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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.

June 02, 2016

When Central and Eastern Europe Led the World

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Last week I spent a few days in Regensburg, a pretty town in Bavaria. The subject of our conference was the economic history of central, eastern, and southeastern Europe since 1800. The meeting was convened by the excellent Matthias Morys of the University of York; Matthias is editing a book on this theme for Routledge. The general standard of the chapters is going to be exceptional. (I’m not an author; I went along to hear and discuss.)

An important theme of the book will be how central and eastern Europe lagged behind western Europe in productivity and social well-being, and the varying successes and (mostly) failures of the region in closing the gap. This raised a question: Should central and eastern Europe always be judged against western European countries, as though we (the West) set the only standards that count? Shouldn’t everyone try to understand that region in its own terms, without negative preconceptions?

We had reached the interwar period of 1918 to 1939 when a commentator raised this question sharply. It’s a good question, and it brings us in a surprising direction. Think about it: what were the standards that the nation states and regimes of Central and Eastern Europe set themselves, whether in the interwar period or over the last two centuries? Often enough, the answer turns out to be, the goal that they set was to catch up with Western Europe.

At first sight this takes us back to where we started, to the standards of productivity and social well-being set in Western Europe. But this would not be strictly accurate. When the states and rulers of central and eastern Europe set out to catch up, it was not so much in average incomes or welfare, which were not even measured systematically until the middle of the twentieth century. The dimension in which they aimed to catch up was that of national power.

As it turns out, the first decades of the twentieth century were a time of great success for two of the countries of central and eastern Europe in the race to catch up and overtake western Europe in national power. These countries were Germany and the Soviet Union.

National power can be measured, although imperfectly. The scholars of the Correlates of War project set out to measure the global distribution of national power with a “composite index of national capability” (CINC) designed to capture “the ability of a nation to exercise and resist influence.” A country’s CINC score combines six indicators of its relative weight in the international system, year by year: total population, urban population, iron and steel production, energy consumption, military personnel, and military expenditure. On this measure, in 1871, the Russian and German Empires together accounted for one fifth of the total of power in the world (12 percent for Germany and 8 percent for Russia). By 1914, through industrialization and rearmament, they had pushed up their combined weight to more than one quarter (14 percent to Germany, 12 percent to Russia). And by 1940, after more expansion and more rearmament, when Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes were temporarily in alliance, their share had risen to nearly one third (17 percent to Germany, 14 percent to the Soviet Union).

(For data sources and more context, look at Table 1 of this paper.)

Within 70 years, in summary, the two great powers of central and eastern Europe transferred more than one tenth of global power into their own hands. This was a dramatic shift in the balance of power, and a stunning achievement.

Thinking about this, I said in the conference: You want us to celebrate the aspects in which the countries of eentral and eastern Europe led the world at the time? OK, let’s hear it for autocracy, aggression, and mass killing. I was trying to be ironic, but I wasn’t sure if something got lost in translation.

Of course, you could be central or east European and be happy. Anywhere in the region, most of the time, you could live, love, carry on a trade, make a family, make art, make science, teach, and build. You could try to lead a good life, a life no worse than the lives led by anyone to the West. Bad things might happen to interrupt these efforts anywhere in Europe, west or east. For centuries, however, if you lived to the east of the Rhine, the probability that your efforts would be cruelly ended by young men in uniform under orders from above was much, much greater.

To understand why is the challenge for Matthias and his co-authors..

February 18, 2015

Russia's Improbable Futures and the Lure of the Past

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On 27 January I was asked to join a panel on Russia's Future within the University of Warwick One World Week. (The other panel members were Richard Connolly, co-director of the University of Birmingham Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies, and the journalist Oliver Bullough.) I decided to talk about how Russians are looking to the past in order to understand their uncertain future. Here, roughly, is what I said:

Russia has many possible futures; all of them are improbable. The economy must do better, stay the same, or do worse. Relations with the West must improve, remain as they are, or deteriorate further. Adding them up, there are nine possible combinations. The probability of any particular combination is small, so each is improbable. But one of them must happen because, taken together, the sum of the probabilities is one. One of them must happen, but we have no idea which one.

Faced with an uncertain future, we often look to the past for guidance and reassurance. What was the outcome when we were previously in a situation that felt the same? At New Year, many Russians were looking to the past. I found this out when I stumbled on the website of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel. Every day the RBC website polls its fans on a different multiple-choice question. On 30 December, the question of the day, with answers (and votes in parentheses), was:

What should Father Frost bring for Russia?

  • End of sanctions (6%)
  • End of the war in Ukraine (27%)
  • A stable ruble (7%)
  • Return of the Soviet Union (59%)

It's disconcerting to be reminded of the strength of nostalgia among Russians for the time when their country was a global superpower. The Soviet Union united all the Russias -- if anyone's not sure what that means, that's Great Russia, Little Russia and New Russia (Ukraine), and White Russia (Belarus) -- with the countries of the Baltic, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia. The Soviet Union stood for strong centralized rule, with a powerful secret police and thermonuclear weapons. The nostalgia is shared by President Putin, who said (on 25 April 2005): “The collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the [twentieth] century.”

Here's a question that RBC asked its supporters on 25 December:

Can direct controls and a price freeze save Russia’s economy?

  • Yes, the free market is not up to the job (55%)
  • No, that would cause insecurity and panic (40%)
  • No need – no crisis (5%)

Again, the strength of support for the backward-looking answer is disconcerting. I tried to think of the last time the Russian economy was in a squeeze like today's. The last time the oil price price came down like this was the mid-1980s when North Sea and Alaskan oil broke the power of the OPEC cartel for a few years (that's the analysis of Anatole Kaletsky). The disappearance of oil rents probably contributed to the collapse of the Soviet economy.

But a closer parallel to today is 1930, when two things happened at once. The global market for Soviet exports shrank in the Great Depression. And international lending dried up, meaning that the Soviet economy could not roll over its debts. The Soviet import capacity collapsed almost overnight. Stalin responded by forcing the pace of import substitution through rapid industrialization. He demanded "The five plan in four years!" The result was a crisis of excessive mobilization that claimed millions of lives in the famine of 1932 and 1933.

Prominent in calling for an economic breakthrough today is President Putin, who responded to Western sanctions on 18 September 2014: “In the next 18 to 24 months we need to make a real breakthrough in making the Russian real sector more competitive, something that in the past would have taken us years.” Government-friendly Russian economists are talking about the need to go from a market economy back to a mobilization economy. In case the foreigners aren't getting the message, first deputy prime minister Shuvalov told those assembled in Davos on 23 January: “We will survive any hardship in the country – eat less food, use less electricity.”

A third question that RBC asked its viewers was on 19 December:

What matters most for the country right now?

  • The foreign exchange rate (33%)
  • Who is a true patriot and who is fifth column (56%)
  • “Vyatskii kvas” (11%)

(The English equivalent of "Vyatskii kvas" would probably be Devon cider. For the reasons why it was being talked up as a solution to Russia's problems last December, click here.)

Here the strength of support for the backward looking answer is shocking. What is the "fifth column" and how does it resonate in Russian history? In 1937, Stalin saw Moscow surrounded and penetrated by enemies. This coincided with the siege of Madrid in Spain’s Civil War. In 1936 the nationalist General Mola was asked which of his four columns would take Madrid. He replied, famously: “My fifth column” (of undercover nationalist agents already in the city). In Madrid the Republicans responded by executing 4,000 nationalist sympathisers. In the Soviet Union Stalin, who was also watching, ordered the execution of 700,000 “enemies of the people.”

In recent times, the spectre of a "fifth column" was first reawakened by President Putin on 18 March 2014, when he remarked: "Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors’, or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent?"

Putin took up this theme again on 18 December 2014: "The line that separates opposition activists from the fifth column is hard to see from the outside. What’s the difference? Opposition activists may be very harsh in their criticism, but at the end of the day they are defending the interests of the motherland. And the fifth column is those who serve the interests of other countries, and who are only tools for others’ political goals."

