Modernising Lenin's Russia: Economic Reconstruction, Foreign Trade and the Railways

Article excerpt

Anthony Heywood, Modernising Lenin's Russia: economic reconstruction, foreign trade and the railways, Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet Studies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1999), 346 pp., L45.00 (US$69.95).

Faced with economic calamity in 1920, the new Soviet leaders saw recovery as a major priority, and the way to achieve it was to re-establish transport and communication in their war-torn land. Railways were seen as clearly and critically important. In the short run the only way to obtain the necessary locomotives and rolling stock was from abroad; thus a programme of imports was implemented. Heywood shows how the policy was followed and in doing so relates a story of the establishment of East-West trade in which demand for railway equipment was central. Thus he uses railways as a vehicle, as it were, to examine and explain a broader passage in economic history. The time scale concentrates on the early post-revolutionary years, during `War Communism' and the early departure to the New Economic Policy (NEP). This preceded the `normalisation' of commercial relations (in fact it was the means by which such `normalisation' was pursued), even before the gold embargo was lifted. This threatened the seizure of Soviet gold exports against sequestered Western assets in Russia. Sweden's refusal to implement the embargo was one reason why Swedish companies figured so high in early orders.

The People's Commissar for Foreign Trade, Krasin, came to England (using the promise of early orders with Armstrong-Whitworth as a bargaining counter in pursuit of the Anglo-Soviet trade agreement of 1921); the maverick Professor Lomonosov sought deals in Germany and Sweden. Both, however, saw the United States as the most important future trading partner, despite the continued hostility of the federal government. American businessmen, on the other hand, were keen to trade and had plenty of spare capacity.

Heywood's research has been assiduous, using recently available archive sources in Moscow and St Petersburg as well as those in Cambridge, London, Leeds, Newcastle, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Essen, Albany NY, Stanford CA and Washington DC. Unusually, the focus is on the early years: much Western literature dealing with foreign trade begins with the early 1920s and virtually ignores these crucial years. Paradoxically perhaps, the market principles of NEP began to militate against continued imports as major Soviet industrial enterprises demanded work for themselves rather than foreign capitalists. …