The Great Leap Forward: The Rapid Industrialisation of the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1940

‘How can anyone doubt that we are advancing at an accelerated pace in the direction of developing our heavy industry, exceeding our former speed and leaving behind our “age-old” backwardness?’

Joseph Stalin A Year of Great Change 1929


Dmitrii Debabov: Construction of Magnitogorsk (1930)

When the  Bolsheviks took power in the 1917 revolution they inherited a country that was in a large respect a backwards nation as such significant changes were necessary.  The Soviet Union lagged behind the other great nations of the time. Production in steel, coal, textiles and cotton was significantly less than that of Britain and the United States.  Additionally Russia’s main industry for export was also the weakest, agriculture was rife with problems. Access to new machinery was almost impossible and most farmers relied on primitive farming methods. The rural areas were drastically over populated which resulted in too many mouths to feed.  As such the Bolsheviks faced no small task in the reform of the Soviet Union. Between 1927 and 1940 the Soviet Union made significant steps towards an industrialised state. The Soviet Union in this period was the sight of a rapid change both in agriculture and industry and the Soviet Union was forever changed.

The Failures of Collectivisation 

‘Even our enemies are forced to admit that the successes are substantial. And they are really very great’

Joseph Stalin Dizzy With Success 1930.

         Agriculture was the weakest sector of the economy prior to the 1917 revolution and continued to be the Achilles heel of the Soviet Union throughout Stalin’s rein.  Stalin attempted to develop agriculture through the implementation of collectivisation. Collectivisation was the removal of privately owned farms, instead peasants worked on government owned plots, These collective farms or Kolkoz  were said by Stalin to  based on the ‘common cultivation of soil.’ This  unification of ‘dwarf farms’ was said to allow access to new machinery and peasants were to join on a voluntary basis. However both of these statements were false. Historian Davies states that access to machinery was limited with only forty three point two per cent of Kolkoz  farmed land with tractors. Furthermore this machinery made little difference to the small kolhoz and private farms that characterised the landscape of rural towns across the Soviet Union. Inline with the falsehood of access to machinery the joining of Kolhoz was not on a voluntary basis, peasants were persuaded to join these farms and the enforcement of collectivisation meant that meant peasants fled the countryside and found work in urban centres.  This mobilisation to city centres was key to the success of industry, peasants movement into the cities meant that the Socialist utopic ideals could be built around industry.

The Successes of Industry 

‘We wish you further success in your work of assembling, setting in working order and inaugurating this giant plant. We do not doubt that you will be able to surmount all difficulties and will fulfil with honour your duty to the country.’

Joseph Stalin Address to Automobile Works, Nizhni-Novgorod November 1931 

            Over the thirteen years (1927-1940) thousands of factories mines and hydro plants were built. Historian Siegelbaum states that as a result of this, there was a nine per cent increase in production of capital stock per year between 1928 and 1939. Stalin was obsessed with the development of heavy industry and he felt that without their development the Soviet Union would be crushed by its enemies. Towns such as as Magnitogorsk embodied the mass social transformation that took place through the industrial drive. Additionally these towns were where the ideology of Stalinism truly came to light. Historian Kotkin states that these towns meant that the Soviet Union could remake Russia, outrace time and could maintain socialism and their moral superiority whilst being able to compete with the West.
           To meet both ideological needs and industrialisation needs the targets for production needed to be unattainable. The targets set for industry during this period were set high and were often reviewed and raised. Historian Allen highlights that central planing became a key factor of the first Five Year Plan, in which output was given the most weight and profits were substituted for targets. Whilst targets were rarely met in industry the production of coal, oil and pig-iron were exponential between 1927 and 1932. Targets were seen more so as a motivational tool and reviewed in light of performance. Stalin wanted industrialisation to come from within the country itself, whilst it raced against the clock to industrialise.
Conclusions Stalin faced no easy task in industrialising the Soviet Union. Whilst he has been criticised for becoming too removed from the people and steeping away from Socialist ideology it can not be denied that economically speaking significant advances were made in the Soviet Union at this time. Though targets for output were set at unattainable levels their use as a motivational tool meant that for several areas output doubled. The development of urban towns and factories created the belief that the Socialist ideology was within reach. While forced collectivisation did little to develop agriculture it allowed for the mass mobilisation of peasants to urban centres. The Soviet Union was successful in changing the economy of the Soviet Union and fulfilled Stalin’s aims of being able to compete with the other great nations of the time.


