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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Trade in Kharkiv in the Years of NEP (1921 – 1929): Economy and Everyday Life

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Iryna Skubii

Economic history is a field that has been under-investigated by scholars specializing in Ukrainian, Soviet, and post-Soviet history. However, as the Bolsheviks built their state based on the principles of planned economy, economics influenced all spheres of political and social life. Examining trade as an area of ​​interaction between public and private life gives us an insight into the massive transformations of Soviet society during the 1920s known as the New Economic Policy. This period was associated with the emergence of private enterprises in the spheres of trade and industry, as well as with the creation of the state cooperative system. It was a time when ordinary people sought to take advantage of new economic opportunities to improve their lives.

Nowadays, most scholars actively use interdisciplinary approaches to answer questions about the essence of the Bolsheviks’ political regime, its ideology, social hierarchy and mobility, identities, new social norms, and everyday practices. The economic and social history of Soviet society in the 1920s has been widely studied both by Western (Sheila Fitzpatrick, Julie Hesler, Olena Osokina)[1] and Ukrainian scholars (Stanislav Kulchytskyi, Olga Kolyastruk, Yurii Volosnyk).[2] However, the history of Kharkiv as a political and economic center, and capital city of Soviet Ukraine at that time, has been overlooked in the historiography. My research explores how Kharkiv played a crucial role in the early Soviet economy in the spheres of wholesale, stock exchange, and fair trade. Moreover, I argue that the city is an important case study for examining relations between center and periphery in Soviet Union.

My monograph, Torhivlia v Kharkovi v roky NEPu (1921-1920): ekonomika ta povsiakdennist' (Trade in Kharkiv in the Years of NEP: Economy and Everyday Life) draws on a wide range of sources collected during my PhD program in Ukrainian history at Kharkiv National University. I analyzed different types of documents located in Ukrainian archives, including the Central State Archives of Public Organizations of Ukraine, the Central State Archives of the Supreme Bodies of Power and Government of Ukraine, and the State Archive of Kharkiv region. I also consulted articles in periodicals covering key issues of state policy on trade and economic life, and which vibrantly reflected the changes in its course and ideology: Visti VuCVK, Kommunist, Sovetskaia Torgovlia, Ekonomicheskaia zhizn', Khar'kovskii proletarii, Kooperatyvne Budivnytstvo, Rabochii Kooperator etc. With the help of a grant from the Shevchenko Scientific Society in the USA, the results of more than five years of research was published by “Rarytety Ukrainy” as a part of the series “Structures of everyday life”.

The book focuses on the following questions: What were the typical features of the development of retail, wholesale, and trade in Kharkiv? Was it possible for state-owned joint ventures to function alongside communist ideology? What were the peculiarities of the formation and workings of cooperative trade in Kharkiv? Was trade in the capital city “cultural”? What entrepreneurial practices and mechanisms for cooperation with the authorities and state security bodies arose in the daily activities of private traders in Kharkiv?

Nepman at the financial inspector, 1920s. Open Source Image

The book explores the interconnections between economic history and history of everyday life, with early chapters focusing on the trader’s profession, business risks, shortages of goods, and the role of state security bodies. Private traders had to be very adaptable, often changing the form of their enterprises, its name, and location. The caricature below, published in Har'kovskii proletarii in 1928, satirized these constant changes in the activities of private entrepreneurs and how, despite all the market troubles, these Prometheus-like workers founds ways ingenious ways to keep their businesses afloat. Later chapters are devoted to the different spheres of trade in the 1920s: state, cooperative, and private. I demonstrate how the case of Kharkiv is extremely valuable for understanding the early periods of Soviet history, not only because of its importance as an economic center, but also as a space of first experiments with the market and consumption.

Caricature “Changing address.” In: Har'kovskii proletarii, 31 October 1928.

Throughout the 1920s, administrative and fiscal pressures on private trade escalated and alternative ways of conducting entrepreneurial activity developed, such as semi-illegal cooperatives and smuggling. One of the most sophisticated ways of getting goods that were in shortage was by ordering parcels from abroad.[3] Due to the short supply of some industrial and luxury items, private traders took advantage of opportunities to procure goods from abroad, which was formally allowed only for individual purposes. These traders created huge networks throughout the whole Soviet Union and abroad to ensure a permanent and large supply of these goods. This story led me to study smuggling in Kharkiv among local traders and the influence of illicit economic activities on the image of the “nepman” in Soviet public opinion. Examples of “antisocial behavior” were widely discussed in the press at the time, which featured numerous caricatures about private entrepreneurs and the impact on ordinary consumers. For instance, one caricature from the newspaper Rabochii potrebitel' in 1929 satirized the problem of poor quality shoes in the workers’ cooperative stores, which left consumers “walking in agony”.

Caricature “Walking in Agony.” In: Rabochii potrebitel', 30 January 1929.

Overall, understanding trade in Kharkiv in the 1920s allows us to reevaluate the role of center and periphery in the Soviet Union’s economy. In my work, I discuss the development of Kharkiv as an economic center in Soviet Ukraine in comparison with Kyiv and other cities of the Soviet Union. As a city in the geographical periphery, I argue that Kharkiv played a crucial role in the wholesale and stock exchange market. At the same time, my work highlights the need for further research on Soviet urban consumer culture, with an emphasis on its regional features and influence on the modernization of Soviet society. The fight for the “cultural trade” and the development of consumer culture was a key part of the Bolsheviks' ideological policy. As a result, my current research focuses on urban consumption in Soviet Ukraine in the 1920-30s from the perspectives of gender and ageing.[4]

Kharkiv Stock Exchange,1925. Open Source Image.

Iryna Skubii is a candidate of historical sciences (PhD), Associate Professor at the Department for UNESCO “Philosophy of Human Communication” and Socialhumanitarian Disciplines, Petro Vasylenko Kharkiv National Technical University of Agriculture. Her research interests include social and economic history, Ukrainian trade, consumption and materiality, gender and childhood, urban history, history of tourism and places of memory. She is currently a Petro Yacyk Visiting Fellow at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto.

[1] Shelia Fitzpatrick, Povesdnevnyi stalinizm. Sotsial’naia istoriia Sovetskoi Rossii v 30-e gody: gorod (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2018), 336; Julie Hessler, A Social History of Soviet Trade: Trade Policy, Retail Practices, and Consumption, 1917–1953 (Princeton University Press, 2004); E. A. Osokina, Za fasadom “stalinskogo izobiliia”: Raspredelenie i rynok v snabzhenii naseleniia v gody indusrializatsii. 1927 – 1941 gg. (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1999).

[2] S. V. Kul’chits’kii, Komunizm v Ukraini: Pershe desiatyrichchia (1919-1928). (Kyiv: Osnovy, 1996); O. Koliastruk, Intelihentsiia USRR u 1920-ti roky: povsiakdenne zhyttia. (Kharkiv: Rarytety Ukrainy, 2010); Yu. P. Volosnyk, Pidpriiemtsi i pryvatne pidpriiemnytstvo v radians’kii derzhavi v dobu NEPu (na materialakh Ukrainy). (Kharkhiv: Kontrast, 2014).

[3] For more on this topic, see: Irina Skubii, “V kakoi kholodnoi strane my zhivem. U nas vse skryto, vse v podpol’e: tenevaia ekonomika, kontrabanda i torgovlia v Khar’kove v gody NEPa,” in Konstruiruia “sovetskoe”? Politicheskoe soznanie, povsednevnye praktiki i novye identichnosti (St. Petersburg: Izd-vo Evropeiskogo universiteta v Sankt-Peterburge), 117-123.

[4] Some of my recently published work on this topic includes: Iryna Skubii, “‘Dity – radist’ krainy sotsializmu’: ditiachi tovary v Radians’kii Ukraini,” in Ukraina moderna: mizhnarodnii intelektual’nii chasopys, 15 October 2017; Iryna Skubii, “Material’nyi svit dytynstva ta dytiachi tovary v radians’komu spozhyvanni v 1920-1930-ti roky,” in Ukraina XX stolittia: kul’tura, ideolohiia, politika 22 (2017): 152; Iryna Skubii, “Univermah iak prostir mis’kogo spozhivannia v 1920-1930-ti roky v Radians’kii Ukraini,” in Misto: istoriia, kul’tura, suspil’stvo 2, no.4 (2017): 162-175; Iryna V. Skubii, “Choloviche spozhivannia v mis’komu prostori radians’koi Ukrainy v 1920-1930-ti roky,” in Istoriia torhivli, podatkiv ta myta 1-2, nos. 15-16 (2017): 180-187; Iryna V. Skubii, “Problema osmyslennia travmy v radizns'komu spozhyvanni u 1920-1930-ti roky,” in Naukovi zapiski NaUKMA. Istorichni nauki 1 (2018): 67-72.

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