I Speak for the Silent Prisoners of the Soviets - V. Tchernavin

Five-Year Plans for Fish

For a better understanding of the Soviet regimentation of industry in Russia and the resulting effect upon the North State Fishing Trust and all those connected with it, let me here explain the general procedure of Soviet planning. As I have already said, in the earlier years plans had been called for on a yearly basis, setting a goal that in some branches of industry could not be reached. Due to the extreme instability of the economic and political programs of the government—it was rare for a year to pass without radical changes being made in the preparations which had been planned—there was disaster in many of the industries, with considerable losses.

How can one speak seriously of a planned economy in a state where everything is governed by the day, where those in power fling themselves from one extreme to the other, where all the factors controlling industry are unceasingly undergoing the most drastic changes and where the slogan of the moment is of more importance than any plan?

It was under such conditions that in 1924 some organizations had received orders to draw up, in addition to their usual yearly plan, a five year plan of their work. The following year all industries were ordered to draw up a five year plan for the period 1925-1930. Some industries were required to make plans for ten and even fifty years ahead. During the period from October 1, 1925 to October 1, 1928 a five year plan had been drawn up anew every year, for, owing to drastic changes in political and economic conditions, the plan as originally drawn up could not be continued into the next year. So it was, that in addition to the first or trial five year plan of 1924 four new five year plans were drawn up during a period of four years. The last of these, that of 1928-1933, became world famous as the  Five Year Plan—the Piatiletka. Rigid and detailed instructions were given to all industries for drawing up their new five year plan and mention of any previous plan was held to be counter-revolutionary. Jokes concerning how many years the first year of the Piatiletka  was going to last became popular. According to directions received from above the work was to be undertaken in a "new way." The "indices of production" called for unexampled growth of all industries. Enormous sums in chervontzi—the greatly devaluated Soviet currency—were appropriated as well as a restricted amount of foreign currency. From the speeches of leaders and from the press it was clear that the Five Year Plan would turn into a political slogan rather than an industrial plan, a slogan which would serve to mark and at the same time mask a turn to the left and a return to the pre-NEP Communistic experiment.

For us who had to deal with the practical problems of production under this Five Year Plan, the plan consisted of a multitude of sheets of tabulations which, due to their large size, we called "bed sheets." Figures compiled by expert statisticians for five years hence were supposed to represent future work and achievements in strict accordance with the instructions received. Material requirements had to be completed for every year of the five though preliminary projects could not be prepared before the plan was approved. It had been possible to prepare the yearly plans with some degree of accuracy because those in charge of the various enterprises had had experience. The Five Year Plan, however, demanded a development which no producer could actually visualize, and to reach the "control figures" required estimating by pure imagination.

Each unit or department of an industry drew up its own five year plan with great care. These plans were then combined by the management of the industry and sent to the "Centre" in Moscow. There the plans were again combined into larger units until a whole industry in each Commissariat was combined, and lastly, these plans from all the Commissariats were sent to the State Planning Commission and incorporated into a final general plan. The results were multitudes of tabulations by which it was possible, for instance, to see where and how much roofing iron, shoes, caviar, horseshoe nails, tractors, wheat, pork, eggs, milk, butter, fish and so on would be produced and also how they would be used at any given moment of the Five Year Plan. These tables also showed how much any article produced in each year of the five would cost, the quantity and quality of man power necessary at a given moment in any branch of industry, the wages for every category of labor, the housing requirements, in fact, every conceivable detail. Such was the plan sternly decreed for the next five years. In the face of the ever increasing shortage of food and other necessities, the need of sacrifice for the first two or three years of the working of the plan was stressed, but future benefits were widely advertised and promises made that ultimately the plan would bring higher wages and an ample supply of food and clothing.

Soon the government press—there is no other in the U.S.S.R.—began spreading the news that some concerns had decided to accomplish their part of the Five Year Plan in four, three or even two years, praising this as the highest degree of enthusiasm on the part of the workers. And it appeared that within a comparatively short time some had already not only fulfilled their plan, but were exceeding it. If, however, the Five Year Plan had been a really workable plan, any deviation, whether over-fulfillment or the opposite in any given industry, would necessarily cause general disruption. If, for instance, our Fishing Trust had caught twice as much fish as the plan called for, twice the salt would have immediately been needed, twice the packing material, transportation facilities and labor. If the shipbuilding trust had fulfilled its quota of trawlers in advance of the fixed time, harbor facilities would not have been available and the capacity of the fishing industry would not have been in a position to put them to use.

So it was that, instead of the working out of an orderly plan, chaos prevailed. There was a catastrophic shortage of building materials, and many State enterprises sent special agents and representatives to various towns of the U.S.S.R. where, by personal contact and enterprise, they strove to divert materials already assigned to other industries. Often substitutes of inferior quality had to be used. Many buildings remained without roofs or window glass. Some factories were without machines, and in the case of others machinery lay in barns because the factory buildings were not ready. There was a shortage of qualified labor and in many places inferior labor had to be employed.

Before long the Political Bureau of the government began to interfere directly in the work of the different branches of industry and even with separate units and, as will be seen in the case of the fishing industry, to raise their Plan quotas even in the middle of a year, so that by the end of the first year of the Piatiletka  it was evident that nothing remained of the so-called Five Year Plan devised only the year before and both industry and government were working and building at random.

In our North State Fishing Trust before the introduction of the Five Year Plan we had, like other enterprises, been endeavoring to develop our business, to obtain larger appropriations, to increase our production and to speed up the building of ships and new plants. In those days we were continually being held back by the "Centre" and had had to struggle hard for every facility granted us. Now it was exactly the reverse, for categorical instructions were being received from the "Centre" to "expand" at a rate which corresponded neither to the supply of materials to be had nor to the available labor.

Thus, for instance, in the early part of 1928, after two years of effort, we had at last obtained authorization to purchase ten trawlers abroad. This license, however, was revoked before our representative, who had already left for Germany, had had time to give the order, and we had begun to doubt whether our seventeen antiquated trawlers could be replaced before they were worn out or wrecked. Now, however, everything was suddenly changed, and in the latter part of the year, after the inauguration of the Piatiletka, we were ordered to consider, in planning our operations for the next five years, the construction of seventy new trawlers and an increase of catch to 175,000 tons per year. This meant developing an enormous enterprise. Our trawling base, built in 1926-27, could not handle at the most more than one third of this amount and our pier was barely large enough to service the number of trawlers we then had. Extensive construction work must be undertaken under extremely hard conditions and at any cost.

In the summer of 1929, when conditions, especially in Murmansk, had become so difficult that the question arose more than once whether any construction work whatever could be continued, when workmen were fleeing because of insufficient food rations, when in spite of all efforts production was lagging behind the plan by ten or fifteen percent, the North State Fishing Trust received the following laconic telegraphic instructions from Moscow: Change the Five Year Plan, basing the new figures on 150 new trawlers and a catch per ship of 3,000 tons per year, instead of the previously estimated 2,500. Three consecutive telegrams further increased the assignment, bringing the number of trawlers up to 500 and the yearly catch up to 1,500,000 tons! [Shortly after this it was announced that, due to exceptional progress, the Five Year Plan was to be completed in four years, namely, by the first of January, 1932. In the course of three years we were, therefore, required to increase our normal yearly catch of 40,000 tons to 1,500,000 tons that is to say, multiply it by nearly forty. ]

The order was unaccompanied by any directions or explanations, its form was categorical and without appeal.

If one takes into consideration that the whole of pre-war Russia, which in the fishing industry competed for first place in the world, had in all its fisheries taken together—Caspian, Azof and Black Seas, Siberia and the Far East—produced only 1,000,000 tons of fish a year, and that fisheries were numbered in the thousands and the labor employed by them in hundreds of thousands, it will become clear how unreal and impractical were the figures of the new Plan for a fishing trust which had been founded only a few years before and, furthermore, was situated beyond the Arctic Circle in a town of only 15,000 inhabitants.

What happened? The President of the Board of Directors at once decided that he must go to Moscow, leaving the difficult and unpleasant task of solving the problem to others. A brief description of this man will perhaps explain how a man holding such an important position could behave in such a cowardly manner. T. A. Mourasheff who was, of course, a Communist, had been clever enough to pick up a few superficial ideas of the fishing business; he could talk glibly enough of the affairs of the Trust and he produced on the uninitiated the impression that he was a man of business experience. Formerly a roofer, he had been deported to Kem in 1905 for participation in the activities of the Socialist Party. There he had married a school teacher who seems to have supported him until the Bolshevik Revolution broke out. At that time he became a Communist, left Kem and his wife and went to Leningrad to make a career. There he immediately obtained the important position of superintendent of the water supply and sewer system, but made some slip and was sent to Murmansk to direct the fishing industry. When the North State Fishing Trust was formed he was made its president. He did not know and did not like the business, believing that for such a great man it could serve only as a stepping-stone to a more responsible position in the "Centre." As life in Murmansk was hard and dull, he spent most of his time in supposed business trips to Moscow and Petrograd, at health resorts taking reducing treatments, but chiefly abroad, where he spent months at a time.

Here is a little scene typical of this man. His new wife—I don't know whether it was his third or fourth—a stenographer of the Berlin "Torgpred"  (Soviet Trade Organization), was coming direct from Germany on the newly built trawler, Bolshevik. All the Murmansk authorities and the workmen of the fisheries, with a band, assembled at the wharf to meet the new trawler. When the boat arrived, Mourasheff, as President of the Trust, ascended the captain's bridge and delivered a speech, boasting of the fact that the Bolsheviks had been able to force the Germans to write the name "Bolshevik" on the trawler built for the U.S.S.R. and of the awe-inspiring meaning of this word to Europe.

For the great occasion Mourasheff had changed the foreign-made suit and rich fur coat he usually wore for an old, worn overcoat, but the foreign typist standing on the deck gave him away completely by her greeting.

"Whom did we come to welcome," joked the workmen, "—the new trawler or the fourth wife?"

"It's only the third one, I tell you!"

"No, it's the fourth. As if we didn't have enough women here already!"

But such shortcomings were not his only defects. He was ready at any moment to denounce the best workers, of whose honesty he had no doubt, just as he would betray the interests of the business if this could benefit him in any way or save him from harm.