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March 15, 2018

The Skripal Affair: Tit for Tat

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This morning I had the pleasure of talking with Trish Adudu on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio about the Russian state and skulduggery in Salisbury. In five minutes we only touched on a small proportion of what was covered in my notes. Here’s my full commentary on recent events.

Who is to blame for the Skripal affair?

We don’t yet know the persons directly responsible for the attempt to murder Sergei and Yuliya Skripal. Without that knowledge, why does the Russia government not get the benefit of the doubt? First and foremost, Russia’s rulers have form. Putin presides over a conspiratorial regime. Too many opponents, critics, and whistle blowers have come to a bad end under his rule.

The Russian government and connected Russians have offered a long list of alternative candidates for the crime: MI5, Ukraine, Georgia, the United States, and, bizarrely, the family of Yuliya Skripal's boyfriend, seeking to break his connection to a traitor. The fostering of doubt by scattering such allegations is also part of this form.

Second, Novochok, the nerve agent used in Salisbury, is a Russian product of the Cold War. It was intended to be undetectable, but decades have gone by and it is no longer. Russia claims to have destroyed all its stocks, but this is self-evidently not the case.

Third, yes, some third-party involvement is entirely possible. But that should not let the Russian government off the hook. There is a well-understood advantage for a party like the Russian state in using “third parties” to achieve goals by stealth that cannot be sought openly. Sometimes those “third parties” will go “too far,” whether by accident or design, but this is not necessarily an unwanted thing, because it increases complexity and improves the plausibility of denial.

If you think of the various ways in which Russia has challenged the international order in recent years, “third parties” were involved in many of them: seizing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine, and shooting down the MH17 jet liner, as well as in many domestic assassinations. Often the trail is not that long and the “third parties” are barely even that. The two men who British police believe assassinated Alexander Litvinenko were former KGB operatives.

Don’t we murder people abroad too?

Sometimes, yes. There are examples of people have done great wrongs or present great dangers, who have put themselves beyond the reach of justice. A case in point would be the execution of Usama Bin Laden. (But the US government made no secret of its role.)

I don’t consider myself to be an expert in such cases. If Western governments set out to kill people in circumstances other than the ones I just described, my guess would be that it’s usually the wrong thing to do. And any such cases should absolutely not be used to justify the attempted murders in Salisbury. (Besides, to defend oneself against a murder charge by saying "he deserved it" or "I'm not the only one" essentially concedes the allegation.)

Most importantly, Skripal was not a fugitive from justice. He was previously tried in a Russian court for being a British spy, convicted, and imprisoned. The Russian state could have shot him at the time, and they did not; the court put him in prison. Later, they decided to pardon him and release him. They could have kept him in Russia, and they did not. They let him go abroad in exchange for some of their own spies. There is absolutely no “what about” defence for trying to kill him now – let alone his daughter, who lives in Moscow and has never been charged with anything.

Britain's responses

Should Britain respond? Yes, absolutely. The expulsion of diplomats thought to be undercover intelligence operatives is appropriate. So are measures against particular Russians now living in Britain on the basis of “unexplained wealth.”

It’s important to understand that nearly all forms of sanction bring risks of collateral damage, which we should try to limit. British and Russia have many cultural and business ties, most of them completely innocent and bringing large benefits. Most Russians living or studying in Britain are entirely innocent of connections to this or any crime. Britons living in Russia are as vulnerable to indiscriminate sanctions as Russians in Britain. Footballers and football fans are mostly innocent bystanders. Whatever are the rights and wrongs of football’s international governance, we should try not to damage these links.

We should also keep talking to the Russians, but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, the value of high-level contacts is low when the tone of the Russian side is currently limited to sarcasm and passive aggression.

One of the most important responses should be to investigate the Skripal affair thoroughly and to publish the results, as after the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. It was a bad mistake of the government in 2006 to try to limit the damage from the Litvinenko affair by suppressing evidence for the inquest. Lasting damage resulted; possibly, Putin or the FSB concluded that Britain was a soft target. If the individual wrong-doers in the Skripal affair cannot be brought to justice, their public exposure is still vitally important.

Beyond these things, Britain can do little alone. That’s why we have allies in the European Union and in NATO – to help defend us when we are attacked.

What will the Russians do next?

Because both sides need to maintain the appearance of injured innocence, there will be a period of tit-for-tat. These processes do not usually go to many rounds. But everything depends on intentions. If the Russian government intends to escalate the situation, and is not frightened of the consequences, there is little we can do immediately to limit the process. But it should surely give us pause for thought: why we have allowed a situation to arise in which a potential adversary feels able to act against us with impunity?

Are we risking war with the Russians? The risk of unintentional war is very low, and is nearly always lower than many people think. Many believe, wrongly, that the First World War came about through unintended escalation from trivial starting points. This is wrong: the First World War was planned in Berlin and Vienna, and went ahead in 1914 because London and Paris allowed deterrence to fail.

Today the main risk of escalation comes from the possibility that the Russian government might intend to benefit from increased international tension or from conflict. In Russia there’s a presidential campaign under way. Whatever the motivation, the only way we can protect ourselves against this is by deterrence, which requires reliable defences and a strong alliance.

November 20, 2017

Shorn of Violence and Coercion? The Soviet Model of Economic Development

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One of the joys of your own blog is that there is no editor to reject your contribution. (The corresponding downside risk is that there is no one to tell you not to be so bloody stupid.)

Last week, I wrote a letter to The Economist. I responded to a column entitled "What there is to learn from the Soviet economic model: Even today, some see it as a way to kick-start industrialisation." The column correctly pointed out that the Soviet way of doing things incurred heavy human and social costs. Nonetheless I felt it missed something. I wrote and said so, but my letter did not make it into this week's issue. Exploiting the prerogative of the blogger, I publish it here:


Jawaharlal Nehru asked whether the Soviet economic system could be “shorn of violence and coercion” (What there is to learn from the Soviet economic model, Nov. 9, 2017). Your correspondent correctly answers “No,” but, like Nehru, fails to grasp the reason. Nehru tried to understand the Soviet economy as a civilian project for economic growth and development. This was his mistake. The Soviet economy’s quantitative controls, priorities, and shortages, were the features of a war economy. The Bolsheviks’ first model was the German economy of sacrifice and mass mobilization for the Great War. Lenin expected to improve on the German outcome by dispensing with private property and the rule of law. The Soviet economy’s comparative advantage lay in supplying the means of national power in the age of mass armies. This advantage was revealed not in global market shares but in the global balance of power, where the Soviet Union was much more successful than its second-rate economy would have predicted. That is why the idea of it retains appeal for Russian nationalists in times of international tension.

