Cooperative societies, as distinguished from the peasant commune and arteli (cooperative associations) of peasant migrant laborers, were seen by the liberal and socialist intelligentsia of the mid-nineteenth century as devices to protect the laboring classes from exploitation and empower them (cf. Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? ). The famine of 1891–1892 and the subsequent intensification of industrial development led the educated classes and some government agencies to foster the growth of cooperatives, although bureaucratic restrictions persisted. The movement burgeoned between the Revolution of 1905 and World War I, with a tenfold increase in the number of cooperative societies, which handled roughly 7 percent of consumer goods sales by 1914. The main types were urban consumer cooperatives, concerned principally with retail and wholesale trade, and agricultural credit cooperatives, whose primary purpose was to make short-term loans to members. There were also some producer associations, most notably butter cooperatives of Northern Russia and Western Siberia, and artisanal cooperatives. During World War I, cooperatives increased by another 60 percent, helping to produce goods for the war effort and cushion consumers against inflation.
After 1917, Bolshevik policy alternated between tolerating cooperatives as voluntary organizations and making them into quasi-state organs. During war communism, cooperatives became adjuncts of the Commissariat of Supply, to which producers and consumers were required to belong. Agricultural producer cooperatives were few and weak, but valued by the Soviet regime as precursors of collective farming. During the New Economic Policy (NEP), the Communist Party allowed cooperatives to resume their function as voluntary organizations, and Lenin singled them out as the means to lead peasants to socialism. By 1926 and 1927, with the state supporting them as an alternative to private entrepreneurs, cooperatives accounted for as much as half of consumer trade, and a fifth of handicraft and small-scale industrial production. All this ended in 1929 and 1930, when voluntary cooperatives were eliminated during industrialization and collectivization. Although cooperatives nominally persisted, with the kolkhoz defined as an artel in the 1934 Model Charter, in fact they had lost their independent status and once again became channels for state-imposed economic activity.
With the rise of perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev, cooperatives took on renewed importance, emerging in the late–1980s as a principal structure for private economic activity. On April 1, 1990, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were more than 185,000 operating cooperatives employing almost 4.4 million people.
See also: collective farms; new economic policy; peasant economy; perestroika; war communism
Lewin, Moshe. (1968). Russian Peasants and Soviet Power. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.