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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

“They have coined a new word – NEPman,” wrote Maurice Hindus, an American journalist who frequently returned to Russia, his native land, in the 1920s, “and no person who has not visited Russia can appreciate how mean a word it has become in that country.” NEPmen were businessmen and women (NEPmenshi) who took advantage of the opportunities for private trade and small-scale manufacturing created by the New Economic Policy (NEP). Their entrepreneurial activities, indeed their very existence, were an affront to the Communist Party and its goal of building socialism in the USSR. Yet, so long as state commercial and cooperative institutions were incapable of meeting the demand for goods and services, NEPmen were (barely) tolerated. Often depicted as fat, greedy, and in certain renditions, Jewish, NEPmen quite literally embodied the contradictions of a policy whose aim was to build socialism with bourgeois hands.

As such, NEPmen were subjected to a daunting array of taxes and other restrictions on their ability to conduct commerce. Beginning in late 1923 and extending well into 1924, what one foreign observer described as a “wave of terror” descended on NEPmen. Sparked by the aim of eliminating the middleman as a means of overcoming the price “scissors” between industrial and agricultural goods, the state reduced to a trickle credits and direct sales to NEPmen. This only succeeded in driving many traders underground and into more speculative lines of business. By 1925, largely as a result of the ascendance of Nikolai Bukharin’s more moderate line towards private trade, the pressure against NEPmen abated. Taxes and red tape to acquire trading licenses were reduced, and local officials were instructed not to harass those engaged in private trade. As a consequence, the number of private merchants and their volume of sales rebounded.

But the leeway for NEPmen would not last for long. Once Stalin and his supporters gained the upper hand in the party, pressure against the private sector increased again, this time with redoubled force. Beginning in 1927 an all-out campaign to eliminate NEPmen was launched and by the end of the decade they had all but disappeared along with the New Economic Policy itself.

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