133: The First Five Year Plan


Massive economic changes are hard, but that would not prevent the Soviet Union from trying.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 133 - The Soviet Union Part 3 - The First Five Year Plan. This weekI would like to thank John, Michael, and James for choosing to become a member to support the podcast, you can find out more about becoming a member over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Last episode covered the political and military developments in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, and this episode will shift focus primarily to the economic decisions that would be made during the late 1920s and into the 1930s. This would be a critical period for the economy of the Soviet Union and some of the most impactful decisions for the future war with Germany would be made during this period which would allow for the later actions that would turn the Soviet Union into an economic powerhouse. Many of these actions would be encapsulated in the First Five Year Plan which would begin 1928, with two further Five Year Plans taking place before the start of the war. These Five Year Plans were primarily focused around massive economic investment to greatly increase the Soviet Union’s industrial capacity. To do this resources and manpower would be focused on a number of goals which would quickly make the Soviet Union an industrial powerhouse, or at least that was the plan. As with any major economic plan there would be challenges faced along the way, and some of the goals of the Plan would simply be unattainable. It was also very expensive, and the resources had to come from somewhere, and certain items had to be imported from abroad. This would put additional strain on the Soviet economy, forcing a lower standard of living among its people and having some truly devastating consequences for some groups within Soviet society, consequences that we will spend episodes 5 and 6 of this series discussing. But the First Five Year Plan did produce results, especially in the realm of military industry, which we will discuss in this episode after first discussing the overall political situation during the last years of the 1920s and the general organization of the First Five Year Plan.

Before we dive into the economic discussions, there would be serious changes to the leadership of the Soviet Union in the final years of the 1920s. By 1928 the group of Soviet leaders that had worked together to push Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev out of their positions of leadership had settled into a new status quo. Stalin would remain in his position as General Secretary, and some of the other more powerful members of the Politburo would be Aleksei Rykov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Nikolai Bukharin, editor of Pravda, Mikhail Tomsky leader of Soviet trade unions, Nikolai Uglanov Moscow party secretary, and Mikhail Kalinin Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. The general feeling among these and other leaders at the top of the Party structure was that it was time for unity and stability, after the fractious infighting of the previous years. The plan was to work together to evolve the New Economic Policy and make other reforms. Stalin still wanted to find a way to consolidate power around himself, to make himself the new Lenin of the Soviet Union, but during 1928 he would at least temporarily work with the others as a way of just biding his time. It is very likely that if Stalin would have acted more openly he probably would have ran up against a wall of resistance from the others. There would instead be a series of events which would slowly begin to erode the power of some of the other members of the Politburo. In 1928 there was a major shift in power within the Trade Unions and within the Moscow party which would see Tomsky and Uglanov lose some of their support. But the major shift would occur due to the actions of Bukharin. He would meet with with Kamenev, the same Kamenev that had been politically defeated by Stalin and others in the Politburo, in July 1928. During this meeting he would speak of the general unease and disagreements within the Politburo. When Stalin was informed of this meeting, he went on the attack. He was able to claim that it was Bukharin that was trying to destroy the unity of the Politburo by working with those that had already been removed. A major part of Stalin’s arguments during this period, when it came to trying to remove men like Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov from their positions of power was the idea of a “right deviation”. This was the idea that as the revolution matured there would be a tendency for those within the Communist Party to drift towards the right of the political spectrum relative of where the Communist party was at the time. This generally meant people wanting to bring in more Social-democratic principles and more capitalist ideas into the Communist Party’s policies. In the last years of the 1920s this meant that they were deviating to the right from what Stalin believed was the best path forward. I am going to pull some quotes from a speech given by Stalin in April 1929. “We say that in Europe the conditions are maturing for a new revolutionary upsurge, that this circumstance dictates to us new tasks along the line of intensifying the fight against the Right deviation in the Communist Parties and of driving the Right deviators out of the Party, of intensifying the fight against conciliation, which screens the Right deviation; of intensifying the fight against Social-Democratic traditions in the Communist Parties, etc., etc. But Bukharin answers us that all this is nonsense, that no such new tasks confront us, that the whole fact of the matter is that the majority in the Central Committee wants to “haul” him, i.e., Bukharin, “over the coals.” […] The misfortune of Bukharin’s group is that it does not see the new class changes and does not understand the new tasks of the Party. And