“Military needs were always the main reason for Russia’s economic development.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
Within the scope of Russian history, war has been shown to a factor in determining whether the status quo was maintained, or indeed whether change rapidly occurred as a reaction to the events of the time. Throughout the 100 year period it can be said that a framework exists where Russia is involved, directly or otherwise, in either warfare or in preparations for war.
Whilst it can be argued that the drive for modernisation and the aims of the state were central to developing the economy of Russia, the emphasis placed on military needs can at no stage be understated. Indeed, the key to legitimacy and consent for governments of the period derived heavily from her performance in war and her capabilities to defend her people. This essay will argue that, despite the necessity to acknowledge the importance of the modernisation of Russia and the aims of the state, military needs took precedence and determined whether economic development took place, as the position of the government of the time hinged, in effect, the success of war and also helped to shape future policy.
Throughout the 100 year period, war has served to highlight its importance in dictating not only the actions of those at the time, but also for their successors. It has been recognised that, to be successful in warfare, the economy of the time needed to be sufficiently developed in order to cope with the demands of war. However, whilst in the aftermath of the 1854-6 Crimean War Russia sought to change the infrastructure on which she based her military, and expand her communications network in order to obtain greater access to her Empire, it was not until Sergei Witte provided the “Great Spurt” from 1892 until 1903 that Russia began to develop economically to the extent that she wanted to. It can be argued that this, unlike many believe, was in response to the growing threat of Germany and potent German nationalism in the wake of German unification in 1871. Hence, this qualifies the belief that Russia now had the impetus to develop economically in order to counter the threat of her Western neighbour which had not existed to the same degree earlier on in the 19th Century.
However, the introduction of the Five-Year Plans under Stalin in 1928 served to emphasise the vulnerable position of Russia; indeed, the impetus which was lacking under Lenin, who first embarked on a programme of War Communism, soon to be abandoned with the introduction of the N.E.P. in 1921 provided much of the driving force for abandoning the needs of the people in favour of driving the backward Russian economy forward to a level which had never previously been reached. The threat of Germany and indeed the capitalist Western European states, prompted by the abandonment of interaction with other countries, focusing on “socialism in one country” helps to support the belief that the sole reason to develop economically was to help cope with the demands of war; consumerism was forgotten, and, just as had been the case in the Tsarist era, the development of the economy derived from the necessity to response to the growing threat of war, or indeed defeat in war which signalled a change from the status quo of the time.
Despite the skewed nature of the economy towards military needs, however, it would undoubtedly be flawed to suggest that military needs alone accounted for the drive to move Russia’s weak economy forward. In social terms, Russia remained well behind her Western allies, and the drive for modernisation not only sought to bring Russia up to par on the military front, but it also attempted to redress the growing imbalance between the elite and the peasantry which existed throughout the 100 year period. The programme of reform embarked upon by Alexander II in the 1860s signalled his intentions to alleviate the growing discontent of his people, whilst also developing Russia economically so that the social structure of Russia could be maintained.
Whilst Witte’s Great Spurt focused, it can be argued, on the need to industrialise in order to counter the threat to her Empire, the agrarian reforms of Stolypin, which served to better the interest of the peasantry showed that the later Romanovs recognised the need to better the lives of their people in order to maintain legitimacy for their rule. Lenin’s programme of state capitalism and the N.E.P. to develop the economy was not driven by a desire for future conflict, but instead to address the problems he faced at the time, agriculturally and militarily in trying to defeat the ‘Whites’ in the Civil War. The era of Khrushchev (1953 onwards) saw him attempt to redress the poor living standards of the time, and attempt to bring consumerist goods into the homes of Russian people as opposed to the beliefs of Stalin, who insisted on further growth in heavy industry in order to maintain her position as the 2nd world industrial power after the U.S.A.
It must also be acknowledged that the aims of the state accounted for some of Russia’s development economically, because in essence the legitimacy of government lay, in part, in her ability to maintain the status quo. The actions of Witte served not only to strengthen autocracy, but also as well to developing economically by providing industry with much needed capital to expand. After 1917, the focus changed, with the basis of the economy centred on Marxist ideology and its fulfilment based on an increased urban proletariat. The basis of the N.E.P. was not, as previous leaders had concentrated on, the necessity to satisfy the needs of the military, but instead focus on the state and its people, as was the case with Khrushchev when he became Party Secretary in 1953. The imbalance in caused by the skew towards heavy industry meant that the Russian people lived with little purpose; he sought to redress this quickly and firmly.
Despite this, what the 100 year period has shown is that, whilst leaders under both the Tsarist and Communist era had differing aims and objectives, the effect of war as a catalyst for change economically has been a consistent theme that has recurred time after time. The belief that the effect of war provided the impetus for the need to develop economically can be qualified that, after several of the major wars that Russia was involved in within the 100 year period, there had been calls at the time to change and develop the infrastructure in the aftermath, most notably when Russia had fallen at the hands of the victors. Indeed, counterfactually speaking, there would have been no requisite need to develop had Russia’s military capacity been sufficient enough to deal with the matters she faced at the time. The fact that the legitimacy of government hinged to such an extent on success in war meant that, in effect, Russia had no choice but to be biased economically towards the needs of the military; essentially, she was an isolated state with nothing to gain, but everything, as her leaders perceived, to lose.