Here you can see that Putin did affirm the possibility that opposition can be loyal. But is it possible for Russia to have a loyal opposition today? The only example of loyal opposition that Putin could bring himself to mention was the poet Lermontov -- who died in 1841.

These echoes of the Soviet past in Russian opinion today are disconcerting and even frightening. At the same time it is important to remember that, even while Russians look to the past, Russia today is absolutely not the Soviet Union. From today's vantage point it is nearly impossible to imagine how closed, stifling, claustrophobic, and isolated was everyday life even in late Soviet times. 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 all these ways, the transition from communism has not been a failure.

As Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman (2014) wrote recently: "Putin’s authoritarian turn clearly makes Russia more dangerous. But it does not, thus far, make the country politically abnormal. In fact, on a plot of different states’ Polity [i.e. democracy] scores against their incomes, Russia still deviates only slightly from the overall pattern. For a country with Russia’s national income, the predicted Polity score [a measure of democracy] in 2013 was 76 on the 100-point scale. Russia’s actual score was 70, on a par with Sri Lanka and Venezuela."

To see Russia as just another middle income country helps us to identify Russia's underlying problem. In Russia, just like in Sri Lanka, Venezuela, and most countries outside “the West,” wealth and power are fused in a small, closed elite, and that is how it has always been. The fusion of wealth and power was and remains normal. Before the revolution Russia was governed by a landowning Tsar, aristocracy, and church. After the revolution Russia was governed by a communist elite that monopolized all productive property plus media, science, and education. Today Russia is governed by an ex-communist, ex-KGB elite that has once again gathered control of energy resources and the media. This fusion of wealth and power is neither new nor is it unusual among middle and low income countries.

In societies where wealth and power are fused, particular people are powerful because they control wealth and the same people are wealthy if and only if they are powerful. This is what gives politics in such societies its life-and-death immediacy. To lose power means to lose everything; when power change hands there is often violence. “All politics is real politics," write Douglas North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast (2009); "people risk death when they make political mistakes.”

Several times in history, liberal reformers have tried to separate wealth and power in Russia and make space for public opinion. Here are some examples from the last 150 years:

  • In 1864 a reform brought elected local governments – but within an absolute monarchy.
  • Shaken by military defeats and popular insurrections, in 1906 the Russian monarchy introduced an elected parliament, although with few powers, and ndividual peasant landownership, although (as it turned out) with little time for implementation.
  • In 1992 and 1995 Russia saw voucher privatization and "loans-for-shares," creating a class of corporate shareholders – but the outcome was crony capitalism, not free enterprise.
  • In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovskii tried to separate the governance of Yukos from the "power vertical," but he went to prison for it.

All these efforts have so far achieved only partial or temporary success. Russia has not yet found a solution to the problem of the fusion of wealth and power. Here, at last, is an aspect of Russia's future that is certain: If Russia is ever to find a solution to this problem, it will be there.

Note: I updated this column after publication to correct a date -- 2014, which appeared as 1914.


  • North, Douglas, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast. 2009. Violence and Social Orders A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shleifer, Andrei, and Daniel Triesman. 2014. "Normal Countries: The East 25 Years after Communism." Foreign Affairs, November-December.

June 13, 2014

The military power, economics and strategy that led to D–Day

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The Conversation published this column on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, June 6 2014. I thought I'd include it here.

On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy. Their number rose to 1.5m over the next six weeks. With them came millions of tons of equipment, ranging from munitions, vehicles, food, and fuel to prefabricated floating harbours.

The achievement of the Normandy landings was, first of all, military. The military conditions included co-operation (between the British, Americans, and Free French), deception and surprise (the Germans knew an invasion was coming but were led to expect it elsewhere), and the initiative and bravery of officers and men landing on the beaches, sometimes under heavy fire. More than 4,000 men died on the first day.

D-Day was made possible by its global context. Germany was already being defeated by the Soviet Army on the eastern front. There, 90% of German ground forces were tied down in a protracted losing struggle (after D-Day this figure fell to two-thirds). The scale of fighting, killing, and dying on the eastern front was a multiple of that in the West. For the Red Army in World War II, 4,000 dead was a quieter-than-average day.