4 comments on “The Great Leap Forward: The Rapid Industrialisation of the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1940

  1. alyse1991 says:

    The title says it all!

    Knowing a significant amount about Russian history I found Jackie’s post to be delightful to read. It is astounding what the USSR did in bringing themselves ‘up to speed’ so to speak with other powers of the time. Stalin was ruthless and Jackie points out it paid off as the country made significant advances economically.

    When you leave out the human element in USSR it really is economically speaking a great triumph for the Soviet Union. I found it interesting how Jackie drew on the setting of targets and the way unreachable targets that were often raised pushed Russia further a long as a motivating factor.

    I wonder has any other country attempted such a process? I am guessing the reason that the success has not been repeated would have something to do with the human cost.

    Often Soviet Russia is shed is such a bad light because there remains a greater focus on the moralistic side of things. I do not think we should remove this but I think it is important, as Jackie has done, to point out all the benefits that came with the policies under Stalin and look at things from a purely economic perspective.

    Thanks for taking this at a less practiced angle! Its a part of Soviet Russian history that I feel is often disregarded on account of other factors.

  2. I remember studying Stalin’s Russia and getting bogged down so deep that I began to yearn for the days of Lenin again. So thank you for what was a readable entry! It was great to read your thoughts as to how Stalin led a rapid industrial growth and some benefits from it. It was a different take on Soviet Russia and I appreciate that, but I still wonder what other negative fallouts were to this industrial obsession – ??

    I love that quote you included from Stalin (actually, I enjoy all those quotes at the beginning of each section!), ‘Even our enemies are forced to admit that the successes are substantial. And they are really very great’ … it really gives a closer look into the man. He was clearly obsessed with those two things, his appearance and his enemies. You really sought to place this in the context of the USSR from the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 to the reforms of 1927, this was interesting.

    I also am interested in the agricultural side of things which you looked into… but a little confused as if people fled collectivisation for the cities then how did all these workers of cities live? Did they starve? If collectivisation was a failure then did the agricultural sector just fall apart? What were the fallouts of this? The social issues of cities? I know we only have 800 words but I would love to give your essay a read. Sounds like a terrific topic.

    You really brought alive a period of Russia that I have tended to look over in favour of the revolution of 1917 and the Civil War, thanks!

    • Hi,
      I don’t know if I am meant to reply to comments but I figured I’d answer some of your questions for you. Basically the cities needed these workers, as I said the rural was drastically over populated which meant that the urban was drastically underpopulated prior to 1917. For industry to develop there was a necessity for an influx of workers, towns were quite literally built around this internal migration. Additionally rural workers were more willing to work in mines, construction and new factories which was unfavourable for preexisting city workers and had high staff turn overs.
      Concerning agriculture collectivisation was never able to produce what was needed to feed the country additionally protests that involved the destruction of crops and killing of livestock meant that severe famine occurred in the early 1930s. However due to the fact that agriculture was the weakest part of the economy Russia was used to hunger suffering famines in 1833, 1840, 1867, 1873, and 1891. Additionally the famine of 1920-21 was inevitable as production of oats and wheat in 1917 were at less than three fifths and winter rye at four-fifths and by 1918 though deaths from huger were rare deaths from malnutrition were increasingly common. Basically Russia’s agriculture remained steps behind the industrial sector of the economy.
      I hope that answers some of your questions.

      • Wow that sounds like a tough existence! Sounds like collectivisation worked as poorly under Stalin as it did under Lenin and War Communism! Thanks for taking the time to respond 🙂

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