A Social History of Soviet Trade: Trade Policy, Retail Practices, and Consumption, 1917-1953


In this sweeping study, Julie Hessler traces the invention and evolution of socialist trade, the progressive constriction of private trade, and the development of consumer habits from the 1917 revolution to Stalin's death in 1953. The book places trade and consumption in the context of debilitating economic crises. Although Soviet leaders, and above all, Stalin, identified socialism with the modernization of retailing and the elimination of most private transactions, these goals conflicted with the economic ...

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In this sweeping study, Julie Hessler traces the invention and evolution of socialist trade, the progressive constriction of private trade, and the development of consumer habits from the 1917 revolution to Stalin's death in 1953. The book places trade and consumption in the context of debilitating economic crises. Although Soviet leaders, and above all, Stalin, identified socialism with the modernization of retailing and the elimination of most private transactions, these goals conflicted with the economic dynamics that produced shortages and with the government's bureaucratic, repressive, and socially discriminatory political culture.

A Social History of Soviet Trade explores the relationship of trade—official and unofficial—to the cyclical pattern of crisis and normalization that resulted from these tensions. It also provides a singularly detailed look at private shops during the years of the New Economic Policy, and at the remnants of private trade, mostly concentrated at the outdoor bazaars, in subsequent years. Drawing on newly opened archives in Moscow and several provinces, this richly documented work offers a new perspective on the social, economic, and political history of the formative decades of the USSR.

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Editorial Reviews

Business History Review - Thomas C. Owen
Unprecedented in its geographic and chronological scope. Hessler's book constitutes a genuine social history of Soviet trade.
American Historical Review - David L. Hoffmann
A well-researched study. . . . . It deserves a wide and appreciative audience.
Slavic Review - Mark Harrison
A fine book. . . .. An original and substantial contribution that should be a standard work of reference for some time to come.
Journal of Social History - Marjorie L. Hilton
ulie Hessler's book offers the most comprehensive account of the consumer economy and should serve as the standard reference work on the subject.
From the Publisher
"Unprecedented in its geographic and chronological scope. Hessler's book constitutes a genuine social history of Soviet trade."—Thomas C. Owen, Business History Review

"A well-researched study. . . . . It deserves a wide and appreciative audience."—David L. Hoffmann, American Historical Review

"A fine book. . . .. An original and substantial contribution that should be a standard work of reference for some time to come."—Mark Harrison, Slavic Review

"ulie Hessler's book offers the most comprehensive account of the consumer economy and should serve as the standard reference work on the subject."—Marjorie L. Hilton, Journal of Social History

Business History Review
Unprecedented in its geographic and chronological scope. Hessler's book constitutes a genuine social history of Soviet trade.
— Thomas C. Owen
American Historical Review
A well-researched study. . . . . It deserves a wide and appreciative audience.
— David L. Hoffmann
Slavic Review
A fine book. . . .. An original and substantial contribution that should be a standard work of reference for some time to come.
— Mark Harrison
Journal of Social History
ulie Hessler's book offers the most comprehensive account of the consumer economy and should serve as the standard reference work on the subject.
— Marjorie L. Hilton
Journal of Social History
Julie Hessler's book offers the most comprehensive account of the consumer economy and should serve as the standard reference work on the subject.
— Marjorie L. Hilton
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691114927
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 2/2/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,379,898
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Read an Excerpt

A Social History of Soviet Trade

Trade Policy, Retail Practices, and Consumption, 1917-1953
By Julie Hessler

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2004 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11492-7


IT IS EASY to forget that as recently as the 1940s the Soviet economy was widely admired. The USSR's extraordinary rates of growth in the extraction and heavy manufacturing industries during the worldwide depression, followed by its spectacular wartime mobilization, made communism seem a viable economic alternative to the crisis-ridden capitalism of Western Europe and the United States. Economists as deeply opposed to Soviet-style "collectivism" as Friedrich von Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter saw in it the wave of the future. In the years following the war, Western Europe's socialist parties nationalized key industries and communications, widened social security, and mooted ideas for an extraordinary tax on wealth. "Planning" was endorsed in many capitals as a solution not just to the immediate problems of postwar reconstruction but to long-term economic development as well. If a "command economy" patterned directly on the Soviet model was repudiated outside the Soviet bloc, the "administered economy" reigned supreme: with national variations, a new political consensus coalesced around the Keynesian ideas of counter-cyclical investment, demand management, modernization, fullemployment, and state-controlled growth.

