History of the Soviet Union, 1929-1934: Chinese Railway Incident to the Year of Great Change

Soviet Square (now Minin & Pozharsky Square), 1930. Dmitry Tower of Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin on the background. / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Lewis Siegelbaum / 12.28.2015
Professor of Russian and European History
Michigan State University

Chinese Railway Incident

Sun Yat-Sen, 1866-1925 / Wikimedia Commons

The year 1929 found the Soviet Union’s fortunes in the Far East at a low ebb. Two years earlier, the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek had turned against and crushed their erstwhile allies, the Chinese Communists, and severed diplomatic relations with Moscow. Consolidating their position as claimants to rule China, the Kuomintang sought to extend their authority to Manchuria, presenting a real threat to Soviet interests in the region.

Map of the Chinese Eastern Railway Zone (1929) / China: The International Relations Committee, 1929

The Soviet presence in Manchuria derived from the Chinese Eastern Railroad (CER), the ownership of which had passed into Soviet hands with the overthrow of the tsarist government and the October Revolution. Recognition of the Soviet Union’s title to the railroad had been secured via treaties in 1924 with both the Chinese government in Peking and the government of the warlord, Chang Tso-lin, in Mukden. Yet, the existence of a substantial “White” Russian community in the Manchurian city of Harbin, the activities of Soviet consular officials and commercial agents, and the fact that as of 1929, 75 per cent of the railroad’s employees were Russians who held all the controlling posts constituted an affront to the Kuomintang government in Nanking and its claim to represent Chinese sovereignty.

On May 27, 1929 the Chinese carried out raids on Soviet consulates along various points on the railroad. Some eighty Soviet citizens, officials of the consular service and the railroad, were arrested and documents were seized. Despite a formal protest lodged by Moscow, further raids were carried out which, by July, gave the Chinese total control of the CER and its subsidiary services. Having amassed warplanes and tanks, the Red Army under General V. K. Bliukher invaded northern Manchuria in September. By the end of November, the Red Army had routed the Chinese forces, and effectively restored the status quo ante.

Harbin (1929) / China: The International Relations Committee, 1929

The “Chinese Eastern Railroad incident” of 1929 was overshadowed by the onset of the Great Turn towards the full-scale collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union, and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria two years later. It did, however, inspire US Secretary of State Harold Stimson to invoke the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) to prevent war, the main result of which was a flurry of angry exchanges between Washington and Moscow. In 1933 the Soviet government initiated discussions with the Japanese for the sale of the no-longer profitable CER to the puppet state of Manchukuo. An agreement was finally signed in March 1935.

Churches Closed


Left: The Godless Ones (1928) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk
Right: Destruction of Church Bells (1929) / From Religion in the Soviet Union: An Archival Reader, by Felix Corley

State policy toward the church was subject to a number of contradictory impulses in the late 1920s. The Kremlin leadership fluctuated between antagonistic and conciliatory attitudes towards its perceived foes, and there were tensions as well between central authorities and the periphery, young and old, radical and cautious. One result of the shifting directions was a window of approximately two years when the state pursued its most radical policies. The bloody conflict of collectivization was one result, and another was renewed hostility toward the church. The state stiffened the restrictions it had placed on the church in 1918 with a new law on religious organizations issued in 1929, giving the church little room to act, and reinforcing the restrictions by stiff penalties.


Left: I’m Going Over to the Six-Day Work Week (1929) / Moscow: M.K.R.K.P
Right: Down with Easter! (1929) / Hoover Political Poster Database

These measures were little stricter than the already harsh Criminal Code of 1923. In fact most of the legal and documentary basis for the war on the church was already in place by 1923. What changed was the vigor with which several clauses were prosecuted; the willingness of authorities to use violence to achieve their aims; and perhaps, the autonomy enjoyed by local authorities. The animus towards the church that had been focused on the hierarchy during 1922-1923 was focused on local clergy during the Cultural Revolution. Activists pursued variety of campaigns, mobilizing the population (whether willing or unwilling) to purge the poison of faith. Particularly ferocious was the attack on church property, which saw ancient churches converted into warehouses, and sacred objects melted down for their metals. Church bells were the object of special attention, since the state claimed the metal for the great industrialization project. Local police authorities were usually responsible for church closings, and their heavy handed methods could arouse the fury and resistance of villagers.


Left: Antireligious play (1929) / State Film & Photo Archive at Kransogorsk
Center: On Easter Day, Nobody Skips Work! (1929) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Godless Conference (1931) / State Film & Photo Archive at Kransogorsk

Coupled with attacks on the church was the new uninterrupted work week (nepreryvnaia nedelia, often abbreviated to nepreryvka). Introduced in 1929, the nepreryvka was meant to increase productivity by keeping machines in operation throughout the year, and to wean workers away from Sundays and religious holidays as days of rest. In the most widely practiced variant, the so-called five-day week, employees worked for four days and were off for one, following a staggered schedule. The only exception was to be the five days per year consisting of revolutionary holiday celebrations. Introduction of the nepreryvka required cultural organizations, educational institutions, shops, baths, laundries, and other facilities to adjust to the staggered schedule. Moreover, it was one thing to have the factory in continuous operation, but another to have machines operating continuously. Breakdowns and shortages of raw material supplies made this a virtual impossibility. For awhile, such problems could be disguised, but by 1931 Stalin himself conceded that it was better to adopt the interrupted six-day week than to perpetuate a nominal uninterrupted schedule, thereby giving his imprimatur for the abandonment of the continuous work-week system.



Left: Kulak Cunning, by Iu. Ganf (1928) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: We are for Kolkhoz!, photo by Arkadii Shishkin (1929) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova

Chronic shortfalls in state procurements of grain and a rising tide of working-class protests over shortages combined to persuade Stalin and his supporters within the party leadership to abandon the market as the main mechanism by which goods from the countryside were obtained. Having supervised the application of “extraordinary” (read, coercive) measures in the Urals and western Siberia during the winter of 1927-1928, Stalin hit on the idea of organizing collective and state farms as a potentially more effective and longer-term solution to the problem of extracting grain. Stalin’s enthusiasm for collectivization seems to have been based on two cardinal principles that many in the party and at least some agrarian experts shared. One was that large units of production, organized along the lines of industrial enterprises and with access to mechanized equipment, were far more efficient and would permit the extraction of greater surpluses than the traditional strip farming practiced by Russian peasants. The other was that kulaks represented a counterweight to Soviet power in the villages and by their very nature constituted a “class-alien” element that had to be eliminated. It followed from this that so-called middle peasants who, again by their very nature, wavered between supporting state initiatives and opposing them, could be won over to collective farming by a combination of inducements (access to mechanized equipment, credits, etc.) and coercive measures (taxes, confiscations, threats of exile). Thus, collectivization was to proceed in tandem with “dekulakization.”


Left: Join us in the Kolkhoz!, by Vera Korableva (1930) / Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik
Right: Throw the Kulaks out of the Kolkhozes! (1930) / Wikimedia Commons

How did peasants initially respond to the idea of collectivization? Party agitators sent to the villages to persuade peasants of the benefits of collectivization often met with skepticism and mockery. Peasants who resisted the pressure of regional party officials to enroll in collective farms were labeled as kulaks; those who feared confiscation sold off their property as quickly as they could, in effect self-dekulakizing. By June 1929 one million – out of some 25 million – peasant households had been enrolled in 57,000 collectives. Still, the majority held back. The most intense period of collectivization was during the winter of 1929-1930 following the publication in Pravda on the twelfth anniversary of the October Revolution of Stalin’s article announcing a “great breakthrough” on the road to “winning the vast masses of the peasantry to the side of the working class.”


Left: The Collective Farm at Work, by Zakhar Pichurgin (1930) / Victoria Bonnell Russian Posters
Right: Off to Collective Work, by I. Meshcheriakova (1929) / Victoria Bonnell Russian Posters

On January 5, 1930, the Central Committee issued its decree calling for collectivizing not merely the 20 percent of arable land envisioned in the First Five-Year Plan, but “the huge majority of peasant farms” in the most important grain-growing regions by the autumn of 1930. Workers enrolled in brigades to assist in collectivization (the “Twenty-Five Thousanders”) were dispatched to the villages with great fanfare, as if they were going off to war. Much was made in propagandistic newsreels of “kulak resistance” and successful searches and confiscations carried out by the police and party officials. Those identified as kulaks were subjected to confiscation and either local resettlement, deportation, incarceration in labor camps and in case of the most dangerous “elements,” execution. By March 1930 an estimated 55 percent of peasant households at least nominally had enrolled in collective farms. At this point, however, Stalin decried the excesses of local officials, claiming they were “dizzy with success.” Indeed, central authorities had been deluged by complaints concerning expropriations carried out by overzealous officials aiming to achieve “complete” (sploshnaia) collectivization within their districts. Within three months of the publication of Stalin’s article, over half of peasant households ostensibly enrolled in collective farms were recorded as having withdrawn. However, this reversal was short-lived. Fines and compulsory sales of property for peasants unable (or unwilling) to meet delivery quotas drove many back into the kolkhoz system; by July 1931 the proportion of households in collective farms had risen to 53 percent and a year later to 61.5 percent.

Smite the Kulak (1930) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin

Among the incentives to join collective farms was access to mechanized equipment. In June 1929 an experimental machine-tractor station operating on the Shevchenko state farm in Odessa oblast was identified in a decree of the Council of Labor and Defense as a model for the entire USSR. In January 1933 the party seized upon the MTS as its spearhead in the countryside, attaching to them Political Departments (politotdely) to “ensure political control and surveillance of the distribution and use of collective farms and state-farm workers….” While the media portrayed peasants as eager to obtain the services of the MTS, their interventions in village affairs and the inevitable crossing of lines of authority were often sources of resentment, conflict, and denunciation.

Shock-brigade Reaping for a Bolshevik Harvest, by Maria Voron (1934) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin

Peasant resistance to collectivization took many forms: wanton slaughter of livestock, women’s riots (bab’i bunty), theft and destruction of collective farm property, and, perhaps most widely spread, an intentionally slow pace in carrying out directives of the kolkhoz administration. The tremendous loss of livestock through slaughter, inadequate fodder, and simple neglect made it virtually impossible for kolkhozes to fulfill their procurement quotas for meat and dairy products. Failure of collective farms to meet procurement quotas had dire consequences for their members. It meant that no matter how many labordays (the unit of accounting according to which collective farmers were paid) kolkhozniks worked, there was nothing to pay them. During 1929-31, procurement quotas were set at levels that exceeded the capacity of most farms. In 1932, farms in Ukraine, the Lower Volga and the North Caucasus were hit by a poor harvest, leading to famine conditions. Blaming shortages on kulak sabotage, authorities favored urban areas and the army in distributing what supplies of food had been collected. The resulting loss of life is estimated as at least five million. To escape from starvation, large numbers of peasants abandoned collective farms for the cities.

Magnetic Mountain


Left: Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Plant, photo by Max Alpert (1929) / From Propaganda & Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US, by Leah Bendavid-Val
Right: Builders of the Kuznetsk Metallurgic Factory, photo by Anatolii Shurikhin (1934) / Moscow: Iskusstvo

The celebrated “socialist city of steel,” Magnitogorsk was founded in 1929 and built around what would become the world’s largest steel plant. Both the city and the steelworks were patterned after Gary, Indiana and designed to outdo their American predecessor. The construction of the metallurgical plant was a key project of the First Five-Year Plan. In accordance with the general thrust of the Plan, targets were to be achieved ahead of schedule notwithstanding bottlenecks in supplies, the harshness of the elements, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of workers lacked basic industrial skills.


