Explain to what extent Stalin succeeded in transforming Russia into a superpower by 1939.

Stalin came to power on the back of Lenin’s death in 1925, after which he instituted a range of far-reaching policy changes that would alter the course of Russian society and politics for the rest of the 20th century. The communist Soviet Union we now remember was the product of Stalin, although it can be argued that Lenin was responsible for laying the foundations of its highly authoritarian political culture. The new Russia under Stalin was supposed to radically break from the economic and social backwardness that characterised the Tsarist regime, and which Lenin had little time to achieve. In many ways, Stalin did create a completely different Russia, one almost unrecognisable from before the October revolution which overthrew the provisional government. However, whether that translated into it being a superpower is quite another thing. This paper will argue that although momentous and radical, the reforms Stalin instituted did not transform Russia into a superpower by 1939, although it did lay the framework for such a status to be attained during the post-WWII era.

Stalin rose to power as the leader of the Soviet Union by crushing his opposition in the Central Committee led by Leon Trotsky. Although we shall not detail this complicated political battle, it is important to note that the vying for power between the powerful figures was also a contestation over the ideological and policy framework which the Soviet Union should take. By the late 1920s, Stalin had emerged victorious, and went on to institute his own brand of communism in the Soviet Union. This centred on the notion of ‘Socialism in one Country’, which was ideally to build up the “industrial base and military might of the Soviet Union before exporting revolution abroad.”[1] This was in contrast to earlier pronouncements made by Lenin and Trotsky, which indicated the need to establish a worldwide ‘uninterrupted revolution’ of workers.[2] The logic here was that socialism could never survive independently outside of a socialist world order; Stalin, on the other hand, saw a national socialism – which, ironically, would be compared to Nazism – as the only way for socialism to survive.[3]

The practical effects of Stalin’s socialism in one country was the rescindment of the New Economic Policy (NEP) – which had allowed for small-scale capitalist enterprise to operate – the collectivisation of agriculture, and rapid forced industrialisation.[4] Socialism in one country forced the Soviet Union to look inwards, to create a socialist nation whose lessons and ideas could then be exported overseas. This means that, for all practical purposes, Russia was not interested in attaining any overtly ‘superpower’ status in global politics. It meant, in terms of foreign policy, of “putting the interests of the Soviet Union ahead of the interests of the international communist movement.”[5] Ideally, when Russia became powerful enough, it would then ferment for workers’ revolutions the world over.

The costs and benefits of these sweeping policy changes – which essentially closed off the Soviet Union from the outside world – are difficult to determine. On the one hand, they certainly led to large-scale industrialisation which outstripped the pace of Russia’s Western counterparts. Through the policy instrument of Five-Year Plans, which set production targets for industries and farms, Stalin was able to bring Russia up to date with modern heavy-industry production techniques and increase output exponentially. For example, cast iron production increased 439% in ten years, and coal extraction 361%.[6] Russia also went on an extensive electrification programme, called GOELRO, which increased electricity production from 1.9 billion kWh in 1913 to 48 billion kWh in 1940.[7]

However, despite the resounding success with which certain - especially heavy - industries benefitted from forced industrialisation, many other industries and rural farmers often suffered. Because of the focus on heavy industrialisation, lighter industries that catered for consumer goods were often poorly made and faced shortages. The agricultural collectivisation programme which was conducted with increased inflexibility and violence across the Russian hinterland cost the lives of millions of peasants, who died of hunger resulting from famine caused by the upheaval of forced collectivisation. Figures range from 5.6 million to 13.4 million.[8] Millions of other prosperous peasants – known as Kulaks – were sent to gulag camps in Siberia for work; Molotov suggested that between 1.3 and 1.5 kulak households (accounting for between 6 and 7 million persons) were expropriated.[9] Thus, whilst Stalin broke the back of these peasants – by 1941, 97% of agriculture was conducted in collectives, and finally there was enough food to feed the cities – the human cost remains an ever-contested aspect of this period.

What is clear about this period, is that these policies centralised the economy and political power in Russia in Stalin’s hands. The increased industrial output, and the ability for (eventual) increased agricultural production to feed the cities, allowed Russia a certain amount of confidence in its ability to conduct itself as an industrial nation. As Stalin was once quoted as saying, “We are fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.”[10] Thus, one of the primary reasons for industrialisation was for the ability for Russia to protect itself. This fits in well with the overall ideological implication of Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country’, which advocated for an insular reading of socialism that would allow for ‘proper’ socialist conditions to be reached within the massive country before a worldwide socialist revolution took place.

