Capitalism and Socialism in Russia

Concept Formation and the (Post-)Soviet Experience

The year 2021 marks the anniversary of two pivotal junctures in Russian and Soviet history – the 30th anniversary of the Soviet collapse and the 100th anniversary of the New Economic Policy (NEP). While the first stands for the downfall of socialism, the unravelling of the planned economy and the attempt to make Russia capitalist again, the introduction of NEP represented the first, albeit temporary and gradual, opening of a state-socialist order to capitalist elements. The Soviet and post-Soviet experience of capitalism and socialism speaks to vibrant debates in the humanities and social sciences, where both categories remain foundational to much of Political Economy, Historical Sociology and Political Theory. Recently, the social and economic consequences of the financial crisis of 2007-9 or the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 have given new currency to critiques of capitalism, bringing back the contested concepts of capitalism and socialism into the scholarly – and public – debate.

Our workshop proposes to analyse the contestation of capitalism and socialism through the prism of Russian and Soviet history, to enrich the scholarly debate about the historically diverse formation of the two concepts. The history of the Soviet Union, which, after all, promised nothing less than the “negation of capitalism” (S. Kotkin), encapsulates the violent and transformative power of this contestation like no other, offering ample ground to investigate associated conceptual and empirical questions. The workshop aims to provide an interdisciplinary venue to examine the contexts and mechanisms of capitalism and socialism in the Russian case and discuss the contestations between them throughout transformative episodes in the history of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.

Our workshop departs from the methodological premise that the concepts socialism and capitalism, at once categories of analysis and categories of practice (Bourdieu), can only meaningfully be employed if understood in their geographic and historical particularity. Therefore, the workshop proposes to conceive of capitalism and socialism as processual categories rather than ideal types. In viewing the concepts through the prism of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian history, we seek to subject them to a critical, historically informed and interdisciplinary revision. In particular, we are looking for contributions discussing the following topics and their implications for concept formation:

I) The Soviet Union pursued an alternative socio-economic order to capitalism arguably more radically than any other power before. Its early years – e.g. War Communism, New Economic Policy (NEP) and the “Great Break” (1917-1934) – invite inquiries into the relationship between capitalism – as a social formation coordinated via decentralized markets – and the centralizing impetus of socialism in the name of the exploited and oppressed.
II) Conversely, the political and social transformation of 1985-1993 can be interpreted as a radical negation of socialism – an attempt to re-create a capitalist system. However, the form in which this attempt actually built capitalism in post-Soviet Russia and the specific social and power relations that have emerged from this transformation remain subject to heated debate.
III) Finally, the Soviet experience remains a discursive resource both in the politics and scholarship on post-Soviet Russia as well as in contemporary processes of deliberation in various arenas of global governance, such as international organisations, national party politics and transnational NGO networks.
To discuss these and related issues, we invite scholars from the fields of sociology, history, political science, cultural studies, economics and the bridging disciplines of political economy and historical sociology, to participate in an interdisciplinary dialogue.

We plan to publish selected contributions to the workshop in a special issue in a peer-reviewed journal or an edited volume with an internationally renowned publisher.
We have applied for funding of the workshop by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung. In case of a grant approval, the organisers will cover all basic expenses, including travel, accommodation, transfers, and meals.


Listed below you will find the scheduled program:


Wednesday, September 22 

15.30-16.00 (BER) | 16.30-17.00 (MSK) | 09.30-10.00 (NY) | 06.30-07.00 (LA) 

Opening Remarks 

Katharina Bluhm (FU Berlin)
Friedrich Asschenfeldt (Princeton University) 

Sebastian Hoppe (FU Berlin) 

16.00-17.00 (BER) | 17.00-18.00 (MSK) | 10.00-11.00 (NY) | 07.00-08.00 (LA)

The Emergence of Soviet Socialism and its Spread

From Ludendorff to Lenin? The First World War and the Origins of Economic Planning 

Max Trecker (GWZO Leipzig) 

