Stakhanov and Stalin: Rapid Industrialization and its Role in Stalinism

On the night of August 31st 1935, a 30 year old coal minder named Aleksei Stakhanov cut 102 tons of coal in under six hours, more than 14 times the standard coal quota for his mine. In a single evening of fervent work, the new soviet workers movement, Stakhanovism, was born, and a hero of labor was created. Stakhanovism played in to the policy of rapid industrialization that was so central to Stalinism, it provided a hero to the people, and drove them to work harder to achieve goals which brought Russia in to the modern era. The movement was not without its flaws however, and low quality of production, and a reckless disregard for safety while chasing records are amongst its greatest failings.

The advent of the Stakhanvite movement can be seen as an attempt by the administration of the USSR to revive the failing industrialization drive after the end of the NEP. While Stalin was busy suppressing political uprisings, and incarcerating people in Gulags (aprox 11 million people), the vast numbers of workers who died due to shortages, accidents and political crackdowns (aprox 20.6 million people) resulted in slower industrial growth as a result of the loss of labor force, and this necessitated a morale and production boost in the form of a new hero, and a new movement. When the Stakhanvite movement came along, it provided both to the administration of the USSR, with Stakhanov providing a perfect example of a model soviet citizen, and sparking a workers movement that overshadowed even the shock worker movement. Stakhanvite’s set new records across the country, pushing ever higher in pursuit of records of production and all the privileges which attended such feats. The efficiency of steel furnaces and mills increased, and overall production was up by (according to a Stakhanov himself) 82% in comparison to the 63% envisioned by the second five year plan. The movement provided momentum to the second five year plan, and political capital as workers began to truly embrace the benefits of communism, striving hard to improve overall quality of life in the country, and receive nicer accommodations and higher pay for their feats in the mine pits or on the factory floors.

The movement, however, was not without its flaws, and its success was highly overstated by the government. The idea that a country could experience 14 percent GNP growth per year with over 30 million of its people being killed or underemployed in the same time is preposterous, and though the economy grew it was not quick enough, as we can see in the remainder of the USSR’s economic history and its eventual collapse. The speed with which workers began to operate also resulted in a lowering of overall work quality, and created supply issues when Stakhanvite’s were rewarded with higher pay and finer living quarters. Some scholars even propose that Stakhanov’s record was simply a publicity stunt, orchestrated for propaganda purposes, and that the simple reorganization of how work was done was not enough to meet the incredibly high goals of the second five year plan. In time, Stakhanvite’s came to be resented, and in modern times the term is used in a derogatory manner to refer to workers obsessed with over achieving. In the end, Stalin’s obsession with cultural transformation  and political control torpedoed the chances of the second five year plan meeting its goals, the loss of labor force, forced collectivization and rapid movement to the cities coupled with the push for faster, if less high quality work, created by the Stakhanvite movement resulted in slowed economic growth, and eventually the internal rotting and collapse of the economy of the USSR.

Sources: Mass Culture in Soviet Russia by James Von Geldern and Richard Stites (Pg. 238-243)

Rosefielde: Stalinist Economic Development in the 1930’s (Pg. 277-289)

Year of the Stakhanovite