Economy and Power in the Soviet Union, 1917-39

By Sloin, Andrew; Sanchez-Sibony, Oscar | Kritika, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Economy and Power in the Soviet Union, 1917-39


Sloin, Andrew, Sanchez-Sibony, Oscar, Kritika


The ongoing crisis of the global economic system has once again rendered visible the power of the economy to structure everyday human existence. From budgetary shortfalls to state austerity programs, concerns over monetary stability to persistent structural unemployment, the present crisis has reasserted the primacy of the economic at the global and local levels. It has also resuscitated a language about economy--including anxiety over devaluation, speculation, nationalization, socialization, and austerity--that seemingly had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

The rediscovery of the power of economy is, of course, a surprising development only in the most nearsighted and localized of historical perspectives. Systemic economic disequilibrium and the specter of market-dictated restructuring have long been familiar to those who study the late Soviet and post-Soviet Eurasian world. From the stagnation of the late Brezhnev era, to the failed restructuring of perestroika, the crises of 1989-91, and the upheaval wrought by the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, economic crisis has been a recurring and well-documented phenomenon in the former Soviet territories. That economic crisis has also been a persistent feature of what used to be called the First World during the same period is no less significant a phenomenon for historians of the Soviet Union. (1) Indeed, the "synchronicity" of crises in the Western and Soviet spheres--most noticeably, during the transsystemic stagflation crisis of the 1970s that ushered in both Reaganism and Gorbachevism--suggests persistent interconnections that bind together economic systems even in the context of heated geopolitical opposition.

The articles collected in this forum aim to reconsider the role played by economy in the Soviet interwar period. They examine the relationship between economic crisis and the establishment of the system of Stalinism. Aware of the limitations of the economic history produced during the "ascendant" period of Soviet history--most notably, the constricted and frequently deterministic appropriation of economy in traditional Marxist historiography--we do not intend simply to return to earlier traditions. Rather, we seek to engage with what William H. Sewell has recently called "the historical study of economic life" by considering anew the relationship between economic change and contemporaneous transformations in society, culture, law, and politics. (2) We re-embrace the study of economic life in the Soviet context, arguing that the turn to Stalinism at the end of the 1920s was structured fundamentally by the onset of the global crisis in the capitalist economic system, of which the Soviet Union remained a firmly ensconced, if thoroughly ambivalent part. (3)

Aside from the early political struggles over party leadership, few subjects attracted as much sustained historical attention during the formative period of Soviet historiography in the West as the nature and function of the Soviet economy. The period spanning the late 1920s through the mid-1970s witnessed the publication of foundational monographs on Soviet economy and economic policy by Maurice Dobb, Colin Clark, Solomon Schwarz, Abram Bergson, Naum Jasny, Alexander Erlich, Alec Nove, and R. W. Davies, to name but a few. (4) E. H. Carr's field-defining opus, while not explicitly a work of economic history, nevertheless placed economy at the center of a "total" history of the USSR. (5) Regardless of ideological and political divisions, the pioneering generations of Sovietologists more or less accepted the ascendancy of economy as a structuring reality of Soviet historical development.

It would be difficult to overstate the contribution of these founding generations of economists; indeed, it would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that they by and large established the field of Soviet history. Their framing concerns included the role played by the party in the construction of economic policy, the intraparty disputes over the trajectory of economic policy, the origins and consequences of collectivization and the establishment of mass institutions of production and consumption, and the discussion over the inevitability of the development of the Stalinist planned economy. …

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