Some of the he-was-a-baddie-but-at-least-he-modernized-the-place say "yes"*. New research by a team of Russian economists says "no":
This paper studies structural transformation of Soviet Russia in 1928-1940 from an agrarian to an industrial economy through the lens of a two-sector neoclassical growth model. We construct a large dataset that covers Soviet Russia during 1928-1940 and Tsarist Russia during 1885-1913. We use a two-sector growth model to compute sectoral TFPs as well as distortions and wedges in the capital, labor and product markets during the two periods. We find that most wedges substantially increased in 1928-1935 and then fell in 1936-1940 relative to their 1885-1913 levels, while TFP remained generally below pre-WWI trends. Under the neoclassical growth model, projections under these estimated wedges imply that Stalin's economic policies led to welfare loss of -24 percent of consumption in 1928-1940, but a +16 percent welfare gain after 1941. A representative consumer born at the start of the Stalin's policies in 1928 experiences a reduction in welfare of -1 percent of consumption, a number that does not take into account additional costs of political repression during this time period. The projected performance under both Tsarist' and Stalin's wedges is much worse than the economic performance of Japan, which in 1885-1913 had similar levels of per capita GDP and distortions as Tsarist Russia, but experienced a rapid acceleration of non-agricultural TFP during the interwar period. Relative to this benchmark, the welfare loss of Stalin's policies are about -31 percent of consumption.Via Cheap Talk, who notes that one of the economists -- Sergei Guriev -- has just left the country under duress from public officials.
The story that Russia's development was impossible or unlikely absent Stalin's repression always seemed unlikely to me. Other places have developed without those levels of repression (e.g. Japan, as the authers note, but not just), or have had repression without growth. The repression-growth relationship is not strictly positive and linear, in other words, so any story about Stalin and development has to be particular to Russia. And, frankly, I've yet to hear one that's had any solid theory behind it. (Perhaps someone could point one out to me in the comments.) I've heard mumblings that "Russia was a backwater hellhole" -- this was more or less Marx's view, although it's not true that Marx believed that socialism could not work there -- but every place is a backwater hellhole before they develop. Yes, Tsarism was bad, but plenty of regimes were bad in the 19th century.
I'd never really considered the possibility that all those supposed gains under Stalin didn't actually happen and in fact made things worse. It puts a new spin on the Cold War races for economic, military, and technological superiority.
I'm not sure I fully believe the two-sector growth model the authors use, which is pretty standard as these things go, but even the descriptive evidence is useful.
P.S. Here are some pictures of Soviet life in the 1950s.
*Terry Eagleton is of this sort, in his execrable recent book which manages to both misunderstand Marx and his critics at the same time. One relevant bit is quoted here.