Economic factors were also involved. In 1944 the main fighting still lay in the east, but the Allied economic advantage lay in the west. Before the war the future Allies had twice the population and more than twice the real GDP of the Axis powers. During the war the Allies pooled their resources so as to maximise the production of fighting power in a way that the Axis powers did not attempt to match. America made the biggest single contribution, shared with the Allies through Lend-Lease.

Between 1942 and 1944 Allied war production exceeded that of the Axis in every category and on all fronts. This advantage was especially great in the West. In the chart below, a value of one on the horizontal plane would mean equality between the two sides. Values above one measure the Allied dominance:

The Allies made more planes, guns, tanks and bombs on every front. Mark Harrison

Eventually the accumulation of firepower helped turn the tide. A German soldier in Normandy told his American captors, “I know how you defeated us. You piled up the supplies and then let them fall on us.”

D-Day was made possible by economics, but it was made inevitable by other calculations. When the outcome of the war was in doubt, Stalin demanded the Western Allies open a “second front” in Western Europe to take pressure off the Red Army. At this time, working towards D-Day was a price that the Allies paid for Stalin’s cooperation in the war. By 1944 German defeat was assured; now D-Day became a price the Western Allies paid in order to help decide the post-war settlement of Europe.

While D-Day was inevitable, its success was not predetermined by economics or anything else. The landings were preceded by years of building up men and combat stocks in the south of England, and by months of detailed logistical planning. But most of the plans were thrown to the wind on the first day as the chaos of seasick men struggling through the surf and enemy fire onto the Normandy sands unfolded. This greatest amphibious assault in history was a huge gamble that could easily have ended in disaster.

Had the D-Day landings failed, our history would have been very different. The war would have dragged on beyond 1945 in both Europe and the Pacific. Germany would still have been undefeated when the first atomic bombs were produced; their first victims would have been German, not Japanese. Germany and Berlin would never have been divided, because the Red Army would have occupied the whole country. The Cold War would have begun with the Western democracies greatly disadvantaged. We have good reason to be grateful to those who averted this alternative history.

The ConversationMark Harrison does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

March 13, 2014

Stay Where You Are: Russia Will Come to You

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An old joke has resurfaced in connection with Ukraine's Crimean crisis. I saw it first in a column by my co-author Paul Gregory:

You want to live in France? Go to France. You want to live in Britain? Go to Britain. You want to live in Russia? Stay where you are: Russia will come to you.

It's generally hard to work out when and where such jokes originated, but this one has real-life foundation.

Before the war Menachem Begin, who was later Israel's prime minister, was a Jewish activist in Poland. When Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland in 1939 he fled to Lithuania, where Soviet troops arrived in 1940. With thousands of others, Begin was arrested. He was accused of being a British agent under Article 58 of the RSFSR (Russian republic) criminal code, which dealt with counter-revolutionary crimes. In a later memoir Begin recalled a prison conversation (Weiner and Rahi-Tamm 2012, p. 14):

When Begin inquired how article 58 of the Soviet Criminal Code (counter revolutionary activity, treason, and diversion) could be applied to activities that were considered legal in then sovereign Poland, his interrogator did not hesitate: “Ah, you are a strange fellow [chudak], Menachem Wolfovich. Article 58 applies to everyone in the world. Do you hear? In the whole world. The only question is when he will get to us or we to him.”

This raises an interesting question: If the jokes are the same, is the system the same? In other words, is Putin's Russia the same as Stalin's Soviet Union? In most aspects of everyday life the answer is: Clearly not. In Russia today there is far more freedom of speech, assocation, and enterprise than there ever was in the Soviet Union. But there is also much less of these things than there should be. And there are disturbing continuities with the Soviet past in Putin's KGB background and loyalty, his nostalgia for the Soviet empire, and the identification of national power with his personal regime.