How distant that era seems today! Between then and now lies a chasm: the trente glorieuse, Wirtschaftswunder, miracolo economico, call it what you will, that great economic boom that transformed North America, Japan, and Western Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. From an age of coal and steel, the economies of these regions entered into an age of consumer goods, electronics, the tertiary sector, and information technology. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the prosperity of the postwar period did not bypass Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. There, too, living standards rose in connection with global agriculture's "green revolution" and with an initial burst of industrial growth. Nonetheless, the expansion was attenuated in comparison with that of the West. Industrial productivity soon stagnated, technology was applied mainly to the military-industrial sector, and a new "consumerist" paradigm is difficult to discern. Soviet society may have progressed beyond "austerity," like its counterparts in the West, but "affluence" remained elusive. Some historians have gone so far as to argue that frustrated consumer desires brought down the regime.

Serious research in the 1950s and 1960s overturned the positive assessment of the Stalinist economy prevalent in the early postwar years. In the United States much of this research was sponsored by the federal government, which had an interest in exposing the weaknesses of its Cold War rival. At the same time, in its emphasis on such questions as real national income, real wages, and the "human costs" of Stalinist industrialization, the scholarship of this period dovetailed with the concerns of an emergent consumer society. Now the success of an economic system was to be judged not on the basis of its coal and steel output but on its ability to provide consumers with an ever-increasing complement of goods. Amid the cacophony of scholarly controversy over methods of calculation and the accuracy of Soviet statistics, one verdict was unanimous: far from an unprecedented success, the Soviet economic system in general, and especially the period of forced industrialization, were deemed a debacle.

The American scholarship of the 1950s and 1960s greatly advanced our knowledge of Soviet economic development, as did some of the Soviet scholarship from the same era. Not surprisingly, however, these works bear the imprint of the time and place of their production, whether in Soviet scholars' insistence on the inexorable progression from "capitalism" through "the building of socialism" to "developed socialism" and then "communism," or in American scholars' elaborate extrapolations from a narrow statistical base. Either way, it is striking that we continue to embrace, with very few modifications, an interpretation of Soviet economic development devised at the height of the Cold War. This is partly an effect of the natural migration of economists, who authored all the early American studies, to more contemporary issues: the Brezhnevera military-industrial complex, the informal sector, the sources of stagnation, and so on. Meanwhile, American historians of the Soviet Union became embroiled in a rancorous debate over the validity of social history in a "totalitarian" setting, leaving economic issues largely to the side.

In Great Britain the situation was different. Historians often invoke a tradition of "Western" historiography, as against the Soviet scholarship, but that tradition was not, in fact, unified. In Britain, as in the USSR itself, economic history remained a vital area of historical research throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, many important monographs were produced under the auspices of the Soviet Industrialization Project at the University of Birmingham's Centre for Russian and East European Studies. Compared to their counterparts at Harvard and RAND, the Birmingham authors have tended to write "soft" economic history: they take quantitative data seriously, and put an effort into locating and evaluating Soviet statistics, but they typically use economic analysis as an entrée into social, institutional, or political history, not as an end in itself. As R. W. Davies has recently noted with respect to himself, the Birmingham investigations were often motivated by a socialist political agenda. While their hallmark is meticulous empiricism, a Marxist conceptual framework is often discernible, and hovering in the background are some essentially personal political questions. Can anything from the Soviet experience be salvaged for contemporary socialism? What, precisely, were the Soviet Union's achievements, and where did it go wrong?

