Rebuilding Russia

In the early 1920’s Russia was recovering from the revolution and the following civil war. A famine was underway and the country was in disarray after the chaos of the last few years. In response the Soviet Union started enacting new policies to get the economy and the industrial section back on track. First they established the First Labor Army. This organization used men from the military to do labor in order to further the industrial sphere of Russia. The labor included coal, lumber, and others. It was enacted not only to further the industrial area of Russia but also to keep people alive. Russia was in the midst of a famine because of the disorder in the country. The workers in the factories were losing ground and a major act was necessary to turn things around. Also enacted was the New Economic Policy. In 1921 the Soviet Union changed the ways peasants were taxed. Instead of the grain requisitions, excess food was to be given to the government. As it became more common, this tax, in the form of supplies, transitioned into a monetary exchange. This policy was unusual for the Soviet government as usually exchange happened through the government rather than this people centered form. Both of these policies were criticized for their similarities to pre-revolution ideas. Many peasants believed that the labor army and the new form of taxation were too similar to serfdom. But these new policies fulfilled their purpose: rebuilding Russia.

Five Cheers for Five Year Plans?

When collectivization started, it opened a new chapter in Soviet economics, while closing another.  With the ending of the NEP that attempted to use the private sector to bring Russia away from its perceived ‘backwardness’, the Five Year Plans were implemented to achieve the same goal.  However, as Lewin in On Soviet Industrialization describes, it was at great cost.

Lewin begins by establishing that he declares the NEP to be too weak and did not encompass enough of the economy to be successful.  He states that the “NEP showed signs of not coping”, which could eventually lead to an economic crisis (273).  Unfortately, as Lewin continues, it is clear that the Five Year Plans were not better, possibly even worse.  Beginning with the first plan that ended a year early which plunged the entire economy into chaos, it was unclear what the future of the system was going to be.  Since there was no incentive for workers to be productive, unlike in the NEP, the end of quarters always became mad dashes for quotas and manipulation of books became rampant.  Lewin attributes this to the command system, where there were simply too many superiors making too many demands causing resources to be stretched too thin or not to be created at all.    Lewin concludes that this ruined “initiative from below” (283), with too many bureaucratic layers and leaders with self-interests.

The Five Year Plans quickly enveloped the entire economic system, where so many citizens had to sacrifice so little.  This is an economic system that should not be celebrated.

The New Economic Raisin Policy

We have talked a lot about Lenin and Stalin’s agricultural policy in class this semester, so when I came across an article about how how the raisin market is controlled in the United States, I was immediately reminded of the NEP. Confoundingly, American raisin production is regulated by a government agency called the Raisin Administrative Committee, established by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, which a group of raisin farmers are currently challenging in the U.S. Supreme Court. The system works as follows:

The committee, run by 47 raisin farmers and packers, along with a sole member of the raisin-eating public, decides each year how many raisins the domestic market can bear, and thus how many it should siphon off to preserve an “orderly” market. It does not pay for the raisins it appropriates, and gives many of them away, while selling others for export. Once it has covered its own costs, it returns whatever profits remain to farmers. In some years there are none. Worse, farmers sometimes forfeit a substantial share of their crop: 47% in 2003 and 30% in 2004, for example.

As one would expect (especially from The Economist), the article makes references to the Soviet command economy, but gets the era wrong, calling it Brezhnevite, rather than what it is – Leninist. The NEP, such as this system, was a quasi-capitalist, and after meeting the state set quotas, farmers could sell what they grew. The Brezhnev era on the other hand was characterized by lines and rationing. As part of the raisin-eating public, I have never had a problem being able to buy raisins. The time period when this law was enacted is a cause of interest, as it was not long after the USSR itself had used this system. Similar market controls were common for other crops as well, but most have abandoned them already. I wonder if there was any modeling of U.S. agriculture policy during the great depression on Soviet policy following the Russian Civil War. I also wonder how this system survived the Cold War without being labeled as communist. Perhaps I should be paying more attention to how Soviet History connects to the food I eat.