Published by EH.Net (July 2019)

R.W. Davies, Mark Harrison, Oleg Khlevniuk, and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia Volume 7: The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937-1939. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. xxvii + 439 pp. $110 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-1-137-36237-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Amanda G. Gregg, Department of Economics, Middlebury College.

It is my pleasure to review this final volume in the seven-volume series The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, which began with the first volume published in 1980 by R.W. Davies. The series provides a detailed account of the Soviet economy under Stalin from 1929 to 1939, a period that spans from the collectivization of agriculture to Germany’s invasion of Poland.

This final volume concentrates on the years 1937-39, and the story opens darkly with the nomenklatura purge of the older generation of political and economic officials and the mass purge that repressed a broad class of “anti-Soviet” elements. The authors’ extensive primary source work and perspective as economic historians are especially appreciated here, as the book contains a lesser-emphasized account of the disordering effect of the purges on planning and performance, arguing that “the nomenklatura purges were an important factor in the deterioration of economic performance in industry, transport, and construction” (p. 19-20). Though 1937 was largely a year of economic disorder, there was a stroke of luck in an unexpectedly good harvest, though disorder in managing the influx of grain led much of the grain to remain with collective farmers, spurring fears a resurgence of a private sector trading agricultural goods. The book goes on to describe the 1937 and 1939 censuses, the much-delayed Third Five-Year Plan, and finally, the book concludes with the buildup to the Second World War, though the development of the defense industry runs like a leitmotif through the narrative.

In particular, the chapters describing the suppressed 1937 population census and the “corrected” 1939 census include some great storytelling. The 1937 census produced a population total for the Soviet Union that far lower than acceptable estimates, partly a long-run consequence of the famines of the early 1930s. I suspect most economic historians will be stirred by the authors’ account of the ensuing “collision between demographic expertise and political authority” (p. ix).

Particularly useful to historians of this period, this volume includes snapshot chapters for each year summarizing the state of the GULAG economy, industrial growth, defense, internal trade, and external trade, with additional entries as appropriate for a given year. These chapters would be a convenient reference on the state of the economy for scholars writing on the period.

I doubt anyone has ever composed the kind of blow-by-blow economic history of these years that the authors have assembled here. The book’s impressive array of primary source material includes archival citations from the Communist Party archives (RGASPI), the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), and the Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE) to provide a detailed account of each economic moment. In addition, the authors employ an encyclopedic secondary source bibliography.

For the most part, chapters begin with parsimonious big-picture analysis in the introduction but then allow the facts and events to speak for themselves. However, the final chapter (“The Soviet Economy: The Late 1930s in Historical Perspective”) serves as a narrative essay to collect lessons learned from this and previous volumes. The authors here address a very big question: What lessons should economists, historians, and policymakers learn from the large-scale economic planning undertaken by Stalin? Allen (2003) has argued that Russia could have never industrialized without Stalinist collectivization and forced industrialization. But the authors of this volume are more measured, reminding us that although “the Soviet economy of the 1930s shows plenty of structural change,” (p. 341) along with a movement “from farm to factory,” there was “a counter-movement from farms, factories, and offices to resettlement, to the labour camp, and to the mass grave” (p. 342).

On this point, the authors here walk a fine line: though Soviet planning achieved great transformation in the 1930s, such advances were achieved by “a coercive state in the name of a party that cast down as many as it raised up, while denying all of them any significant voice in the process” (p. 342). However, the authors are careful to note that oppression itself was not the objective. Instead, “changes of this nature that came about were typically improvised in support of a greater goal,” “to build the military and industrial capabilities of the Soviet state, making it secure and powerful at home and abroad” (p. 343).

Finally, the book includes a fifty-page appendix of data tables that will be of great use to scholars of this period. Anyone interested in these years of Soviet history might find a useful quantitative nugget in these pages. Data tables document repressions by the NKVD, including arrests by social background and numbers held in GULAG camps and colonies; capital investment and planning; industrial performance; transportation; agricultural planning and production; public finance; foreign trade; population; and comparisons of Soviet and Western estimates.

In my view the book’s main contributions are twofold: the economic historian’s analytic eye and the incredible detail contributed by the authors’ careful examination of primary sources. I suspect that some of the book’s fine-grained detail on industrial production and agricultural yields will be beyond the scope of most readers’ interests. The less specialized reader might have hoped for more of a narrative and a little help keeping track of the extensive cast of characters. Though, some of the confusing constant personnel rotation makes its own point about this period.

This series, and this volume in particular, is essential reading for scholars with an academic interest in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, particularly economic historians interested in planning, the buildup to the Second World War, and Soviet statistics. For the more general economic history reader, I would especially recommend the chapters on the 1937 and 1939 censuses and their account of the economic effects of the 1937-38 purges, which I think could be excerpted quite well.


Allen, Robert C. From Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Amanda Gregg is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Middlebury College. She has studied industrialization, commercial law, and finance in late Imperial Russia. She is currently working on a project on Imperial Russian corporate dynamics with Steven Nafziger, a comparative finance project with Caroline Fohlin, and several papers describing ownership, labor, and organization in Russian factories.

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