Directly linked to these things is continuity in Russia's menacing approach to its neighbours. The people of what was once eastern Poland (now western Ukraine and western Belarus), and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, are being reminded today that they live in territories to which "Russia came" in 1939 and 1940. These occupations were followed by unanimous parliamentary votes and rigged referenda, the registration of the population and issuing of "passports" (ID cards), and mass arrests and deportations.

If we are returning to the past, one may hope for a new era of Russian jokes. Unfortunately, it may turn out that the best jokes have already been told.


Weiner, Amir, and Aigi Rahi-Tamm. 2012. Getting to Know You: The Soviet Surveillance System, 1939-1957. Kritika 3:1, pp. 5-45.

January 08, 2014

Stalin Equals Cromwell: How Putin Sees Russia's Past

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How is Cromwell so different from Stalin? Can you tell me? There is no difference. From the standpoint of our liberal representatives, from the liberal spectrum of our political establishment, he is a similarly bloody dictator. He was a treacherous guy, and he played an ambivalent role in the history of Great Britain. His memorial stands, and no one is tearing it down.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin does not know the difference between Joseph Stalin and Oliver Cromwell. It is true, as Putin declared (at a four-hour press conference held at the end of last year, on 19 December 2013), that Cromwell was a dictator. It is true, also, that Cromwell's historic achievements were stained with the blood of others. Yet his statue stands in Westminster outside the British Parliament. Putin's implication is clear: Like Cromwell, Stalin is just another national leader from times past, and any nation would be willing to remember him for his place in national history.

What should we take from this? There is a characteristic skew to Putin's view of Russia's past. But this is hardly new. In 2007 Putin had this to say:

As for the problematic pages in our history -- yes, they existed. The same as in the history of any state! Indeed, we have had fewer than some others. And not as terrible for us as in some others. Yes, we had some dreadful pages: let's remember the events that began in 1937, let's not forget them. But there were no less in other states, they've had worse. At least we haven't used atomic weapons on civilians. We haven't flooded thousands of kilometres with chemicals and we haven't dropped seven times more bombs on a small country than were used in the whole Great Patriotic [War, i.e. World War II], as happened in Vietnam, let's say. We've had no other black pages such as Nazism, for example.

You never know what might have happened in the history of other states and peoples! We can't afford to let them make us feel guilty about it -- they should worry about themselves.

In short, Putin does not see much to feel bad about in Soviet public life before 1937. He feels bad about "the events that began in 1937" (when Stalin ordered the execution of 700,000 and the imprisonment of 1.5 million more), but these were no more than would fall into the normal range of bad stuff that might have happened anywhere. I'm not going to go into more detail here on this. Interested readers can go back to the blistering response of Leon Aron, who said it at the time much better than I can.

If "Stalin = Cromwell," what does it matter? One implication might be for Russia's public life, given that Stalin is still politically relevant to Russia in a way that Cromwell is not to the UK. It is three centuries and a half since England's Civil War was concluded and there is no significant Cromwellian party in British public life (other than perhaps in Northern Ireland). Russia today, in contrast, has many active claimants to Stalin's mantle, including a communist party whose leader Gennadii Zyuganov, according to Putin, could be considered as the second figure in Russia's public life. Still, Putin is not calling on Russians to rally under Stalin's banner and return to the peasant-slayer's precepts; far from it.

An alternative implication is the one that matters: Putin wishes Russia's past to be seen as normal. Specifically, a believer in the Russian state and national power, he wishes the history of Russia's state to be seen as continuous and normal. All countries have had their builders of the nation state and its capacity: Cromwell, Napoleon, Bismarck, Ataturk, ... and Stalin. All were forceful modernizers, Putin seems to say, that got their way by imposing sacrifices and crossing the margins of conventional morality. But all deserve their laurels and should have their statues. As for their transgressions, we will not forget to mention "the events that began in 1937," but there's no need to enumerate the mass graves in the birch woods or to detail who killed whom on whose orders.

My guess would be that this view resonates strongly with many Russians today. It's something you can easily lose sight of in Moscow, where most streets and squares lost their Soviet-era appelations and decorations in the early 1990s, and went back to the pre-revolutionary style. But Moscow is not Russia. In many provincial Russian towns the statues of Lenin and other Bolshevik revolutionaries still stand.

