May 22, 2017

The Soviet Economy: Designed for Future War

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In Berlin on 22 November last year, I gave a talk at the Free University in a series on the Centenary of the Russian Revolution. My title was The Stalinist Economic System. The organizers were kind enough to make a video, which has been published here (50 minutes, so pour yourself a drink first if you are inclined to watch).

If you prefer just to leaf through my presentation, a slideshow is here.

For the cover slide, I used an illustration that made a big impact on me when I found it some years ago. It's the front page of Pravda on New Year's Day 1937: "Happy New Year, comrades!"

Pravda 1 January 1937

In the foreground, Stalin smiles benignly on the happy workers and peasants, who wave back at him. Advancing from the background is a column of tanks. Above them in massed formation flies a fleet of bombers. For the image was drawn from a real scene, the Revolution Day parade in Red Square in November 1936. Here's a grainy photo from that day:

TB-3s over Red Square 7 November 1936

(If you would like a moving version, set to the Kremlin bells and a marching band, it's here on Youtube.)

The airplanes were not just symbolic, by the way. The TB-3 was the world's first four-engined bomber. In the late 1930s the Soviet Union was building as many combat airplanes as the rest of the world put together, despite the fact that several other countries were actually at war and the Soviet Union was not.

I used these images to illustrate a simple point. Don't look at them and tell me that the Soviet project was not first and foremost about building national power. Don't tell me the first priority was the welfare of the people, or giving everyone a job or a hot dinner, or even economic growth, There was growth, and job creation, and some people did get hot dinners, but these were incidental by-products of the building of national power.

The Soviet economy was the first of its kind, a system designed for continuous war mobilization, even when there was no war. The Soviet economy and society lived under permanent mobilization, not because there was a war on, but because there might be one in future, and in order to be permanently ready for the "future war" when it arrived. Nothing took priority over that. It was the first priority under Lenin and Stalin, and it continued to be the first priority after the war, under "peaceful coexistence" and in the era of "detente."

There's more, of course. But for that you have to sit through the lecture. So pour yourself a drink.

February 10, 2017

Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go (Part 2)

Follow-up to Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go? from Mark Harrison's blog

My recent blog on torture received an interesting comment from Mr Paul Thompson. If you want to see it in the original, go here and scroll down. I thank him for it. I would have replied beneath it, but my reply turned out to be too long for the box. (One of the risks of blogging, is that there is no one to say no to you.) So, here it is, point by point:

Torture or even the threat of torture, when employed on a large scale, often leads to the victims giving up a large volume of information,

I agree.

some of which is useful for intelligence operations.

Hmm. It depends what is meant by "some." How much? Five percent? The interrogator's problem is then: which five percent? It's not enough for information to be useful. You also have to identify it as such, against the 95 per cent that is not useful. If five per cent is the proportion, the odds on identifying it correctly are just one in twenty. That's not good.

Given the relative technological backwardness of the Nazis and the Soviets, they understood well that mass torture was one the most effective methods they had available to find those of their opponents who had gone into hiding.

I have no specialist knowledge of the methods and results of the Gestapo. But the Soviets: that's wrong. The historical records of Soviet counter-intelligence suggest an entirely different story. The Soviet authorities did believe that their opponents had gone into hiding. The primary method of identifying enemies was not information gleaned through torture, but markers of social origin, kinship, acquaintance, and past behaviour. The products of torture were used mainly to confirm the "guilt" of those already identified by other means. There are many historical accounts, from Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago to Joerg Baberowski's Scorched Earth, published just last year. (Or would you believe, say, that Marshal Tukhachevskii, whose blood was found on his signed confession, was actually an agent of the Gestapo, as he confessed?)

It is a matter of common knowledge that more technologically advanced tyrannies, like modern Russia, still use torture on a mass scale,

I'll give this a pass, but I'm not happy. Even under authoritarian rule there is a distinction to be drawn between torture as a centralized policy and torture in the more decentralized form of the abuses that are enabled when the abusers know they will not be called to account. This distinction may not matter to the victim, but it is certainly germane to the instrumentality of torture. Still, for the sake of argument, let's move on.

and sometimes gain information that they deem important by this means.

That's fascinating. Is that really common knowledge? How would we know about it? (We should think about modern tyrannies that have collapsed, so that their records are available.) And, how often is "sometimes"? And, shouldn't we ask whether "the information that they deem important" turned out to have at least some external validity? I'd certainly like to know more about this.

The Eighth Amendment explicitly prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments".

Absolutely. (But we are not discussing torture as a punishment. We are discussing torture as an instrument for gathering information. The victim is being interrogated, not punished.)

The US political system is duty-bound to enforce the constitution,

Near enough. The President swears to "preserve, protect and defend" the constitution. Enforcement relies on the courts. See below.

so there the matter rests.

