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Russia’s Economic Transitions: From Late Tsarism to the New Millennium

Author(s):Spulber, Nicolas
Reviewer(s):Leonard, Carol

Published by EH.NET (March 2005)

Nicolas Spulber, Russia’s Economic Transitions: From Late Tsarism to the New Millennium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xxiv + 420 pp. $80 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-81699-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carol Leonard, Interdisciplinary Area Studies, Oxford University.

This is a lucid and richly detailed history of Russia’s transformation in the tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Written by a distinguished economic historian and drawing on a large range of sources, the book is a survey that embraces policies, population movements, state institutions and sectoral developments in each of three periods. The three transitions include two periods of roughly seventy years each, after the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and after the revolution of 1917, and the shorter period after the introduction of markets in 1991. The data presentation stops at 1998, but this is far enough into the last transition to justify his comparison of periods.

As defined by Spulber, transition refers to “the period of transformations through which a country passes while experiencing the impact of newly emerging ownership and production relations” (p. xix). Transitions embrace background conditions, policies, population movements, sectoral dynamics and social accounting (banking and state finance). Despite their enormous reach, the transition themes are nevertheless clear, since they are carefully laid out in section summaries and lengthy overviews. This book ventures into almost impassable terrain, but it never loses the reader.

The bundling of transitions focuses the reader’s attention on the background and consequences of policies that resulted in vast structural displacement. The cultural and political features of transition, covered as “issues,” show the author’s considerable knowledge of literature, including memoirs, and there is much social history in this account of “the exaltations and the grieving” of Russia (p. xxiii). The author sketches for the reader the original debates that were central to popular movements as well as to economic outcomes. Indeed, this history essentially unfolds within and around issues. For example, in part 1, Chapter 2, Spulber describes the strains of Marxism affecting views of the development of capitalism. The introduction to Plekhanov, Lenin and others serves effectively to prepare the reader for an even more condensed and incisive summary of the “principles and rules of organization of the Soviet state … the concepts on the basis of which the economy was supposed to be reorganized and managed” (p. 174). Such broad coverage of institutional and cultural features of history suggests that the book will be of use to the general reader as well as to researchers on all periods of this history.

The first transition is from the abolition of serfdom in 1861 to the revolution in 1917. The abolition is loosely attributed to Russia’s military defeat in the Crimean War. Spulber gives no space to the enormous literature on how this reform was planned, timed and implemented. His concern in part I is, rather, to explain and demonstrate continuing rural backwardness and problems in industrial development, and he succeeds with a breadth similar to that in Peter Gatrell’s The Tsarist Economy, 1850-1917 (1986). There is a striking difference between Spulber and Gatrell, however. For the pre-revolutionary period he shows the contrast between the country’s overall and per capita achievement, emphasizing Gerschenkron’s interpretation (1962), even though his data are largely from Paul Gregory’s more positive work on Russian national income (1982). Relative backwardness is the salient feature he finds in the pre-revolutionary regime; Russia remained a semi-feudal country through the era of revolution. He does, however, closely assess the critiques. On the question of whether the state actually had an industrial policy, for example, his summary (pp. 134-137) is highly useful. On the whole, he tends to follow the views of the classic economic writings on the tsarist era, including by Margaret Miller (1926) and Raymond Goldsmith (1961), with few references to the voluminous historical works written over the past three decades.

Russia’s second transition is from 1917 through the Gorbachev era. Spulber highlights the crucial events, including collectivization, and their aftermath, and he lays out with clarity the economic bottlenecks of the ambitious Soviet experiment. The emphasis falls on the large discrepancy between policy objectives and actual results, particularly for the period from 1960 to 1989. His discussion of the attempted economic and social changes introduced by Gorbachev closes this part. He underscores that Gorbachev’s efforts failed to resolve problems of agricultural backwardness, a problem visible for many years in net imports of grain. In addition, there were “multiple, complex and internal dislocations” that became “increasingly hard to handle” (p. 192). His view of the end of Communism is that it was due to problems of maintaining essentially a war economy over seventy years, a task that proved insuperable. The data are presented in extensive tables, and they are used mainly to illustrate the character of the economy’s capital stock, the poor productivity of most sectors, and “manifest underdevelopment outside of the main urban centres” (p. 284). Despite reforms, in other words, according to Spulber, Gorbachev was unable to stop the disintegration of the economy.

The last section is the transition to markets. He begins with the power struggle between Gorbachev and Yeltsin and the social consequences of severe recession early in transition. He traces the deepening of influence over the media, the economy and the power structure by the seven top bankers and businesspeople and the uncertainties produced by the drift in reform. Sector by sector he argues that there was an economically devastating impact of contradictory policies. He finds that the government constructed interconnected, bureaucratically organized and directed markets rather than a foundation for real competition and democratization (p. 327).

In summary, the first two parts of this book are particularly useful. Spulber’s inclusiveness and his balanced presentation make this book a major contribution on both periods. Social and economic historians will find important linkages across the century and a half. The third part is also well conceived, but it is inconclusive, due to the continuing course of market development.


A. Gerschenkron (1962), Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

R. Goldsmith (1961), “The Economic Growth of Tsarist Russia,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 9: 441-475.

P. Gregory (1982), Russian National Income, 1885-1913. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

M.S. Miller (1926), The Economic Development of Russia, 1905-1914: With Special Reference to Trade, Industry, and Finance. London: P. S. King & Son.

Carol Leonard is University Lecturer in Regional Studies of the Post-Communist States at Oxford University. Her recent projects and publications focus on agrarian reform in transition Russia and general technological advancement in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. Her publications include Reform and Regicide: The Reign of Peter III of Russia (1993) and Agrarian Reform in Russia: The Road from Serfdom (forthcoming).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII