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Soviet Economic Development from Lenin to Khrushchev

Author(s):Davies, R. W.
Reviewer(s):Gregory, Paul R.

Published by EH.NET (April 1999)

R.W. Davies, Soviet Economic Development from Lenin to Khrushchev. (New

Studies in Economic and Social History, No 34.) New York and Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1998. 112 pp. $11.95 (paper), ISBN: 0521627427;

$39.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0521622603.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paul R. Gregory, Department of Economics, University of


R.W. Davies’ compact book is a marvel in economy. He covers the period from the

Tsarist economy to 1965 in 83 pages not counting references and index.

The major achievement is that Davies’ analysis is far from superficial. He

explains to the

reader the available scholarly literature on each subject.

Davies removes his own views as much as possible from the scene by providing

the evidence both pro and con for each scholarly conflict–of which there are

many for this long period of Russian/Soviet economic history. The author also

supplies the main aggregate statistics that the reader needs to evaluate each

period. The combination of economy and depth is the product of Davies’ superb

command of the Western and Russian language literatures.

In reading Davies’ account, I focused most on his discussions of controversies

concerning Russian and Soviet economic development. He provides a balanced

discussion of the “optimistic” versus “pessimistic”

views of Russian economic development on the eve of World War I–whether the

contradictions of the economy were the root cause of the Bolshevik revolution.

On the viability of NEP (a literature to which Davies and his Birmingham

colleagues have made significant contributions), Davies identifies four schools

of thought. First, there is the argument that NEP could have worked if market

forces had been less restricted–a view Davies associates with writers as

diverse as Alexander Gerschenkron and Grigory Khanin. Second, there is the view

of E.H. Carr (and Maurice Dobb) that NEP was inherently unstable and had to be

replaced by something else. The third school Davies associates with historians

sympathetic to Bukharin (Cohen and Tucker) and to James Millar that NEP would

have remained a stable system on the basis of a strong agriculture. Davies

also cites the work of Holland Hunter, who used counterfactual economic and

statistical analysis to show that the Soviet economy would have performed

better in a NEP-type environment. The fourth group, in which Davies includes

himself, argues that NEP had room to grow but was unsuited for rapid


In his discussion of Soviet economic growth, Davies raises the important issue

of whether the recent studies of Russian economists, such as Grigory Khanin,

require a revaluation of historical Soviet growth performance. He concludes

(pp. 41-42) that “the Russian economists have not made available enough

information about their methods of calculation to enable their results to be

checked. For the period from the 1 930s to the 1950s, the Bergson and

Moorsteen-Powell estimates certainly remain the most reliable.”

Davies is able to use his own research in the Soviet State and Party archives

to provide reliable estimates of the size of the gulag population in the 1930

s, which he puts at 3.3 million in 1941 (p. 50). Prisoners provided up to a

quarter of all construction labor, and produced slightly over one percent of

industrial output on the eve of the war.

Davies deals as well with the issue of the effectiveness of

forced industrialization, pointing out that there is still considerable

controversy surrounding the rate of growth of the economy in the 1930s.

However, the major debate on this issue is over the necessity of

collectivization. In this regard, Davies contrasts the arguments of Millar and

Barsov, who conclude that collectivization did not provide a true

“surplus” for Soviet industrialization, with Nove, who concluded that

collectivization did allow Soviet authorities to collect agricultural surpluses

for industrialization. Davies’ own conclusion is that collectivization’s main

contribution was to the political goals (and political priorities) of the

Soviet leadership.

Davies concludes with a discussion of the basic features of the Soviet

administrative-command economy, pointing out its command and more hidden

market features. Among its weaknesses, Davies singles out the high costs of

repression of agriculture, the high costs of technological mistakes, the

success indicator problem, and the disadvantages of

repressed inflation and the sellers’ market.

Davies’ book is ideally suited for the classroom as a supplemental text or for

readers who want to be brought up to date on Russian and Soviet economic

history. We are quite fortunate that a scholar of Davies

‘ maturity and depth has taken the time to write such an accessible and useful

book for those who do not have the time or inclination to get into the

specialized literature. One important feature of this book is that it is itself

a useful guide to the specialized literature.

Paul Gregory is author of Before Command : An Economic History of Russia

from Emancipation to the First Five-year Plan (Princeton University Press,

1994), and Restructuring the Soviet Economic Bureaucracy (Cambridge

University Press, 1990).

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII