When Joseph Stalin published his article “A Year of Great Change” he was referring to the success of the first Five Year Plan launched at the beginning of 1928. In this first year the Soviet State saw success on three very important fronts. First off, the state and party were able to tighten labor discipline and create a certain atmosphere of enthusiasm for labor throughout the country. Secondly, agriculture production had been raised and millions of peasants were willingly joining collective farms across the country. And thirdly and most importantly, the state and party were able to solve the problem of investment capital for the creation of heavy industry, which was a prerequisite for industrialization. However, I find the name “A Year of Great Change” to be far too modest for the changes Stalin would bring to the Soviet Union, and his article should have been titled “Three Decades of Fundamental Construction”.
A Socialist Economy
In 1928 Stalin marked the beginning of the first Five Year Plan, which aimed at a break neck pace of industrialization of the Soviet economy. What was introduced alongside the first Five Year Plan, was centralized economic planning of the entire economy. Everything that was to be produced was coordinated by the State Planning committee, or most commonly known by is acronym GOSPLAN. The State would decide what to produce and at what prices it would sell. This marked the creation of a Socialist economy, something the world had never seen before.
“Instead of letting the market mediate in relations between state-owned industry and peasant agriculture, the state would centrally allocate resources and assign prices according to its own determination of rationality and need.”Lewis Siegelbaum
On the cultural front, Stalin’s Soviet Union reversed course on many of the revolutionary values that were popular in the 1920’s. Experimentation in many spheres of life such as literature, film, and music were curtailed and in many cases completely eliminated. On the literary front Stalin was frustrated with the turbulence of literary politics and called for the elimination of both the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers and the Literary Front which both experimented with “leftist literary methods.” To take their place would be the new Union of Soviet Writers, which would align itself with the new socialist values. Classical entertainment also felt this change, with many avant-garde artistic styles such as Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” Opera being slammed by the Party Press and eventually banned. Other relatively “liberal” values such as fairly easy access to abortions and divorce were also tightened if not out right banned during this period known as the “Great Retreat”.
They(the Soviet leadership) resorted to patriotic appeals; they buttressed the family and schools as key institutions in Soviet society; they replaced iconoclastic avant-garde culture with Russian classics; and they discarded leather jackets and revolutionary asceticism in favor of tailored suits and material rewards.Nicholas Timasheff
While the fundamental political system had been created by Lenin, i.e. democratic centralism wherein the Party’s Congress acts as the highest governing body, and elects the Central Committee which subsequently elects the General Secretary and the Politburo who act as the main governing body when the Congress is not in session. The way this system functioned however, would be determined by his successors, mainly Stalin. Under Stalin’s leadership the traditional Marxist reverence for the “masses” were replaced by the reverence of the “vozhd” which more or less translates to leader in English. This can be seen in the “cult of Lenin” which elevated Lenin’s statues to that of a near god throughout the Soviet Union, with cities, streets, and anything and everything being renamed in his honor. This celebration for the leader also meant Stalin as well, with his cult of personality. This turned Stalin into a god among men and like Lenin he was elevated to a level of infallibility with his portraits and statues appearing in almost every public space and most people’s homes. This eroded the idea of “collective leadership,” which the party and its Central Committee and Politburo were suppose to represent, with almost every major decision being decided by Stalin.
“What is even more clear is that no issue of any importance was decided by the Politbiuro without Stalin’s participation, and certainly not against his will.”Lewis Siegelbaum
It would be wrong to say that the three decades of Stalin’s leadership fundamentally changed the USSR. His leadership did not “change” the structure of the Soviet State, but constructed it, and it all began in the 1930’s. The 30’s marked the creation of Soviet Economic, cultural, and political thinking.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.
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9 thoughts on “Three Decades of Fundamental Construction”
If Stalin made every major decision, what did the other members of his party do? One can only assume that they would focus on the minor things that Stalin would deem to be not of great importance for him to deal with himself. Also, were there any areas of major interest that Stalin would not make a decision and instead delegate someone else to deal with?
One must remember good leadership means knowing how to delegate. And while Stalin did mostly decide the major decisions he took advice from experts and let his trusted colleagues make decisions like Molotov or Khrushchev without him sometimes.
De’Vonte, I really enjoyed your post on the 30’s! I thought your pictures were great, especially the map of construction sites of communism. The ability to construct the Soviet State demonstrates Stalin’s abilities as a politician and a leader in order to organize the citizens to participate in the state’s transformation and construction.
Thanks for the comment! And yes you are right, despite my own misgivings about many of Stalin’s leadership Techniques one can not deny his leadership capabilities and the amount he transformed the Soviet state.
I think everyone who is reading this appreciates how you’ve synthesized so many aspects of the Stalinist period into this discussion of his transformative leadership! Alyssa raises an important issue, though, which encourages us to look beyond political leaders and high politics if we really want to understand cultural and social change. Strangely enough, the only way to de-center Stalin from the study of Stalinism – and to get a handle on what made the Soviet Union tick, is to examine something besides high politics and the leadership of the Vozhd’.
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I really thought it was very clear how much effort you put into this blog, which I really appreciated. I really thought you made some great points as well, especially the fact that Russia really wasn’t the same place from before and after his influence.
Hi De’Vonte, your post did a really good job of presenting how Stalin shaped the Soviet Union when he became the leader. I think it’s interesting how the Soviet Union, along with its people, shifted from praising Lenin with pictures and statues to praising Stalin as soon as he took charge. Great post!
Andrew Grant – Yes Vozhd has largely the same meaning as “Führer”, a lead or guide to the connection. Totalitarian and semi-totalitarian regimes, often have this “Cult of personality” surrounding their leaders. Similar to the Soviet Union, with their symbolism celebrating Lenin and Stalin as these “champions of revolution”, North Korea celebrates their initial leader, Kim Il Sung alongside Kim Jong Un, representing a cult of personality, Kim establishes his legitimacy similar to how Stalin did, relying on his predecessor, Kim Il Sung and his legacy, to build legitimacy and to enhance and further his cult of personality. I remember back in 2013, when Putin compared Stalin to Oliver Cromwell, they do have many similarities, although Oliver Cromwell was not personally responsible for anywhere near as many deaths, they had many similarities in personality and in their attempts to deify themselves as heroes “protectors of the revolution.” Although Stalin certainly played an important role in the revolution and was close to Lenin, he was not Lenin’s chosen successor or considered his “second hand man”, but was able to, winning out the power structure, able to propagandize this image out and form a cult of personality.
Hey De’Vonte, great article about an underrated aspect of Stalin’s reign. I was wondering, since Stalin was essentially Lenin’s right-hand man back in the day, how their ideologies were similar or differed in the 20s and how far Stalin radicalized the Union in the 30s.