Yours sincerely

Mark Harrison

October 28, 2017

The Soviet Economy Collapsed After the World for Which it was Designed Disappeared

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This column appeared (in Spanish) on 28 October on the website of El Independiente.

Soviet economic institutions were inspired by two western economic models of the early twentieth century. One was the German war economy of the Great War, which Lenin observed and admired for its government priorities, the control of supply chains by committees of industrialists, the rationing of commodities at fixed prices, and obligatory labour mobilization. The other was the American system of mass production of standardized products in great factories under centralized management.

Combined with an authoritarian single-party dictatorship, these two models made the Soviet economy as it emerged under Stalin and persisted until 1991. Everything was designed for mobilization, production, accumulation, and expansion. To ensure this, the state owned nearly everything and directed nearly everything from the centre, either by decree or by pressure to conform, backed up by the secret police. The citizens were motivated to comply with authority by a mixture of patriotic appeals, fear, and meagre rewards. The economy could supply basic consumer goods and services, but its special advantage lay in supplying the means of national power in the world, especially a mass army with vast quantities of standardized weapons. By the outbreak of World War II, Stalin’s Soviet Union had become one the world’s two leading producers of armaments, the other being Hitler’s Germany.

The Soviet economy was capable of growth, but it never proved capable of catching up with the innovative market economies of the time. Moreover, the growth rate of the Soviet economy steadily deteriorated through the postwar period. From the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union was falling further behind the United States in productivity and prosperity. While its economy began to stagnate, the Soviet Union faced additional challenges of the time. One challenge arose from the U.S. rearmament under Presidents Carter and Reagan. Another arose from the self-imposed burden of the Soviet Union’s entanglement in Afghanistan. In the international economy the Soviet Union was reliant on the oil market, where prices collapsed.

The Soviet leaders made repeated efforts to overcome economic constraints through reforms. The reforms sought to raise productivity by decentralizing management and improving incentives for efficient behaviour, while retaining the framework of state ownership and the party monopoly of power. All such reforms failed, as the economy reverted to its basic type. Later, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping would say that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a fool for abandoning the party monopoly of power without reforming the economy. But this was unfair. Gorbachev did so only after all economic reforms had been tried, including most of the reforms that had been tried out successfully in China. Why they failed in the Soviet Union is an important story, but one for another time.

The end of the Soviet economy cannot be explained by economic factors alone. This should be clear from the example of countries like Cuba and North Korea, where ruling parties are facing vastly greater economic problems and threats than the Soviet Union ever faced, yet regimes have not collapsed. In the case of the Soviet Union, politics was decisive. The conservative generation of leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, born in the early twentieth century, died out. A new generation took command, led by Mikhail Gorbachev. The new generation was more open-minded, and their open minds had been influenced by the ideas of the dissident movement – nationalist, liberal, or social-democratic. Gorbachev was decisively influenced by ideas about social democracy and rule by consent. He did not want to rule at any price, or to rule by fear. Once it became widely understood that resistance to power would not be punished, people stopped being afraid. The Soviet Union became ungovernable and fell apart.

Politics was decisive in the moment, but at the same time we should not ignore the deeper economic forces. The Soviet economy was designed for a world of mass production and mass armies. That is no longer the world in which we live. In the 1970s, the information revolution gave rise to flexible production and a services economy based on information sharing. In the same decade, precision guidance and miniaturized nuclear weapons put an end to the idea that the future of Europe could be decided by a great battle fought by thousands of tanks and planes and hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the central European plain. The world for which the Soviet economy had been designed was disappearing. The Soviet Union had no future. No one should want to see it return.

October 13, 2017

Soviet and Russian Inequality: Was the Soviet System Pro–Poor?

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In August this year Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty, and Gabriel Zucman circulated a new working paper, “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016” (NPZ 2017a, b). This paper makes several advances, including a novel estimate of the evolution of Russians’ offshore wealth.

To situate the subject briefly, Cold War scholarship has left us a substantial literature on income inequality under communism. Bergson (1944), Yanowitch (1963), Wiles and Markowski (1971), Pryor (1972), Wiles (1974, 1975), Wädekin (1975), Chapman (1977), McAuley (1977), and Matthews (1978), each made valiant attempts, sometimes extending to piecemeal comparisons over countries and over time. “Considering the obscure data with which they had to work,” a survey by Schroeder (1983) remarked, “Western investigators display a large degree of agreement.” Measured by the decile ratio, the distribution of official incomes in the Soviet Union was becoming more equal over time and was substantially more equal than in the developed market economies then available as comparators. Schroeder noted, however, that Western researchers could not access data on the Soviet distribution of illegal incomes, or on privileged distribution of goods and services including accommodation and health care.

More recently, Lindert and Nafziger (2014) made an advance in another direction, examining inequality in Russia before and after the Soviet era. They concluded that pre-tax income inequality in 1997, although likely understated by official reports, was greater than in 1904.

Finally, a new paper by Allen and Khaustova (2017) examines Russian real wages in the long run. This paper does not address income inequality directly but allows inferences to be drawn from comparing real wages and productivity in industry. They find that real wages stagnated from the 1860s to 1913 (in St Petersburg, the capital, and Kursk, a provincial centre) or showed modest gains (in Moscow) but lagged everywhere behind productivity, suggesting a movement from wages to profits and income from wealth. After the troubled wartime and revolutionary period, the 1920s brought large real wage gains. These were short-lived, evaporating in the famine-led inflation of the early 1930s.

Novokmet and co-authors (NPZ) are the first to have tried to measure wealth and income inequality in Russia over the whole twentieth century. And, as many readers will be aware, their paper is part of a much larger collaborative project, the World Inequality Lab and the associated World Wealth and Income Database, one that aims to measure inequality in many countries over hundreds of years.

Here I focus on income inequality:

Income shares in Russia, 1905-2016 (selected years): bottom 50 per cent and bottom 90 per cent

Soviet and Russian income inequality

Source: Novokmet, Piketty, and Zucman (2017a,b).

