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Merchants and Markets in Revolutionary Russia, 1917-1930

Author(s):Banerji, Arup
Reviewer(s):Ball, Alan


Published by H-Business (January 1998)

Arup Banerji. Merchants and Markets in Revolutionary Russia, 1917-30. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1997. xxiv + 237 pp. Tables, appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. $69.95 (Cloth), ISBN 0-312-16293-6.

Reviewed for H-Business by Alan Ball, Marquette University

Private Trade in Early Soviet Russia

I agreed eagerly to review Arup Banerji’s study of private entrepreneurs in early Soviet Russia, assuming that it would extend (or challenge) the findings of earlier works. Soviet/Russian archives have been open for a decade, now, and should be able to support a fresh exploration of private business during the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s. For example, such a book might offer brief biographies of individual private traders or devote itself primarily to private trade in non-Slavic republics. It might provide more extensive coverage of the “Roaring Twenties” atmosphere in principal Soviet cities–especially the nightclubs, bars, casinos, restaurants and so forth frequented by (among other people) newly-wealthy entrepreneurs, as in Russia today. A separate chapter would also be welcome on public opinion(s) regarding these merchants, as would new (and more abundant) material on their fate in the 1930s, when laws banned most of their former activities.

In short, numerous topics and questions remain that would benefit from archival documents inaccessible when I worked on the subject fifteen years ago. Not only would historians welcome sources permitting a deeper exploration of major aspects of Soviet society in the 1920s, the findings of such work might be revealing to those studying private enterprise in post-Soviet Russia. Short of that, a new book on NEP would still be valuable if it offered a thoughtful challenge of important conclusions prevalent in the scholarly community.

Unfortunately, professor Banerji’s book attempts none of these things. It covers ground well known to other specialists and does not modify or reject basic assumptions among contemporary scholars. Most disappointing of all, the volume relies exclusively on familiar sources, with nothing at all from Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Ekonomiki (the Russian State Archive of the Economy) or any other Russian archive. Late in the 1990s, it is difficult to imagine a work of this sort published without Russian archival documentation.

That said, the book itself is a reliable guide to private trade in the early Soviet period to the extent that it competently reviews many of the basic conclusions already published elsewhere. An introductory chapter covers private trade before NEP, including the unsuccessful efforts to ban such commerce during the Civil War. In this period (1918-1920) the state proved unable to take on the task of distributing essential goods itself, and thus private trade continued, furtively, in various itinerant, petty guises–nothing like the more settled and substantial network of merchants that had existed before the Revolution. So essential was private trade during the Civil War that many officials tolerated it, regardless of its illegality.

Next, professor Banerji presents an overview of state policy: the crises that convinced Lenin to legalize private trade in 1921; sterner measures taken against private entrepreneurs in 1923/24; a relaxation of pressure under the New Trade Practice in 1925/26; followed by ever harsher actions in the last years of the decade. Against this background, he then focuses on taxation of private enterprise and the sources of credit available to it (with taxation a much more important concern for most vendors than the availability of credit). As one would expect, the tax burden varied with the state’s general line on private trade, noted above.

Part II begins with a statistical look at private trade: the changing number of participants over the decade; their placement in various categories depending on the size and nature of their operations; the value of their sales; products commonly sold; and so forth. Then come two chapters devoted to private trade of specific products–certain manufactured goods and grain, respectively. In the case of grain, for instance, professor Banerji notes the government’s difficulty in obtaining the volume it desired from the peasants, which led late in the decade to “emergency measures” incompatible with free grain trading and thus with NEP. He adds that he does not share the view, common among Bolsheviks of the day, that private traders were a principal cause of the government’s grain collection difficulties.

The final chapter opens with its thesis, namely that the liquidation of legal private trade occurred prematurely, before the state had devised a distribution system to replace it. Private trade was not a threat to socialist construction, professor Banerji concludes, and should not have been crushed as Stalin and his associates assumed control of the Party at the end of the decade. Yet the crackdown commenced and drove private trade back to the surreptitious or petty forms it had assumed during the Civil War. Meanwhile, in the “socialist sector,” alternatives for consumers included rationing and “trade deserts” (no stores or no goods at all). Not until the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev did the Soviet Union again acquire a leader convinced of the need to legalize private trade to a degree equaling (and eventually surpassing) the opportunities permitted during NEP.

No specialist in the period will find any of this a revelation. The book’s main themes are as familiar as its sources. However, the volume is distinguished by the large serving of tables and other statistics packed into its pages. Authors of other recent works, while aware of the data (mostly from Soviet sources published during NEP), have not chosen to include so much of it in their books and articles. If the statistical emphasis makes Merchants and Markets slow-going for the general reader, it may prove of use to a future researcher scrutinizing the figures for details on a specific point or for a fuller sense of the contents of the original Soviet sources. This, along with professor Banerji’s confirmation of colleagues’ findings, are the book’s principal services to the historical profession.


Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII