The Economy - Historical Background

The Economy - Historical Background

The Soviet economic system was in place for some six decades, and elements of that system remained in place after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The leaders exerting the most substantial influence on that system were its founder, Vladimir I. Lenin, and his successor Stalin, who established the prevailing patterns of collectivization and industrialization that became typical of the Soviet Union's centrally planned system. By 1980, however, intrinsic defects became obvious as the national economy languished; shortly thereafter, reform programs began to alter the traditional structure. One of the chief reformers of the late 1980s, Boris Yeltsin, oversaw the substantial dissolution of the central planning system in the early 1990s.

The Eras of Lenin and Stalin

The basic foundation of the Soviet economic system was established after the Bolsheviks (see Glossary) assumed power in November 1917 (see Revolutions and Civil War, ch. 2). The Bolsheviks sought to mold a socialist society from the ruins of post-World War I tsarist Russia by liberally reworking the ideas of political philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Soon after the revolution, the Bolsheviks published decrees nationalizing land, most industry (all enterprises employing more than five workers), foreign trade, and banking. The peasants took control of the land from the aristocracy and farmed it in small parcels.

Beginning in 1918, the new regime already was fighting for its survival in the Russian Civil War against noncommunist forces known as the Whites. The war forced the regime to organize the economy and place it on a war footing under a stringent policy known as war communism. Under such conditions, the economy performed poorly. In 1920 agricultural output had attained only half of its pre-World War I level, foreign trade had virtually ceased, and industrial production had fallen to only a small fraction of its prewar levels. Beginning in 1921, Lenin led a tactical retreat from state control of the economy in an effort to reignite production. His new program, called the New Economic Policy (Novaya ekonomicheskaya politika--NEP; see Glossary), permitted some private activity, especially in agriculture, light industry, and services (see Lenin's Leadership, ch. 2). However, heavy industry, transportation, foreign trade, and banking remained under state control.

Lenin died in 1924, and by 1927 the government had nearly abandoned the NEP. Stalin sought a rapid transformation from an agricultural, peasant-based country into a modern industrial power and initiated the country's First Five-Year Plan (1928-32). Under the plan, the Soviet government began the nationwide collectivization of agriculture to ensure production and distribution of food supplies to the growing industrial sector and to free labor for industry (see Industrialization and Collectivization, ch. 2). By the end of the five-year period, however, agricultural output had declined by 23 percent, according to official statistics. The chemical, textile, housing, and consumer goods and services industries were also performing poorly. Heavy industry exceeded the plan targets, but only at a great cost to the rest of the economy.

By the Third Five-Year Plan (1938-41), the Soviet economy was once again on a war footing, devoting increasing amounts of resources to the military sector in response to the rise of Nazi Germany. The Nazi invasion in 1941 forced the government to abandon the five-year plan and concentrate all resources on support for the military sector. This period also included the large-scale evacuation of much of the country's industrial production capacity from European Russia to the Urals and Central Asia to prevent further war damage to its economic base. The Fourth Five-Year Plan (1946-50) was one of repairing and rebuilding after the war.

Throughout the Stalin era, the government forced the pace of industrial growth by shifting resources from other sectors to heavy industry. The Soviet consumer received little priority in the planning process. By 1950 real household consumption had climbed to a level only marginally higher than that of 1928. Although Stalin died in 1953, his emphasis on heavy industry and central control over all aspects of economic decision making remained virtually intact well into the 1980s.

The Postwar Growth Period

Soviet economic growth rates during the postwar period appeared impressive. Between the early 1950s and 1975, the Soviet gross national product (GNP--see Glossary) increased an average of about 5 percent per year, outpacing the average growth of the United States and keeping pace with many West European economies--albeit after having started from a much lower point.

However, these aggregate growth figures hid gross inefficiencies that are typical of centrally planned systems. The Soviet Union was able to attain impressive growth through "extensive investments," that is, by infusing the economy with large inputs of labor, capital, and natural resources. But the state-set prices did not reflect the actual costs of inputs, leading to enormous misallocation and waste of resources. In addition, the heavily bureaucratic economic decision-making system and the strong emphasis on meeting targets discouraged the introduction of new technologies that could improve productivity. Central planning also skewed the distribution of investments throughout the economy.

