Economic developments: Lenin’s decrees; the Stalinist economy; collectivisation and the Five Year Plans

Lenin’s Decrees

Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, issued a series of decrees in 1917 that aimed to redistribute land and resources to the working class. These decrees were part of Lenin’s vision for a socialist economy, where the means of production and distribution were owned and controlled by the state.

Historian Anthony Beevor describes them as Lenin’s three lies:

Peace: An immediate end to Russia’s involvement in the First World War (Beevor points out that Lenin wanted a global civil war in which the bourgeoisie world wide would be destroyed).

Land: Lenin offered the redistribution of the land to the peasants (a promise he never intended to keep, believing that state control of land was the only way that the new Bolshevik state could feed itself).

All power to the Soviets: Lenin proposed that the workers and soldiers councils take power in the USSR (Beevor points out that this was merely a vehicle for the Bolsheviks, who controlled the Soviets by late 1917).

The most significant of these decrees was the Decree on Land, which abolished private ownership of land and instead of transferring it to the peasants, transferred it to the state. The Decree on Workers’ Control gave workers the right to control production and distribution in their workplaces (something that was overturned during the period of War Communism), while the Decree on Nationalisation allowed the state to take over key industries such as transportation, banking, and communication.

Lenin’s decrees, at first glance, appeared intended to create a more equal and just society, where the working class had greater control over their lives and livelihoods. However, Lenin’s increasingly dictatorial stance following the seizure of power in 1917 was at odds with this new emancipatory philosophy. From 1918 onwards the Bolsheviks were fighting a civil war and saw the new state they had captured as being under siege from anti revolutionary forces within Russia and overseas.

Lenin believed that the most brutal and authoritarian methods were necessary for the regime’s survival and this included the state control of the economy.

For a full description of Lenin’s two key policies – War Communism and The New Economic Policy – click here.

The Stalinist economy, which emerged in the 1930s, built on Lenin’s vision by implementing policies of rapid industrialisation and collectivisation.

The Stalinist Economy

(For expert advice on writing essays on the Five Year Plans, click here)

Following Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1924. He implemented a series of economic policies that transformed the country into a industrial power. Stalin’s economic policies were characterized by the development of a command economy, rapid industrialization, and collectivization.

One of Stalin’s first actions was to implement the First Five-Year Plan in 1928. This plan aimed to rapidly industrialize the Soviet Union, and it set ambitious targets for heavy industry, such as coal, iron, and steel production. The plan was successful in achieving its targets, but it came at a cost. The Soviet Union experienced a shortage of consumer goods, and the living standards of ordinary people declined.

Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, in her book Everyday Stalinism, states that during the first five year plan, hunger and hardship were as extreme as they had been during the Russian civil war. Ordinary Soviet citizens struggled with acute housing shortages along with food shortages in Russia’s cities. The USSR was still a highly chaotic country by the early Stalin period, with hunger and desperation fuelling violence and crime.

Stalin’s economic policies also included collectivization, which aimed to consolidate individual farms into large collective farms. This policy was intended to increase agricultural productivity and feed the growing urban population. However, collectivization was met with resistance from the peasantry, and it led to widespread famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933.

Despite the challenges and human cost of Stalin’s economic policies, the Soviet Union became a major industrial power by the end of the 1930s. The country’s heavy industry grew rapidly, and it was able to withstand the German invasion during World War II. However, the Stalinist economy was characterized by a lack of innovation, inefficiency, and corruption, which ultimately contributed to its decline in the post-war period.

In conclusion, Stalin’s economic policies had a significant impact on the Soviet Union and the world. The Stalinist economy was characterized by rapid industrialization, collectivization, and a command economy. Although it achieved its goals, it came at a cost, including the suppression of individual rights and the suffering of ordinary people.

The end goal of rapid industrialisation was to build a defence industry that would withstand the war that Stalin believed would inevitably come to the USSR from the ‘enemies’ he perceived in the capitalist world (Stalin initially thought that Germany, Poland and Japan would be the three main threats, with older imperial countries like Britain and France supplying the finance and equipment).

When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, there was a substantial industrial base beyond the Ural mountains with which to produce aircraft and tanks in vast numbers (by the end of the Second World War, the USSR was able to outproduce Nazi Germany), suggesting that rapid industrialisation had a significant impact on the outcome of the Second World War.


Collectivisation was a policy implemented by Stalin in the late 1920s with the aim of consolidating individual peasant farms into collective farms. This policy was seen as a way to increase agricultural productivity and to support the industrialisation drive of the Soviet Union. The process of collectivisation was met with resistance from many peasants who were reluctant to give up their land and property.

In order to implement collectivisation, the Soviet government used a combination of propaganda, coercion, and force. Peasants were encouraged to join collective farms voluntarily, but those who refused were often subjected to violent repression, including the confiscation of their land and property, and imprisonment or execution.

The process of collectivisation was a difficult and painful one for many peasants. The forced collectivisation of agriculture led to a decrease in agricultural productivity and a decline in living standards for many peasants. In addition, the collectivisation process was often accompanied by violence and repression, which led to the deaths of millions of people.

For a full article on Collectivisation, click here

For an exploration of the differing debates on Collectivisation click on the following historians below:

Timothy Snyder

Robert Conquest

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Five Year Plans

The Five Year Plans were a series of economic development plans created by the Soviet government under Stalin’s leadership. The first plan was implemented in 1928 and the last one ended in 1991, with a total of 13 plans being implemented. The main goal of the Five Year Plans was to rapidly industrialize the Soviet Union and catch up with the Western powers.

The plans were characterized by centralized control, with the government setting production targets for each industry and directing resources towards achieving those targets. The emphasis was on heavy industry, such as steel, coal, and machinery, rather than consumer goods.

Each Five Year Plan had specific targets for production, and the success of the plan was measured by how well those targets were met. The targets were often ambitious and required significant investment in infrastructure and technology. The government used a variety of methods to achieve the targets, including forced labour, collectivization, and the use of incentives and rewards for workers who exceeded their targets.

The Five Year Plans were successful in rapidly industrializing the Soviet Union, but they came at a high cost. The emphasis on heavy industry meant that consumer goods were often in short supply, and living standards for ordinary people were low. The forced labour and collectivization policies led to widespread famine and suffering, particularly in rural areas.

Despite these drawbacks, the Five Year Plans helped to transform the Soviet Union from a largely agrarian society into an industrial powerhouse. The legacy of the Five Year Plans can still be seen in the infrastructure and technology that was developed during this period.

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