Friedrich Asschenfeldt (Princeton University) 

Comrades or Entrepreneurs? A History of Sino-Soviet Joint-Stock Companies in Xinjiang, 1950-1955 

Xiao Sun (Princeton University) 

17.00-17.15 (BER) | 18.00-18.15 (MSK) | 11.00-11.15 (NY) | 08.00-08.15 (LA) 

Coffee chat (breakout sessions) 

17.15-18.15 (BER) | 18.15-19.15 (MSK) | 11.15-12.15 (NY) | 08.15-09.15 (LA) 

Global Governance of Soviet Socialism 

The Soviet Management of Infectious Diseases in the Brezhnev Era. Contradictions Between Local Economic Reforms and the International Advancement of Universal Healthcare in the 1970s and 1980s 

Zuleykha Mail Zada (LMU Munich) 

Soviet “Socialism” vs. Turkish “Capitalism”? Conceptualizing the Environmental History of the Black Sea in the 1960s-1980s 

Taylor Zajicek (Princeton University) 


Thursday, September 23 

16.15-17.15 (BER) | 17.15-18.15 (MSK) | 10.15-11.15 (NY) | 07.15-08.15 (LA) 

Is Post-Soviet Russia Capitalist? 

Before or After Capitalism? Russia’s Non-Transformative Developmentalism and the Political Economy of Rent 

Sebastian Hoppe (FU Berlin) 

Is State Intervention Compatible with Capitalism? Dilemmas of Industrial Policy in Post- Soviet Russia 

Ewa Dąbrowska (SCRIPTS, FU Berlin) 

17.15-17.30 (BER) | 18.15-18.30 (MSK) | 11.15-11.30 (NY) | 08.15-08.30 (LA) 

Coffee chat (breakout sessions) 

17.30-19.00 (BER) | 18.30-20.00 (MSK) | 11.30-13.00 (NY) | 08.30-10.00 (LA) 

Reforming Socialism? 

The Road from Snake Hill. The Genesis of Russian Neoliberalism 

Tobias Rupprecht (SCRIPTS, FU Berlin) 

A Prosopographical Perspective on Economic Policies in the late 1980s and 1990s 

Olessia Kyrchyk (HSE Moscow) 

Soviet Capitalist Bankers on the Financial Front of Cold Wars: Trajectories and Practices, 1985-2014 

Sophie Lambroscini (Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin) 

19.00-19.15 (BER) | 20.00-20.15 (MSK) | 13.00-13.15 (NY) | 10.00-10.15 (LA) 

Coffee chat (breakout sessions) 

19.15-20.15 (BER) | 20.15-21.15 (MSK) | 13.15-14.15 (NY) | 10.15-11.15 (LA) 

Soviet Socialism and the Political Economy of the Cold War

Cold War As Political Economy. The Origins of Super Power Stagflation 

Yakov Feygin (Berggruen Institute, Los Angeles) Tim Barker (Harvard University) 


Friday, September 24 

14.00-15.30 (BER) | 15.00-16.30 (MSK) | 08.00-09.30 (NY) | 05.00-06.30 (LA) 

Perestroika’s Conceptual Discontents 

Introduction of Capitalism or Development of Socialism? Discussions of the Private Enterprise and Social Justice in the Soviet Union during Perestroika (1986-1991) 

Anna Ivanova (Harvard University) 

The Demise of the Soviet Union. Controversies and Significance for Pro-Market Theories of Development 

Mihai Varga (FU Berlin) 

Manus Manum Lavat: The Privatization Campaign “Loans-for-Shares” in Russia 1995/96 

Boris Ginzburg (FU Berlin) 

15.30-15.45 (BER) | 16.30-16.45 (MSK) | 09.30-09.45 (NY) | 06.30-06.45 (LA) 

Coffee chat (breakout sessions) 

15.45-16.45 (BER) | 16.45-17.45 (MSK) | 09.45-10.45 (NY) | 06.45-07.45 (LA) 