Left: Construction of the Metallurgy Plant, photo by Max Alpert (1929) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova
Right: Magnitika Under Construction, photo by Anatolii Shurikhin (1932) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova

Much of the “pathos of construction” at Magnitogorsk was captured in Time Forward!, the novel by Valentin Kataev published in 1932. The theme of the novel was not only the overcoming of technical backwardness (as indicated in the last lines, “Never again shall we be Asia! Never! Never!Never!” and earlier references to Stalin’s speech of February 1931 about the USSR being a hundred years behind the advanced capitalist countries and making up that difference in ten) but also the re-making or transformation/re-building of individuals in the course of their building of the factory. This theme of transformation is well represented by the chapters devoted to a brigade of cement mixers engaged in socialist competition with other construction sites.

Magnitika Metallurgical Works, by Aleksei Sokolov (1968) / From The Leningrade School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov

Magnitogorsk’s population, which reached 250,000 by the autumn of 1932, consisted of workers “mobilized” by their trade unions, youthful Komsomol enthusiasts, peasant recruits, ex-kulak deportees, and substantial contingents of engineers– both Soviet and from abroad — state and party officials, and foreign workers. Housing for newly arrived construction workers was rudimentary at best — tents, mud huts, and hastily constructed dormitories where bedspace was often assigned in shifts. This part of the city, known popularly as “Shanghai,” was in marked contrast to the communal apartment blocks that would eventually dot the landscape, and even more so, to Berezka (Birch Tree), the secluded settlement where first the foreign engineers and then the local Soviet elite lived. By the late 1930s, the city boasted such architecturally imposing facilities as the Palace of Metallurgists, the Pushkin Drama Theater, the Magnit cinema, which accommodated an audience of several thousand, a circus, and, of course, the metallurgical complex itself consisting of blast and open-hearth furnaces, coking and chemical plants and smokestacks reaching into the sky and casting a pall over the entire city.

Construction of Magnitogorsk, photo by Dmitrii Debalov (1930) / From Propaganda & Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US, by Leah Bendavid-Val

Magnitogorsk continued to be a major source of steel for the Soviet Union for several decades after its “heroic” period. However, as its significance as a symbol of revolutionary transformation declined, so too did capital investments and the efficiency of its mills. Officially closed to foreigners during the Second World War, Magnitogorsk was not opened again until the early 1980s by which time its steel plant had become badly outdated and its air badly polluted.

Malakovskii’s Bathhouse

Malakovskii, photo by Mark Markov-Grinberg (1928) / Soiuz fotokhudzhnikov Rossii

Maiakovskii’s revolutionary star, which had burned so bright during the first decade of revolution, was setting by the end of the 1920s. Accustomed to attacking cultural inertia from the left, he found himself outflanked from that side by adherents of the proletarianization of culture, most a good deal younger than him. The final year of his life was difficult. Disappointed in love, alienated from Soviet reality, and denied a visa to travel abroad, he committed suicide in Moscow on April 14, 1930, an act he had mocked a few years before when the poet Sergei Esenin killed himself. Although Stalin eulogized him after his death as the greatest Soviet poet, Maiakovskii died fearing that his works would fade from Soviet literature.

Art to the Masses! (1929) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

Successes of his final years that resounded long after his death were the satirical plays, Bedbug (1928) andBathhouse (1930). Banned temporarily because they satirized Soviet officialdom, their mockery of bureaucratism and vulgarity rang true throughout Soviet times. Both plays use a time machine to make their point. Prisypkin, hero ofBedbug, is a Soviet vulgarian who finds himself in the future of 1979, teamed with a bedbug in a museum exhibit of extinct vermin. In Bathhouse the machine is used to speed up boring political speeches. The Phosphorescent Woman, a delegate from the year 2030, arrives. She is disappointed. The opportunity to travel through time is turned to Pobedonosikov, a Soviet party official, who believes that Michelangelo was Armenian. However, this Philistine is rejected by the future and he asks: “Do you mean by any chance that communism does not need the likes of me?”