Yes, that's what I hope. But enforcement relies on the judiciary. So I am disheartened to find the President, who just swore to "preserve, protect and defend," attacking "so-called judges" and calling the courts "political." He doesn't seem to feel the call of duty as strongly as he might, and he encourages his supporters to believe that the situation calls for a strong leader willing to break rules. As I said, it's disheartening. I understand I'm not the only one to feel this way.

For all the hysteria about waterboarding, the US has not and will not ever have a policy of inflicting permanent physical harm on prisoners.

These words mislead, I think. First, they seem to limit torture to those methods that might lead to "permanent physical harm." So methods leading to physical harm that is only temporary, such as rape or the local bruising or burning of soft tissues, are not torture? And permanent psychological trauma, such as that arising from simulated execution, is also not torture?

And then "the hysteria about waterboarding." A line is drawn, apparently, between waterboarding (done before and perhaps could be done again) and "inflicting permanent physical harm" (not done, and never will be, at least as a matter of policy). But everyone can read the account of waterboarding written by my friend, the late Christopher Hitchens, who was required beforehand to sign a contract of indemnification that included the words:

Water boarding is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.

See the words "permanent" and "physical"?

Based on his experience Hitchens concluded: "Believe me, it's torture."

Perhaps you will find time to write about the mass torture and mass murder at Saydnaya prison,

Probably not. It's horrifying, of course. But my aim is to comment only when I can add something based on expertise. On Saydnaya I have none; I can add only what anyone can add who has skimmed the serious media. It's a topic on which others can add more value than me, so why should I compete with them for attention?

a rather more important topic.

Maybe. In terms of immediate human consequences, you're probably right. In terms of what is added to knowledge, perhaps not. I'm a social scientist, so I'm always interested in surprises, because by definition they tell us something we did not know. We already knew that Syrians lived under a vile tyranny. No surprise there. But to hear "What about Saydnaya" as a response to "Let's not go back to waterboarding": that's a surprise.

Before this, I always believed that US constitutional checks and balances were robust. On this matter I still hope not to be surprised.

January 30, 2017

Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go?

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In his 25 January ABC interview, US President Trump was asked about the use of torture in the interrogation of terrorist suspects. He said:

I have a general who I have great respect for, General Mattis [new secretary of defense], who said — I was a little surprised — who said he's not a believer in torture. As you know, Mr. Pompeo [a defender of waterboarding] was just approved, affirmed by the Senate. He's a fantastic guy, he's gonna be the head of the CIA ...

But I will tell you I have spoken to others in intelligence. And they are big believers in, as an example, waterboarding. As far as I'm concerned we have to fight fire with fire. Now, with that being said I'm going with General Mattis. I'm going with my secretary because I think Pompeo's gonna be phenomenal. I'm gonna go with what they say. But I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence. And I asked them the question, “Does it work? Does torture work?” And the answer was, “Yes, absolutely” ...

I wanna do everything within the bounds of what you're allowed to do legally. But do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works. Have I spoken to people at the top levels and people that have seen it work? I haven't seen it work. But I think it works. Have I spoken to people that feel strongly about it? Absolutely.

According to a draft order on Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants, obtained by The New York Times and published on the same day as the ABC interview, but as yet unconfirmed by the administration, the President intends to allow the CIA to reopen extra-territorial sites for the detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects outside the ordinary legal protections of US domestic law. The draft order specifically orders the secretary of defence, James Mattis, to carry out a review of the interrogation practices authorized by the Army Field Manual since 2006 and to modify them towards the "safe, lawful, and effective" interrogation of "enemy combatants."

Taken together, these disclosures have heightened reasonable fears that the Trump administration is on a course to restore such practices as waterboarding, if not worse.

Torture is wrong. A problem is that many Americans believe that it works. A big influence has been spy movies and TV shows based on a "ticking time bomb" fantasy in which intelligence extracted by torture saves lives. Many viewers have concluded that such scenarios are reality-based, although they are not. In reality torture is unproductive, if not counterproductive, at least on average (I don’t exclude that exceptionally it might give rise to useful information). Worse, just as depictions of torture corrupt the viewer, the practice of torture corrupts those that use it: once you start, it’s hard to stop. For all these reasons, President Trump’s reported willingness to faciliate a return to torture is reprehensible.

Still, if the President intends to change American practices, as opposed to striking an attitude for his voter base, he will encounter significant obstacles. It is notable that in his ABC interview Trump himself acknowledged the first two obstacles. One is the law, including the Detainee Treatment Act 2005, and related court rulings. Another is Mattis, his secretary of defence. Beyond that lie other resisters. His CIA director-designate is not opposed, but it seems the CIA as an organization does not want to go back there. Leading congressmen are opposed, including some Republicans. Finally, America’s allies will not cooperate.

What does Trump really want to achieve? To strike an attitude or to radically change US practices? If the latter, what price is the President willing to pay to achieve it? Is he willing to take on Congress and the courts? To sacrifice Mattis? We don't know. How strong are the checks and balances of the US political system? Again, we don't know.

