Mar 23, 2021

Did Stalin’s Leadership Benefit the Soviet Union?

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s till his death in 1953. After his death, arguments and debates emerged over whether his policies helped the advancement of the Soviet Union at all. I believe that there are always two sides to a story and that we need to examine both before concluding. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Russia was a backward peasant society with nearly 80 percent of the population living in the countryside and dependent on agriculture. Under Stalin's regime, the USSR transformed from an agrarian economy to a modern industrial nation with the military might to engage in the Cold War with the United States. 

In the November of 1927, a 'revolution from above' campaign was launched, whose singular focus was rapid industrialization. The first five-year plan set out to achieve expansion of heavy industry with an unrealistic goal of a 250 percent increase in industrial output. The previous New Economic Policy brought by Lenin was abandoned and replaced by a planned economic structure. A wave of radical economic policies completely overhauled the industrial and agricultural face of the Soviet Union. That came to be known as the Great Turn as the USSR decided to adopt a command economy. Peasants were forced to give up their land and work on large farms, where all production was exported to finance the upcoming industrial centers.

The country developed at a hitherto unprecedented pace, surpassing Germany’s pace of industrialization in the 19th century and Japan’s earlier in the 20th century. However, all this came at unimaginable costs. Well-to-do peasants, or Kulaks, were targeted and deported for their refusal to give up land for collectivization. Stanford historian Robert Conquest, a Soviet-era expert, believes an estimated 5 million Kulaks may have died in Dekulakization. Not only this, the victims of collectivization were the peasants who worked on the grain-rich large farms themselves, with the Terror Famine of 1932-33 caused by forced grain procurement for export leading to the death of nearly 7.5 million people. 

Stalin’s reign was brutal, which sought to achieve his vision of the Soviet Union without any consideration for the costs. His paranoia knew no bounds with millions of political opponents, prominent citizens, and military officers purged under the guise of being ‘enemies of the people’. Those who escaped execution were sent off to perhaps an even worse fate: Gulags, slave labor camps in Siberia where death from torture, starvation, and exhaustion were commonplace. 

This drive to get results undeniably also resulted in Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War II. Stalin’s stubborn order to the Red Army to stand ground until Winter even as Nazi artillery shells hounded Moscow, won them the war. One such instance of Stalin’s patriotism was when he refused to exchange his son, Yakov’s life for Frederick Paulus, the German Field Marshal leading the 6th Army in Stalingrad. On hearing the offer Stalin is even rumored to have retorted “I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant.” 

Therefore, to conclude, there is no concrete answer to the question of whether the Soviet Union benefited from Joseph Stalin’s leadership. From an economic perspective Stalin catapulted USSR to superpower status and brought much-needed development and leadership during the war, while from a moral perspective, the repression and executions are downright cruel and unforgivable.

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