June 12, 2013

Mordor: An Economic History

Writing about web page http://lectures.gaidarfund.ru/articles/1698

When I visited Moscow in April, Ilya Venyavkin of the Gaidar Foundation was kind enough to interview me. The interview has just appeared in Russian on the Gaidar Foundation website. Here I've translated it back to English.


Mark Harrison: “When people said they’d prefer a strong leader to democracy, as an economic historian I say: I’ve heard that before somewhere." A professor of economics at the University of Warwick, Mark Harrison recalls his attraction to communist ideas and explains why we need economic historians, and why the USSR reminded him of Tolkien’s Mordor.

  • Gaidar Foundation: Why did you become interested in the Soviet economy?

Mark Harrison: I’m a child of the Cold War - my parents followed events in the Soviet Union closely and felt the fear of nuclear war. At the age of six or seven, I already knew of the Soviet Union as a threat. An incident when I was in school had quite an influence on me: during English class we had to demonstrate correct usage of an idiom, “a household name” (“a person that everyone knows”). When my turn came, I said: “Khrushchev.” Then my problems began. First, the teacher began to ask me why I named Khrushchev and not, for example, Kennedy; then my classmates teased me that I was a communist. At the time I had no idea what that meant, and in the end I decided to find out. A few years later I began studying economics, and one of the reasons I became interested in it was Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. I read it and asked my father if what was written there was true. My father said he didn’t know, and then I decided to look into that too.

The end of the 1960s, when I went to university, was a time when youth culture and student movements flourished: we were all revolutionaries and socialists. I studied at Cambridge and we had lectures from Charles Feinstein, one of the leading economic historians of the twentieth century. Charles was born in South Africa and was a member of the Communist Party of South Africa. In his homeland he faced a choice: leave the country or go to jail. He ended up in England and I learned a lot from him. Another of my teachers was Maurice Dobb: he was a member of the British communist party, and he wrote the first serious (although somewhat biased) history of the Soviet economy. All this led me naturally to the idea of studying the Russian economy.

  • GF: And you also became a leftist?

MH: Yes, and I stayed on the left for quite a long time.

  • GF: Were you hoping to find in the USSR a model of a more just social and economic order?

MH: That’s what I hoped, but it’s not what I found. I can describe clearly the impact on me of visiting the USSR in 1972. I brought two thick books: one was the works of Jane Austen, and the other was The Lord of the Rings in three volumes. I read Jane Austen first, and that was great because it was a complete escape from life in the Soviet Union. Then I started to read The Lord of the Rings, and a depression descended on me because I saw something just like the Soviet Union: border guards, barbed wire, a secret police ...

To live in the Soviet Union was both frightening and interesting. As a foreigner I lived a privileged life - we always knew that nothing would happen to us, unless we did something really stupid. We knew we were living in a police state, and we quickly learned the simple rules – for example, always to call only from a phone booth, if possible, and not to tell anyone about one’s plans.

  • GF: Did you come across the secret services during your first visit?

MH: Not directly. But I’ll tell you a story: before going to the USSR (our student trip fell under an intergovernmental agreement), we attended a meeting at the Foreign Office where a diplomat, who was in charge of the meeting, told us:

You are going to Moscow to study and that’s fine. But be careful, because the KGB will be interested in you – they may follow you, see who you are talking to, or even try to compromise you by using alcohol or drugs to put you under pressure. If that happens, come to us and we’ll help you.

Last year, I chanced on a document in the archives of the KGB, dating back to the end of the 1960s. The document says that the British Foreign Office is advising everyone who visits the Soviet Union about the working methods of the KGB. It goes on to detail all the advice that our diplomat gave us. I was reading the paper and I was wondering what they would write at the end – would they say that this was pernicious anti-Soviet propaganda? But in the last paragraph I found the words:

We circulate this information to all operative staff so that they can be aware that our working methods are known.

  • GF: Do you remember exactly when you became disillusioned in the system?

MH: I continued to believe in the possibility of a more just world order and I was attracted by the idea of Euro-communism – the ideas of reform communism that arose in Italy, France and Spain. With many friends I was very excited when Gorbachev came to power. We hoped that he would be able to combine the ideas of socialism and democracy. But this did not happen. That was when I realized that I needed to move on – the stage of my life that began in 1970 came to an end in 1991.

I think it’s a very interesting example of how each new generation came to the Soviet experience with new knowledge and new hope. New knowledge meant an understanding of how terrible everything could be, but there was always the hope that it could all still be put right, and Khrushchev had that, and then the Eurocommunists, and then Gorbachev. Today what I believed then looks completely crazy, but nonetheless I believed it wholeheartedly.

  • GF: How did you react to the rejection of socialist values in the 1990s?