It will be an interesting time.

January 16, 2017

Kompromat: it’s What We Don’t Know, Not What We Know

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The Steele memorandum, with its lurid tales of Donald Trump and “golden showers,” has put kompromat in the news.

Kompromat is the Russian term, a colloquial abbreviation, for “compromising evidence.” When did it arise? Sometimes there's the impression that it is a recent thing – a feature of post-Soviet Russia. Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the KGB, describes kompromat as “a tactic to smear one’s opponents in the media” that “came into use in Russia in the late 1990s.” Likewise, Julia Joffe links kompromat to cases that became frequent in Russia in the 1990s, involving what Russians call “black PR” – the use of real or faked evidence of wrong doing to discredit political opponents in the public arena.

It’s true that, to judge from the Google Ngram viewer, kompromat was completely unknown until the mid-1980s, when Soviet censorship collapsed, and its use became widespread only in the 1990s. (The figure below shows both the abbreviated and unabbreviated forms of kompromat; they show similar patterns. I can't explain the spikes during World War II; they might just be a random consequence of relatively few books entering the Google Books corpus from that time.)

But this pattern also reflects the limitation to published print media. For the first seventy years of its life the term kompromat was used very widely, but only by Soviet government and party officials in the secret documentation that can now be found in archives. In Soviet times, kompromat denoted the security files that documented the political crimes, misdemeanours, and faults of the citizens. In this sense its use goes back almost a century. The Soviet secret police was founded in 1918, and it began storing kompromat as soon as the circumstances of civil war allowed it to turn from killing people to recording their weaknesses.

Here’s an example. You’re following suspect A, let’s say, someone who is suspected of passing information to foreigners. In the street, A greets a stranger, who now becomes suspect B. Someone else will now follow suspect B and identify him. After that, the officer in charge will write a note to KGB records: “Is there kompromat on B?” And the answer will come back, yes or no. If no, too bad. If yes, it might be that B listens to Western radio, or sends letters abroad, or comes from a family that once had property, or is Jewish, or gets drunk and, when drunk, is liable to curse the communist party and its leaders. For any of these is a sign that B might hold a grudge against the political and social order and should therefore be considered potentially disloyal.

Now, suppose there does exist kompromat on B. The question is, what do you do now? In the Soviet practice of kompromat the answer is that you do not, under any circumstances, take it to the media. On the contrary, you file it and store it.

In Soviet times, kompromat had a mass application and a targeted application. The mass application was to grade people in very large numbers. Then, when someone sought promotion at work, or entry to higher education, or a foreign trip, the KGB would check its files for kompromat, and the files would tell it whether to say yes or no. The evidence would never be disclosed. Nonetheless, it is clear that most Soviet citizens understood the importance of not accumulating kompromat, and this influenced their behaviour in ways that were favourable to the stability of the regime.

Kompromat had a more targeted use. Although arguably of less importance in history than its mass application, this is the meaning of kompromat that is of greater interest today.

In cases where an individual person such as B was targeted, the kompromat would be useful, not when it was published to punish or discredit B, but because it was kept secret. And, used in this way, kompromat had the magical quality that it could turn people who might otherwise have been reluctant or recalcitrant into productive material for the regime.

Kompromat in this sense is blackmail, but no money changes hands. You would use the kompromat to persuade B to cooperate in your task, whatever that might be: for example, you might recruit him as an informer. You would apply the pressure slowly, over a long period of time, and during all this time the kompromat would remain secret, and would never be disclosed, but would be a gift that keeps giving.

This principle was applied not only in police matters, but more widely in politics. The party boss must promote one of two subordinates. Which should he choose, the one that is clean, or the one with a flawed past, documented by kompromat? The choice was clear. The untainted subordinate could become a rival; better promote the one the boss could control, the one who was obligated to the boss by his silence. In a low-trust organization, in other words, kompromat is the key that guarantees loyalty.

In these cases, you can see, the moment the targeted kompromat reaches the public, it loses its power to control the target, for that power lies in secrecy. You promise to keep the information secret while B works with you and your organization. You have given B something to lose. Hold the kompromat forever, and forever your collaborator will be obligated to you.

Today’s use of kompromat to cover the publication of discreditable information – real or fake – is, in comparison, a break with its traditional meaning. To hold kompromat is to hope that the target, the person on whom kompromat is held, might one day be useful. The dissemination of kompromat signals that you’ve given up that hope. The target has nothing left to lose, and can no longer be manipulated.

Here’s the bottom line. To read discreditable stories about our leaders is a worry. We should worry about these stories and try to evaluate them carefully, as best we can. But don’t worry about the stories too much. If they’re false, we should discard them, and, if they’re true, at least we know.

