137: The Other Five Year Plans


After the first Five Year Plan, there were two more!



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 137 - The Soviet Union Part 7 - Further Five Year Plans. This week a big thank you goes out to Stian, Jacob, Ryan, Erik, Dave, Hovey, and Ian for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, head over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. The last three episodes have focused on the impact of the Five Year Plans on Soviet agriculture and the major changes that were made within Soviet agriculture to support the industrial goals of the First Five Year Plan. This episode will carry the story of those Five Year Plans forward by looking at the Second Five Year Plan which would run from 1932 to 1937 and then touch briefly on the third five year plan that would begin in 1938. The general goal of both of these plans was to simply continue the actions of earlier years, only bigger, better, faster, and stronger. Each of those steps enabled the next as well, with the Soviet tank industry being a great example of this. In the late 1920s the number of tanks that Soviet industry could produce was very small, and they were lacking the entire supply chain of manufacturers to go from raw steel to a tank. This would completely change over the following decade. By 1941 they would be able to produce 12,000 tanks…per year. This was a phenomenal sum, and at the start of the war in 1939 the Soviet Union was able to produce more tanks, planes, and many other types of weapons than all of the other nations involved in the war, combined. It is hard to overstate how massive the Soviet industrial base was just 13 years after the start of the First Five Year Plan. But this came at a cost, with so much of the focus being on heavy industry and particularly those industries that were focused on the military, the production of consumer goods fell off a cliff. With so much of the focus on industry and the military everything related to consumer goods was relegated to a lower priority for resources and were workers, both of which were very finite resources. The theory was that this would be a temporary sacrifice, and after several years of these sacrifices the Soviet Union would be such an economic powerhouse that the production of consumer goods could be brought back up. But in the mean time, by some estimates the production of consumer goods during the 1930s dipped below the levels seen in 1913, back in the time of the tsars. This was maintainable because of the amount of central control within the overall soviet economy. In cases where there was not enough of a specific consumer good to satiate the demand, the price could remain the same while supply was constricted. The ability for central price control prevented any kind of inflationary problem. Along with the major advances that were made in the realm of economics, the second half of this episode will focus on another aspect of Soviet life during the interwar period, the Gulag. The Gulags would begin as labor camps primarily for political prisoners, but they would greatly expand during the 1930s in conjunction with the attempts to reorganize Soviet society into a better socialist structure. But first, more economic discussion.

As drafting began on what would become the Second Five year Plan one of the biggest challenges is that the planning was designed to build upon the efforts made during the First Five Year Plan. But those efforts were not complete, and therefore assumptions had to be made about any number of important factors. This could be as simple as how much coal was being produced every year, to how many factories of a particular type would be available to begin work in 1932. This set the Second Five Year Plan off on unsteady footing because there were many goals from the First Five Year Plan that would not be met by the time that the Second Five Year Plan started. The major focus of this second year plan revolved around continuing to expand Soviet heavy industry, especially in the production of steel and coal. But there were also goals around the improvements of railroads, other general economic expansion, and a reduction in the influence of the church within Soviet society. There would also be some easing of the reductions made to consumer goods, with the goal of allowing the standard of living to rise, almost in recognition that the situation under the First Five year Plan was not sustainable.

The Soviet military would continue to advocate for focus to be placed on military needs during the Second Five Year Plan and each year military plans would be written based on the increases in productive capacity. The goal was still to continue to increase the number of modern weapons that the Soviet Union was capable of producing, particularly aircraft, tanks, artillery, and ammunition. For these items the goal was to try to double production by 1933 and then to double it again by the end of the Second Five Year Plan. One of the major challenges with this plan, and it is a pretty good example of how challenging it can be to make these kinds of huge economic plans, was around production capacity vs actual purchasing plans. The military committees were always pushing for greater and greater maximum production capacity, with the goal of always being able to produce more and better equipment. However, given the current risk assessments from military planning committees, there was not a lot of urgency around expanding the military forces in the immediate future. Also, the more resources that were spent on current military equipment, the fewer resources were available for other production. This created the situation where total military production capacity within the Soviet Union would balloon during the middle years of the 1930s as more and more factories came online, but the total orders for actual weapons from the military only barely increased during those same years. It would only be in the second half of the 1930s that total military spending, for the expansion of the military, would begin to greatly increase. This expansion was only possible because of the efforts made earlier in the 1930s, but for several years those efforts largely resulted in idle capacity.