MH: I think that at that point I was already becoming a liberal. I am very grateful for my experience of the 1990s, because I was able to see how a colossal system broke down as production stopped, money lost its value, and law and order stopped working. I understand that the transition period was very difficult, although I don’t accept (as some do) that it was because of this that millions died.

Another issue is the growing nostalgia today in Russian today for the days of Brezhnev or Stalin. But it is very useful to compare this situation with that of Germany: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the opinion polls showed that residents of the former East German state were very happy to get rid of self-censorship and constant surveillance by the Stasi. Today, people have had time to forget about what it was like for them, and nostalgia for the GDR is growing.

  • GF: What do you think of Gaidar’s reforms as a scholar?

MH: I’m not sure I have an easy answer. I have a few answers. First, he was a brave man. Secondly, I am not sure that at that moment he had a lot of choice. The state was collapsing and in such a situation it’s not particularly important what policy you choose, or whose advice you listen to, because you have only a very limited ability to influence the situation. The collapse of the Soviet Union had begun under Gorbachev and by 1991 has already gone so far that, it seems to me, the trauma of transition was unavoidable. As you know from my lecture, I’m not one of those who believe that the Soviet Union could have followed China’s path.

The main problem of the transition period in Russia was the oligarchy that emerged from privatization and the loans for shares deal; many people both here and in the West believe that there was dirty dealing. This is the original sin of the Russian reforms, which continues to define the nature of the economic and political system in Russia.

I could imagine a different version of events in which the Russian companes could have been sold off in open international auctions. In this case, the Russian government would have been able to recoup much more money, and then a limited stratum of extremely rich people would not have been created. But that raises another question: could the Russian government at that moment have afforded to sell the most important industrial companies to foreigners?

Now I think a lot about the disastrous consequences of nationalism, and this is another example of how nationalism hinders the government from making the right choices.

  • GF: Was it possible to avoid the collapse of the Soviet Union?

MH: No, I think not. Gorbachev’s decisions were very important. You can quite easily imagine that if Andropov lived a little longer, he would have used repressive methods, and they would most likely have had some effect.

When the miners went on strike in 1989, Gorbachev gave a very clear signal that the old repressive methods would not be applied. It was Gorbachev’s personal decision and everything followed from that. It is easy to imagine how Andropov might have decided otherwise. In that case the Soviet Union would have survived longer, although it would not have become a prosperous state, just there would have been some more time before it collapsed.

  • GF: What issue in the economic history of Russia do you think is most interesting?

MH: There are areas of research that I think are extremely promising. My co-author Andrei Markevich is working currently in one of them – to reconstruct the economic history of pre-revolutionary Russia. The point is that what we know about this period is based on various assumptions with little idea of how they correspond to reality. Now Andrei is building regional statistics, and this should give us a much better idea of how Russian agriculture was organized and how effective were the measures to reform it. I think that in 10 or 15 years we will have very precise answers to these questions.

A second major theme, one that I am engaged in now, it is the question of how the security system worked in the Soviet Union and how it influenced the Soviet economy.

  • GF: What is going on today in economic history as a discipline?

MH: I think economic historians are currently doing two things that are important both for science and for society. [One is that] they are giving much attention to the long-term. My colleagues are working on the national accounts of England and Holland and tracking them back to the eleventh century so that they can make use of a thousand years of data. Tracking and comparing data in the long term, we can think much more clearly about the nature of economic growth. For example, we find that medieval Europe was much richer than many modern countries, and that the conditions for the industrial revolution matured over several centuries. Such studies are extremely important and of significant interest to the public. This, incidentally, is an additional complexity facing economic historians: in contrast to more traditional historians, it’s more difficult for us to tell a compelling story and attract public attention.

Another important task of modern economic history is to tell people about the economy in historical perspective. Today the world and, especially, the Western capitalist countries are going through an economic downturn and people are in a panic because they have not lived through a similar crisis before. But economic historians can say: Look at the Great Depression of the 1930s for other examples of economic crises – what's going on is not new.

This is an important lesson. Currently many people are saying: Look at the disastrous results of democracy and the free market economy, the government should step in. Maybe we need less democracy and more strong leaders! As an economic historian, I say to myself: I’ve heard this before somewhere. In the 1930s it was just the same. Then, it seemed, liberal democracy had failed and many countries turned readily to communism and fascism. This was a real disaster, ending in the Second World War and 50 million deaths. We shouldn’t do it again.


Video presentation and transcript of Mark Harrison’s lecture: “Stumbling Bear, Soaring Dragon: Could the Soviet Union have Followed the Chinese Road?”

Mark Harrison’s three must-reads for those that are starting out in economic history:

  • Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food(Allen Lane, 2011).
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997).
  • Paul Gregory, Terror by Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin (an Archival Study) (Yale University Press, 2009).

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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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