Director, Composer, Designers (1929) / Russian Theater

Maiakovskii worked with the greatest artists of his day. His director was the avant-gardist Vsevolod Meyerhold; sets forBedbug were designed by Aleksandr Rodchenko; and music for the play was written by Dmitrii Shostakovich. Yet all these masters would soon find themselves hounded by the vigilantes of proletarian culture. In music, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians held sway, attacking the twin scourges of decadent jazz and modernist abstraction. Painting fell under the control of the Association of Artists of the Revolution. In literature, the Russian Association of Proletariat Writers (RAPP) exerted ideological dominion through control of editorial boards and critics. Its first victims were “fellow travelers” (so-labeled by Lev Trotsky in 1924) such as Evgenii Zamiatin and Boris Pilniak, who published his Mahogany in 1929. Mikhail Bulgakov, who would spend the 1930s writing his classic novel Master and Margarita (published only in 1966), found his hugely successful plays banned from stage. A novel that would enter the ranks of Russian classics decades later, but which could not be published in 1929, was Andrei Platoon’sFoundation Pit, which chronicles the digging of a never-completed pit for an unnamed socialist construction project.

Making Central Asia Soviet

Street in Old Bukhara, photo by Iu. P. Eremin (1927) / Moscow: Iskusstvo

Nativization (“korenizatsiia”) in Central Asia involved the preferential selection of indigenous peoples to leadership positions in political, economic, and cultural institutions, and the promotion of indigenous languages over Russian. Both dimensions reflected the party’s commitment to overcoming “great-power chauvinism” and the legacy of “cultural backwardness” that was blamed on tsarist colonial practices. In the case of linguistic korenizatsiia, the Uzbek authorities seem to have gone furthest, decreeing in December 1928 that all paperwork in state institutions down to the level of the village soviets was to be conducted in Uzbek. A subsequent decree of October 1929 forbade the hiring of anyone for state positions who did not speak Uzbek. While Europeans initially flocked to Uzbek-language courses, the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism and the shortage of appropriately trained Uzbeks doomed the application of these decrees.

Uzbek Kolkhoznik (1936) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

The party vigorously prosecuted campaigns to outlaw Islamic-derived practices that, while considered markers of nationality among Central Asians, were condemned as oppressive of women. These included polygyny, bride-price, forced marriage, and, above all, the wearing of the veil (parandzha). The first hujum was launched in early 1927 by the Uzbek Communist Party in conjunction with the All-Union party’s Women’s Section (zhenotdel), and was directed against the veil. Mass meetings at which thousands of women ceremoniously burned their veils and urged others to follow their example occurred in Tashkent and other cities. These acts, however, provoked a rash of retaliatory violence (rape, disfigurement, murder) against unveiled women. Although party members were enjoined to promote the campaigns against the veil and other outlawed practices, risking expulsion if they failed to comply, evasion was widespread within their own families, a situation that persisted throughout the 1930s.


Left: Comrades Court, Collective Farm (1934) / From Propaganda & Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US, by Leah Bendavid-Val
Right: October Celebration in Samarkand, by Rozhdestvesnkii / Hoover Political Poster Database

One reason for the party’s emphasis on the emancipation of women in Central Asia was that in the absence of a real proletariat, they could serve as a surrogate. But the party also promoted the formation of a proletariat via one of the major construction projects of the late 1920s. This was the Turkestan-Siberian (Turksib) Railroad, a massive undertaking designed to expand cotton cultivation in eastern Kazakhstan and Kirghizia by connecting these areas to grain-growing regions of Siberia. Spanning the years 1927 to 1931, the project employed a peak workforce of nearly 50,000, and was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. Only about a quarter of the construction workers were indigenous Kazakhs, and they were subjected to systematic discrimination by managers and frequent racial taunts and physical assaults by imported Russian workers. Nevertheless, for thousands, exposure to industrial discipline and other culturalizing influences associated with the construction project was a transformative experience.

New Way of Life


Left: Sportswoman, by Ivan Kulikov (1929) / From The Art Bin, by Karl-Erilc Tallmo
Right: Female Brigade, Stand Forward!, by Brigade KGK (1931) / International Institute of Social History

The ultimate goal of the socialist society was to create a new person, the New Soviet Person, whose entire consciousness was shaped by the socialist environment. This new person would be enlightened, unburdened by psychological complexes, unblinded by distinctions of nationality and gender. They would live simply but cleanly, and their work lives and home lives would be stitched together seamlessly. Although the socialist person would be created by new forms of culture, they would be recognizable by their healthy bodies as well.