With another round of economic and industrial planning came with it another round of military planning. During the first five year plan the primary context in which Soviet military planning occurred was focused on a war with Poland and Romania. The new production capacity that was built during the first plan, the new goals of the second plan, and the rising threat of Japan would cause a new round of planning. In 1933 Tukhachevskii would say ‘Japan’s systematic preparations for conquering the Far East continue uninterrupted. They will become a real threat for military action in 1934.’ This would set the stage for much of the Soviet military planning for the rest of the 1930s, with two different threats emerging, Germany and Japan. Given the geographic distance between these two threats, it made planning and preparations more difficult. In Europe instead of a coalition of Poland and Romania, the primary threat would expand to instead be focused on an alliance between Germany and Poland. This change was made in 1935, and then in 1936 a major wargame with these two nations as the enemy would be conducted by the General Staff. This was another scenario in which the concept of deep battle was tested, with the even larger concept of deep operations which would attempt to push through the enemy front even further all in one push. There were still many challenges in making these massive operations actually work, they were just large and complicated and depended on great communication. The good news was that the Red Army would establish its first mechanized corps in 1932 to allow for first hand experience with large armored units. But this one unit did not suddenly solve all of the problems faced by the Red army, and there would be an increased emphasis on motorising infantry and artillery units, along with the creation of more and more armored units during the mid 1930s. From a production perspective there were still some challenges though. The price and resources needed for rearmament during the mid 1930s would cause the entire rearmament process to slow for the Red Army. Some of this was also caused by issues that were occurring in other sectors of the Soviet economy, with many of the goals for the Second Five year Plan remaining unfulfilled in 1937 when the plan was supposed to come to an end. These challenges were acutely felt in newer industries like aircraft manufacturing, with actual production in 1937 meeting just 38 percent of the target. The end result was that only about 2/3 of the military production for the year was actually completed. But this number does need to be put in context. In 1937 Germany had started a concentrated rearmament plan, but it was still only producing a small fraction of what the Soviet Union was, the other major powers in Europe were producing even less.

This brings us to 1938, and would you believe it, another five year plan. Work on a third plan began in 1937 and the broad outline of the plan was completed before, at the height of the purges, many of the people who had been doing the planning were purged. This greatly impacted the detailed planning, which was always the last to be done, which resulted in a delayed plan and a less focused one. The goals were still massive though, and mainly along the same lines as the previous plans. There was again a tremendous number of resources dedicated to military or military adjacent goals, with the actions of Germany and Japan causing these to be pursued with added urgency. One area from which massive expansion was expected was the aviation industry, with the target being the annual production capacity of 50,000 aircraft by 1942. For comparison, Germany would never come particularly close to that number with their highest aircraft production being 35,000 in 1944 and the United States, in full Arsenal of Democracy mode in 1944 would only product 96,000, so a goal of 50,000 was a lot. Tank, artillery, and ammunition production had similarly massive goals. This plan would be greatly disrupted by the war, although it was clear even in 1941 that the goals were not going to be fully met in 1942. On the whole, how can we evaluate the First Three Five Year Plans? Well there are two ways we can look at them, the first is to judge them against their own goals. In this evaluation they do not grade very well, because the goals were massive and completely unachievable. It was simply impossible to so drastically shift the entire economic make up of the Soviet Union over such a short period of time. But if you instead look at the Five Year Plans from just the raw changes that they made to Soviet society, the impact was immense. The production and refinement of almost every major industrial raw material sky rocketed. Massive projects like hydroelectric dams, railways, factories, the list goes on and on were completed or were on their way to completion by 1941. And most importantly for our story the capacity of military industry went from very little in the mid 1920s to being capable of producing thousands of tanks, aircraft, and enough other military products to keep an army of millions in the field and fighting. While counterfactuals are always dangerous, I feel comfortable saying that the Red Army would be unable to stop the Wehrmacht in 1941 at the gates of Moscow, or to drive them back to Berlin by 1945 without the three five year plans. But these massive changes came with a real human cost. In some agricultural areas the the death tolls were catastrophic due to famine, caused by agricultural policies designed to make the Five Year Plans possible. All over the Soviet Union the standard of living would stagnate, and in many areas drop, including the availability of food, all in service of enhanced industrial production. And the number of people in prison or exiled to Siberia would drastically increase, by the hundreds of thousands. These individuals would be sent to an institution that has become synonymous with repression and punishment: the Gulags.


