January 01, 2015

The Soviet Military–Industrial Complex: New Year Insights from Dexter and Rodionov

Writing about web page http://warwick.ac.uk/vpk/

Today sees a new version of the Dexter-Rodionov guide to The Factories, Research and Design Establishments of the Soviet Defence Industry. This is the sixteenth edition; the very first (in which I was co-author) appeared in January 1999. In that time the datset has grown from just over 2,000 entries to nearly 30,000, and the detail from around 100kb to more than 10Mb.

From the start this was a curiosity-driven project. The Soviet military-industrial complex was veiled in secrecy for decades. In 1992 the former Soviet archives were opened up for independent research. Google's Ngram viewer lets you see how the subject broke out into the light of day. The chart shows the relative frequency of the phrase "советский военно-промышленный комплекс" (Soviet military-industrial complex) in Russian-language publications from 1917 to 2010. A few of these would have occurred in items published in Russian outside the Soviet Union; I suspect that explains the first observations from the 1970s and early 1980s.

What were the factories that made Soviet weapons and military equipment? How many and how important were they? Where were they? When were they built? How specialized were they, and how self-sufficient? We just wanted to know.

My co-author of the time, Nikolai Simonov, was showing me some of the lists of secret ("numbered") defence factories in the 1920s and 1930s that he had found in the archives. I knew that Julian Cooper at Birmingham had his own files. We were soon joined by Keith Dexter, an authority on Soviet aviation. We put together what we had and the result was the first edition of the present guide. If you are at all interested in the history of exactly how and when the Soviet defence industry was made secret, I still recommend that you read Julian Cooper's introduction to this first edition.

Soon after that, Keith drew in Ivan Rodionov, another aviation expert, and so it became the Dexter-Rodionov guide.

What's new in version 16, apart from additional detail? The cover page carries the chart below, which shows the growing number of Soviet enterprises engaged in defence production from 1917 through 1991, distributed among the major production branches.

The number of Soviet defence plants, 1917-1991

Here are my takeaways (thanks to Dexter and Rodionov for drawing my attention to some of these):

  • The breakneck pace of Stalin's rearmament from the mid-1930s is clearly visible. It culminated in the war, and the first spike which is recorded in 1944).
  • Also visible is the more moderate but sustained growth of defence plants after the war, including the rapid surpassing of the wartime peak.
  • There is a second spike in the number of defence plants in 1964. This was the year in which Khrushchev was outmanoeuvred and replaced by Brezhnev. It suggests an economic issue in the power struggle: was Khrushchev trying to build up defence production at a pace that others considered to be infeasible?
  • The changing composition of the defence sector has two striking aspects. One is the vast growth of radioelectronic establishments. By the end, this sector alone accounted for half of the entire Soviet defence industry.
  • The other aspect is the tremendous stability of the traditional sectors: armament, armour, and shipbuilding. It would not come as any surprise to a student of the Soviet economy to learn that they could create new sectors (like the nuclear industry or radioelectronics) but even if they wanted they couldn't close the old ones down.

Finally, the chart shows us that by the end there were just over 5,000 plants engaged in defence production. How many is that? In 1987 (according to the Soviet statistical handbook of that year) there were more than half a million state-owned establishments of all kinds in the Soviet economy. So, we are looking at no more than one per cent of the total, and one per cent does not seem like a lot. The explanation is that most defence plants were relatively large. Their share in the whole economy, measured by capital assets or production, was many times greater than their share in the number of plants.

As for the share of defence production in the whole Soviet economy, we are still a long way from being able to pin that down. For any other country the most obvious way to do it would be to work from the expenditure side, by comparing the size of the Soviet military budget with the size of the economy, as opposed to working from the production side, which raises a lot of complicated issues about plant specialization and intermediate production. Alas, in the Soviet case it is no less of a problem to work from the expenditure side, because Soviet defence expenditures were also highly secret. Here I mean true military expenditures, not the officially published figures which were as phoney as a three-dollar bill. In fact, the real figures were so secret that by the end nobody knew what they were! And i mean nobody, literally; I wrote about it here.

The Soviet military-industrial complex continues to throw up many challenges for historical research. The Dexter-Rodionov guide is a terrific place to start looking for both questions and answers.


- 5 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Martin

    Mark, many thanks for this post. What can one say about the largest establishment, radioelectronics? Is it perhaps data selection, or Soviet classification of factories which in a market economy would have been civilian? Or did they simply expand output of things that had been scarce during WW2, like radios?

    01 Jan 2015, 16:33

  2. Mark Harrison

    Martin, I was pleased to be in touch today with Julian Cooper, who writes:

    “The Soviet radio-electronics industry had three main components – radio industry (radio goods, civil and miitary), radar, air defence systems, etc, the number of enterprises of which grew rapidly in the postwar years; communications equipment (telephone, telegraph, military communications, etc., and electronic components, Minelektronprom, by the 1970s and 1980s increasingly producing electronic goods as well as components, military and civilian, including microcomputers. The rapid growth of the number of enterprises in the REK complex was caused mainly by the latter – the development of highly specialised enterprises making components. These tended to be relatively small by Soviet standards, perhaps employng 1,000 to 3,000 workers, and in the 1970s and ‘80s there was a deliberate policy of building them in locations where there was spare labour, in particular female. So, many new enterprises appeared in the N. Caucasus, including Chechnya, and in Belorussia, Moldavia, Armenia, Georgia, etc. The average size of MEP establishments was much lower than for other branches of the defence industry. There was another part of the electronics industry outside the ‘nine’, Minpribor, the producer of instrumentation and computers, including military systems. This ministry also had some relatively small enterprises. So, no mystery in my view, the large number of REK enterprises was the outcome of a deliberate location policy, perhaps also influenced by potential mobilisation considerations, i.e. scattering component production widely in the event of conflict.”

    02 Jan 2015, 15:10

  3. Martin

    Thanks, this is all very interesting information. I am currently working on an article for which this data is extremely useful.

    02 Jan 2015, 18:00

  4. Martin

    Mark, may I ask two more questions? Firstly, is there any chance that the number of defense industries is inflated by the fact that the definition of war industry was also expanded over time? I know, for example, how during WW2 the definition was expanded, so that more workers were also sentenced for “desertion from war industry” than what would otherwise have been the case. On the other hand, these sectors in the specific data set were perhaps always defense?

    Secondly, I noted that the dates given for the individual establishments (column 9) very often show that the firm was either closed or converted in 2003. Was there any large reform in 2003, which can explain this?

    07 Jan 2015, 09:56

  5. Mark Harrison

    Martin, I wish I knew. I suggest you forward these questions to the authors, whose contact details are here http://warwick.ac.uk/vpk/contacts. Best wishes, Mark

    09 Jan 2015, 16:05


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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