According to NPZ, the share of the top 10 per cent in pre-tax income distributed to adults in Russia was 47 per cent in 1905. The share fell to 22 per cent in 1928, increased modestly to 26 per cent by 1956, and began to fall gently back again, reached a low of 21 per cent in 1980. (The Soviet-era years observed are 1928, 1956, and then roughly every second, third, or fourth year to 1988, when annual observations begin.) By 1996 the top 10-per-cent share had returned to the 1905 level and remained in that vicinity through 2016. NPZ comment: “our benchmark estimates suggest that inequality levels in Tsarist and post-Soviet Russia are roughly comparable. Very top income shares seem if anything somewhat larger in post-Soviet Russia.”

Measured by the top 10-percent income share, Russia today appears in the World Inequality Lab database in the same inequality band as the United States and China. Income inequality is reported as greater in a few countries: Turkey, India, South Africa, and Brazil. All north and west European countries that are represented in the database are more equal than Russia. But all are smaller than Russia in population, and a larger population will always tend to show greater inequality, because unequal economic outcomes are promoted by heterogeneity of all kinds, and heterogeneity is inevitably increasing in population size.

In its time the Soviet Union, in contrast, was apparently one of the most equal countries in the world. This is particularly striking, considering the large size of the Soviet population, 288 million by 1991. Other countries in the WID dataset with top 10-percent shares of 26 per cent or below at any time from 1917 to 1991 are few, and they are also much smaller in population: Australia, Denmark, Mauritius, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Taiwan. Of all these countries, only Italy’s population had reached 57 million by 1991, and Taiwan’s 20 million.

These results are broadly consistent with the earlier research described above. They confirm that income inequality in Russia after the Soviet era was comparable to before the Revolution, if not greater; that the distribution of Soviet official incomes was markedly more equal than in most market economies at the time and today, and in Russia beforehand and today; and that, within the Soviet era, inequality followed a modest Kuznets curve, rising, then falling.

Seen in this light, Soviet institutions and policies appear distinctly pro-poor. Before we take that as settled, however, there are three issues that point the other way.

First, in the Soviet era the poor might have gained relatively, but the chief factor in this was impoverishment of the rich. What the rich lost was not transferred to the poor, or was given only temporarily before the state grabbed it back, as clearly implied by Allen and Khaustova (2017). NPZ measure inequality by shares of income distributed to adults. In the Soviet era, the share of income not distributed to adults, but retained by the state, became unusually large. As a first approximation, household consumption fell from around 80 per cent of GDP in 1913 to around 50 per cent in 1940 and through the postwar period. By implication, what the rich lost was diverted into government administration and investment and defence projects; it was not passed on to the lower income strata. If there was an initial transfer to the poor, it was confined to the 1920s, and was then cancelled in the Great Breakthrough of Stalinist collectivization and industrialization.

Second, the Soviet state did not take only from the rich. It took also from the poor, including the poorest. This applied particularly in the years from 1928 to 1956, a period for which the NPZ dataset has only gaps. While I cannot find full explanation on this point, the NPZ dataset (like most Cold-War scholarship) seems to rely on reports of the distribution of official wage earnings to capture Soviet-era inequality. Wage earnings accounted for less than one third of Soviet household incomes in 1928, just over 60 per cent in 1937, and nearly 70 per cent in 1956 (Kashin and Mikov 2004: 17, 23, 34). The largest category of households excluded from reports of wage earnings were collective farmers – the great majority of Soviet farm workers – who received an uncertain dividend, not a wage. If that is the case here, then the rural poor are left out of account. (Forced labourers are also left out. There were millions of these from the 1930s to the 1950s. But they are a small omission compared with many tens of millions of collective farmers.)

Narrative accounts of rural food shortages and periodic famines indicate that rural poverty contributed substantially to Soviet-era inequality before the 1950s (e.g. Davies and Wheatcroft 2004). After that time, the compensation of collective farmers moved gradually, but never completely, towards public-sector standards.

Finally, as NPZ acknowledge, under Soviet arrangements, persistent shortages and privileged distribution decoupled consumption inequality from income inequality. In the Soviet Union everyone had an income, but not everyone could spend it on the same terms. A privileged class of insiders – the party elite and the employees of key production and service establishments – who had access to relatively high-quality goods and services at prices fixed below the market-clearing level without waiting. Others had limited access to staple goods and services, for which they either waited in line or paid a higher, sometimes illegal price. As long as the poor had money they could not spend, or faced higher prices to spend it, it is possible and even likely that consumption was distributed more unequally than income. This contrasts with the pattern that has been found to prevail in market economies, where consumption inequality is generally less than income inequality. But comprehensive data on Soviet consumption inequality would seem far more difficult to come by than income data, so this may well remain a conjecture.

Consumption inequality was important not only for ex post evaluation of economic welfare under Soviet arrangements. It was of central importance to the political economy of the time. During the 1930s, as Paul Gregory (2004: 76-109) has noted, Stalin received regular reports of discontent and falling effort among the workers in the provinces and intervened from time to time to improve their condition. When he did so, he did not order their wages to be raised because, in a supply-constrained economy, this would only have lengthened local queues. Rather, he ordered consumer goods in short supply to be redirected to the towns and factories where dissatisfaction was rising, so that the workers could more easily spend their wages.

The existence of unofficial incomes in the Soviet era only adds complexity to the problem. We guess that unofficial incomes were substantial but of time-varying size. Anecdotes on who received them are plentiful. The Soviet central bank compiled annual estimates of their aggregate size (Kashin and Mikov 2004), but we continue to lack (and may never find) data on their distribution. Thus, it is impossible to say whether their net effect was to increase or reduce the extent of inequality of different kinds.

To summarize, the extent to which Soviet institutions favoured the poorest in society is easily overstated. The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution was to flatten the distribution of wages. On that official measure income inequality fell sharply. But non-wage earnings were likely distributed more unequally than wages. Unofficial incomes also mattered; how they mattered is unclear. Consumption inequality mattered too, and arguably mattered more than income inequality. Most likely, consumption inequality did not fall to the same extent. Whereas consumption inequality in market economies is relatively stable, it is possible that Soviet consumption inequality was volatile, spiking in particular years of crisis.

