The city in the background looks pretty, but many would say the reality wasn’t. January 1, 1937 marked the last year of the second 5-Year Plan and announcement of Socialism’s Third 5-year plan.
Stalin’s first 5-year plan established collective farming and had gotten most of the peasants organized into collective farms. The idea behind collective farms was that the landowner class would be eliminated. The plan didn’t work as well as expected and millions of people died or were sent to labor camps, some for not going along with the plan, others of starvation.
The second 5-year plan continued to emphasize industrialization, but, by then, food shortages were pronounced because the great emphasis on the industrialization effort was out of synch with the tremendous and widespread dearth of basic necessities.
Many historical sites describe what happened during those years. Caroline Brooke refers to a few of those writings in her article, “May You Live in Interesting Times”. Below is an excerpt.
“For the majority of urban (USSR) residents, the most distinctive feature of the 1930s was not the mass arrests and show trials of 1936-8 but the sharp fall in living standards that accompanied the switch to economic planning at the beginning of the decade. This was a period of chronic shortages, and the ordinary city-dweller had to learn how to hunt and gather in an urban environment in order to secure the basic necessities of life. Ultimately it was the planned economy that lay at the root of most of the problems of the 1930s for ordinary people: the inflated bureaucracy, the housing crisis, food rationing, interminable queues and grinding poverty. And it was these problems that gave rise to many of the distinctive features of urban life detailed in this volume: the emergence of a privileged class and the development of unofficial distribution networks such as the black market, patronage and Mat. But this was not just a time of great scarcity, it was also a period of construction. The 1930s were a time of transition in urban Russia: the era in which most of the amenities of modern cities – public transport, sewage systems, street lighting were only just being established. It was also – at least for some – a time of great enthusiasm: an age of heroism, utopianism, optimism and considerable boasting about the exaggerated achievements of the workers’ state. The regime sought not just to modernize, it also aimed to civilize its subjects, and political leaders saw themselves in the role of a cultural vanguard. Indeed, the 1930s would witness the official redefinition of the category ‘intelligentsia’, to include not just the educated cultural elite, but also the managerial class, recently promoted from the factory bench. Things did not always work out quite as the authorities planned them: the communal housing system, for instance, far from encouraging communal attitudes and practices among residents had the absolute opposite effect, generating feelings of envy and covetousness between neighbors. There were some problems that the authorities generated for themselves: they were anxious, for example, to know what people were thinking, yet they had themselves created a climate in which people felt unable to express their opinions freely in public. Similarly, the regime had a genius for making enemies and never successfully ‘developed. . . effective mechanisms for allowing errant sheep back into the fold’. If the stigma of enmity could never be removed, then those whom the regime had identified as enemies would have to create new identities – to ‘mask’ themselves in order to avoid further persecution. Paranoia about ‘hidden enemies’, and the regime’s inability to accept the possibility that people could be rehabilitated, thus contributed to the creation of a vicious circle of fear and loathing. An inflated bureaucracy, as Trotsky pointed out, becomes a necessary evil during times of scarcity when distribution is an essential administrative task. And yet the Soviet bureaucracy, corrupt and inefficient as it was, served as a useful safety valve for the authorities in these difficult times: a lightning conductor for complaints by ordinary citizens. It would become an officially sanctioned object of attack, particularly during the terror year of 1937.”
Author: Caroline Brooke
Source: Contemporary European History, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Feb., 2003), pp. 119-127
Published by: Cambridge University Press
EA_Kersnovskaya wrote a dozen journals of her experiences in the USSR, beginning in 1939, when she was taken to prison for being a landowner’s daughter. Her journal page below shows a pair who will eat well that day because they had found a dead horse frozen in the ice. They are harvesting the intestines for food.
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