Russia, East-Central Europe,
and Central Asia:
Overview and Economic History

See Maps 


  I.     Overview of Central Eurasia

A.      Diversities of geography, economy, and culture.

B.      Dominance of Russia—36% of population, 41% of production, 73% of surface area (Russia's land area is 84% larger than the United States). Abundant reserves.

C.      Demographic trends—population losses associated with WWI, Russian revolution, Russian civil war, collectivization, and WWII. Fastest population growth in central Asia.

D.      GDP growth—Russian share of regional GDP declined from about 45 percent in 1940 to 41 percent in 1993. Most countries experienced slower growth between 1980 and 1993, due to decline of planning, difficulties of transition, and with regional hostilities.

 II.    Beginnings

A.      Early settlements—tribes in Caucasus area before 20,000 B.C.  Slavic tribes date to 2,000 B.C. in eastern Carpathians, spread west to Czech area, east to Russia, south to Balkans. 

B.      Greek realm united after 359 B.C. by Philip of Macedon, and his son Alexander conquered most of Persia, spreading Greek culture through an enormous empire.

Alexander's Empire

Maps from Civilization in the West by Mark Kishlansky, Patrick Geary, Patricia O'Brien


C.      Romans conquered Alexander’s western empire and much of Europe. Empire administratively divided East-West in 285 A.D.

The Roman Empire After 285AD
Divided Roman Empire

D.      Byzantine empire preserved classical civilization after Rome fell in 476 A.D. Eastern church adoption of Greek liturgy and other issues led to schism in 1054.

Byzantine Empire in 814

E.      Bulgaria—first Slav state in the 6th century A.D.

F.      Kievan Rus—On trade route, Kiev became capital of Russian city-states during 9th century. Kievans were cosmopolitan, but adoption of Eastern Orthodoxy in 980 contributed to Eastern separation.

Principalities of the Kievan Rus

The Great Schism

G.     Muslim conquests after 622 spread Islam into regions that included Central Asia, and then the Ottoman Empire spread into southeastern Europe after the fall of Constantinople/Istanbul in 1453, and dominated the region until the end of World War I. The Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Slovenes avoided Ottoman domination; Hungary and Croatia were liberated early. Today, these have higher per capita incomes.  

The Spread of Islam, 622-750


In the meanwhile the Mongol conquest in 13th-15th centuries devastated Central Eurasia, severed Western ties, and caused Russian capital to move to Moscow, which became the “Third Rome” after the fall of Constantinople.  

The Mongol Empire

The Ottoman Empire, 1798-1923
Ottoman Empire

III.    Peter the Great and Russian Expansion (18th-19th Centuries)

A.      After Russian independence from Mongols in 1452, isolationism and  feudal institutions.

B.      Early in 18th century, Peter the Great:

1.      Introduced Western science, technology, art, and architecture.

2.      Moved capital to St. Petersburg.

3.      Avoided Western political and economic philosophies.

4.      Levied heavy taxes and imposed forced labor.

5.      Mounted territorial expansion and industrialization.

 IV.   Emancipation and Industrialization (1853-1900)

A.      Long maintenance of feudalism thwarted Russian development, led to defeat in Crimean War (fought during 1853-1856 against the British and French, who were protecting the Ottoman Empire from destruction by the Russians).

B.      Emancipation Decree of 1861 nominally abolished serfdom.

1.      Serfs freed from the arbitrary rule.

2.      Land given to serfs, but:

a.       Better land kept by gentry.

b.      Serfs required to pay redemption payments and taxes.

c.       Land held collectively by village communes, responsible for tax collection and apportionment. Handled by inefficient strip agriculture.

3.      Tax and redemption payments forced agricultural sales and exports, monetized the economy, and supported railroad construction boom, which supported production of iron, steel, and petroleum

C.      Emancipation and industrialization caused little improvement in the living standards. Revolutionary movements began.

  V.    The Russian Revolutions and World War I (1900-1918)

A.      Russian Social Democrats, first congresses in 1903 called for overthrow of monarchy and the adoption of socialism.

1.      Mensheviks—Russia not ready for socialism; party should be mass organization.

V.I. Lenin

2.      Lenin's Bolsheviks—Russia was ripe for socialism; membership restricted to elite revolutionaries.

B.      1905 Revolution—Bloody Sunday precipitated demonstrations and general strike in October. Tsar granted formation of Duma, and Stolypin reforms helped agricultural peasants.

C.      World War I arose from Balkan struggle for independence.

D.      In Russia, WWI exacted horrible price, led to food riots, forcing Tsar to abdicate. Kerensky’s provisional government acted slowly, was overthrown by Bolsheviks with little fighting in November 1917.

E.      In Treaty of Versailles, 1919, regions of Habsburg empire ceded to Serbian, Czech, and Polish control.

Russian Civil War Poster
""Have you signed up as a volunteer?"

