The nature of Stalin's economic policies and their impact on the people of Russia is a widely debated topic. It's also a difficult topic on which to focus an enquiry, complicated as it is by the reluctance of the Soviets to release all relevant documents, and the political views of those interpreting to documents, driven as many were by their own agendas. However, the documents that have been selected for this enquiry have been chosen for the light they shed on the problem and in the expectation that they will enable a conclusion, however provisional, to be drawn.
Stalin himself justified his policy of rapid industrialisation and collectivisation at the 1926 Party Congress as one that sought to achieve ' the transformation of our country from an agrarian to an industrial one, capable by its own efforts of producing the necessary means of production.' This socialist notion of economic autarky, although admirable and unifying in its intentions, would indeed inevitably bring about damaging effects for the people of Russia. But how intensive and extensive was this damage - and was damage the only significant effect for the Russian people?
In order to contextualise the contemporary sources used in this enquiry, it has been necessary to consult secondary sources in order to provide the appropriate background. Here, the historian Michael Lynch maintains categorically that Stalin's economic policies did little to improve the life of the Russian people, giving them 'few benefits'. Taken from a book published after Gorbachev's 1985 Glasnost, a period of openness when the Soviet archives were opened up, Lynch would have been privy to vast amounts of evidence and statistics. Thus statements such as 'there is little evidence that they [Stalin's economic policies] provided the Soviet Union with the necessary capital growth' and 'there was never genuine food surplus that could be sold to raise capital' must carry a lot of weight. It does seem clear that as collectivisation was put into place, where peasants could no longer keep the profits from their farming, grain procurements were high, wages fell and here was little incentive to work. It seems likely that food production would not have increased; indeed, there was a severe famine 1934-6 which devastated the lives of the peasantry. There is ample and distressing photographic evidence of famine victims. Whilst it is difficult to fake a skeletal child facing death from starvation, photographs cannot provide evidence of the extent of the famine, both in terms of geography and over time.
Before turning to contemporary documentary sources, it would be useful to consult a soviet historian of the same period in order to achieve contextual balance. The Soviet historian Y Kukushkin depicts a very different scenario from that of western historian Lynch. Admittedly writing in 1981 before Glasnost, Kukushkin nevertheless writes of a Soviet Union with a 'booming' economy', 'favourable conditions', 'up-to-date equipment and machinery' and, importantly for this enquiry, 'an army of skilled workers' and the growth of an industrial working class.
Historians Lynch and Kukushkin demonstrate the problems facing anyone enquiring into the effect Stalin's economic policies on the Russian people. The secondary histories that should provide the necessary contextual background against which to assess contemporary source material seem to adopt very different interpretations of the data with which they are dealing.
It is, of course, undeniably true that the Soviet Union was transformed as a result of Stalin's economic policies. Stalin stated in 1931 that Russia was 'one hundred years behind the West' and that it must catch up in ten years 'or be crushed.' This statement was used to quicken the pace of industrialisation, and Stalin's use of the cult of personality to illustrate his...