it is precisely because it does not understand them that it is compelled to drag in the wake of events and to yield to difficulties. […] I have already said that Bukharin does not see and does not understand the new tasks of the Comintern along the line of driving the Rights out of the Communist Parties, of curbing conciliation, and of purging the Communist Parties of Social-Democratic traditions—tasks which are dictated by the maturing conditions for a new revolutionary upsurge.” Stalin would then go on to argue against Bukharin’s views on a few topics, including the idea that the kulaks, or rural property owners, would grow into socialism and would not need to be either destroyed or forced into socialism, which Stalin strongly disagreed with. We will get into the details of that in a later episode, but I think this is the key quote: “Now this strange theory of Bukharin’s is aspiring to become the banner of the Right deviation in our Party, the banner of opportunism. That is why we cannot now ignore this theory. That is why we must demolish it as a wrong and harmful theory, so as to help our Party comrades to fight the Right deviation.” This was an important connection of political disagreements not just meaning that the other person was wrong, but that the very existence of their thoughts and actions was a manifest threat to the Communist Party. Near the very end of the speech Stalin would close like this: “The fight against the Right deviation must not be regarded as a secondary task of our Party. The fight against the Right deviation is one of the most decisive tasks of our Party. If we, in our own ranks, in our own Party, in the political General Staff of the proletariat, which is directing the movement and is leading the proletariat forward—if we in this General Staff should allow the free existence and the free functioning of the Right deviators, who are trying to demobilise the Party, demoralise the working class, adapt our policy to the tastes of the “Soviet” bourgeoisie, and thus yield to the difficulties of our socialist construction—if we should allow all this, what would it mean? Would it not mean that we are ready to put a brake on the revolution, disrupt our socialist construction, flee from difficulties, and surrender our positions to the capitalist elements?” This would be the logic with each over the course of 1929 and 1930 Bukharin, Tomsky, Uglanov, and Rykov would all be removed from their positions of power. They would not be arrested, they would not be killed, but later in the 1930s this same type of logic would be used to do arrest and sentence them and many others to death or long imprisonment.

While the Politburo was having its disagreements about the best path forward, a plan was being developed for the First Five Year Plan. Generally how this worked was the State Planning Commission, which was part of the Council of People’s Commissars would do most of the central planning. This was, as you might expect, and incredible complicated process, trying to plan out goals for all of the various pieces of the economy along with trying to properly allocate resources of all kinds, including workers. It was also a task which could not just be a top down set of directives, because the central committee did not always have all of the information that they needed to make those decisions. So it would involve information moving up through various local, regional, and state committees about the current state of the an area, the resources it had, the number of workers available, what tasks needed to be done, etc. There would also be suggestions or requests transmitted up the chain as well. Local party leaders, based on what they felt was best for their area, might advocate for or against certain directives that they might receive. This was important at all levels of the hierarchy, because resources were limited, and so if a particular area really wanted to do something they had to make sure those above them knew about it. The general goals of the First Five Year Plan were based around industrialization targets, and they were spread across both resource collection and refinement and also production targets. For example the goal was to increase the extraction of oil to 45 million tons, to produce 17 million tons of cast iron, to build 170,000 tractors and 200,000 automobiles. Then from those goals the general plan was structured to try and ensure that the various industries received the resources that they needed to succeed. These were incredibly lofty goals, which would require a massive increase in all of the goal categories when compared with the production figures in 1928. To try and make them more achievable there were absolutely no limits on the amount of resources that could be spent on any given item, anything that an industry needed it could get if they had high enough priority. This included workers and food for those workers. The food part is where the challenges came into play which would result in the forced collectivization of the early 1930s which will be a major focus of three upcoming episodes. The basis of the problem was that if the massive industrial targets were to be hit, they had to be supported some large increases in agricultural production, both to feed the workers and also as an export item to get goods that could not be produced within the soviet Union. But, at least in the late 1920s, the agricultural sector of the Soviet economy was not as controlled as other sectors, which meant that the ability of the central plan to impact the production of agricultural goods was not as strong, collectivization was a way to change this. Again, we will come back to that later because it is a very large topic, but in general the important thing to know was that the First Five Year Plan was a large economic plan to greatly increase the production of a wide range of industrial goods, both raw material and finished products, with the requirement of also increasing agricultural production to support those industrial goals.