Left: Communal Kitchen, by Konstantin Rotov (1927) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Chairwoman, by Georgii Riazhskii (1928) / Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik

The first twelve years of socialist construction saw the creation of institutions, practices and spaces that could accommodate such people. Some could even create them. Literacy programs flourished throughout the Soviet Union, bringing light to older people who had never benefited from education. They were aimed at the most benighted sectors of the population, the non-Slavic nationalities and women. New workplaces and living spaces were created, such as communal apartments that consigned cooking, eating and other formerly private activities to public spaces. New socialist rituals introduced young people and children to the socialist family, and weaned them from the church rituals that were once their only choice.

Fight with the Leftovers of the Old Life (1929) / FUNET Image Archive

The state was often presumptuous in declaring that socialist consciousness had been created. The 1930 closing of the Zhenotdel (Women’s Section) was explained by the fact that its welfare activities were no longer needed. Social intervention could also be overbearing. In a collective society, privacy was obsolete, and no vice was beyond the judgment of the collective. This despite the fact that millions of Russians and other Soviet citizens still lived in squalor and poverty. For all the positive figures produced in reality and fiction, perhaps the most popular hero of 1929 was Ostap Bender, from Ilf and Petrov’s comic novel Twelve Chairs, an unreformed con man whose ability to “speak Soviet” helped his criminal career flourish.

Proletarian Writers

Political-Educational Work in 1917-1927, by Artists of AKhRR (1927) / New Gallery

The rich literary heterodoxy of the 1920s was brought to an end in 1929, when the Party granted the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) hegemony over the lettered world. Publishing houses and literary journals were placed in the hands of self-proclaimed worker-writers, many of whom had little experience writing or running institutions. They did have experience sloganeering: “For the Hegemony of Proletarian Literature! Liquidate Backwardness!” What these imperatives meant was hard to fathom; their consequences, which included the silencing of the most gifted voices of the era, soon became apparent. The compromises of the 1920s were swept aside with the same vigor that introduced Five-Year Plans and shock workers into the industrial world. Literature no longer had autonomous value; its utilitarian tasks were to reflect the “unvarnished” reality of the working class and optimistically describe its new world. Literature was not to create, but to respond to “social demand” (zakaz). Observers who noted contradictions were hounded out of the literary world.

Sketch of Factory Workers, by Evgenii Katsman (1931) / Arts in Russia and the USSR

Undisputed king of RAPP was Leopol’d Averbakh (1905-1937), critic and chief editor of On Literary Guard (Na literaturnom postu). Averbakh is often branded as the executioner of Soviet-Russian literature. The chief villains, though, were Stalin and Central Committee, which used RAPP to place literature and the other arts (excepting, for the time being, music) under Party control. Averbakh’s notion that content rather than form was primary in literature was hardly new to Russian culture, and his ardor for building a new culture accessible to all social classes was not unique. But when combined with the power of the state, the dictums of RAPP become odious and destructive.

Textile Workers, by Aleksandr Deineka (1927) / Arts in Russia and the USSR

The proletarians in literature, and their comrades in the other arts, had two objectives: to root out class-alien culture, and to create new art forms in its place. The first, at least, was achieved: former aristocrats, unsympathetic intellectuals, nonconformist artists and other dangerous elements were denied access to presses, theaters, and museums. Not only were “fellow travelers” (the contemptuous tag used to condemn non-Party writers) such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Aleksei Tolstoi attacked, but also revolutionists such as Maksim Gorky and Vladimir Maiakovskii. Cultural intolerance ruled. Popular culture came under attack: urban balladeers could find no song-sheet publishers; detective stories and science-fiction novels were condemned. Imports from the bourgeois West were automatically suspect. Even folk ensembles such as the Piatnitsky Folk Chorus and the Andreev Balalaika Orchestra were banned. The campaign reached absurdity when dancing bears were banished from the streets of Moscow.

