Despite its success, the NEP was always intended as a temporary measure, and in any case was seriously hindered by arbitrary administrative decisions. As we have seen, the operation of the price mechanism means that prices tend to rise when a product is in short supply, so encouraging greater production. However faced with grain shortages, the State insisted that prices not be allowed to increase. The result was queues outside the shops and a burgeoning black market. Furthermore, farmers inevitably switched to products that could generate greater income, which only served to prolong the shortage. In 1928, for example, sales of grain to the state from farmers in the Ural region fell by a third. Over the same period, meat sales were up by 50 per cent, the sale of eggs had doubled and sales of bacon increased four-fold. (Nove, 1992, p. 149)
The First Five-Year Plan was presented to the State in 1928 with the intention of creating an advanced economy based on heavy industry. Targets were set that called for the production of electricity, coal, oil, iron and steel to double or even triple over the five years to 1933. Anyone who questioned the wisdom of the plan, or called for caution, was discredited or arrested. Those who did not meet their targets could find themselves accused of conspiring with foreign capitalists to sabotage the Soviet economy. A case in point was the 1928 trial of 53 coal-mining engineers in the town of Shakhty who, following torture and intimidation, confessed to the crime of ‘wrecking’. Five were executed and the remainder imprisoned.
Nevertheless, although the targets were not achieved, production did substantially increase over the five-year period. Generation of electricity was up by 165 per cent, production of both coal and oil by over 80 per cent. (Nove, 1992, p. 194) Furthermore, this was at a time when much of the Western World was in the grips of the Great Depression which saw the manufacturing output of the United States cut in half and over a quarter of its workforce unemployed.
The Party could boast other successes too. Literacy increased from just 24 per cent in 1900 to 50 per cent by 1926 and over 80 per cent by 1939 (Harvey, 2004, p. 87). The Moscow Metro opened in 1935 to international acclaim, and is still regarded as an engineering marvel. The number of doctors more than doubled between 1928 and 1940, and a large proportion of the new intake were women. (Nove, 1992, p. 259)
Although there was some awareness in the West of the true situation, many were impressed by what they saw on their carefully guided tours of the Soviet Union. George Bernard Shaw, for example, wrote to The Manchester Guardian in 1933 in a letter signed by 20 others to express their anger at “the intensity of the blind and reckless campaign to discredit [the Soviet Union].” He continued, “Everywhere we saw hopeful and enthusiastic working-class … developing public works, increasing health services, extending education, achieving the economics independence of woman and the security of the child …” Such views were tacitly encouraged with the approach of World War II as the American and British governments sought to portray Stalin as an ally in the fight against Nazism.
The true picture was somewhat different. The most urgent problem facing the Party was that of feeding the people. As we have seen, most farmers were organised into communes. However a small proportion had taken advantage of the Stolypin land reforms of 1906 which had encouraged peasants to buy land from the landowners through a loan that was repaid by farm work. Their land had now been confiscated by the state, but in the interim many had done quite well, enough to own a horse and a cow or two, and to grow enough food to feed the family and perhaps have a small surplus to sell. They effectively created a new class of peasant and as such were branded ‘kulaks’ and viewed with suspicion. Kulaks were generally more ambitious and more entrepreneurial than their neighbours which made them particularly vulnerable to accusations of bourgeois activity.
Kulaks had fared quite well under the NEP, but as the First Five-Year Plan kicked in, their land was aggressively requisitioned by the state for collective farming and many were condemned to the labour camps of the Gulag. It is estimated that some 300,000 kulak households, amounting to some 1.5 million people, were sent to the camps during 1930 and 1931 (Nove, 1992, p. 166), effectively depriving the country of its most experienced farm managers. Furthermore, many hungry peasants, faced with compulsory purchase of their livestock, decided to slaughter and eat the animals instead. The results were catastrophic. An estimated 40 per cent of the Kazakh population died between 1931 and 1933 of hunger and hunger-related diseases. To quote Alec Nove, “This was a man-made famine, unlike the ‘natural’ famine of 1921 …” (Nove, 1992, p. 180) Years later, in a private meeting that took place in 1942, Winston Churchill asked Stalin, “What did you do with all the rich peasants, the kulaks?” Stalin is reported to have replied, “We killed them.” (Rees, 2008)
Faced with impossible targets, and severe punishment if they were not met, many inevitably resorted to elaborate fabrication. Another proposal of the First Five-Year Plan was that Uzbekistan should become a centre for cotton production. Two leaders of the Uzbek Party expressed concern that such a plan would leave Uzbek dependent on its neighbours for food, proclaiming that “You cannot eat cotton.” They were accused of bourgeois nationalism, put on trial and executed.
Much of the agricultural land was turned over to huge state farms that produced millions of tons of cotton for use not only in clothing but also in medicine and weapons manufacture. Each year would see a new production target, calculated by Gosplan according to the needs of the economy and data gleaned from the farms. Each year saw targets increase in line with the central policy of economic growth. By the early 1970s it was obvious that the targets had become unrealistic, however Rashidov, First Secretary of the Party in Uzbekistan, was unwilling to admit as much to Brezhnev, who had taken over as First Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1964. Aside from the fear of losing his job – and possibly worse – he was reluctant to disappoint the leader who had rewarded him so well in the past for achieving those targets.
Land set aside for subsistence farming, allowing people to at least grow enough to feed themselves, was turned over to cotton, while what smallholdings were left became contaminated by the increased use of toxic defoliants. A web of deception grew as warehouse managers were bribed to report deliveries that never happened, and peasants were forced to sign receipts for higher wages than they’d actually been paid. Intensive cotton farming was having a heavy ecological impact too. Ever greater quantities of water were being taken for irrigation from the rivers that fed the Aral Sea, while local water sources were being poisoned by the chemicals used upstream. As the Sea shrank, increasingly intense storms picked up the salt and dust from the exposed land, causing respiratory disease and cancer.
The deceptions eventually came to light in 1982 when satellite photography revealed barren land where cotton was supposed to be growing. The resulting scandal resulted in the expulsion of some 18,000 people from the Party and the prosecution of nearly 1,000. Rashidov himself died of a heart attack. However it was too late. The Aral Sea is now three times more salty than seawater, and no longer contains fish. According to the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, a new desert has been created to the South and East of the Sea which is expanding at 150,000 hectares a year and is encrusted with toxic salt pans. The United Nations and other national bodies are still working out what can be done about it (Kobori & Glantz, 1998).