Included in the Five Year Plan was a massive increase in the general amount of construction that was happening all of the Soviet Union, from factories and workshops to housing. In a good example of how these types of activities would influence the rest of the society, this construction boom resulted in the creation of the All-Union Academy of Architecture of the USSR, which would be founded in 1933. This would allow for the training of more architects to oversee construction and design, and it was hoped that it would also allow for a purer form of communist architectural expression. The Academy would be one example of a smaller project that would spin out of the Five Year Plan. There were also really large projects that were seen as some of the cornerstones of the Plan. One of these would be the Dneprostroi hydroelectric power generation project. The project was designed to provide power to large areas of Ukraine, change the structure of the Dnepr to make it more navigable, and provide irrigation possibilities to areas of the steppe that previously did not have access to water. The dam and hydroelectric station that was associated with it would demand more and more workers throughout its construction which began in 1927. The number of workers would increase from the original plan of a few thousand to over 36,000 by the time that it was completed in 1932. This massive increase in the number of workers allocated to some projects was not unusual, and one of the major problems that would be faced when trying to achieve the goals of the plan was that when some projects needed more manpower, that manpower had to be taken from somewhere else. The project that they were taken off of then might not have enough manpower to complete its objectives, so it would try and find workers working on a less important project. Eventually some area of labor force would be the last in line though, and they would just have to make do as certain areas continued to demand more workers. This was coupled with continuous increases in the overall goals of the Five Year Plan, which would occur throughout the five year period after 1927. Many of these increases were kind of the real life equivalent of the movie scene where somebody says they can do something in a 2 weeks and their boss says have it done in 1. Imagine that happening in many areas of the national economy, and then those proposed increases trickling up and out. This would be one of the causes of some of the wastefulness of this First Five Year Plan. There would be huge increases in many areas of the Soviet economy during this period, the Five Year Plan was not a failure other than when it was evaluated against its goals. Almost every possible measure of industrial production rose sharply during Plan. But it ran into the same challenges that any plan on a similar scale and timeframe would encounter, parts of the plan had to be built around around supporting other parts of the plan, and if one of those pieces did not meet goals or were deprioritized then suddenly other parts of the plan were invalidated. This resulted in factory construction efforts that would start but then later be cancelled before completion, then maybe the tools that were to be used in that factory were still built. But in many ways this did not matter, because the goal was never to be perfectly efficient with effort or resources, the goal was a very quick large increase in the Soviet economy. To make that increase a reality, the overall standard of living of the people would be sacrificed, and there would be further consequences for those who lived in the countryside.