Any judgement on new work must be preliminary, but my thoughts so far are as follows. NPZ (2017) is a substantial contribution. It is not the first word on the subject, and it will not be the last word either. It turns a new page and sets a new challenge.


  • Allen, Robert C., and Ekaterina Khaustova. 2017. “Russian Real Wages Before and After 1917 in Global Perspective.” University of Oxford: Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History no. 158 at
  • Bergson, Abram. 1944. The Structure of Soviet Wages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Chapman, Janet G. 1977. “Soviet Wages Under Socialism.” In The Socialist Price Mechanism. Edited by Alan Abouchar. Durham, North Carolina : Duke University Press.
  • Davies, R. W., and S. G. Wheatcroft. 2004. The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, vol. 5. The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Gregory, Paul. R. 2004. The Political Economy of Stalinism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kashin, Yu. I, and V. V. Mikov, eds. 2006. Po stranitsam arkhivnykh fondov Tsentral’nogo Banka Rossiiskoi Federatsii, vol. 1. Denezhnye dokhody i raskhody naseleniya 1924-1990 gg. Moscow: Tsentral’nyi Bank Rossiiskoi Federatsii.
  • Lindert, Peter H., and Steven Nafziger. 2014. “Russian Inequality on the Eve of Revolution.” Journal of Economic History 74(3): 767-798 at
  • Matthews, Mervyn. 1978. Privilege in the Soviet Union. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • McAuley, Alastair. 1977. “The Distribution of Earnings and Incomes in the Soviet Union.” Soviet Studies 29(2): 214-237.
  • Novokmet, Filip, Thomas Piketty, and Gabriel Zucman (NPZ). 2017a. “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016.” working paper no. 2017/09 at
  • Novokmet, Filip, Thomas Piketty, and Gabriel Zucman (NPZ). 2017b. Appendix to “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016.” working paper no. 2017/10 at
  • Pryor, Frederic. 1972. Economic System and the Size Distribution of Income and Wealth. Bloomington, IN: International Development Research Center.
  • Schroeder, Gertrude. 1983. “Consumption.” In The Soviet Economy: Toward the Year 2000. Edited by Abram Bergson and Herbert S. Levine. Winchester, MA: Allen & Unwin.
  • Wädekin, Karl-Eugen. 1975. “Income Distribution in Soviet Agriculture.” Soviet Studies 28(1): 3-26.
  • Wiles, Peter, and Markowski, Stefan. 1971. “Income Distribution under Communism and Capitalism”, Soviet Studies 22(3): 343-369; 22(4): 487-511.
  • Wiles, Peter. 1974. Distribution of Income: East and West. Amsterdam: North Holland.
  • Wiles, Peter. 1975. “Recent Data on Soviet Income Distribution.” In Economic Aspects of Life in the USSR. Brussels: NATO, Economic Directorate.
  • Yanowitch, Murray. 1963. “The Soviet Income Revolution.” Slavic Review 22(4): 683-697.

June 01, 2017

McCarthyism — Then and Now

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On Forbes on 23 May, my co-author Paul Gregory worries about America's risk of a new McCarthyism. He warns:

Joseph Welch, the lawyer for the army in the McCarthy-Army hearings brought the McCarthy Era to an end by asking McCarthy, who had gratuitously ruined the reputation of a young colleague: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” We are beginning to see the use of these guilt-by-association practices.

In picking up this theme, Paul echoed an exchange between US President Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier in the spring. As the controversy over his campaign links with Russia intensified, on 3 March 2017 (at 2:38AM) Trump tweeted that leaks of information were turning into:

a total "witch hunt"!

Lavrov adopted and extended Trump's metaphor later the same day:

I can refer to a quote spread in the media today: all of this looks very much like a witch hunt or the days of McCarthyism, which we long thought have passed in the US, a civilized country.

And the following day, Trump returned the compliment:

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!

What is McCarthyism? For readers who are not sure what that's all about, Senator Joseph McCarthy was Republican Senator from Wisconsin from 1944 to his death in 1957. He played the leading role in a postwar search for undercover communists and Soviet agents in US public life. With or without reasonable cause, this search placed tens of thousands of people under suspicion, many of whom lost their jobs and careers, and some of whom were eventually imprisoned on criminal charges.

Wikipedia defines McCarthyism as:

the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.

So, that's McCarthyism. Now for the parallel. Those who raise fears of a new McCarthyism suggest that we should compare today's beleaguered Trump campaign and White House officials to McCarthy's victims after the war. How well does that hold up? The comparison is reasonable up to a point. The chief similarity is the fevered atmosphere of suspicion and finger-pointing, inflamed by a widespread belief that America's public life has been penetrated by hidden enemies, who now lurk just beneath the surface of things.

On Vox on 18 May, Zack Beauchamp noted the spread of fake news about the Trump campaign and presidency, the Congress, and Russia connections:

President Donald Trump is about to resign as a result of the Russia scandal. Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity are Russian agents. The Russians have paid off House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz to the tune of $10 million, using Trump as a go-between. Paul Ryan is a traitor for refusing to investigate Trump’s Russia ties. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent charged with discrediting the American conservative movement.

These are all claims you can find made on a new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals.

That same evening, my own Facebook feed provided a near-perfect illustration. The evening's news was that investigations into the Trump campaign's Russia links were homing in on a "current White House official" as a "significant person of interest." But who would that be? Nobody knew. I came across some comments by people, not my friends, or even friends of friends, just ordinary, good-hearted, liberal-minded Americans, whom I'll call A, B, and C:

A. Bannon I hope

B. Nope. He's not important. It's Kushner.

A. I wish it could be Pence just to get him out of the picture. So that makes sense why he got so close to top.

C. Please oh please oh please be Jared.

What struck me was not just how interested we have become in the hidden workings of the White House. It was more than that; it was the hunger and thirst for one or another hate figure to be found out for what, in our imagination, they really are -- or what we need them to turn out to be, if the hatred is to be justified.

Common to the new and old McCarthyisms is the burning desire of many to see proven what they feel they already know, in the absence of any hard evidence, to be true. We've made up our minds about Trump and his circle, and what sort of people they are. All we need is the facts that confirm it.

That is not all, however.

