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
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).