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Trade and Technology in Soviet-Western Relations Review


It is always a fascinating thing to read books about the Soviet Union during its last decades, from a time when there was no apparent perception among foreign observers that collapse was imminent. It shows that tremendous and extensive knowledge of the Soviet Union provided no real ability to understand the seismic shifts in Soviet society, to recognize the weaknesses that plagued it and would ultimately drag it down;

This is however, not for lack of quite good systemic and specific analysis in Philip Hansons’s book Trade and Technology in Soviet-Western Relations. Hanson does a very good job of attempting to a give a general statistical picture of Western technology imports’ impact upon the Soviet growth rate (estimating that it added perhaps another half a percentage point of growth Soviet industrial growth rates), and specific examples of the implementation of Western tech, such as the Kamaz auto plant. Great as part of this is its analysis of the performance of Western technology in the USSR and how it related to the rest of the Soviet economy and development.

The KAMAZ truck plant was an excellent example of a full-scale Soviet importation of Western technology to build a massive automobile factory

The KAMAZ truck plant was an excellent example of a full-scale Soviet importation of Western technology to build a massive automobile factory

Thus it is able to cogently show the Soviet strengths and weakness in their development model, with its relatively effective development of new plants, but its problems for technological updating and improvements, as well as somewhat lower productivity on even Western-imported plants. And despite the sheer size of the Soviet research and development sector, the largest in the world, it proved less capable than the West at being able to put its theoretical development into practical use. There are some simarities to this in the West, such as the tendency of some universities to prefer theoretical reserch over practical implementation (not that this is necessarily a bad thing in of itself, but it has the result of making the research less directly useful and capable of being applied to the broader economy), and the problems of effectively transferring knowledge, but it was magnified in the Soviet system. Technological imports could help to overcome this, but in areas like the chemical industry they also ran the risk of prompting the Soviet research and development sector to fail to itself develop to the extent of being able to overcome this shortfall itself.

Another good part is showing how the dynamics of importation occurred. Although the Soviet Union may have been a centrally planned and administrated economy, and in a macro-economic sense the importation of Western technology made sense, the Soviet economy with its host of bureaux competing for valuable resources and foreign exchange, was never so straightforward as to have just this element to explain its importation of technology.By contrast, there were various logics at work, such as the different dynamics of the import of foreign goods, where g reater control could be exercised over arrival times and greater quality assured compared to domestic sources. Thus, despite a theoretical macro-economics preference for restricted foreign imports in a planned economy, it could sometimes display incentives to outright favor foreign imports - beyond the previously mentioned preferences for foreign imports over domestic products in areas such as the chemical industry. In its most extreme version, this could lead to a “Not invented there” syndrom to replace “not invented here.”

While an economic book is hardly literary, AUTHOR has managed to make the work reasonably readable for a broader audience while simultaneously providing the documentation and economic calculation scribbles for those interested. But his written elements are perfectly capable of being udnerstood by the layman and presenting his thesis. It also has a solid relevance, both at the time and even today, through its arguments and discussion about what the Western response to Soviet technology imports could and should have been. While the Soviet Union has fallen for decades by now, and the nature of the international economy has greatly changed, this book also provides examples of how the Chinese importation and management of Western technology could be dealt with. In this, it has a continued relevance to the present.

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