There is a deeper point that is buried in the history of the old McCarthyism, a problem that those who warn of the new McCarthyism appear to forget. They hold, and I agree, 100 per cent, that McCarthy and his supporters did despicable things. The McCarthyites ruined the lives of many people who had done nothing wrong. They injected a poison into American political life that persists to the present day.

But there is more. The suspicions that fuelled McCarthyism were not unfounded in fact. McCarthyism was not about nothing. And McCarthyism, in its time, was not technically a witch hunt, although I understand most of its victims felt it like that. For in fact witches do not exist, whereas the traitors that McCarthy hunted in his blind, destructive way, really existed.

Since the end of the Cold War, historians have been able to reconstruct the deep history of which McCarthyism was an evil outgrowth. During the 1930s and 1940s, particularly during World War II when the Soviet Union and the United States were allied, and so before the Cold War began, the American government was penetrated by hundreds of Soviet spies and undercover agents. It was easy for this to come about because many educated Americans had a spark of sympathy for communism, which made them susceptible to Stalin's fake news about the Soviet Union, and also because America at that time lacked the traditions and institutions of counter-intelligence.

By the late 1940s, by means of partial decryption of Soviet diplomatic cables, the FBI knew of the existence of up to a couple of hundred Soviet agents in and around a variety of government departments and projects, including the Manhattan Project. But the FBI mostly did not know who these agents were. This was because the agents' identities were protected by cover names, which the FBI could not crack except by good luck, which did come around occasionally. Meanwhile, the FBI could only protect its limited capacity to decode the Soviet signals by hiding the authoritative source of its suspicions.

Beneath the surface of the McCarthyite search for traitors, in other words, lay two things. First was a pattern of covert collusion by American citizens with the Soviet Union, a country that was operating an intelligence assault on its wartime ally consistent with a state of undeclared war between them. Second was an investigation into them that could not be completed and would remain unfinished and undisclosed for half a century. It was in this context that public suspicion and the desire to expose traitors took hold, with the destructive results that we know.

There are three clear lessons for today.

First, justice is not served when guilt is determined in advance of the facts, or when evidence is sought only to confirm prior beliefs. That is why we should worry about a new McCarthyism.

Second, calling it McCarthyism doesn't mean there is nothing there. The allegations of underhand dealing between the Trump campaign and Russia need to be substantiated or cleared out of the way, based on evidence.

Third, nothing will fuel popular suspicion more than an unfinished investigation. The investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 US presidential election needs to be seen through to the end.

March 11, 2016

Whatever is Abnormal is Suspicious

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China is investing heavily in its capacity to monitor and evaluate the attitudes and behaviour of the population. On 14 June 2014 the State Council issued a Notice concerning Issuance of the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System. The plan envisages that by 2020 every adult Chinese citizen will have a social credit rating.

In a market economy, a person's credit is based on the record of what you earn, spend, borrow, and repay. You gain credit by demonstrating that you can handle money within the law and by honouring your debts. In China, "social credit" is partly financial, but it's also cultural and political. Social credit is gained, not just by handling money honestly and non-corruptly, but also, on a reasonable interpretation of the official language, by knowing the right people and showing the right attitudes in your social and political behaviour.

In other words, just as you can lose financial credit by breaking money rules, you will lose social credit by knowing the wrong people and saying the wrong things. And these things will interact, so that if you know the wrong people or say the wrong things you will put at risk your ability to borrow and to find responsible employment.

What's it all about? Based on its official motivation, the programme

uses encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust as incentive mechanisms, and its objective is raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society.

Thus, it's explicit that social credit is an incentive mechanism aimed at behaviour change at the level of the population. Every single adult must must understand the norms that China's ruling communist party sets for personal behaviour in economic, cultural, and political life. Break those norms and you lose trust. Lose trust, and there wil be personal consequences. No one will be beyond the system.

Communist regimes have always aimed to classify their subjects for political reliability, but classification was usually crude and error-prone. Stalin's "usual suspects," (described in my new book One Day We Will Live Without Fear) were anyone who from a non-proletarian background, anyone educated under the old regime, anyone of foreign origin or experience of life abroad, anyone with religious beliefs, and so forth. In Mao's China people were classified into "red" and "black."

What the Chinese authorities have in mind today is a classification that is more sophisticated in every way: multi-dimensional, continuously calibrated, and above all comprehensive.

It's not hard to see the benefit for the party leadership. The party authorizes the norms that you should follow, but enforcing those norms throughout society is an unremitting slog. Through comprehensive "social credit" rating of the population, based on big data, the rulers gain a system that sets up clear incentives for every single citizen to conform in every aspect of their lives. If you have the wrong friends or you're indiscreet on social media, you lose the promotion or you are denied the loan you hoped for. So most people will be persuaded to conform.

Plus, the system will also identify the minority that isn't persuaded, and so resists the official incentives, and it marks them out as security risks.

Recently my attention was grabbed by the technology website Ars Technica discussing China's investments in big data collection such as CCTV:

The authorities are watching for deviations from the norm that might indicate someone is involved in suspicious activity (my emphasis).

I knew I had seen this somewhere before. So I looked for it, and here's what I found:

Our communists should be concerned every day to study and know more deeply processes that are essentially anomalous, that is, incorrect, deviating from the general rule of processes and phenomena, and in a timely way to obtain alerts leading to the exposure of persons intending to carry out hostile actions that can lead to serious consequences (my emphasis again).

This was nearly fifty years ago: on 24 April 1968, Lt. Col. Matulionis, an officer of the Soviet Lithuania KGB, was speaking to a meeting on counter-intelligence priorities of the day. (The documentary record is held on microfilm by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, where I consulted it.)

Communism in Europe and China had common roots. After that, they went different ways. China today looks very different from the Soviet Union. But in respect of what makes a security risk, China's secret policemen have retained exactly the same idea as the Soviet KGB. An ordered society has normal processes. Good citizens follow those norms. When social norms are disrupted, the result is "anomalous, that is, incorrect."

That's where the secret policeman steps in. What is anomalous is incorrect. It arouses suspicion of a crime, and what is suspicious must be investigated for evidence. Who is behind this, and is the hand of the enemy at work?