The gulags started back in the time of the revolution. The original idea was that they would be the incarceration system for those who were the enemies of the revolution, the bourgeoisie. They were also setup to accommodate what were called “class enemies” or any that worked either openly or in secret to undermine the revolution. Much like the definition of a kulak, the concept behind a class enemy was infinitely flexible, and could be altered over time as needed, and as it would be as the new Soviet Union moved from revolution, to civil war, and then to peace. It was also felt that system could not be based on simple jails and prisons, but instead needed to remove the offenders completely from Soviet society. There was already a system in place for exactly this kind of scenario, and it was in Siberia. During tsarist times it was common for certain classes of criminals to be exiled to Siberia, Stalin himself had spent several years in Siberia for this very reason. But instead of just being sent to Siberia, away from the rest of Russia, the gulag system that was developed after 1918 would take the form of a large network of labor camps and what can best be described as concentration camps. From the beginning, at least theoretically, the camps were seen as a reeducation tool, giving the prisoners the ability to reform their ways and their thinking. Good behavior resulted in early release, in general the prisoners were viewed as capable of redemption. The beginnings of the gulags would be in June 1918 when Trotsky would suggest that such a camp be used for some Czech war prisoners. From these relatively small beginning things would expand during the Civil War, but not as much as you might expect. During the turbulent Civil War years those who were deemed to be the enemies of the revolution were far more likely to simply be shot, rather than sent somewhere to be prisoners. The later and more famous structure and size of the gulags would only start to come into form in the late 1920s, particularly with the collectivization drive. One of the reasons for this expansion was because of the need for labor in Siberia. To meet the goals of the five year plans, the Soviet Union had to do a much better job of capitalizing and exploiting the resources present in northern Siberia. It was a very resource rich area, but it was also, believe it or not, an area that had some challenges attracting workers due to the weather conditions. To optimize the collection of these resources the existing gulag camp system was expanded and organized, and the camp system overall was to be led by the OGPU. The hope was that this would allow for the camps to be able to greatly expand, with the prisoners being put to work gathering the coal, gas, oil, wood, gold, or whatever else might be present in any given area. One of the challenges with this arrangement is that it created a very perverse set of incentives for those who were administering the camps and those that were deciding who should be sent there. As with other areas of the Soviet economy, the one common fact was that labor was too scarce. For example in 1939 the engineers assigned to oversee the construction of a railway project in Sevlag, which is in far northern Russia, were concerned that they would need many more prisoners to complete their work on time. Once this concern was escalated suddenly more prisoners began to arrive. When one of these prisoners arrived they would later recall: “There were neither barracks, nor a village. There were tents, on the side, for the guards and for the equipment. There weren’t many people, perhaps one and a half thousand. The majority were middle-aged peasants, former kulaks. And criminals. No visible intelligentsia…” This need for more prisoners to meet the goals of the various plans would create situations where there would be quotas for finding more prisoners. For example there would be an order given to some Ukrainian party leaders that there there was a canal project that needed 15,000 prisoners to complete on time, and so they should be found in Ukraine, but they all needed to be fit to work. The needs for more people would result in a situation where it was very easy, and almost inevitable, that people would be sent to the camps not because of their actions or beliefs, but simply to provide warm bodies to do work.