The aggregate Soviet growth figures also did not reveal either the generally poor quality of Soviet goods and services that resulted from the state monopoly over production or the lack of priority given the consumer sector in the planning process. Eventually, diminishing returns from labor, capital, and other inputs led to a severe slowdown in Soviet economic growth. Furthermore, the availability of inputs, especially capital, labor, and technology, was decreasing. Declining birth rates, particularly in the European republics of the Soviet Union, placed constraints on the labor supply. By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, average Soviet GNP growth rates had plummeted to about 2 percent, less than half the rates of the immediate postwar period.

Although such rates might have been acceptable in a mature, modern industrialized economy, the Soviet Union still trailed far behind the United States, other Western economies, and Japan, and in the 1980s another challenge arose from the newly industrializing countries of East Asia. Furthermore, the standard of living of the average Russian citizen, which had always been below that of the United States, was declining. In the 1980s, with the advent of modern communications that even Soviet censors found impossible to restrict, Soviet citizens began to recognize their relative position and to question the rationale of their country's economic policies. This was the atmosphere in which the Gorbachev regime undertook serious economic reform in the late 1980s.

Reform and Resistance

During several distinct periods, Soviet leaders attempted to reform the economy to make the Soviet system more efficient. In 1957, for example, Nikita S. Khrushchev (in office 1953-64) tried to decentralize state control by eliminating many national ministries and placing responsibility for implementing plans under the control of newly created regional economic councils. These reforms produced their own inefficiencies. In 1965 Soviet prime minister Aleksey Kosygin (in office 1964-80) introduced a package of reforms that reestablished central government control but reformed prices and established new bonuses and production norms to stimulate economic productivity. Under reforms in the 1970s, Soviet leaders attempted to streamline the decision-making process by combining enterprises into associations, which received some localized decision-making authority.

Because none of these reforms challenged the fundamental notion of state control, the root cause of the inefficiencies remained. Resistance to reform was strong because central planning was heavily embedded in the Soviet economic structure. Its various elements--planned output, state ownership of property, administrative pricing, artificially established wage levels, and currency inconvertibility--were interrelated. Fundamental reforms required changing the whole system rather than one or two elements. Central planning also was heavily entrenched in the Soviet political structure. A huge bureaucracy was in place from the national to the local level in both the party and the government, and officials within that system enjoyed the many privileges of the Soviet elite class. Such vested interests yielded formidable resistance to major changes in the Soviet economic system; the Russian system, in which many of the same figures have prospered, suffers from the same handicap.

Upon assuming power in March 1985, Gorbachev took measures intended to immediately resume the growth rates of earlier decades. The Twelfth Five-Year Plan (1986-90) called for the Soviet national income to increase an average of 4.1 percent annually and labor productivity to increase 4.6 percent annually--rates that the Soviet Union had not achieved since the early 1970s. Gorbachev sought to improve labor productivity by implementing an anti-alcohol campaign that severely restricted the sale of vodka and other spirits and by establishing work attendance requirements to reduce chronic absenteeism. Gorbachev also shifted investment priorities toward the machine-building and metalworking sectors that could make the most significant contribution to retool and modernize existing factories, rather than building new factories. Gorbachev changed Soviet investment strategy from extensive investing to intensive investing that focused on elements most critical to achieving the stated goal.

During his first few years, Gorbachev also restructured the government bureaucracy (see Perestroika , ch. 2). He combined ministries responsible for high-priority economic sectors into bureaus or state committees in order to reduce staff and red tape and to streamline the administration. In addition, Gorbachev established a state organization for quality control to improve the quality of Soviet production.

The Perestroika Program

The Soviet economic reforms during Gorbachev's initial period (1985-86) were similar to the reforms of previous regimes: they modified the Stalinist system without making truly fundamental changes. The basic principles of central planning remained. The measures proved to be insufficient, as economic growth rates continued to decline and the economy faced severe shortages. Gorbachev and his team of economic advisers then introduced more fundamental reforms, which became known as perestroika (restructuring). At the June 1987 plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU--see Glossary), Gorbachev presented his "basic theses," which laid the political foundation of economic reform for the remainder of the decade.

In July 1987, the Supreme Soviet passed the Law on State Enterprises. The law stipulated that state enterprises were free to determine output levels based on demand from consumers and other enterprises. Enterprises had to fulfill state orders, but they could dispose of the remaining output as they saw fit. Enterprises bought inputs from suppliers at negotiated contract prices. Under the law, enterprises became self-financing; that is, they had to cover expenses (wages, taxes, supplies, and debt service) through revenues. No longer was the government to rescue unprofitable enterprises that could face bankruptcy. Finally, the law shifted control over the enterprise operations from ministries to elected workers' collectives. Gosplan's responsibilities were to supply general guidelines and national investment priorities, not to formulate detailed production plans.