And in many ways, the industrial capacity generated during Stalin’s leadership up to 1939 was crucial for Russia to defend itself against Germany in 1941. Not only did allow for the production of millions of armaments and supplies crucial to the success of any armed conflict, but it also laid the groundwork for a post-war reconstruction. Because the Soviet Union boasted such impressive industrial capacity, it could rebuild after WWII much easier – and more importantly, without the help of aid from the West, especially the USA. The Marshall Plan, in which the USA loaned $15 billion to European countries to help rebuild industry and cities after their decimation during the second world war, was largely a strategic move to counter the spread of communism in Europe.[11] The spread of Russian influence into eastern Europe, on the other hand, was premised on its industrial power, which resulted in its alternative to the Marshall Plan - namely the Molotov Plan - which extended aid to socialist regimes in central and eastern Europe.[12]

The success of Russian industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation during the pre-war years allowed for the repel of German forces and the extension of Russian influence into the eastern European region. It was then that Russia became a superpower. In fact, it is only during the post-WWII war era when the notion of an international ‘superpower’ becomes widespread, when the cold war divides the world into two ideologically opposed sides – America on the one side and the Soviet Union on the other.[13] One could thus argue that the relative military strength of Russia after WWII, a result of its impressive industrial capacity – and its focus on heavy industry and agricultural production – meant that it could become a superpower. Thus, although no one would suggest that Russia was a superpower before WWII in 1939, its ability to retain its industrial strength after the war meant that it would become one. In conclusion, although Stalin did not transform Russia into a superpower by 1939, he laid the necessary groundwork for that to occur in the post-war era.

This content was originally produced for the SAHO classroom by
Sebastian Moronell, Ayabulela Ntwakumba, Simone van der Colff & Thandile Xesi.

End Notes


[1] "Communism - Stalinism". 2021. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/communism/Stalinism#ref539199

[2] Erik Van Ree. "Socialism in One Country: A Reassessment." Studies in East European Thought 50, no. 2 (1998): 77.

[3] Kate Frey. 2020. "An Introduction to Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution". Left Voice. https://www.leftvoice.org/an-introduction-to-trotskys-theory-of-permane….

[4] "Communism - Stalinism". 2021. Encyclopedia Britannica.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John P. Hardt and Carl Modig. The Industrialization of Soviet Russia in the First Half Century. Research Analysis Corp. McLean, 1968, pg. 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Massimo Livi-Bacci. "On the Human Costs of Collectivization in the Soviet Union." Population and Development Review (1993): 751

[9] Ibid, pg. 744.

[10] Flewers, Paul. 2021. "The Economic Policy of The Soviet By Isaac Deutscher 1948". Marxists.Org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/deutscher/1948/economic-policy.htm.

[12] Morroe Berger. "How the Molotov Plan Works." The Antioch Review 8, no. 1 (1948): 18.

[13] Joseph M. Siracusa. "Reflections on the Cold War." Australasian Journal of American Studies (2009): 3.

  • Berger, Morroe. "How the Molotov Plan Works." The Antioch Review 8, no. 1 (1948): 17-25.
  • "Communism - Stalinism". 2021. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/communism/Stalinism#ref539199.
  • Flewers, Paul. 2021. "The Economic Policy of the Soviet by Isaac Deutscher 1948". Marxists.Org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/deutscher/1948/economic-policy.htm.
  • Frey, Kate. 2020. "An Introduction to Trotsky’S Theory of Permanent Revolution". Left Voice. https://www.leftvoice.org/an-introduction-to-trotskys-theory-of-permanent-revolution.
  • Livi-Bacci, Massimo. "On the Human Costs of Collectivization in the Soviet Union." Population and Development Review (1993): 743-766.
  • "Marshall Plan". 2021. History. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/marshall-plan-1.
  • Siracusa, Joseph M. "Reflections on the Cold War." Australasian Journal of American Studies (2009): 1-16.
  • Van Ree, Erik. "Socialism in One Country: A Reassessment." Studies in East European Thought 50, no. 2 (1998): 77-117.
  • Hardt, John P. and Carl Modig. The Industrialization of Soviet Russia in the First Half Century. Research Analysis Corp. McLean, 1968.

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