And we know, also, that kompromat that is published is spent and has no more value. The kompromat that still has value, that retains its magical power to induce cooperation, is the kompromat that is held back. If you like to lie awake at night and worry pointlessly about who is manipulating our leaders, you should think about the kompromat that we don’t know and will never hear. As I said, it's pointless.

PS Lots more like this in my book of stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.

December 31, 2016

Reasons to be Cheerful — 1, 2, 3

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I'll spend this New Year Eve with old friends. To keep our spirits up, we agreed some self-denying rules. Here are three things that we will not talking about around the dinner table:

  • Brexit.
  • Donald Trump.
  • Climate change.

This was not my suggestion. And in some ways you might think this would be hard on us, for we are all interested in the world of politics and policy, and those of us who will gather would all have something to say on such matters.

Yet, when it was put to me, it made immediate sense. I recalled a discovery made a few years ago by Angus Deaton. He was working with Gallup surveys of very large numbers of Americans (Deaton 2012). In these surveys, carried out in 2008 and 2009, respondens were asked to evaluate their own subjective well being. It turned out that their responses were strongly affected by whether or not the respondents had just been asked about their views of America's then-current political leaders. The effect of being asked these political questions was to lower the subject's reported well being, compared with others who were asked the questions in a different order. The negative effect was large -- an amount similar to the effect on well being of a major recession, such as the one that was actually taking place at that time.

I concluded that there was a scientific basis for avoiding talk of politics in everyday social interaction. If we all did so, we would feel the improvement.

More recently I found that Deaton has published a reassessment (Deaton and Stone 2016). This work is based on data from a more recent period. The result is a new finding, more complicated than before. As it now turns out, not everyone is depressed by being reminded of politics. Rather, people are depressed if (and only if) their own answers are depressing. Most likely this was already the case back in 2008 and 2009, but at that time there was not much optimism around, and most Americans disliked most of their leaders, so the general feeling that the country was on the wrong track overwhelmed the responses of the optimistic few in the Gallup survey sample.

To relate this to our own national context, we have just had a referendum that split our country into two nearly-equal halves. Suppose you belong to those that think Brexit will prove to be a detriment to our economy and society. When asked your view of British politics facing Brexit, your evaluation of your own life will go down. But if you think that Britain outside the European Union will be a magical success, then being asked your opinion will leave your personal mood as it was. It's only if you think things are going badly that being asked about politics will send your mood down.

Which has implications. One implication is that not all talk of politics is a downer. But when the country is evenly divided, and political issues are put on the table, half the people will find reason in politics to feel bad about their lives.

Another implication. There's a grain of truth in the Daily Mail tag "Remoaners." When reminded that we lost the referendum vote, those of us who preferred to remain in the European Union now feel down. It doesn't make us wrong, but it does make us depressed.

Until tomorrow, therefore, no more politics.

For tonight, at least, a Happy New Year to all my readers!


October 19, 2016

Donald Trump and America's Incomplete Contract with Itself

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Last week's Economist has three articles that struck me by their connections. One of them looks at how US presidential candidate Donald Trump is undermining the unwritten rules of American democracy. Another deals with the business of outrage -- the money being made by political entrepreneurs selling racism and conspiracy theories. And a third examines the work of the 2016 Economics Nobel winners. That's where I'll start.

This year’s Economics Nobel was shared between Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström. (At Warwick we’re proud of this because Hart has two Warwick degrees, an MSc from many years ago, and more recently an honorary degree.) It turns out that the field of research that Hart has pioneered can throw light on the disturbing state of American politics.

Hart’s central contribution has been the idea of an incomplete contract. A complete contract writes down how the parties are to share the gains and losses arising under all circumstances. When the possible contingencies are too many and too varied to foresee them all, the contract is incomplete. When unforeseeable contingencies arise, there are unexpected gains and losses, and these have to be allocated among the parties. Who should gain and who should lose? Re-reading the contract does not help. Instead, the parties have to take responsibility for renegotiating their partnership. Hart pointed out that the possible outcomes depends on the relative bargaining power of the parties. In turn, telative power depends on many things, including resources, information, customs, beliefs, values, and incentives.

In that setting, how do unwritten rules arise? When the parties bargain with each other in mutually predictable ways, it is because they are following unwritten rules. If the rules they follow are consistent and agreeable, the partnership underlying the contract can persist in a state of harmony. An everyday example of a partnership based on unwritten rules is marriage. The marriage contract is always incomplete. On marriage, you promise to love and cherish each other for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, till death you depart. But exactly how you should do that under all circumstances cannot be written down in advance. There will be many unexpected blessings and tragedies that must be shared or shouldererd. To deal with these situations, marriages that last generally evolve unwritten, even unspoken rules that the parties follow to maintain harmony.

Another example is democracy. It turns out that democracy too is an incomplete contract. That’s generally the case, even for a country like the United States that has an apparently robust written constitution. The constitution has the written rules. These state who can play the game of democracy, how to tell who has won and who has lost, and the limits on what the winner can do. But it does not dictate the spirit in which the players should play the game. Just as a bad but not technically unfaithful spouse can undermine a marriage by violating its unwritten rules, a bad politician can undermine democracy without breaking the letter of the law.