Along with simply wanting to increase the industrial and economic power of the Soviet Union, a major driver of the plans and actions during the First Five Year Plan was the Soviet military. This comes back to the idea that was with other nations was always right around the corner during this period. At the 15th Party Congress in December 1927 Voroshilov would make it clear that he hoped that the upcoming five year plan would be built around the possibility that there could be a war in the near future. This could be both a smaller war with a nation like Poland, with there being some concerns about the actions being taken in that nation by Marshal Pilsudski, along with the kind of nebulous massive war with capitalist powers that always existed as a kind of existential threat to the Soviet Union, even if it was not the most realistic possibility. To find a middle ground between these two threats most of the military planning around the First Five year Plan was built around a war with Poland and Romania with the economic and political support of France, but not an open conflict with France. This was not a completely unrealistic scenario, in terms of military planning but given the state of the Red Army in 1927 the goals of the Five Year Plan were very important to the overall future of the Red Army. Overall, the military leaders would push for action along three categories: the general expansion of industrial capacity, a push for self-sufficiency in that capacity, and the movement of critical resources away from the western borders. We have discussed the industrial capacity bit enough already, but I will just mention that one of the major shortcomings, at least when it came to the goals of the Soviet military, was that there was not enough gunpowder and ammunition that could be produced. The production of these two items was always a challenge because they are largely dead end production, especially ammunition, if you make an ammunition factory it can produce ammunition but if you do that then that factory does not really contribute to other things within the overall plan, and it would consume resources that could be used for more general purpose production. That did not prevent military leaders from advocating for an increase in production, claiming in 1929 there was only capacity to create around 10 million rifle rounds a year, and they would need almost 30 million. Along with just straight up production increases, there were concerns about the vulnerability of soviet industry which was based near the Western border. It was felt that all of the serious threats of invasion would begin in Europe, and so there was a concern about how much of Soviet industry was relatively close to such an invader. This was not something that could just be changed overnight though. While the military might have wanted to relocate all of the industrial resources from places like Belorussia and the Crimea to areas further east and deeper in the interior that could not just be done. First of all it would be ruiniously expensive in terms of resources and manpower, because the infrastructure to have some of these factories in other areas just did not exist. Second, there was a powerful inertia to keeping the industrial production in these areas, the skilled workers lived there, and probably wanted to continue, local leaders advocated for their areas to continue to receive resources to expand the local capabilities, and there was far less risk in expanding existing production in an area rather than greenfield construction a thousand miles away. Even with all of these challenges, in 1928 it would become official policy to start moving some types of industry out of the border areas. No new military factories would be built in threatened areas, large expansion projects for heavy industry would also not take place in these areas. While this was seen as an important change in policy to safeguard future production, most of this early shift in production would still be into areas that the Germans were capture in 1941, so it was not enough.

One of the major benefits for the Soviet military of the First FIve Year Plan was that it allowed military planners to start seriously thinking and planning for a very different type of war. If the goals were met, and even if they were just approached, then the Red Army could start planning for the kind of offensive mobile war that many like Tukhachevskii believed was the future. A lot of this came down to tanks and aircraft, which before 1927 the Soviet Union did not have the ability to produce in the numbers required by the Red Army. This would change those, and so it allowed for planning to occur for what a truly mobile military might look like, and allowed for the idea of Deep Battle to be discussed. Tukhachevskii would push for this idea and others as a way of pushing Soviet military doctrine into the future, he would say “It would be a mistake, however, to think that the reconstruction of the army would merely make it easier to accomplish the old types of operational and tactical actions. The new relative weight of aviation and tanks will allow absolutely new ways to engage in general battle.” Deep Battle was Tukhachevskii’s theory on how the more static fronts of the First World War could be avoided by taking a large army with large armor forces and strong air support and attack along a front of almost 500 kilometers, rupturing the entire front and pushing to a depth of at least 100 kilometers to prevent the enemy from recovering. This was a lofty plan, and would also prove to be very hard to even make detailed planning for or prove to be viable in wargames, with a huge amount of effort throughout the 1930s spent trying to make the idea of Deep Battle into something like reality. But it was only had the faintest dream of becoming possible thanks to the strides made in military production during the First Five Year Plan. The overall goals for production of tanks in 1932 was not even close to being met. The goal for T-26 production was something absurd like 10,000, when under a thousand were produced, this was a major miss, but for comparison the British would product just over 1,100 tanks between the years of 1930 and 1939, the Soviets matched that when you combine T-26 and BT tank production in 1932 alone, and they were going to produce many many more in the years that followed. Even though the goal was missed, just having a thousand light tanks, plus many more tankettes and other vehicles would allow for the creation of the first mechanized units and for testing and training to occur with these units. This was a critical step in the development and refinement of armor theory, and would set up the Red Army to be the world leader in armored units and armored capabilities throughout the 1930s. All possible because of the industrial advances of the First Five Year Plan. Next episode will focus on the agricultural aspects of the First Five Year Plan, which were primarily dealing with Collectivization.