- Inostrannoe predprinimatel′stvo i zagranichnye investitsii v Rossii. Ocherki, and: Frantsuzskie banki v Rossii. Konets XIX–nachalo XX v, and: Big Business in Russia: The Putilov Company in Late Imperial Russia, 1868–1917
The economic history of late imperial Russia may be described as fabulous in the sense that it has long been the stuff of fable. The fable, familiar to old and new students of Russian history, goes something like this: once upon a time there was a giant country that was always behind its more prosperous neighbors. Although the giant country possessed limitless natural resources, clever people and a strong and frightening government, somehow it managed to squander its great wealth, leaving its people perpetually poor and powerless. Although opinions differ as to which villains are to blame for its sad fate, the giant country undoubtedly suffered at the hands of many evil masters. Some blame the cruel government that thwarted every halting step toward the people's prosperity in order to maintain its suffocating grip on them. Others blame foreigners who plotted intricate schemes to rob and enslave the innocent inhabitants of the giant country. Still others believe that the people of the giant country are themselves to blame for their sad plight, for it is their congenital lack of ambition, resourcefulness, and effort that has resulted in their eternal poverty. Whomever is to blame, they or the fates themselves eventually conspired to bring down this vast kingdom, delivering its people into the hands of mad social experimenters who were also, of course, doomed to fail.
Although the fate of these people is sad, the story itself is endlessly fascinating, because its outlines are so stark: a country unlike all others, a monument to the twin vices of greed and sloth, suffers eternally and always fails. Scholars from inside and outside the country devote themselves to identifying the villains responsible for such a fate, confident that a tale of such monumental failure cannot [End Page 190] help but edify those who hear it. Who can blame the tellers of such a tale for being just the smallest bit smug?
Perhaps part of the reason that the economic history of imperial Russia attracted relatively little attention for so long is because its two dominant paradigms, the Soviet Marxist and the classically liberal, had, between them, apparently explained all that needed explaining. The Marxists and the liberals could have debated, but rarely did because – dare we say it – their plot lines were so similar. In the late 1970s, however, a few Soviet and Western historians began to open new paths of inquiry into the shape of the pre-1917 economy. Western scholars were, in a sense, backing up from intense preoccupation with labor history in an effort to understand the business and economic context for labor-management relations. The few Soviet scholars who undertook the history of "business" were interested in understanding the details of a picture they thought they knew by heart: the story of Western imperialism and monopoly capitalism. Interestingly enough, these two groups of historians and their heirs bumped into each other, sometimes literally, in European and Russian archives where they sought the history of Russian "big business" and banking. The end of the Soviet Union has augmented this burgeoning interest in Russian capitalism and business history, as these three new works attest. Each of these studies challenges the fabled story of the pre-1917 economy. The picture of Russia that emerges is, alas, less fabulous, but not less interesting.
The leading Soviet figure in the new economic history of late imperial Russia was, undoubtedly, Valerii Ivanovich Bovykin, who died in the fall of 1998. From the 1950s on, Bovykin undertook the study of...