What are the unwritten rules of democracy? The written rules are clear enough. In a democracy, when society is divided, victory goes to the side that can muster a majority (or a plurality). In a democracy, victory is always temporary. The majority party governs for a term. These are the written rules, but they are only the start. They imply, but do not requre, the spirit in which the competing parties should play the game. The spirit of the game is that it is never played for keeps. The ruling party should not aim to limit the rights of the minority or entrench itself at their expense. Between elections, the minority must be free to oppose, to criticize, to try again to mobilize a majority and so win the next time. When this works, it has an interesting result, one on which we place too little value. This is that every election has low stakes. It is the opposite of winner-takes-all. The election decides who rules for a few years, not for a thousand years. The winners do not take all and the losers do not lose everything.

In the outcome, democracy is based on a conjuring trick of self-fulfiling expectations. When politicians and their followers expect an electoral contest to be low-stakes, they becoming willing to accept defeat. Because defeat is temporary, and not too costly, they do not try too hard to win, for example, using threats and bribes. And so they become willing to keep within the unwritten rules of democracy, and these in turn sustain the written rules -- the constitution.

You can see this clearly if you think for a moment about politics without democracy. Without democracy, the stakes are always terrifyingly high, because politics is deadly. We won? Be afraid. You lost? Go to jail, or go to hell. In contrast, democracy has this magic property that it makes politics polite: We won? During our brief term we will seek to govern for everyone. You lost? Thank you for the contest. The low stakes might be the single most important reason to prefer a democracy.

For democracy to work, most people have to subscribe to the unwritten rules. But developing those unwritten rules was historically a long and difficult process; embedding them in the societies of western Europe and north America took centuries. Although the rules took so long to create, they can be torn up relatively easily. Today the US constitution may look robust, but the shared beliefs underlying it are threatened. In the election campaigning, the threat is expressed in the high stakes that the parties attach to victory over defeat. Donald Trump has said that, if elected, he will seek the prosecution and imprisonment of the loser. If not elected, he will not accept the result or postpone his hopes until the next election. Rather, he will reject the outcome, claiming that it is “rigged,” leaving his angry followers to take the law into their own hands.

Now it goes without saying that corrupt politicians should go to jail, and ballot-rigging should be exposed, especially in a democracy. But it undermines the unwritten rules when a candidate for executive office campaigns as prosecutor, judge, and jury. In turn, to allege corruption and ballot-rigging, whether for electoral advantage or to make money, breaks the same unwritten rules. It does this by raising the stakes. The stakes can hardly be higher when one of the campaigns threatens to take all in the case of victory, or to take up arms in the case of defeat.

American politics is becoming high-stakes in a way that has not been the case since the Civil War. The atmosphere is eating away at the incomplete contract of American democracy. Free speech, even lying speech, is a core value of democracy, meaning that no law can make politicians tell the truth, or protect voters from their lies. There is no solution other than the self-restraint of politicians and the good sense of the electorate.

But this is no time for European self-congratulation, for the same has been happening across Europe. In the best outcome, it will take many years for the West to recover.

October 10, 2016

Women of the Gulag: A Last Chance

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women-of-gulag201308131848.jpgMy Hoover colleague and co-author Paul Gregory is involved in a remarkable project: to bring to life the stories of women who survived life in Stalin's Gulag. His book, Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives, recounts their fates. As a historian, Paul began his research from documentary records of the survivors. He went on to track them down. The result is a beautiful and touching feature film by Marianna Yarovskaya.

In 2013 at the Hoover Institution's annual summer workshop I had the privilege to see an early cut of this beautiful film. Introducing Paul and his work to the audience, this is what I said:

For some of you Paul Gregory will need no introduction. For others, he is a leading economist and historian of Russia under communist rule. Among economists he is a rarity. All economists work with theoretical models and statistical data. Paul is one of the few that also understand the power of the story. Among Paul’s most celebrated publications are books that tell stories. His book Lenin’s Brain is a collection of stories from the Hoover Archives that range from the grim to the comic and curious. His book Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin is the poignant story of Nikolai and Anna Bukharin.

Today Paul Gregory will talk about his new book, called Women of the Gulag. Women of the Gulag was inspired by a need and an opportunity. The opportunity is represented by the Hoover Archive’s rich holdings on coercion and repression in the Soviet Union. These include millions of pages of documents from the Gulag, Stalin’s agency for forced labour camps. Among other holdings that tell the story of power and cruelty under the Bolsheviks are the minutes of many meetings of the party central committee and the personal archives of Nestor Lakoba, one of Stalin’s Georgian comrades in arms; and of Dmitrii Volkogonov, Gorbachev’s biographer of Stalin. These holdings illustrate the opportunity for scholars to work here at Hoover on the history of Soviet rule.