February 28, 2016

First, Suspect Your Friends

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In 1983 Sharon Tennison, a US citizen, launched the Center for Citizen Initiatives, an NGO dedicated to improving US-Soviet relations from below. Her work is now in its fourth decade. In support of that work she has spoken up for more understanding of Russia in the West. Recently she has expressed sympathy for President Putin, and criticism of US and NATO policies towards Russia.

On a recent visit to Volgograd, as reported in Russian media and by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Sharon Tennison and her American interpreter were arrested. They were taken to court and fined for visa violations because, although travelling as tourists, in Volgograd they met with local citizens and discussed relaunching an NGO programme. Pro-government media commentators went further than the court. They described the two Americans as agents of the US state department, and promoters of Western values.

When authoritarian regimes behave like this, many Westerners are baffled. The Russian government faces so many hostile critics abroad; why does it attack its friends at home? What explanation can there be, other than irrationality and paranoia? I am reminded of the puzzlement of Western audiences in the 1930s when, facing active threats from Germany and Japan, Stalin chose to purge his closest associates, sending many to the execution cellar as they protested their loyalty.

In the first chapter of my new book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear, released today on Amazon UK, I address this and related puzzles. The puzzle originates in what the political scientist Ronald Wintrobe called “the dictator’s dilemma”: the more feared is the ruler, the harder it is for him to discover his subjects’ true loyalties.

(My economist colleagues will recognize this as an extreme case of what Timur Kuran described as “preference falsification”: sometimes people acquire incentives to conform with others; regardless of their true loyalties, they cheer with the crowd, or remain silent, hiding any inner reservations. An authoritarian regime like Putin’s provides an extreme case because preference falsification can be found in many contexts, including open, democratic societies. If you are on facebook or twitter, ask how many times you have bitten your tongue rather than enter a controversy and say what you really think. And that is when retribution will merely take the form of a bit of trolling and a few harsh words. The problem becomes more acute, however, when the dictator is listening in, so that a dissenting expression can have real consequences: loss of work, of passport, of liberty, even of life. Then fear spreads.)

For the ruler who inspires dread, the problem is to tell real friends from real enemies. The real enemies have gone under cover. In fact, what is the best cover for an enemy? It is to look like a friend.

In turn the ruler who wants to preserve his power must follow the implications. First, he needs agents who will go under cover to search out the hidden enemies: a secret police. Second, where should the secret police focus? This is a more difficult question, because everyone is a suspect. It suggests an impossible task. The task is made easier, however, by various rules of thumb (in my book there are seven of them). A reasonably obvious rule is to suspect anyone who has had to make special efforts to overcome their past associations or social origins so as to fit in.

Examples abound. Depending on the time and place, the secret police might focus on former heretics who recant, former aristocrats who throw in their lot with the lower orders, Jews who assimilate, abandoning their religion and foreign-sounding names, or anyone who has wormed their way into a confidential relationship with the ruler.

As for Sharon Tennison, she is a foreigner, an American who has spent her life promoting international cultural and friendship exchanges with the people of Russia. For her, the secret policeman’s questions follow naturally. Why does she want to be a friend? Who is behind her, and who is paying her way? On whose authority is she building networks of influence that transcend international frontiers? What is she really doing when she meets with Russians behind closed doors and tries to win their trust? These questions are not irrational or paranoid. They are a rational response to the dictator’s dilemma, which is that your bitterest enemy will try to look like your closest friend.

The reader will understand that I see a parallel with Russia today in the Soviet times that I have written about in my book. The sceptic will press the question: Is Russia today really like the old Soviet Union? Yes and no. The answer is partly “no”: Russia is not a totalitarian society in which the state aspires to monopolize everything. As I wrote just over a year ago:

Even while Russians look to the past, Russia today is absolutely not the Soviet Union … Russians in 2015 lead very different lives from Soviet citizens in 1985. They are richer, live longer, are able to visit, study, phone, and write abroad. Even today they are relatively free to search for and find information and discuss it among themselves.

In those ways Russia today is not so like the Soviet Union. But in other ways the answer is also “yes.” For a start, there is a direct line from the Soviet secret police to Russia’s rulers today, and notoriously to President Putin in person.

There are other similarities too. In Russia today there is rule by decree, to which the Parliament and the courts submit passively, not rule by law, contested in elections and applied by independent courts. In Russia today government is secretive and unaccountable; the regime clings to power and shuts down opposition. In Russia today, to be economically privileged is to be politically privileged, and conversely, not in an approximate, average sort of way, as in Western Europe or North America, but in a strictly deterministic one-to-one relationship: in Russia, lose one, and you will lose the other.

Finally, in Russia today there is increasing fear of the consequences of speaking out. Public opinion is chilled by the concerted abuse of oppositionists and the murder of outspoken reporters and leading critics. The consequences are pervasive. A recent Levada Centre opinion survey found that one quarter of 1,603 Russians surveyed (26 per cent) agreed that they were afraid to give truthful answers to opinion pollsters about the conduct of national affairs (23 percent felt inhibited among colleagues and 17 per cent even in the family).

I am not aware of comparable data from any other time or place so it is hard to set the figure of one quarter in any kind of context. But below this headline figure the Levada Centre survey provided some critical detail. When asked about other people (“Do you agree that most Russians willingly give their opinions in surveys?”) the same survey divided respondents into self-confessed regime supporters and critics. Amongst the small number of open critics the proportion answering “No” was just 22 percent. Among the supporters, it went up to 34 percent. Thus, the chilling atmosphere is felt more strongly by the regime’s apparent supporters than by its critics.

The story of Sharon Tennison illustrates one of the lessons of my book: the distrust and suspicion that characterize authoritarian regimes flow from the top, because the ruler must first of all suspect those who would like to be his friends.

About my book

One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State, by Mark Harrison, published by The Hoover Institution Press, is released in Europe on 28 Feb 2016.

What was life in the Soviet Union really like? Through a series of true stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear describes what people's day-to-day life was like under the regime of the Soviet police state. Drawing on events from the 1930s through the 1970s, Mark Harrison shows how, by accident or design, people became entangled in the workings of Soviet rule. The author outlines the seven principles on which that police state operated during its history, from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and illustrates them throughout the book. Well-known people appear in the stories, but the central characters are those who will have been remembered only within their families: a budding artist, an engineer, a pensioner, a government office worker, a teacher, a group of tourists. Those tales, based on historical records in the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, shine a light on the many tragic, funny, and bizarre aspects of Soviet life.