Blast Furnace, by Petr Kotov (1930) / Arts in Russia and the USSR

Many writers who were members of RAPP were not without talent. The novelists Mikhail Sholokhov(Quiet Flows the Don), Dmitrii Furmanov (Chapaev), Aleksandr Fadeev (The Rout), and Iurii Libedinskii (Birth of a Hero) produced work that fell within RAPP canons and can still be read with pleasure. Yet the era is remembered more for its clumsy initiatives, such as “collective” literature–represented by the shock-workers’ journal of a trip abroad.

Three Red Army Soldiers, by Aleksandr Osmerkin (1932) / Arts in Russia and the USSR

The Cultural Revolution, not the Revolution of 1917, altered the face of mass culture once and for all. Industrialization and collectivization almost destroyed folk and popular culture. The intelligentsia surrendered its independence; the peasantry and its culture almost ceased to exist; the urban audience was transformed. Centralized institutions replaced local cultural production. Cities, towns and villages in the center and the provinces heard and saw approximately the same thing, aided by new expanse-shrinking technologies–foremost the radio. Soviet citizens had few unsupervised channels of communication, and none that could link more than several people at a time; and they had almost no contact with the creators of their culture.

Ural Construction Site, by Nikolai Dormidontov (1931) / Arts in Russia and the USSR

When the Central Committee issued a decree “On Restructuring Literary-Artistic Organizations” (April 23, 1932), in which RAPP was dissolved and the new Writers’ Union was created, open to writers of all literary creeds (except those deemed to be anti-Soviet), many writers rejoiced. What they failed to notice was that RAPP had served its purpose, subordinating literary life to political control, and that the union replacing it would play an even more dominant role in their lives. Most RAPP members were allowed to join the union; Averbakh did too, although he would become an early victim of the purges in 1937.

Shock Workers


Left: Lenin at the Subbotnik, by Mikhail Sokolov (1929) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: False Shock Worker at the Work Site, by Konstantin Rotov (1932) / Moscow: Pravda

Launching of the first Five-Year Plan in 1929 spawned new demands on Soviet worker productivity. A socialist system that offered few incentives to hard work, and was hostile to the sorts of wage differentiation that capitalist bosses used to spur workers, needed new ways to inspire efficient labor. Two campaigns attempted to address the issue in 1929. Shock workers (udarniki), a term originating during the civil war to designate workers performing especially arduous or urgent tasks, reemerged and was applied to all workers and employees who fulfilled obligations over and above their planned quotas. Official statistics indicate that by the end of 1929, 29 percent of all workers in industry were participating; a year later, the proportion was 65 percent. As the number of shock workers increased, the value of the title became debased. Many competitions occurred mainly on paper or were used by enterprise authorities to get around legal prohibitions against mandatory overtime. The party repeatedly denounced “false shock work” (lzheudarnichestvo), but it became endemic to Soviet work practice. Moreover, the brief period of extra physical exertion (known as “storming”) associated with shock work ill suited complex production processes.


Left: USSR is the Shock Brigade for the Proletariat of the Entire World, by Gustav Klucis (1930) / Wikimedia Commons
Center: Female Delegate, Worker, Shockworker, by Natalie Pinus (1931) / From The Soviet Photograph: 1924-1937, by Margarita Tupitsyn
Right: Everybody to the Competition!, by Iurii Pimenov (1928) / Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft fur Bildende Kunst Berlin

From 1929 onwards, shock work was linked invariably with socialist competitions. The thrust of socialist competition was the adoption by workers of targets over and above what was prescribed in their work plans and the issuing of challenges to others in the form of socialist competition agreements. Socialist competition assumed huge proportions after the appearance in Pravda on January 29, 1929 of Lenin’s previously unpublished article, “How to Organize Competition.” Written in December 1917, the article emphasized “the fight against the old habit of regarding the measure of labor … from the point of view of the man in subjection.” In charging party activists with the responsibility to develop the “independent initiative of workers” and avoiding “stereotyped forms and uniformity imposed from above,” the article gave Leninist legitimacy to the ongoing anti-bureaucratic campaign and the purge of trade unionists associated with Mikhail Tomskii. A resolution of the party’s Central Committee in May 1929 placed responsibility for organizing competition with the trade unions. Management was supposed to facilitate and party organs supervise the process. Workers enrolling in brigades that participated in socialist competition and achieved satisfactory results received the title of shock workers. They were lauded on public honor boards, in newspapers and at meetings, and received privileged treatment in dining facilities and the allocation of scarce goods, accommodation, and vacation vouchers.