Now the important bit.

The need for Paul’s book is illustrated by a simple statistical comparison: In Russia, women die on average in their mid-70s, and men in their early 60s. Almost all men who experienced and survived Stalin’s mass repressions are now dead. Only a few women are still alive, and they too will soon have passed on. Their stories need to be told now, before it is too late. Through Paul’s book, the last survivors have now been able to tell their stories. They are: Women of the Gulag.

While Paul's book is published, the film of the book, which includes moving interviews with its surviving heroines, is still to be completed. Paul is crowd-funding this final stage. If you would like the chance to contribute, here's how.

August 26, 2016

The Cold War: Bridge of Spies, and Other Lost Chances for Peace

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Were there missed opportunities to unwind the tensions of the Cold War? This question was raised by my holiday reading: Bridge of Spies, by Giles Whittell. The book was published in 2011 by Simon & Schuster. (Since then Steven Spielberg has made a film with the same title. The relationship between the book and the film is currently in dispute. The book is great. I'm told the film is decent, but I haven't seen it yet; my remarks are based entirely on the book.)

The book tells the stories that came together in a prisoner exchange across the Gleinicke Bridge that joined East and West Berlin on 10 February 1962. For present purposes, the story that matters is that of Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 (spy plane) pilot, shot down over the Urals on 1 May 1960. After parachuting to safety, Powers was captured, put on trial, and imprisoned. The author links this moment to a missed chance for peace in the Cold War. His argument goes like this.

In the 1950s, there was a Soviet-American race to develop long-range nuclear missiles. Both sides had atomic weapons that could be delivered by planes, but planes were slow and could be intercepted. Ballistic missiles would take nuclear attack and counter-attack to a new level: fast and certain. The arms race was becoming more dangerous.

In point of fact, however, in the late 1950s neither side actually had a reliable long-range missile. Rocket science meant filling a giant tube with an oxidizer and an oxidant and setting them on fire in the hope that they would burn smoothly, not just blow up. Mostly they blew up.

There was one difference between the two sides. The American failures were public. The Soviet failures were hidden from view. They were concealed by two things. One was intense secrecy. The other was a veneer of success. As far as both the American and the Soviet publics were concerned, the Soviets were winning the space race. They were first with a space rocket, first with an orbiting satellite (the famous sputnik), and first with a dog in a spaceship, all in 1957. Judged on that basis, the Soviet missile programme was more advanced. In 1958 and 1959 the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made several claims of a successful, large-scale Soviet missile programme that strongly reinforced this impression.

Only one of these claims is reported in Bridge of Spies, but they are collated in a declassified CIA report dated 21 January 1960as follows. In November 1958, Khrushchev announced that Soviet intercontinental missile production was set up and ready to go. In January 1959 he repeated this announcement, referring specifically to “serial” production, implying large numbers. In November of the same year, he told journalists: “In one year, 250 missiles with hydrogen warheads came off the assembly line in the factory we visited.” (But he did not state that they were intercontinental missiles.) And, in January 1960, he announced a substantial cutback of Soviet conventional forces, offering as the public justification: “We already have so many nuclear weapons … and the necessary rockets … that … we would be able literally to wipe the country or countries which attack us off the face of the earth” (my emphasis).

(More famously, but less precisely, at a reception held in November 1956, Khrushchev had told the assembled NATO ambassadors: "We will bury you," using the Russian verb for interment of the dead.)

During 1958 and 1959 the Americans who took Khrushchev seriously raised the alarm: there was a "missile gap," they claimed, that US President Eisenhower had allowed to grow from complacency and lack of effort. Eisenhower tried to manage his critics by looking for independent evidence of the true size of the Soviet missile programme. The evidence would come from a secret CIA operation, a squadron of camera-laden spy planes overflying Soviet territory at super-high altitudes, above the reach of Soviet air defences.

In reality, Khrushchev was bluffing America over his WMD programme—a risky activity, as Saddam Hussein would later discover. The huge Soviet space rocket that was lifting satellites into orbit was completely unsuitable for a surprise nuclear attack, as Whittell explains: it "took days to fuel and was impossible to hide." Meanwhile, Khrushchev’s bluff was going wrong: it was stirring the United States into a military-industrial mobilization. If that worked, the Soviet Union would have no choice but to turn the bluff into reality. For the Soviet economy, only a fraction the size of the far wealthier United States, that looked ruinously expensive.

By 1960, therefore, Khrushchev was regretting his bluff. In January he announced a major cutback of conventional forces—justifying it by claims of Soviet nuclear strength. According to Bridge of Spies, moreover, he was preparing a daring initiative to end the missile race—a chance for peace in the gloom of the Cold War. In return for American restraint, he would offer to bargain away something that he didn't actually have: a successful Soviet missile programme. If the Americans would agree not to build missiles, the Soviet side would agree to stand down Khrushchev’s missiles. Without missiles, the balance of terror would recede, and the world would be spared the pointless expenditure of trillions of dollars on nuclear overkill.

