During the late 1930s life in the Soviet Union was defined by terror, as a series of purges orchestrated by Joseph Stalin and carried out by his secret police apparatus gutted the nation. More than a million people, from Communist Party leaders to government officials to wealthy peasants, were arrested and either imprisoned or executed. While the purges secured Stalin's domination of the country, it came at the cost of innumerable lives destroyed and the county's development hobbled in ways that nearly proved fatal during the Second World War.
The disruptive impact of the purges on the Soviet economy is a major theme of the final volume of the "Industrialisation of Soviet Russia" series. In it its authors — R. W. Davies, Mark Harrison, Oleg Khlevniuk, and Stephen Wheatcroft — analyze the effects of the arrest on a Soviet economy still processing the collectivization of Soviet agriculture and the efforts to develop the industrial sector. Though the commissars and other managers arrested may have lacked the stature of the Part leaders of the marshals of the Red Army, their removal measurably slowed the growth of the Soviet economy. In some areas this slowing actually had the effect of feeding the purges, as the decline in growth and the failure to achieve the targets set by economic planners was attributed to sabotage, requiring the identification and arrest of suitable scapegoats.
Yet the purpose of the authors' book is not to describe the impact of the purges on the Soviet economy, but the Soviet Union's overall economic development during this period. As they note, the purges played less of a role in agriculture, where factors such as the weather were more important in determining output. Even more important than environmental conditions, though, was the international political scene. Here the authors place their analysis of the Soviet economic policy into a broader context, showing how the wars in Spain and China, as well as the increasing tensions within central and eastern Europe forced economic planners to readjust their plans to focus more on developing light industry and increasing the production of consumer goods. The result was an economy that by the start of 1939 was already gearing up for war, with even the purges ended in the face of the growing threat.
This volume brings to an end a series that has its origins in Edward Hallett Carr's The Bolshevik Revolution first published nearly seven decades ago. It is a fitting point at which to conclude it, for as the authors explain in their final chapter, it was during this period that the basis of the economy that would defeat Nazi Germany and establish the Soviet Union as a superpower for the 45 years afterward was established. To understand how this was accomplished and the terrible cost paid for it by the Soviet people this book like its predecessor volumes is indispensable reading.