(Above: Uzbek Peasants building the Canal. Notice that instead of large trucks to move dirt, there was a large wagon instead.)
The year is 1939, imagine building a canal over 167 miles long in under forty-five days. The best part is, you do not have any heavy machinery to work with, only shovels and picks. Most would consider this to be a bit outlandish and impossible, but not under Stalin. This massive project had an enormous impact not only on the region, but on the USSR as a whole. The main reason for building this massive canal was to help the Soviet Union become more self-dependent from other nations. It allowed water to be supplied to the Fergana Valley, making it easy to plant crops that were needed to help the countries growth, especially cotton. At this time, the Soviet Union was prospering in almost everything except agriculture. Massive and widespread crop failures in 1932 and 1936 made it known that agriculture was by far the “Achilles Heal” for this relatively new nation.
Industrialization with Stalin begun with the first Five Year Plan, and kept going on from there. The three biggest years of the industrialization process occurred between 1934-36 though. During this time period, steel output had grown by three times, the amount of coal being mined had doubled along with production of electricity. The country was on a role, but lagged severely in agricultural since its resources were not allocated in this direction. After the 1936 crop failure, it was clear that this had to be changed. Yet money still was tight due to increased military spending for the suspected war that was looming in the future. Although there was not much improvement, there was some, mostly in the form of canals (Freeze).
The Moscow-Volga Canal was the first to be put up, connecting the Moscow River to the Volga. This project moved slowly, mostly because of the labor they used to build it. Instead of using trained workers, they used inmates from the gulags. These prisoners were unmotivated, and really were not adequate for the job, causing it to take much longer than it should have. To learn more about the labor problem in the Soviet Union, you can refer to this link on Labor Discipline. For the Fergana Canal, Uzbek peasants were used instead of inmates. They proved to be much more motivated, because they understood how helpful and beneficial this would be to their area. As seen from this video, you can see some of the 160,000 peasants that were used working on building it. The agricultural advantages that this canal gave to this region (after the war had ended) was enormous, allowing it to prosper in agriculture and industry. Eventually though, the Fergana Canal caused the Aral Sea to dry up, which caused large problems in the mid 1980’s for the Soviet Union.
Freeze, Gregory L., Russia: A History.