If you would like to read an excerpt from my book, part of Chapter 1, “The Mill,” is now available online as Enemy of the State.

For those with a special interest in scholarly aspects such as source criticism, my book has an Afterword, “Fact and Fantasy in Soviet Records,” available as a CAGE working paper.

February 02, 2016

The KGB Gave my Book its Title

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My book One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State is published today in the US. It will be available in Europe from February 29. This is the story behind the title of the last chapter of my book, which I also used as the title of the book as a whole.

It’s 1958. David is chatting to his friend. Their subject is David’s dream, which is to emigrate. He’s a Jew, living in Vilnius, the capital of Soviet Lithuania. He was once a Polish citizen, born on territory that was absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1939 when Stalin and Hitler split Poland between them. Suddenly, David was a Soviet citizen. In World War II he fought in the Red Army. After the war he settled in Vilnius, got married, and made a family.

In the 1950s there was a short window when the Soviet authorities allowed people like David, born Polish, to leave for Poland if they wished. His younger sister, Leila, left for Poland the previous year, and from there she was able to travel on to Israel. David did not go with her, but now he regrets that he stayed behind. He would like to follow her, but he finds that he is trapped. Whether he left it too late, or for some other reason, the government will not let him go.

David tells his friend that he has become afraid of even asking about permission to leave.

It could turn out that you put your papers in to OVIR [the Visa and Registration Department] and they give them back to you, and then you get a ticket to Siberia, or they can put you in jail.

David has come to a decision. There's no point dreaming about leaving, he tells his friend. He has concluded it's dangerous even to think about it. He realizes he is going nowhere. He and his family will stay at home. But then he comes back to another thought, perhaps even more dangerous, that he cannot help but voice:

We’ll stay in Vilnius and we'll live in the hope that he [one of the Soviet leaders of the time, not named] and generally this whole system will smash their heads in, and maybe we will live here freely and without fear.

After that, David’s friend went home and made a note of the words David had used. In due course he passed the note to his handling officer, because this friend, unknown to David, was a KGB informer. The note ended up in the files of the Soviet Lithuania KGB, where I came across it more than half a century later.

The KGB handler thought David's remarks were pretty interesting. At the end of the report he summed up:

Report: Information on David received for the first time.

Assignment: The source [David's friend] should establish a relationship of trust with David and clarify his contacts. Investigate his political inclinations and way of life.

Actions: Identify David and verify his records.

Few people who lived in Soviet times ever imagined those times would come to an end. David was one of the few.

One Day We Will Live Without Fear

What was life in the Soviet Union really like? Through a series of true stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear describes what people's day-to-day life was like under the regime of the Soviet police state. Drawing on events from the 1930s through the 1970s, Mark Harrison shows how, by accident or design, people became entangled in the workings of Soviet rule. The author outlines the seven principles on which that police state operated during its history, from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and illustrates them throughout the book. Well-known people appear in the stories, but the central characters are those who will have been remembered only within their families: a budding artist, an engineer, a pensioner, a government office worker, a teacher, a group of tourists. Those tales, based on historical records, shine a light on the many tragic, funny, and bizarre aspects of Soviet life

One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State, by Mark Harrison, is published on 2 February 2016 by the Hoover Press in Stanford, California. Order it today from Amazon US or pre-order it from Amazon UK.

August 29, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and the Uninvited Guest

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Note: When I published this column yesterday for the first time, I referred to "Robin Corbyn." Goodness knows where that came from. One of the disadvantages of writing a blog is that there is no editor to stop you and tell you not to be so bloody stupid. So, my readers have to do it instead. I have corrected my mistake. I thank those that brought it to my attention. I apologize to Jeremy Corbyn, and also to all the Robin Corbyns, wherever they may be.

Away from England's shores, I have watched Labour's leadership contest at a distance and, so far, in silence. But I will be home imminently, and the prospect has given me words. They came to me as I read Jeremy Corbyn's recent remarks concerning the situation on Ukraine's borders, reported by Laura Hughes in the Telegraph. In these remarks, Corbyn set out to clarify exactly what he does and does not believe.

First, what Corbyn does not believe. He does not believe (or at least, he rejected the suggestion that he believes) that NATO is to blame for Russia's aggression against Ukraine. When asked, he replied:

I didn't say that, come on I've never said that.

Second, what Corbyn does believe. He believes that Russian aggression against Ukraine is a tit-for-tat response in a game in which NATO was first mover. He went on:

So please, the point I am making is that if Nato sets itself an open target of expansion, the Russian military then say to their leaders 'we've have (sic) to expand to counteract Nato'.

If you take this sentence as it was intended, as the essence of Corbyn's thinking about Ukraine, it crystallizes a particular model of international relations. To show you how the model works, I'll have to put some words in Corbyn's mouth, so he might perfectly well turn around and say "I didn't say that." And that would be true. However, in order for him to say what he did say, and believe in what he said, there are certain things he must also believe because, if he did not believe them, what he said would make no sense. These things are what I mean by the Corbyn model of international relations. I'll write them down as four propositions.

Proposition no. 1. International relations is a game. That is, all the players are engaged in an interactive relationship that requires each of them to calculate their best move based on what they expect others to do, so the first problem of each is to understand the others. This is clear from Jeremy Corbyn's clearly expressed desire that we (or specifically NATO) should first understand Russia. I want to say that this is an excellent start. A multi-player game is exactly the right way to conceptualize the problem of international relations. Of course this is the only a start. The next thing is to identify the players correctly.

Proposition no. 2. Only great powers are players. In the game of international relations as Jeremy Corbyn sees it, there are only great powers or great-power alliances. Small countries exist, but they do as they are told. I base this on Corbyn's view of the Ukraine crisis, which he describes as arising from the interaction of Russia and NATO, and no one else. On his interpretation, NATO expansion is a process in which the smaller countries that have joined or might wish to join NATO have no agency. Ukraine itself is only a place where the game is being played. He implies, by not saying anythhing else, that Ukraine's politicians and people are just doing the will of NATO, on one hand, or Russia, on the other.