The present work is written from a decidedly non-Marxist perspective, but it resembles the Birmingham studies in both subject matter and interpretations. It echoes Moshe Lewin's arguments about the role of crises in the complex dynamics of historical change. It echoes Vladimir Andrle's insistence on the centrality of cash incomes to living standards, as against the commonly cited view that perquisites and access were everything. Stretching further back, it echoes Stanislaw Swianiewicz's analysis of Soviet demand management, in which anti-peasant discrimination and repression played fundamental structuring roles. These and other interpretive affinities, of which I was scarcely cognizant at the time of writing, place this book squarely in the Birmingham tradition. It applies the questions, methods, and archival orientation of social and political history to a cluster of economic topics-retail trade, distribution, and popular consumption-and it uses these subjects to reexamine how the Soviet economy took shape. Proximate causes, including such disparate factors as power struggles and political decisions at one or another juncture, social psychology, and short-term economic conditions feature as prominently in my story as any "deep systemic logic." Readers will not find evidence here for János Kornai's proposition that once a Communist Party achieves "undivided power ... this historical configuration bears the 'genetic program' that transmits the main characteristics of the system to every cell within it." Instead-though of course this is no more than the historian's creed-they will find evidence that if policy makers and even ordinary citizens had made different choices at various moments, things could have turned out differently.

What is gained from a new social and political history of the consumer economy? Much of my information concerns points of detail. Nonetheless, this study offers new interpretations of central aspects of Soviet economic development: the relationship between the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the economic structures that preceded and followed it; the significance of what is sometimes called the "Great Break"; the role of the market in both practice and principle at various moments; the social dimension of Soviet trade policy; and the approach of policy makers to pricing, among other issues. I will briefly review a few of these arguments here.


With respect to trade, it is misleading to speak of "Stalinism." The consumer economy operated not in one but in two modes during Stalin's dictatorship and, as these two modes also describe Soviet socialism in the civil war and NEP periods, I will generally eschew the term. True, the two modes shared common elements, which united the thirty-five years from the Bolshevik Revolution to Stalin's death into a single, coherent era. The government's reliance on repression as a routine instrument of economic management was one of those unifying factors; it was characteristic of both modes of Soviet socialism in its formative decades, and placed Lenin and Stalin on the other side of a divide from Stalin's successors. Other points of commonality included the large though never exclusive role of the state in producing, distributing, and marketing foods and consumer goods; the state monopoly of the railroads, river transport, and foreign trade; the existence of both state and cooperative socialist-sector retailers and of outdoor markets for private sales; and the country's meager material base. None of these characteristics was distinctive to either mode of Soviet socialism, much less to war communism, NEP, or any one part of the Stalin period, but rather typified the era as a whole.

What differentiated the two modes of socialism was, at root, the condition of the economy. Although the archival record suggests that food crises afflicted one or another part of the Soviet territory in all but a few years of our period, the major famines of 1921-22, 1932-33, and 1946-47 stand out in relief. Each was the culmination of a multiyear economic and political crisis involving, among other things, the militarization of food procurement and of the distribution of "primary necessities." For our purposes, then, a crisis mode governed the supply and distribution of foods and consumer goods, and also consumers' behavioral patterns, in 1917-22, 1928-33, and 1939-47, and in the vicinity of each localized famine in the intervening years, whereas a recovery or normalization mode was in place the rest of the time. Until the 1950s normalization never actually led to normalcy; instead, internal and external factors conspired to swing the pendulum back to another crisis phase.

Crisis socialism, as a matter of policy, featured the state's efforts to monopolize commodity flows. Each time, the impetus came from local officials, who had to confront the effects of intensifying shortages on public order. Urban authorities tended to start with limits on purchases but to proceed quickly to rationing, issuing coupons to different classes of consumers in accordance with a system developed during the civil war. Each time, the Kremlin eventually generalized these measures to urban areas throughout the USSR, and added additional perquisites for the most important urban consumers through a network of workplace shops and canteens. A corollary to rationing was open discrimination against rural consumers, whose access to scarce goods in the urban stores was blocked, while rural shops obtained shipments almost exclusively in connection to the increasingly militarized "procurement campaigns"-that is, purchases of agricultural products by state and cooperative agencies at a submarket price. Yet another corollary was the war on the market: while private sales of nonessential foods and of used, homemade, or abundantly available consumer goods were never declared illegal, crisis socialism brought sharply increased rates of repression against private vendors and an attempt to eliminate the market from the distribution of essential foods and goods. Crisis socialism's closest analogues were the economies of war-torn Central Europe during and immediately after the two world wars. This is not surprising: two of the three Soviet crises grew out of these same conflicts, and the third coincided with the Great Depression abroad.

Again from the perspective of policy, most striking about crisis socialism is that it was always jettisoned before the crisis had peaked. In 1921, 1931-32, and 1946-47, famine was still intensifying while the centralized distribution system was pruned back. Normalization as a policy predated the normalization of economic conditions and consumer behaviors. The government's program for recovery in each instance included the decentralization of supplies and decision making; the stabilization of the currency; the reestablishment of money as the primary unit of value and determinant of consumer access; the reduction and eventual elimination of guaranteed rations; and the liberalization of official policy toward the market. The desperate state of the economy that each time formed the backdrop to these reforms has led many Western and post-Soviet Russian historians to portray them as a "strategic retreat." Soviet scholars, by contrast, stressed the extent to which the reforms were consistent with Lenin's, Stalin's, and, indeed, socialism's long-term goals of modernization and economic growth. With qualifications, my judgment is closer to the Soviet view than to that of the previous Western scholarship. No less than the normalization policies, crisis socialism itself, after all, was introduced through a series of emergency measures. In the early years of Soviet rule it had vocal ideological advocates in the administration, but other leading Bolsheviks, including A. I. Rykov and probably also Lenin, saw the regimentation of distribution as a step backward and welcomed the NEP as an advance. This was clearly true of Stalin in subsequent decades: when he articulated his vision of socialism in the consumer economy, he firmly rejected crisis socialism in favor of an approach more akin to the NEP.

The NEP laid the foundation for the future development of the socialist economy by combining a massive state presence with market mechanisms and institutions. As is well known, many of these were dismantled during the second episode of crisis socialism, Stalin's "Great Break." Less well known is the extent to which market mechanisms were restored within the socialist economy during the subsequent normalization phase. In the supply sector, for example, the mercantile exchanges and fairs of the 1920s may have remained shut after their forcible closure in 1930-31, but the wholesale bases that eventually replaced them were intended to streamline the socialist market, not to suspend it. Moreover, as in the 1920s, formal wholesale institutions were supplemented by directly negotiated contracts between industrial marketing agencies, factories or farms, and the socialist trade networks. David Shearer has recently drawn attention to market practices in Soviet heavy industry, arguing that they undermined the regime's stated goal of constructing a planned economy. Their effect, Shearer maintains, was that "what emerged in the 1930s ... was a command-administrative economy but not a planned one." No doubt this is partly a difference between the two sectors, but, in trade, market practices were not considered incompatible with the construction of socialism. Although here, too, the employment of traveling buying agents (a particularly common method of circumventing overly rigid supply structures) was repeatedly castigated by would-be rationalizers, the point remains that in 1935-38 and 1948-53, as in 1921-28, state and cooperative supplies were organized both in practice and in principle on the basis of buying, selling, and the discretion of the manager, not simply planned allocations of a fixed quota of goods.