The movement of the camps to be under the OGPU umbrella was a decision that was made by Stalin, and it would be a very important one for the future inhabitants of the camps. Previously the camps had, at least nominally, been under the jurisdiction and influence of the normal Soviet judiciary system. By placing it under the OGPU, which ran the groups of secret police like the Cheka, any idea of the possibility prisoners receiving any legal rights was much less likely. Stalin would also be incredibly involved in the organization and running of the camps. He would receive special reports about the overall productivity of particular camps, with a particular focus on inmate productivity. He would also often review petitions for release from the prisoners or their family members. At least to me, this seems like an extremely menial task for someone like Stalin who had so many other things to do. But at the same time, nobody was really in a position to tell him no, so if he wanted read the requests for leniency, he could do that, I guess that was a benefit of being the General Secretary.

A complete chronicle of the events in all of the various gulag camps, there were 476 camp complexes, is far beyond the scope of this podcast, but just looking at one of them should help illustrate what life was like in some of the camps. We will focus on the Kolyma camp, which was in far north eastern Russia. The product of Kolyma was gold, which is one of the reasons it was a large camp, and the workers there were pressed to hard regardless of the conditions. The gold produced from the camp was generally directly exported to fund the purchase of various technology or industrial goods that were critical to other areas of the Soviet economy meeting their goals. The production of Kolyma was so important that at one point Stalin was getting daily reports on the output of the camp. The first commander of the camp was Eduard Berzin, notable as the commander of the First Latvian Rifle Division which was so critical to the success of the Bolsheviks early in the civil war. In 1932 around 10,000 prisoners were working in the region, either at the main camp or in the plethora of smaller camps that dotted the surrounding countryside. During the early years of the camp the conditions were actually quite good, and the prisoners were paid well for their services, there would even be several thousand voluntary workers in 1932. One of the prisoners from that time would say that conditions were excellent, food was good and plentiful, working hours were reasonable and were appropriate for the season. Many of the prisoners were paid well enough that they were able to leave the camp when their terms in prison were over, and they could even be far wealthier at their time of release. These early days would not last, and they were mostly attributed to the particular viewpoint of Berzin. He believed, quite strongly, that the better the workers were treated the better they would do at extracting gold. This was not an absurd idea, well rested, fed, and clothed workers were better at mining. This would also tie into an idea that was present throughout the entire history of the camps, at least up until the mid 1930s, and that was the idea of the camps being used as a re-education tool. That the time spent in the camps would make the prisoners better members of society, better socialists. But the happy days were not to last. 1937 was a real turning point, when as the purges really got rolling, the nature of even the most inviting camps drastically changed. This change manifested in all kinds of ways, prisoners were no longer referred to as comrades, mail was no longer sent directly to the camps but instead to unified post office boxes, the exact locations of the camps became a secret. Within the camps prisoners were removed from any place of importance, instead of being positioned to best use their skills, even those in skilled trades or engineering were put into the general, and manual, labor force. Food was reduced, and overall conditions became incredibly challenging, particularly of course during the winter months when it was brutally cold. The structure of camps became more harsh and prisoners would often be cataloged into groups based on their physical ability to work, with those capable of greater work being given more food, although barely enough to live on, while those who were incapable of work not even being given enough food to live. Once a prisoner was placed in the lower tier groups, their ability to get more food was very limited, because they would only get weaker. Poor shelter, lack of food, and lack of winter clothes meant that on some years half of the prisoners might die. This would require a constant injection of additional prisoners and workers. The purges provided these additional workers. It also meant that the camps would never be the same, because part of the purges would be the amplification of the rhetoric of the those prisoners being active threats to the Soviet Union, active threats to the revolution. The number of prisoners would grow because of this, and by 1938 the number was at around 1.8 million, doubling since 1935. The reorganization that had started under the OGPU was continued and finished under the guiding hand of the NKVD, which was the successor of the OGPU. It would be this reorganization that would allow the camps to become greater contributors to the Soviet economic goals. Even if the pursuit of those goals resulted in increased human suffering and death.