Monday, 27 January 2020

R.W Davies on Studying Soviet Economic History (2002)

Studying Soviet Economic History
Written By: R. W. Davies
Date: April 2002
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 15: Summer 2002 

For most historians, the connection between their research and their assessment of the current state of the world is by no means straightforward. My own research has been intimately involved in contemporary history and politics. In studying the development of the Soviet Union, and its eventual fate, I have tried to contribute something to our understanding of a central problem of the modern world: the viability of economic planning as an alternative to private capitalism. You will not be surprised to hear that, while it may be simple to pose the problem, I have been unable to find simple answers.

I first started to take an intense interest in the Soviet Union in 1938, at the age of thirteen. Like many of my generation, I saw the Soviet system as our main defence against fascism and as a socialist alternative to world capitalism in crisis. Temporary disillusionment as a result of the Soviet-German pact was swept away by Soviet triumphs in the Second World War. And I was particularly impressed by the contrast between the vast expansion of both popular and higher education in the USSR and what I saw of peasant and urban poverty in Egypt as a wireless mechanic in the RAF. There were obvious defects in the Soviet system - the adulation of Stalin, the persecution of critics of the regime, and the lack of political freedom generally. But I attributed these to the inheritance from tsarism, and the strain of rapid industrialisation imposed on the USSR by the looming threat of capitalist aggression.

So I jumped at the chance of an early release from the forces in 1946 to study Russian history, economy and language. I moved on to a lifetime of research as an economic historian, taking as my main theme the Soviet inter-war years. For most of the time, like all historians, I was caught up in the fascination of finding out what happened. But I always hoped that some positive and negative lessons about socialist planning would emerge from my study first of the Soviet budgetary system, and later – with E. H. Carr - of the rise of central planning in the late 1920s.

In the midst of this research Khrushchev bounded on to the Soviet stage. Like Isaac Deutscher, I hoped that reform from above, with popular support, would move bureaucratised state socialism towards ‘socialism with a human face’. Twenty years later, these hopes were revived by Gorbachev. I greatly underestimated the ossification of the party hierarchy, which by the 1980s – and perhaps much earlier – was almost entirely alien to socialist humanism. This historian’s marxism lacked predictive power…

An unexpected benefit emerged from the crash of the Soviet system – the opening of the state and party archives, both central and local. Contrary to the impression given in the Western press, since 1989 access to formerly secret files has continuously expanded – although by fits and starts. Many young social historians, Western and Russian, have worked strenuously and informatively in the local archives of the Stalin period. I have continued with my old topic – the mutual impact of central economic policy and Soviet society.

We now know vastly more than in Soviet times about the scale and economic effects of the Gulag system. The archives have also revealed the blackest chapter in Soviet history: the execution, without a word in the press, of at least 682,000 people, many of them workers and peasants, during the ‘Great Purge’ of 1937-8. We also know much more about day-to-day Soviet decision making at the top. For instance, the Russian authorities recently released the hand-written correspondence and ciphered telegrams exchanged between Stalin and his party deputy Kaganovich during Stalin’s vacations. In autumn 2001 they were published in full in Russian and the most important documents will be published in English later this year *.

The new information shows beyond doubt - contrary to the conclusions of some American and Russian historians - that by the mid-1930s Stalin was an unchallenged personal dictator. But it also shows the practical limits to Stalin’s power. Urban and rural discontent led the Politburo - with Stalin’s acquiescence or approval - to substantially moderate its policies during the severe economic difficulties at the end of the first five-year plan. Many important aspects of economic policy - both before and after the Second World War - were handled by Stalin’s colleagues, or by the various departments of state, and Stalin and the Politburo intervened in them only occasionally. I was surprised to find, for example, that Stalin did not play a direct role in the launching of the Stakhanov movement in 1935 or in the first stages of its development. In Soviet economic planning generally, finance and the currency were more important than we previously believed; and the State Bank and the People’s Commissariat of Finance as well as the State Planning Commission played a major role in policy making. By the mid-1930s the Soviet economy was a very complex entity, and the conventional categorisation of Stalinism as a totalitarian regime conceals more questions than it answers.

My current research is concerned with the crisis and recovery of agriculture during and after the famine of 1932-3 and the rapid expansion of industry in the second half of the 1930s. The Soviet economy, including the armaments industries, was seriously damaged by the purges. Then in 1941 huge numbers of aircraft and tanks were destroyed, and many soldiers captured, because Stalin was convinced that Nazi Germany would not invade in that year. How did the clumsy Soviet planning system nevertheless manage to produce armaments in a quantity and quality adequate for repulsing the invader? This is one of the intriguing paradoxes which the opening of the archives may help us to understand.

*The Stalin-Kaganovich Correspondence, 1931-1936, ed. by R. W. Davies, O. Khlevnyuk, E. A. Rees, L. Kosheleva and L. Rogovaya (Yale University Press).

No comments:

Post a comment