What could go wrong? While Khrushchev was forming his plan, the Americans were trying to uncover the truth—and they were beginning to succeed. The CIA spy planes had found most of the Soviet potential manufacturing, test, and launch sites, and there was no sign of hundreds of missiles. Still, the picture remained worryingly incomplete, and the U-2 programme continued.

Then, disaster struck. On May Day, 1960, while Khrushchev reviewed the annual military parade in Red Square, a new Soviet anti-air missile shot down the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers. Khrushchev made a huge public fuss. A planned East-West summit was cancelled. There was no Soviet arms control initiative. The missile race went on, and led quickly to the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. This came in 1962 with Khrushchev’s attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba.

So, Whittell suggests, the chance for peace was lost. But I began to wonder. My first question was: if a chance was lost, who lost it? That is, who should have behaved differently? Whittel does not criticize the actions of Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, who is portrayed as seeking peace. Nor does he question the decisions made by Eisenhower, the American leader, who resisted the escalation of tensions, and looked to the CIA and its U-2 programme for supportive evidence. As for Powers, he was just a soldier.

Those whom Bridge of Spies holds accountable are the American promoters of the “missile gap” theory: the profit-seeking entrepreneurs (Thomas Lanphier), position-seeking politicians (Allen Dulles and Stuart Symington), and headline-seeking journalists (Joseph Alsop and Frank Gibney) of the US military-industrial complex. Also, let’s not forget the US presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who campaigned successfully in 1960 on closing the “missile gap.”

Still, one wonders: how should these people have behaved differently? In hindsight they were wrong, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially for historians. At the time, however, how should they have known that Khrushchev lied? The Soviet Union was then, as before and afterwards, shrouded by the most intense secrecy the world had ever known. Why, and what did the secrecy conceal? Eisenhower’s intuition was that Khrushchev’s claims were a bluff, but he did not know for sure; that’s why he approved the U-2 spy plane programme. Dulles, Symington, and the others did not know for sure either, but at least they had evidence on their side in the public claims of the Soviet leader himself.

Was there really a lost chance for peace in 1960? As I asked myself this question, I stumbled on a second “lost chance.” This one, from 1953, is claimed by Sheila Fitzpatrick, writing in The Guardian on 18 August 2016. Fitzpatrick, one of the world’s great experts on Stalin’s Russia, was reviewing The Last Days of Stalin, by Joshua Rubinstein, published this year by Yale University Press. This is a book I haven’t read, so my comments are based entirely on Fitzpatrick’s review.

As Fitzpatrick points out, after Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Soviet leaders who succeeded him allowed many reforms to go ahead. Within their country they quickly curtailed Stalin’s last purges, and they went on to the phased release of millions from forced labour and resettlement. (I wrote about these changes in my own book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.) In Korea, the new leaders allowed ceasefire talks to resume, bringing a speedy end to that bloody conflict.

Could there have been more? Soviet leaders, Fitzpatrick writes, “wanted to signal their interest in easing cold war tensions …. in the crucial months between Stalin’s death in March and the Berlin uprising in June of 1953, the US missed a great opportunity to meet the new Soviet leaders halfway.” She quotes Rubinstein’s verdict: “Soviet and Western governments could not overcome the decades of distrust that divided them.” That suggests equal blame for missing the chance on both sides.

Fitzpatrick answers back: this is too even-handed. Khrushchev looked for an opening. Churchill was ready for a summit. Eisenhower resisted, believing that this might be the time to call on the Soviet people to rise up against their oppressors. Whispering in Eisenhower’s ear was the older Dulles brother, John Foster Dulles, who believed that, eight years after World War II, the Soviet Union presented “the most terrible and fundamental” threat to Western civilization in a thousand years. Responsibility for the missed opportunity to unwind the Cold War in 1953 lies, Fitzpatrick concludes, “squarely with the US.”

So, the hypothesis: two lost chances to scale back the Cold War, one in 1953, the other in 1960.

After much reflection I’m not convinced. Here are my reasons. First reason: pay attention to the inherent fragility of the two Soviet peace initiatives. They were so brittle and insubstantial that, if one obstacle had not broken them, another surely would have. Consider 1953, when a new Soviet leadership wanted briefly to open up to the West. The window opened in March, when Stalin died, but it closed again in June. Why so brief an opportunity? Because, at the first signs of domestic relaxation, thousands of East Germans turned out into the streets to demand the resignation of the communist government. The uprising was promptly suppressed by tanks and guns. Hundreds of people were killed, then or later.

From that moment it was clear that the goals of Stalin’s successors had not changed: to hold power at all costs and spread their system of rule wherever possible. They differed from Stalin only in their preferences over means: “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must.” Did they really want peace? Not deeply enough to respond peaceably to their own people if there were unintended consequences.

