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

A Social History of Soviet Trade: Trade Policy, Retail Practices, and Consumption, 1917-1953. By Julie Hessler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. xviii plus 366 pp.).

In this excellent social and political history of the origins and development of the Soviet retail system, Julie Hessler advances compelling arguments about the nature of the NEP (New Economic Policy, 1921-29), the Stalinist economic system, and the relationship between state and society. Hessler's main argument is that despite the abolition of the NEP, which allowed limited private retailing and manufacture, private trade persisted, albeit in reduced and often illegal forms, and provided a significant proportion of consumer goods to Soviet citizens throughout the Stalinist era.

Much of the historiography on the NEP has emphasized pluralism and tolerance for experimentation. In focusing on the policies of the Soviet government toward private traders and consumers, Hessler challenges this view of the era, replacing it with a "darker" interpretation. As she sees it, governmental policies did not celebrate the diversity of NEP's mixed economy. Instead distrust and the "native impulse" of policy makers to repress private businessmen amounted to a "war on the market" that culminated in the decree on the eradication of private, permanent shops and stores at the beginning of the 1930s. The significance of Hessler's conclusion lies in its emphasis on continuities between the political culture of the NEP and Stalinist political culture, i.e., the continuities between Bolshevism and Stalinism. At least in the retail sector, the Stalinist agenda of the late 1920s and early 1930s did not represent a rupture with the program of the NEP, but continued and fulfilled it. The goals of centralization, bureaucratization, and social differentiation, pursued during the NEP through prejudicial tax policies, show trials of trade officials, and coercion and repression in times of crisis, bridged the two eras and laid the foundations for the socialist economy of the Stalinist years. The very persistence of private trading and its attendant "proprietary psychology" also linked NEP and the Stalinist era. Moreover, Hessler suggests that the Stalinist economy was even more flexible than the NEP. In 1932, for example, the state regularized peasant markets once and for all, an indication of the state's acceptance of the utility of private trade.

In pursuing this argument, Hessler develops a model of state/society relations. Between 1917-53, policy makers alternated between two modes of socialism: crisis and recovery. During the economically difficult years of the revolution and civil war of 1917-22, the famine of 1928-33, and World War II, Soviet consumers sought to avoid the deprivation and hardship of shortages and inflation through panic buying, hoarding, "bagging," profiteering, and other coping strategies. The state responded with crisis mode policies of socially discriminatory rationing, increased taxation on traders, heightened repression of illegal trade and "speculation," and reliance on informal provisioning. In the years following a crisis, policy makers and consumers switched to recovery mode, comprised of a reduction of prices, relaxation of rationing and repression, and consumers' abandonment of survivalist behaviors such as selling their personal belongings at markets.

According to Hessler, these cycles of crisis and recovery inculcated in both the state and consumers habits that eventually developed into a Soviet "exchange culture," based on, among other things, bureaucratism, solicitude for urban consumers, especially Muscovites, a neglect of the rural market, and a tolerance among citizens for breaking the law in the interests of survival. The most significant result, of course, was the persistence of peasant markets and private sales of manufactured goods. In one of her most important and interesting chapters, Hessler goes further to demonstrates that private trade not only persisted, but expanded in the mid-1940s as private vendors invaded new venues, including the state department store TsUM, to sell their goods and as cooperatives sold concessions, which allowed individuals to operate restaurants, pool halls, barbershops, and retail stores under the protective guise of the coop. Private trade did not exist only in the dark corners of Soviet society, but openly in state-sponsored venues.

Hessler's book presents an admirably credible economic synthesis of the period from 1917-53. It is well-researched, abundantly documented, and ranges widely in geographic scope and sources. Changing policies are documented using archival documents, economic journals and newspapers, published laws and decrees, policy statements, published statistical studies, and the works of several prominent Soviet economic historians. The effects of state policies on citizens as both consumers and traders are assessed through budgetary studies, travel accounts, memoirs, police and credit reports, and information gathered through oral interviews. The author carefully weighs these sources against each other to show that policy making was not simply a "top-down" affair, but a process of interaction among the state, traders, and consumers.

Some of the most revealing sections utilize criminal investigation and credit reports to describe how buyers and sellers actually bought and sold things under economically difficult and repressive conditions. In these sections, we become acquainted with wholesalers, such as Ivan Ivanovich Rozhevskii, a pre-revolutionary purveyor of academic supplies driven under by Lentorg, Leningrad's commercial agency. We find petty traders and hawkers eking out a living by peddling a few ribbons, a pair of galoshes, or low-quality tobacco, and ordinary men and women, who resorted to selling their personal belongings at markets. The methods of this motley group of traders, who allied with family, friends, and acquaintances to evade laws and the secret police, are fascinating evidence of the resilience of private transactions and personal relationships and the limits of the Soviet command economy and the repressive power of the state.

The author also provides excellent analyses of the data on changing patterns of consumption. The qualitative aspects of consumption are less evident. Even though we are promised a "view from below," conclusions about consumers are often based on published statistical data, which, while effectively deployed, left me wondering what consumers actually thought about TsUM, for instance, or how they might have justified illegal behaviors on their own terms. The voices that we most often hear are the voices of foreign observers or the views of the consumer as refracted through the official discourse of policy makers, although Hessler refers to some oral interviews, diary entries, consumer complaint letters, and remarks from a consumer conference. More of this kind of information to affirm or oppose official assessments of consumer wants, needs, and behaviors would have brought depth and dimension to her interpretation of consumption.

Discussions of "socialist modernization" and the campaign for "cultured trade" of the 1930s also need broader contextualization. Hessler rightly acknowledges the debt that the Soviet government owed to the West--and Macy's New York--for ideas on inaugurating cost-efficient procedures, beautiful luxurious interiors, polite salesclerks, and customer service. Such modernizing trends, however, were not limited to Western Europe and the United States. Merchants such as Grigorii Eliseev and the proprietors of Muir & Mirrielees department store, not to mention the commercial press, were visible advocates of rationalizing and beautifying the late Imperial retail sector. Hessler acknowledges that both Eliseev's and Muir & Mirrielees were used by the Bolsheviks to house socialist retail stores, but doesn't acknowledge the legacy or the significance. Instead the pre-revolutionary retail sector is subsumed under the term "old merchant Moscow," i.e., dirty, disorganized shops, and contrasted to the Stalinist state's vision of civilized modernity. Commercial officials of the NEP years had also tried to construct a modern socialist retail network. In light of earlier attempts, the "new model" of retailing put forth in the 1930s appears much less novel, although no less important.

These criticisms aside, Hessler's book offers the most comprehensive account of the consumer economy and should serve as the standard reference work on the subject. In its scope and detail, it adds enormously to our knowledge of the workings of the official and unofficial economies of the USSR (and the connections between the two) and our understanding of major trends in consumer behavior and consumption. As a work of Soviet history, Hessler makes a major contribution, demonstrating the significance of consumers and seemingly ordinary acts of buying and selling in the working out of Soviet economic policy.

Marjorie L. Hilton

University of Redlands
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Author:Hilton, Marjorie L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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