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The Soviet Union Under Stalin: Five-Year Plans, Purges & Policies

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  • 0:01 Stalin's Soviet Union
  • 0:31 Revolution & Stalin's Rise
  • 1:37 Stalin in Power
  • 4:01 WWII & Death
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the brutal rule of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, from 1928 to 1953. Stalin radically transformed the economy of the Soviet Union, while also terrorizing its people.

Stalin's Soviet Union

Often times in history, one person in particular becomes remembered as the icon of a movement or an event. For example, most people think of George Washington first when they think of the American Revolution, or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King when they think of the mid-20th-century civil rights movement. When it comes to the 20th century's Soviet Union, the person most people think of is Joseph Stalin, the brutal dictator who ruled over the early Soviet Union for nearly three decades.

Revolution and Stalin's Rise

Stalin was born in 1878 in what is today Georgia, but was then part of the Russian Empire. Though originally a student at the local seminary for the Georgian Orthodox Church, Stalin was expelled in 1899 and soon after became active in the Marxist underground in Russia. For this activity, Stalin was imprisoned multiple times in the first decade of the 20th century, even spending a period in exile in Siberia. Undeterred by this experience, Stalin continued to rise through the ranks of the fledgling Bolshevik Party, becoming a key figure in the Russian government after the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Stalin was a key aide to Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party. When the Soviet Union was instituted in 1922, Stalin was installed as Secretary General to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. After Lenin's death in 1924, Soviet and communist leadership was in limbo. Through complex and often backroom political maneuvering, Stalin won out against his rivals within the party by 1928, many of whom he soon imprisoned and/or exiled.

Stalin in Power

Soon after assuming full control of the Soviet government, Stalin set out to build Russia into an economic and industrial giant. He considered Russia 50 years behind the rest of the world in terms of industry and technology, and he resolved to close this gap through a forced and rapid modernization process.

However, in order to force such a wholesale transformation of the economy, Stalin needed total control of the Soviet economy. Fortunately, the Marxist principles Stalin's Communist Party expounded called for precisely the command economy Stalin needed. Under Stalin, the Soviet government assumed control of what few industrial complexes it didn't already own, but the most violent upheaval to the Soviet economy was Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture.

At the time of Stalin's rise to power, the Soviet Union was still a predominantly farming-based society. In order to create a labor pool for Russian industry and have direct control over the Soviet food supply, Stalin seized ownership of millions of farms. Those farmers who resisted were forced into exile or summarily executed.

This brutal treatment was not restricted to uncooperative farmers; Stalin maintained a firm grip on power through terrorizing millions of Soviets and even Communist Party members. A secret police force roamed the Soviet countryside and cities rooting out 'enemies of the revolution' who were exiled or imprisoned for the smallest action or offhand comment that could be construed as anti-Soviet or anti-communist.

In the late 1930s, for example, Stalin instituted the Great Purge, which he claimed was to rid the Communist Party of subversive and foreign agents, but in reality targeted thousands of Stalin's political enemies and rivals. Correspondingly, the fabled Soviet Gulag prison camp system expanded enormously in the 1930s, where those imprisoned were often worked to death or simply executed.

With totalitarian control over the Soviet economy and people, Stalin's regime began its modernization projects through instituting a series of Five Year Plans. The Five Year Plans set relatively outrageous goals for everything - from total goals for each sector of the economy to individual expected outputs from each factory. Most of these goals were impossible to meet, and factory and government officials often fudged the numbers to meet their quotas. Conditions in these factories were terrible for the workers, who were often paid in food rations and were worked to the bone.

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