Policy makers did not want to relinquish their control of prices, by contrast; on this question, Soviet socialism diverged sharply from market-economy norms. Even during the NEP, if the first step toward normalization involved stabilizing the currency, and hence freeing prices, policy makers soon resumed their interventions into the prices of the "most important" categories of goods. These interventions fed into a vicious circle: the artificially depressed prices in the socialist sector created shortages, which, in turn, heightened demand for these goods in the private sector; private retailers responded by raising prices to equilibrate supply and demand. Goods were inevitably diverted from the regulated to the unregulated retailers, which only strengthened the Bolsheviks' hostility to the market and led them to try once again to lower prices by decree. Their interventions became increasingly radical as shortages and dislocations intensified. The end point, crisis socialism, was neither a planned nor a desired outcome, yet economic officials followed a similar course of price regulation in the late 1930s, with a similar result, and they returned to it yet again in the postwar years.


Excerpted from A Social History of Soviet Trade by Julie Hessler Copyright © 2004 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
List of Tables xi
Preface xiii
Introduction 1
Two Modes of Soviet Socialism 4
Buyers, Sellers, and the Social History of Trade Crisis: Revolution 9
Chapter One
Trade and Consumption in Revolutionary Russia 19
Russian Retailing and Its Unraveling 20
Effects of the Anti-trade Policy 27
The Crisis Mode of Consumption 38
Conclusion 48
Chapter Two
The Invention of Socialism 51
The Emergence of a Socialist Distribution Network, 1918-1921 53
Rationing, "Commodity Exchange," and Price Controls 61
The Antibureaucratic Backlash and Socialist Economic Culture 79
Public-Sector Shops in the Transition to the NEP 87
Conclusion 97
Chapter Three
Shopkeepers and the State 101
Poverty, Capital, and the Commercial Revival 103
The Logic of Utilization and the Regulatory Context 113
Shopkeepers 'Stories: The NEP from Below 119
Conclusion 130
Crisis: Restructuring
Chapter Four
War Communism Redux 135
The NEP from Above: Trade Policy in the Shadow of the Goods Famine 137
Bureaucratism Ascendant: The Effects of Food Shortage on the Distribution System 154
Corporatism in the Service of the Plan 173
Crisis, Consumption, and the Market 184
Conclusion 193
Chapter Five
Toward a New Model 197
Socialist Modernization: "Cultured Soviet Trade" 198
Bureaucratism Restrained 215
Stalinism and the Consumer, I: Urban Attitudes and Trends 222
Stalinism and the Consumer, II: The Peasant Challenge to Cultured Trade 230
Conclusion 243
Crisis: War
Chapter Six
The Persistent Private Sector 251
Stalin-era Bazaars 252
Travel, Bagging, and the Survivalist Consensus 273
The Revitalization of the Private Sector 279
Private Trade as a Social Formation: Continuity and Change 289
Conclusion 293
Chapter Seven
Postwar Normalization and Its Limits 296
From Wartime "Abnormalities" to the Paradox of Growth 298
Cadres Policy in Postwar Trade 310
Postwar "Cultured Trade": A Balance Sheet 316
Conclusion 325
Conclusion 329
Bibliography 337
Index 355

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"This is a very impressive book; an opus in fact. It is nothing short of a full and comprehensive history of retail economy ("trade" in Soviet terms) and consumption from the Russian Revolution to the death of Stalin in 1953. Encyclopedic in its scope and nuanced in its careful and innovative interpretations, this book will be the standard reference for decades to come. Like the best history, it waves no flags and champions no causes."—J. Arch Getty, University of California, Los Angeles, author of The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939

"This pathbreaking book represents a major contribution to a field lacking such a work in any language. Hessler sets forth a massive amount of new material, sifted judiciously and clearly presented. She has done a prodigious amount of research, writes thoughtfully, and explores a broad range of issues in imaginative and analytically sophisticated ways. Her important study will be of great interest to historians in many fields, as well as those of the Soviet period."—William Rosenberg, University of Michigan, coauthor of Strikes and Revolution in Russia, 1917

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