 VI.   War Communism (1918-1921)

A.      New Bolshevik leaders faced problems.

1.      Promise of socialism.

2.      Consolidation of Bolshevik rule.

3.      Allied invasion after 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty

B.      Provisions of War Communism

1.      Confiscation of private and church land without compensation.  

2.      Forcibly extracted "surpluses" from agricultural workers.

3.      Goods and food rationed, private trade outlawed. 

4.      Most industrial enterprises nationalized and administered by commissariats headed by Vesenkha. 

5.      "Labor armies" rebuilt roads and railways, and worked in mines.

C.      Performance—Production plummeted, arising from poor work incentives, concealment of surpluses, and chaotic management, but also from wartime disruption.

VII.  The New Economic Policy (1921-1928)

A.      Design—a temporary experiment in market socialism

1.      Progressive agricultural tax.

2.      Private trade was legalized.

3.      Small enterprises leased to entre­preneurs and  larger enterprises operated as public trusts.  Only "the commanding heights of in­dustry" were kept under direct governmental control. 

4.      Freer labor mobility, market-determined wages, and pro-labor legislation.

B.      Performance—After 1921, NEP supported rapid recovery, but with rising inequality.

VIII. The Industrialization Debate

A.      Stimulated by the Scissors Crisis and Lenin's death in 1924.

Yevgeny Preobrazhensky            Lev Trotsky                       Joseph Stalin             Nikolai Bukharin

B.      Bukharin and "right-deviation" faction:

1.      Continuation of the market-oriented policies of NEP, following comparative advantage in agriculture.

2.      Maintain smychka, or alliance, between agricultural and industrial workers.

3.      Agricultural investments in the short run would most effectively support industrial development in the long run.

C.      Trotsky, Preobrazhensky, and “left-deviation" faction:

1.      NEP will lead to return of capitalism

2.      USSR, surrounded by enemies, needs heavy industry.

3.      Industrialization accelerated by exploitation of the private sector and agriculture.

D.      Worldwide socialist revolution versus socialism in one country.

E.      Planning debate—Geneticists versus teleologists.

 IX.   The Planning Era Begins (1929-1945)

A.      After vacillation, Stalin adopted a leftist and teleological strategy. The First Five-Year Plan called for rapid rates growth of all sectors, but highest for producer goods and lowest for agriculture. Fulfillment of the plan was even more leftist.

B.      Falling agricultural production caused by low plan priority and violent collectivization. Industrialization strengthened the nation’s military stance, but eventually turned a major grain exporter into an importer.

  X.    After World War II (1945-1953)

A.      From “capitalist encirclement,” and Soviet autarky, to the “socialist commonwealth.”

1.      Adoption of Soviet-style systems throughout region.

2.      Creation of Council for Mutual Economic Assistance to answer the Marshall Plan. Redirection of trade.

3.      East German, Romanian, and Hungarian reparations to USSR.

B.      Tito's Yugoslavia

1.      Impact of WWII.

2.      Tito’s hero status.

3.      Initial acceptance of Soviet political/economic system.

4.      Conflicts with Stalin, 1948 expulsion from Comintern.

5.      Reversal in 1950—acceptance of  Western aid and adoption of labor self-management.

 XI.   After Stalin (1953-1960)

1953 Stalin's death in 1953

1956 Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's terror 

Albanian schism

Hungarian revolt crushed by Soviet troops

Upgrading of CMEA

1962          Basic Principles of the International Socialist Division of Labor called for specialization and integration of production.

Khrushchev’s abortive attempt to introduce supranational planning.

XII.  Early Reforms (1960-1970)

A.      Soviet system inappropriate for small, trade-dependent countries. Hungary and Poland initiated  reforms.

B.      Deterioration of Soviet growth. Kosygin reforms of mid-1960s.

C.      Watershed in 1968— Prague Spring and Hungarian New Economic Mechanism.

XIII. Prelude to the Fall (1970-1985)

1970 Food price hikes in Poland lead to strikes, repression, and resignation of Gomulka.

1972 Nixon visits Moscow, launches détente.

1976 Polish indebtedness culminates again in price hikes, strikes, repression.

1978  Selection of Polish pope.

1980 Birth of Solidarity trade union in Poland.

1981 Polish martial law.

XIV. The End and the New Beginning (1985-1991)

1985 Mikhail Gorbachev takes office in the Soviet Union, introduces glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), and repudiates Brezhnev Doctrine.

1989 Mass demonstrations, destruction of Berlin Wall, removal of Communist leaders throughout the region.

1990 Balcerowicz “shock therapy” in Poland.

1991  Abortive coup against Gorbachev causes Russian President Yeltsin to suspend Communist Party activities and Gorbachev to dissolve USSR.