Ideas and Russian State Capitalism

Russia’s Contemporary State Capitalism in National-Conservative Thinking 

Katharina Bluhm (FU Berlin) 

Making Sense of the Past, Imagining the Future: Authoritarian Developmentalism and the Role of Ideas in Russian Economic Policy Making 

Vera Rogova (PRI Frankfurt/Main) 

16.45-17.15 (BER) | 17.45-18.15 (MSK) | 10.45-11.15 (NY) | 07.45-08.15 (LA) 

Concluding Remarks & Publication Plan 

Katharina Bluhm (FU Berlin)

Friedrich Asschenfeldt (Princeton University) Sebastian Hoppe (FU Berlin) 


If you have further questions, please contact the organisers of the event:
Sebastian Hoppe (Aktivieren Sie JavaScript, um diesen Inhalt anzuzeigen.) and
Friedrich Asschenfeldt (Aktivieren Sie JavaScript, um diesen Inhalt anzuzeigen.)

© Sebastian Hoppe


Report: Alexandra Heidsiek, Sophia Othmer und George Payne

With the thirtieth anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union fast approaching, academics and analysts alike continue to question the meaning behind this historical moment. This international conference, hosted by the Freie Universität Berlin with the support of the German Association for East European Studies (DGO), was an attempt to come to terms with the political economy of a country at the heart of global ideological debates. In their introductory remarks, the organizers Katharina BLUHM (Berlin), Friedrich ASSCHENFELDT (Princeton), and Sebastian HOPPE (Berlin) set out to unify empirical research from sociology, political science, and history into transformational periods of modern Russian history. Their stated goal was to examine the use and applicability of categories like socialism and capitalism in the case of the Soviet and of the post-Soviet.

The workshop began by re-considering the emergence and spreading of Soviet socialism. Max TRECKER (Leipzig) and Asschenfeldt sought to elucidate how the German World War I economy may be regarded as a model for the Soviet Union’s early experiments with Marxist central planning. While the mechanisms Germany employed exemplified the possibilities for economic rationalization, as Lenin himself famously acknowledged, wartime mobilization across the continent appeared to signal a transition to a non-capitalist social and economic order. The subsequent collapse of the Imperial Russian economy inherited by the Bolsheviks further necessitated a novel degree of planning.

The short life of four Soviet-China joint stock companies was used by Xiao SUN (Princeton) in her presentation to question the nature and goals of the spread of Soviet-style socialism. Drawing on company data and qualitative sources, she argued that economic relations between the two countries after the 1949 revolution were comparable to those of capitalist countries. Such findings relativize claims from the likes of Odd Arne Westad that Sino-Soviet relations were that of ‘brothers in arms’[i]. Rather, state capitalism and possibly colonial exploitation were discussed as more relevant concepts of analysis. This empirically-grounded story could feed into a growing field dedicated to the study of socialist globalization.[ii]

The next discussion also placed the USSR in international context, albeit in the fields of health and environment. Presenting a research proposal, Zuleykha MAIL ZADA (Munich) suggested that the re-integration of the USSR into the World Health Organization in 1956 was accompanied by a policy shift in line with the global institution’s depoliticized approach to technical assistance. Soviet officials then used these interactions with the WHO to reconfigure centre-periphery relations and consolidate the regime by impeding nationalism in the republics. Unlike the previous speaker, Taylor ZAJICEK (Princeton) found that notions of capitalism and socialism seemed to lose their clarity when researching the politics of environmentalism through the prism of science, culture, or technology in the Black Sea region from the 1960s to the 1980s. Building on a trend in environmental historiography which looks at two systems in comparative perspective, he emphasized the complex entanglements between the Soviet Union and its capitalist neighbour Turkey.

Hoppe opened a new session by directly addressing the workshop’s title and questioning whether post-Soviet Russia is (state) capitalist. He argued that its political economy more closely resembled rentierism. This hypothesis is a reaction to what Hoppe believes is the inflationary use of the term ‘capitalism’ in and outside of academia to describe the state of the Russian economy that emerged after 1991. Ultimately, his position relies on a narrow definition of capitalism as a profit-based social formation, which is conceptually and empirically challenged by Russia’s political economy of rent.

The next, somewhat complementary, intervention on the subject of whether post-Soviet Russia is capitalist came from Ewa DĄBROWSKA (Berlin), who spoke of Soviet legacies in Russian industrial policy which contradict the standard definition of capitalism. These can be found in areas like infrastructure, technological innovation, space exploration, creating artificial demand, and the production of consumer goods by the military industrial complex. In an era where state capitalism seems to be on the rise, Dąbrowska traced the origins of the “Soviet turn” in one of its emblematic cases. She concluded that the failures of the hands-off approach of the 1990s, rather than authoritarianism, define the present moment.

The following session examined the role of elites in Russia’s transition to capitalism. While the historical approach of Tobias RUPPRECHT (Berlin) and sociological prosopography of Olessia KYRCHYK (Moscow) differ, both their presentations questioned the narrative of Western diffusionism in the rise of neoliberal ideas in Russia. They argued for a more nuanced approach when looking at the intellectual and political development of a generation of young economists shaped more by a tradition of mathematical economics and the global economic crises of the 1970s. Kyrchyk, in particular, emphasized how the reformers came from within, drawn out of the elite academic and party structures. Rupprecht’s research will be published as a chapter in Dieter Plehwe and Quinn Slobodian’s forthcoming edited book Market Civilizations: Neoliberals East and South.[iii]

Sophie LAMBROSCHINI (Berlin) brought to life the story of Soviet capitalist bankers abroad and how they helped guide post-communist transformation, focussing on the first Soviet bond issued in Zürich in 1988 by the Bank for Foreign Economic Affairs of the USSR, or Vnesheconombank, with the support of the West German Bank für Kredite und Außenhandel. The role of the so-called “Zurich network” demonstrated how technocrats, not simply those in the upper echelons of power, were instrumental in opening the economy to foreign trade.

The topic “Soviet Socialism and the Political Economy of the Cold War” directly related to the premise of the conference. In a text co-authored by Tim BARKER (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Yakov FEYGIN (Los Angeles) pointed to the remarkable similarities in the political economy of both superpowers during the Cold War. The parallelisms in the two countries’ post-war development had been remarked upon by convergence theorists of the 1970s, who considered capitalist free markets and socialist planning to be complementary in industrialized societies, even if delivered in different social forms.[iv] The similarities ended in the 1980s, according to Feygin, when the US proved to be politically more flexible by adopting the “low-hanging fruit” of neoliberalism. He also openly questioned whether the USSR was indeed socialist, especially during the 1980s.

While current literature on enterprise reform in the late Soviet Union pits bold reformers against conservatives in government and society, Anna IVANOVNA (Cambridge, Massachusetts) suggested that opposition was widespread. In her view, the reformers’ belief in the progressive nature of the transformations and the general populace’s far-sighted concerns about rising inequality showed that public debate was still couched within socialist terminology of labour and income distribution. This runs contrary to the customary and triumphalist liberal script that the reforms ultimately discredited socialism and led to the Soviet Union’s demise.[v]

Sticking with market reform, Boris GINZBURG (Berlin) evaluated three familiar hypotheses for the “loans-for-shares” privatization campaign of the mid-1990s. One, the Kremlin sold off state assets in unfair auctions to secure financial and media support from the oligarchs for Yeltsin’s presidential election campaign in 1996. Two, the same government used oligarchs to unseat “Red Directors” in state enterprises. Three, the Kremlin wanted to convert the oligarchs from pro- to anti-inflationary forces. His preferred account blended the first two, closely resembling the narrative of the implicated oligarchs.