Left: ROSTA Window No. 580, by Vladimir Maiakovskii (1920) / Leningrade: Avrora
Center: Let’s Sign a Socialist Contract!, by Lomov (1929) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Shockworker Day (1931) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The rise of the Stakhanovite movement in 1935 reduced the prestige of the shock worker title, and it all but disappeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s, only to resurface again under the guise of shock workers of Communist labor. From about ten million in 1966, the number of such workers increased to 17.9 million in 1971 and 24 million (or 26 percent of all wage and salary workers) by 1975. To the extent that shock work became a regular feature of Soviet industrial and agricultural life in the post-Stalin era, it did so as a function of the responsibility placed on lower-level trade union, Komsomol, and party officials to exercise leadership and record progress along bureaucratically pre-determined lines. Workers seeking to extract favors from these organizations and/or demonstrate their suitability for promotion into their ranks went along with the game.

Year of Great Change


Left: Giants of the Five Year Plan, by G. Brylov (1933) / International Institute of Social History
Right: Workers’ Contract with the Peasants (1929) / Hoover Political Poster Database

In November 1929, on the occasion of the twelfth anniversary of the October Revolution, Pravda published an article by Stalin entitled “A Year of Great Change.” The article, replete with quotations from Lenin, summed up what Stalin considered achievements in three areas: productivity of labor, industrial construction, and agricultural development. It was, in effect, a retrospective justification for a radical break with the New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin in 1921, and a manifesto for the First Five-Year Plan that already was in its second year.


Left: Giants of the Five Year Plan, by A. Liubimov (1931) / International Institute of Social History
Right: Counter-Arithmetic of the Industrial and Financial Plan, by Iakov Guminer (1931) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman

The First Five-Year Plan (1928-32) was the most ambitious undertaking in centralized state planning ever attempted. It reflected both the unbridled optimism of the Stalinist leadership in the capacity of the Soviet Union to catch up to and surpass the advanced capitalist countries “in a relatively minimal historical period,” and the considerable pressure they had exerted on the economic specialists who devised successive versions of the plan. Those economists, working in the State Planning Commission (Gosplan) were faced with the unprecedented and incredibly complicated task of drafting a plan to transform the entire economic structure of the country. They did so by resorting to “teleological” planning, that is, the projection of five-year targets backward to determine annual levels of investment and material balances which were to be applied to each sector of the economy and ultimately serve as guidelines for every enterprise in the country. Two versions were produced: a first variant and an optimal variant, each of which was presented to the party’s Sixteenth Conference in April 1929, that is, some six months after the plan was supposed to be in operation.


Left: Free Working Hands of the Collective Farms – To Industry! (1931) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Five Year Plan Tempos, by Konstantin Rotov (1931) / Moscow: Pravda

The first variant was quite optimistic, calling for increases in investments over the five-year period of 151 percent, of producers’ goods of 161 percent, of electrical output of 236 percent, and so forth. Yet, the sixteenth conference rejected this version in favor of the optimal variant which envisioned investments rising by 228 percent, producers’ goods by 204 percent, and electricity by 335 percent. Even these targets were subsequently revised upward. For example, coal production which stood at 35 million tons in 1927-28, was supposed to increase to 75 million tons by 1932-33 according to the optimal version, but this was amended in the course of 1929-30 to 95-105 million tons. Indeed, in December 1929, the entire five-year plan was projected to be fulfilled “in its essentials” in four years, that is, by October 1931. This, of course, was impossible, and the rush, strain, shortages and wastefulness proved lethal to millions of people. For all that though, the plan was declared a brilliant success and indeed did catapult the Soviet Union into one of the leading industrial countries of the world.