Soviet urbanization was highly coercive

If there is a consensus view of the first decades of Soviet economic history, it probably goes something like this: Stalin oversaw a dramatic transformation of the Russian economy from agrarian to industrial, but at enormous and unnecessary human cost. The most famous example of his coercive policies leading to terrible human costs is probably agricultural collectivization, but in recent reading I learned that the early urbanization drive was also highly coercive.

A long 2012 report by Charles Becker, S. Joshua Mendelsohn and Kseniya Benderskaya, “Russian urbanization in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras” is a very useful overview, and touches on this question:

The magnitude of the USSR’s economic transition during the Stalin and Khrushchev eras can be difficult for outsiders to grasp: in 1928, some 75 per cent of Russia’s labour force were self-employed farmers and craftspeople, 18 per cent were manual workers, and only 3 per cent were members of a kolkhoz or cooperative. By 1939, only 3 per cent of the labour force remained as own-account farmers, while 47 per cent were members of a kolkhoz or cooperative, and 50 per cent were manual workers. …

In 1926 there were still no large regions where even one-quarter of the population was urban. … This setting changed dramatically in the next 13 years, when the USSR’s urban population as a whole rose by 119 per cent. By 1939, urbanization rates above 40 per cent were recorded in the Northwest and Russian Far East, while most other regions were between 25 and just under 40 per cent urban.


This explosive urbanization in the 1930s reflected both crash industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation, which drove many people from the land. To urbanise rapidly during a period of rural upheaval and declining productivity could occur at that time only in a command economy whose directors were willing to suppress consumption, especially by the rural population. …

It is also important to recognise than much Russian migration was not fully voluntary: studies cited by Mkrtchian (2009) suggest that ‘migration organised by the authorities’ peaked at about 40 per cent of the total in the late 1940s, and even in the late 1970s and early 1980s accounted for as much as 15 per cent of the total. A considerable but uncertain share of this organised migration involved forced labour (of political prisoners and conventional criminals). After sentences were completed, it was common to prevent convicts from returning to their original homes, forcing them to settle in remote, northern areas. …

There is more detail in the following passages from Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold:

Soviet statistics deliberately masked the fact that the achievements of the USSR’s industrialization campaign were based on slave labor. Forced labor camps in the GULAG system that exceeded 3,000 or 5,000 people (depending on location) were classified as towns. This meant that to the outside observer, regions like Siberia were experiencing unprecedented population as well as industrial growth.  In their book on prison labor in the USSR, David Dallin and Boris Nikolaevsky note that forced migration was an essential component in this population growth— underscored by the fact that the fastest urban growth was recorded in the Russian North and the Far East, where most of the labor camps were located.

Even after their release, prisoners still contributed to the population growth of regions like Siberia. On the completion of their sentences, former prisoners were given a new provisional status of “special migrant.” As such, they were legally prohibited from relocating or moving back to their original homes. Everyone who passed through the GULAG system east of the Urals became part of the “migration” wave that swept through Siberia and the Far East, whether they liked it or not.

The town of Norilsk and the giant mining company Norilsk Nickel are probably one of the most famous result of this type of forced urbanization:

Noril’sk consisted of a series of labor and construction camps that operated from June 1935 to August 1956. The early numbers of prisoners were small, around 1,200 in October 1935, but swelled to a peak of 72,500 in 1951. The camp construction brigades built the giant Noril’sk Nickel foundry, the city of Noril’sk itself, most of its basic municipal infrastructure, and other small processing factories that served Noril’sk Nickel. Camp labor extracted and processed local resources including gold, cobalt, platinum, and coal; produced cement; and provided the labor pool for a whole range of local industries.

Hill and Gaddy argue that this forced urbanization, with its concentration on populating the cold Siberian wastes, led to a city pattern that is highly costly and inefficient. And because of path dependencies–cities rarely shrink once they are established–the legacy of that forced urbanization continues to impose costs on the Russian economy.

For me, this urbanization evidence weakens the view that “Stalin killed lots of people, but at least he urbanized and industrialized the country” and gives more weight to the argument that “Stalin killed lots of people, and screwed up the industrialization process.” An excellent recent and data-driven assessment of the Stalin era, “Was Stalin Necessary for Russia’s Economic Development?” also generally supports the latter view.

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