Turning towards the global implications of the Soviet Union’s fall for pro-market theories of development, the presentation from Mihai VARGA (Berlin) surveyed the World Bank’s oral history project using the theoretical framework of paradigm hybridization.[vi] The institution’s understanding of capitalism was characterized by a strong focus on market economy and property rights. Since “anomalies” or divergent cases like China and Russia had to be explained within the existing narrative framework, the World Bank’s original concept of capitalism took what the author referred to as an “argumentative U-turn”. Whereas at the start of the 1990s, transitioning countries were perceived as rather homogenous, different outcomes were later explained by the speed of reforms or pre-existing conditions within these countries. By integrating new explanatory variables into an existing paradigm without changing core assumptions, Varga made the case that the World Bank was a central agent in shaping the neoliberal consensus.

The last topic “Illiberal Conservative Developmental Statism” was based on a chapter by Bluhm in an upcoming book. She presented the draft together with her colleague and co-author Varga. For them, the term illiberal conservatism is not sufficient to understand the post-communist space on an ideological level. To exemplify this, they cited countries like Poland, Russia, and Hungary, where nationalist politicians exploited the political vacuum left by the absence of ‘traditional’ conservatism to establish a particular form of illiberal conservatism. In a break with their neoliberal predecessors, these new political players emphasized a strong central executive branch as a counterforce and as the means to accelerate development. Hiding behind populist speech, they shared a common ideology, for which Bluhm and Varga coined the term “illiberal conservative developmental statism”.

The conference managed to blend established academics and young researchers, all of whom were eager to open up new ground in their joint fields of research. The list of speakers did, however, reflect the hosts’ institutional ties. A broader group could be invited in the future, in particular academics from the post-Soviet space. The chosen topics leant heavily, but not exclusively, on political economy. Indeed, the focus on transformational periods in Russian history could be read as a story of the state as the agent of change.

As for the overall theme, Max Weber’s understanding of concept formation as an interpretative construction of reality remains controversial in social sciences. The conference attempted to critically evaluate the notions of capitalism and socialism: Are they appropriate and useful concepts to grasp the historical and cultural nature of the researched phenomena? Among participants, it was accepted that clear definitions of socialism and capitalism may be helpful or even required in some cases, but have limited use in others. This opens up the opportunity for other terms of reference, like rentierism, state capitalism, or the wordier illiberal conservative developmental statism. Their advantage over the socialism/capitalism paradigm is yet to be clearly proven.

The question of how to categorize Soviet and post-Soviet Russia is still vexing. 1991 as a point of transition was relativized throughout the conference, largely due to the incomplete results of said transition. Thirty years on, it is unclear whether Putin will continue to revive Soviet legacies or lead Russia down a new path.

The conference report was published on 10th of December 2021:

Capitalism and Socialism Through the Russian Prism. Lineages of Concept Formation and the (Post-)Soviet Experience, 22.09.2021 – 24.09.2021 digital (Berlin), in: H-Soz-Kult, 10.12.2021,


[i] Odd. A. Westad (ed.), Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945-1963, Washington, DC 1998.

[ii] Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, Red Globalization: The Political Economy of the Soviet Cold War from Stalin to Khrushchev, Cambridge 2014; Max Trecker, Red Money for the Global South: East-South Economic Relations in the Cold War London 2020.

[iii] Dieter Plehwe y Quinn Slobodian (eds.), Market Civilization: Neoliberals East and South, Princeton, NJ 2022.

[iv] John Kenneth Galbraith, The New Industrial State, Princeton, NJ 1967.

[v] François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, Chicago, IL 1999; Jürgen Habermas, Die nachholende Revolution, Frankfurt am Main 1990.

[vi] World Bank Group Archives: Oral History Program: (24.10.2021); The term paradigm hybridization was taken from: Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Cambridge, MA 1993.

Conference report (PDF, 136 kB)

22.09. bis 24.09.2021

Institute for East European Studies
ground floor, Lecture Hall A
Garystraße 55
14195 Berlin


Deutsche Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde

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