A particular view of NATO's past enlargement is also implied. At the beginning of the 1990s, Russia's western neighbours, were suddenly freed from the constraints of Soviet rule and obligations to the Warsaw Pact. Until that time, they could not make sovereign decisions over their own security. When they could, they chose NATO and begged to be admitted to NATO membership as soon as possible. In the short run, at least, the applicants confronted NATO with increased defensive obligations out of proportion to the assets they placed on the table, so NATO responded with understandable reluctance. In the end, however, it was politically impossible to refuse them. In the Corbyn model, this is described as "NATO expansion," a process driven by NATO, and aimed at Russia, one in which the security aspirations and sovereign decisions of the small countries on Russia's borders had no weight.

Although the Corbyn model correctly presents international relations as a game, the game it imagines is far too simple; it is not just NATO against Russia. The model does not try to understand the smaller countries that are in Russia's neighbourhood.

Proposition no. 3. Understanding ourselves. According to Jeremy Corbyn, NATO has an "open target of expansion." Again, this oversimplifies. Under Article 10, NATO has an "open door." The door is open, but not all may pass. Two conditions are required. Applicants must be willing. And all the existing NATO member states must also be willing, because the treaty explicitly requires their "unanimous agreement." Thus, it is not just NATO that must have the "target of expansion" but enlargement must be based on the sovereign will of every one of the NATO member states and each one of the applicant members.

On this score, too, the Corbyn model is too simple; it does not try to understand the relationship between NATO and its sovereign members. The small countries of Europe do not do what NATO tells them; it is the other way around.

Proposition no. 4. Understanding others. Jeremy Corbyn suggests that Russia has agency, but not initiative; its leaders act only in response to NATO moves. This is clearly wrong; it is the common desire of the many small countries bordering Russia to move out of alignment with Russia to which Russian leaders are now responding. Indeed they are trying to reverse it. But even this is not the root of the problem. The root cause is Russia's past treatment of its neighbours, a historic pattern to which Russian leaders are now reverting.

Proposition no. 5. Understanding others (again). Jeremy Corbyn imagines that Russia's leaders listen to (and take) the instruction of their military. I have no idea if they do that or not. The reason I have no idea is because decision-making at the heart of Russia politics is secret. However, there is no evidence in support of Corbyn's assumption from the accounts of Russian decision making that we have. Take the Russian invasion of Crimea as an example. On 15 March 2015, Reuters reportedthe words of Russian President Vladimir Putin:

Of course it wasn't immediately understandable (what the reaction would be to Crimea's annexation). Therefore, in the first stages, I had to orient our armed forces. Not just orient, but give direct orders.

Putin was asked if he had been prepared to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert. He said:

We were ready to do it.

This does not sound as if Russian leaders were taking military instruction, but again, I repeat, we do not know, and Jeremy Corbyn cannot know, because these matters are secret. Here the Corbyn model claims to know more than it can know.

It might seem that the Corbyn model of international relations is not fit for purpose. But this depends on what that purpose is. If its purpose was to predict and thereby to guide action, then it would fail because it does not recognize the limits of its understanding of the world we live in and in which we must make our way.

More probably, the purpose of the Corbyn model is not predictive, but moralistic, that is, to justify a preconceived moral stance. For this it works very well. That moral stance holds that NATO is an aggressive, militaristic alliance, and that Russian aggression against Ukraine is, at worst, on the same level as NATO's aggression against Russia. It is aggression against Ukraine when Russia sponsors separatism, invades, confiscates territory,and kidnaps and imprisons or kills Ukrainian citizens. In the Corbyn model, it is aggression against Russia when small countries with close experience of domination by Moscow seek to join an alliance that might protect them.

In this equation an invited guest and a thief in the night are considered to be one and the same. NATO is the invited guest. For most Central and East Europeans the Soviet Union after 1945 was an uninvited guest. The Red Army arrived and never left. With it came closed borders, a political monopoly, forced ideological conformity, and a secret police. In Ukraine today, Russia is again an uninvited guest. In the moral equation of Jeremy Corbyn, the open and voluntary invitation that leads to NATO enlargement is treated as the same.

We have just marked the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After the event, Warsaw Pact leaders claimed that their troops entered the sovereign territory of a member state in response to the Czechoslovak party leaders' plea for help to restore order. In reality, the Czechoslovak leaders had issued no such invitation. On the contrary, the occupation forces immediately detained the leaders and abducted them to Moscow. But the story gave rise to a joke.


What are 600,000 Soviet soldiers doing in Czechoslovakia?


They're looking for the man who invited them in.

July 06, 2015

Russia's Leaders: Thieves versus Policemen

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Yevgeniy Primakov, who has died aged 85, was briefly Russia's prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. Primakov's early career followed a classic Soviet trajectory: a specialist and postgraduate researcher in foreign afffairs, he became a foreign correspondent, a collaborator with the KGB's foreign service, and an Academician. After the conservatives' failed coup in 1991 he became the last first deputy head of the KGB and then the first head of the SVR, Russia's new foreign intelligence service.

I was in Moscow in September 1998 when President Yeltsin appointed Primakov prime minister. Primakov took the place of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the founder of Gazprom, who presided over a notoriously corrupt administration. In the company of friends I asked:

Well, what would you rather: to be governed by a thief or a policeman?

Without pausing for thought my friends responded with one voice:

A thief!

Why? (I asked).

When it's a thief, at least you know what they're up to.

Primakov did not last long in office. A few months later he was succeeded as prime minister by Vladimir Putin. A few months after that, the same Putin succeeded Yeltsin as President of Russia.

As time passed I often remembered this conversation, especially when I had to think about corruption and the rule of law.

Eventually I decided that my initial question was probably based on an error. In law-governed societies, the distinction between thieves and policemen is clear: thieves break the law and policemen enforce it. But there are lots of places around the world, including Russia, where the rule of law does not fully apply. In such situations the lines between thief and policeman become blurred to the point where it's hard to tell them apart.

When personal safety is at risk and property rights are not secure, thieves take on some of the functions of policemen because they need to protect their ill-gotten gains from robbery by others, or they find they can augment their gains by selling "protection" to others. And policemen become thieves by stealing from ordinary citizens while selling exemption from the law to their political masters and criminal friends.

Russia today is a mixed picture. I'm sure there are some honest policemen and honest politicians. But for such people it will be a struggle to survive and a danger to rise too high.

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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