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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.3 (2001) 112-113

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Book Review

The Soviet Defence-Industry Complex from Stalin to Khrushchev

John Barber and Mark Harrison, eds., The Soviet Defence-Industry Complex from Stalin to Khrushchev . New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. 283 pp. $79.95.

In the early 1990s a group of British and Russian scholars launched a collaborative effort to search for materials in the Russian archives that would shed light on previously inaccessible topics. This informative collection of essays on the defense industry is one of the products of that collaboration.

In the introductory essay the authors argue that the notion of a military-industrial complex does not adequately describe the conditions of Soviet society, because the relations among defense enterprises, the military, and the government were fundamentally different from the corresponding relations in capitalist countries. Civilian enterprises often took pains to avoid having to accept military production and the problems it often entailed. Hence, although the military and security organs play an important role in this study, the authors' focus is on the defense-industry complex--the enterprises and design bureaus that produced military goods.

Parts II and III of the book are historical; they discuss the prewar, wartime, and postwar periods. The next two parts are topical: Part IV examines the impact of defense production on Leningrad and the closed city of Krasnoyarsk-26, and the concluding Part V deals with the oversight of the defense industry and the role of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), as the security organs were then known.

Archival evidence is of particular importance in studying the Soviet defense industry, because the concern with secrecy was exceptionally pervasive there. Even the State Planning Commission (Gosplan) was not trusted to receive a full account of defense production plans. The researchers found little archival information on some topics--for example, the essay on Krasnoyarsk-26 was written primarily on the basis of personal accounts. The essays on rocketry and nuclear weapons are also based largely on memoirs and other nonarchival sources. In other essays, however, archival materials are used very effectively.

Robert Davies and Harrison were able to construct an annual time series of defense expenditures, which made it possible to identify several phases of mobilization: very slow before 1930, a sharp increase after that, and a very sharp increase in the late 1930s. Harrison compiled detailed annual data on wartime weapons production in the USSR and Germany to show that the Soviet Union's performance was remarkably good. Despite the loss of the borderlands and other initial disadvantages, Soviet rates of weapons production exceeded those of Germany, at least under Hermann Goering's disastrous mismanagement. However, the successful Soviet performance was purchased at a high production cost. Defense output siphoned the best inputs from the [End Page 112] civilian economy, and a high proportion of output had to be rejected because of low quality. The resource cost of defense production has been much studied, but Lennart Samuelson's essay suggests another cost. Frequent changes in world affairs demanded changes in military plans that played havoc with economic planning.

Some noteworthy archival materials are reported by the controversial historian Boris Starkov, whose earlier work came under criticism by some scholars for allegedly misrepresenting documents and citing nonexistent sources. In a study of the Soviet security organs, Starkov depicts Lavrentii Beria as an extremely efficient and nonideological official who appreciated the work of the prisoner-experts and repeatedly overruled the ignorant NKVD bureaucrats who made their lives unnecessarily burdensome. According to Starkov, Beria also held the military in contempt, especially the postwar generals, many of whom had been promoted in the field and were viewed by him as martinets and ignoramuses.

Several of the essays document the uneasy relationship between the military customers and the civilian management of Soviet defense enterprises. Managers withheld cost information from the military, and they contrived to avoid accepting defense orders just as they shied away from innovation. In the 1930s, industrial managers objected to the military's insistence on...