The chance for peace in 1960 was fragile too. It was fragile for two reasons: the Soviet commitment to missile negotiations was only skin-deep, and it was based on a lie. Khrushchev wanted an agreement with the Americans, but how deeply did he really want it? The shootdown of Francis Gary Powers did not stop him from seeking one. The world knew nothing about the U-2 programme until the Soviets publicized it. If they had really wanted a disarmament summit, they could simply have kept the news to themselves. They had the means, after all, in the world’s most effective censorship.

You could say that the Western Cold Warriors, uncomfortable with Eisenhower’s restraint, did not help because they put pressure on Eisenhower, and this put pressure on Khrushchev, which played into the hands of the Soviet military leaders who were already uncomfortable with Khrushchev’s conventional arms cuts. (I’m writing about the Soviet military as though they were a faction, although there is no real evidence that such a faction existed.) But in fact the Soviet side was collectively to blame for all the circumstances in which this game was played out. The Soviet missile men were to blame for a failing programme that threaten to impoverish the country. And Khrushchev was to blame for lying about the programme’s success. If he hadn’t made exaggerated claims, the “missile gap” would never have existed.

Now my second reason: when communist leaders came to the West with peace initiatives, they generally had a vastly inflated belief in their own credibility. They never really got how most Westerners saw them. (But it’s true that Western sympathizers with communism shared the same blinkers.) Within their own countries these leaders, Khrushchev included, were responsible for terrible crimes of commission, arresting and killing millions, and also crimes of omission, allowing millions to die of famine. Afterwards they regretted this, and they made partial, semi-secret admissions, not of personal guilt, but of a few collective errors. Instead of resigning and allowing judicial scrutiny to take its course, their next move was to carry on as normal: So we made some mistakes. We fixed them. What’s done is past. Everything is all right now! Move on. But the world remembered.

In foreign policy, the communist leaders had occupied Poland and the Baltic countries, blanketed them with the same secrecy and censorship that they operated at home, eradicated their national institutions, exterminated their national elites, imposed new regimes, staked out new borders, and defended them with the threat of overwhelming conventional and nuclear force. Because this turned out to be quite expensive, they thought they could then turn on a sixpence and say to the West: lower your guard, because that was then, and now we want peace and friendship. And Western leaders were expected to lower their guard on the word of practised killers who concealed their own weapons under a veil that could be penetrated only by a spy plane at 90,000 feet.

The first and only communist leader to get this was Mikhail Gorbachev. He puzzled over the Soviet Union’s inability to reach new agreements with the West over arms control. Shortly after taking office, on his road to Damascus, in 1986 or thereabouts, he reached an astonishing, shattering conclusion: They don’t trust us because they think we’re liars! And they’re right: we are liars! We can only be credible partners in negotiation if we learn to be open about everything and tell the truth! (Which turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. I wrote part of this story here.)

So my conclusion on the lost chances to end the Cold War is pessimistic. I don’t see real missed opportunities in either 1953 or 1960. On a more optimistic note, there was usually scope for both sides to gain from arms control, and negotiations were generally better than fighting. The important arms treaties would come. But their negotiation required more mutual trust than was available in 1953, and more mutual openness than was available in 1960.

July 13, 2016

Post–Referendum Blues

Writing about web page

--- I'm going to shoot myself in the foot.

--- Don't. It'll hurt.


--- Owww.

--- I told you.

--- Now you're talking me down.

June 13, 2016

I Will Vote Remain

Writing about web page

I will vote Remain for lots of reasons. As a parent I want my children and their children to grow up in a world that is open and free. Brexit will shrink their world and reduce their opportunities.

As a citizen I see that Brexit will leave our country isolated and less secure. Our friends inside the EU and outside urge us to stay. Our adversaries would prefer us to leave.

Among other things I am an economist and a historian. As a historian I know that in 1956 the European countries that had been strategic rivals for centuries chose integration instead. That’s why France and Germany no longer fight each other, and the poorer countries around them can also live in peace. In 1973 Britain joined them. That was the right choice.

As an economist I know the evidence shows that membership of the European community has brought significant net benefits to Britain. I am with the overwhelming majority of my profession in expecting both short-term damage and persistent losses from Brexit. In the short term there would be turbulence. In the long term we would be less deeply integrated with Europe, and somewhat poorer as a result.

But it’s more than just economics. Brexit would be an inward turn, a turn away from strangers.

We, human beings, systematically underestimate what we have gained from interaction with strangers. We forget that strangers gave us chocolate and silk. They gave us Christianity, democracy, and Roman law. They gave us impressionism and jazz. Now it's our music, our democracy, and our chocolate.

It’s true, strangers are also risky: we feared and fought them, enslaved them, and caught Spanish flu from them. But strangers are the key to our future. Turn away and you turn your back on life.

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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