to satisfy them. (Tooze, Wages of Destruction, p. 432.) Strategic planning began in December 1940.
  55. All three quotes are from the same speech by Stalin. Reported by Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 9.
  56. All three quotes are from Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 220.
  57. McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 287.
  58. McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 297.
  59. McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 298. Soviet soldiers continued to desert or allow themselves to be captured in great numbers. By December 1941, more than 3.5 million Soviet soldiers had been captured by the German army.
  60. Fritz Halder, quoted by McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 299.
  61. McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 336.
  62. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., pp. 271-2.
  63. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., pp. 271-2.
  64. McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 348.
  65. McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 416. In the Sovet case, Lend-Lease was actually Lend-Give. The Americans did not demand repayment and the Soviets did not offer it.
  66. McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 466.
  67. Soviet tanks losses were at least 8 times greater than German tanks losses. Soviet warplane losses were between 3 and 8 times greater than German warplane losses. Soviet manpower losses were between 3 and 6 times greater than German manpower losses. (McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 472.)
  68. The data are from Table 1.7 in Mark Harrison, ed. The Economics of World War II (Cambridge, 1998).
  69. Harrison, The Economics of World War II, Table 1.8.
  70. McMeekin, Stalin’s War, p. 390. In 1942 the Soviets produced 24,400 tanks and self-propelled guns (about 2000 per month) and 21,700 warplanes (about 1800 per month). The Lend-Lease tank shipments were equal to about 25% of the Soviets’ own production, and the warplane shipments were equal to about 15% of the Soviets’ own production. (The Soviet production data is from Harrison, The Economics of World War II, Table 1.6.)
  71. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 289.
  72. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 291.
  73. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 318.
  74. Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R., p. 319.
  75. From Stalin’s Economic problems of socialism in the USSR: ““The rational organization of the production forces, economic planning, etc., are not problems of political economy, but of the economic policy of the directing bodies. They are two provinces which must not be confused.”
  76. Alec Nove, Was Stalin Really Necessary (Routledge Revivals, 2014, first published 1964), pp. 21-2.
  77. Opposition to Bukharin’s policy centered on three issues: (1) Free trade in grain would only be successful if the better-off peasants were allowed to expand, because they were the more efficient producers. This decision would be contrary to Bolshevik ideology. (2) Industrialization would be too slow. The party believed that war would come soon, and the country had to be prepared for it. (3) Dragging out the transition to socialism would harm Party morale.
  78. Alec Nove, Was Stalin Really Necessary, p. 24.
  79. Alec Nove, Was Stalin Really Necessary, p. 25.
  80. Alec Nove, Was Stalin Really Necessary, p. 25.
  81. Alec Nove, Was Stalin Really Necessary, p. 27.