The Law on Cooperatives, enacted in May 1987, was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms during the early part of the Gorbachev regime. For the first time since Lenin's NEP, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. The law initially imposed high taxes and employment restrictions, but it later revised these to avoid discouraging private-sector activity. Under this provision, cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers became part of the Soviet scene.

Gorbachev brought perestroika to the Soviet Union's foreign economic sector with measures that Soviet economists considered bold at that time. His program virtually eliminated the monopoly that the Ministry of Foreign Trade had had on most trade operations. It permitted the ministries of the various industrial and agricultural branches to conduct foreign trade in sectors under their responsibility rather than having to operate indirectly through the bureaucracy of trade ministry organizations. In addition, regional and local organizations and individual state enterprises were permitted to conduct foreign trade. This change was an attempt to redress a major imperfection in the Soviet foreign trade regime: the lack of contact between Soviet end users and suppliers and their foreign partners.

The most significant of Gorbachev's reforms in the foreign economic sector allowed foreigners to invest in the Soviet Union in the form of joint ventures with Soviet ministries, state enterprises, and cooperatives. The original version of the Soviet Joint Venture Law, which went into effect in June 1987, limited foreign shares of a Soviet venture to 49 percent and required that Soviet citizens occupy the positions of chairman and general manager. After potential Western partners complained, the government revised the regulations to allow majority foreign ownership and control. Under the terms of the Joint Venture Law, the Soviet partner supplied labor, infrastructure, and a potentially large domestic market. The foreign partner supplied capital, technology, entrepreneurial expertise, and, in many cases, products and services of world competitive quality.

Although they were bold in the context of Soviet history, Gorbachev's attempts at economic reform were not radical enough to restart the country's chronically sluggish economy in the late 1980s. The reforms made some inroads in decentralization, but Gorbachev and his team left intact most of the fundamental elements of the Stalinist system--price controls, inconvertibility of the ruble, exclusion of private property ownership, and the government monopoly over most means of production.

By 1990 the government had virtually lost control over economic conditions. Government spending increased sharply as an increasing number of unprofitable enterprises required state support and consumer price subsidies continued. Tax revenues declined because revenues from the sales of vodka plummeted during the anti-alcohol campaign and because republic and local governments withheld tax revenues from the central government under the growing spirit of regional autonomy. The elimination of central control over production decisions, especially in the consumer goods sector, led to the breakdown in traditional supplier-producer relationships without contributing to the formation of new ones. Thus, instead of streamlining the system, Gorbachev's decentralization caused new production bottlenecks.

Unforeseen Results of Reform

Gorbachev's new system bore the characteristics of neither central planning nor a market economy. Instead, the Soviet economy went from stagnation to deterioration. At the end of 1991, when the union officially dissolved, the national economy was in a virtual tailspin. In 1991 the Soviet GDP had declined 17 percent and was declining at an accelerating rate. Overt inflation was becoming a major problem. Between 1990 and 1991, retail prices in the Soviet Union increased 140 percent.

Under these conditions, the general quality of life for Soviet consumers deteriorated. Consumers traditionally faced shortages of durable goods, but under Gorbachev, food, wearing apparel, and other basic necessities were in short supply. Fueled by the liberalized atmosphere of Gorbachev's glasnost (literally, public voicing--see Glossary) and by the general improvement in information access in the late 1980s, public dissatisfaction with economic conditions was much more overt than ever before in the Soviet period. The foreign-trade sector of the Soviet economy also showed signs of deterioration. The total Soviet hard-currency (see Glossary) debt increased appreciably, and the Soviet Union, which had established an impeccable record for debt repayment in earlier decades, had accumulated sizable arrearages by 1990.

In sum, the Soviet Union left a legacy of economic inefficiency and deterioration to the fifteen constituent republics after its breakup in December 1991. Arguably, the shortcomings of the Gorbachev reforms had contributed to the economic decline and eventual destruction of the Soviet Union, leaving Russia and the other successor states to pick up the pieces and to try to mold modern, market-driven economies. At the same time, the Gorbachev programs did start Russia on the precarious road to full-scale economic reform. Perestroika broke Soviet taboos against private ownership of some types of business, foreign investment in the Soviet Union, foreign trade, and decentralized economic decision making, all of which made it virtually impossible for later policy makers to turn back the clock.

Economic Reform in the 1990s
Economic Conditions in Mid-1996

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