A minor detail caught my eye in the reporting of the recent tragic events in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad): the second (trolleybus) bombing of 30 December took place in the city's Dzerzhinskii district, that is, a part of the city named after Feliks Dzerzhinskii, founder of the Soviet secret police and architect of Red Terror in Russia's civil war. According to Wikipedia, there remain no less than ten Dzerzhinskii districts in Russia's cities and provinces (as well as one in Eastern Ukraine), not to mention the town of Dzerzhinsk, not far from Nizhnii Novgorod. In provincial Russia you can't yet have Stalingrad, despite a campaign to restore Stalin's name to the city, but it's quite normal to have Dzerzhinskii. In Moscow the destruction of Dzerzhinskii's statue was one of the symbolic acts of 1991; recent calls to restore it have evoked polarized opinions.

I thought about this a few months ago when I visited Ekaterinburg. Standing on the edge of Asia, Ekaterinburg is the capital of a province the size of England and Scotland combined, but with less than a tenth of the population. First named after the Empress Catherine the Great, the city was renamed Sverdlovsk in 1924 after the early death of Soviet Russia's first head of state: Yakov Sverdlov. In 1991 the city's pre-revolutionary name was restored, but its hinterland is still called Sverdlov province, and Sverdlov's statue still stands on the main street.


Photo: Mark Harrison.

Ekaterinburg's streets and squares commemorate many figures from the Bolshevik past from Kuibyshev (architect of the first five year plan) and Malyshev (Stalin's minister of the atomic industry) to Michurin (Stalin's pet anti-Darwinian pseudo-scientist) and Serov (first head of the post-Stalin KGB). Oh, and here's the "Iset" hotel, built in the shape of a hammer and sickle in the 1930s as an apartment block for security officials and their families.

Gorodok chekistov

Photo: Mark Harrison.

People still call it Gorodok chekistov, the little town of the secret policemen. Elsewhere in the town is Ulitsa chekistov, the street of the secret policemen.


Photo: Mark Harrison

In Ekaterinburg Lenin's statue stands opposite the town hall, just as Sergo Ordzhonikidze's statue stands in the suburbs outside the head office of Uralmash, the giant Soviet-era engineering factory. Ordzhonikidze was Stalin's minister for heavy industry. (He shot himself in 1937 as a protest when Stalin eliminated his subordinates one by one).


Photo: Mark Harrison.

In Ekaterinburg some things have changed since Soviet times, not just the city's name. A mile from Sverdlov's statue stands a new shrine to Sverdlov's most famous victims, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, murdered on the spot in July 1918.


Photo: Mark Harrison

In Ekaterinburg, it seems, perpetrators and victims are commemorated with complete impartiality. The martyr Nicholas gets a new statue, while the likely murderer Sverdlov keeps his old one. It's just like London, where Cromwell's statue stands in Westminster, a short walk from that of Charles I, the King whom Cromwell executed, at Charing Cross.

Not quite like London, though. In Ekaterinburg, something is missing. On a highway a few kilometres out of town, a handpainted sign labelled "Memorial" points off the road. (I didn't get a chance to take a picture.) Memorial to whom? The path leads into the birch forests where the Chekists took tens of thousands for night time execution and burial in the years of Stalin's terror. Mass graves have no importance in Putin's nation-building narrative. They can be forgotten, or filed away under the heading of necessary sacrifices and inevitable mistakes.

This is Putin's view of Russia's past. Sverdlov and Tsar Nicholas; Lenin, Stalin; the Chekists; Kuibyshev, Malyshev, Ordzhonikidze. All are figures from history, state leaders in whom Russians should feel equal national pride. Who can tell the difference? No one. As for the ordinary victims, forget them. Anyway, who cares? Only those that wish to dig for dirt among their bones.

August 08, 2013

Unlearning the History of Communism

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On the Pieria magazine website there has been an exchange of views on capitalism and socialism. I guess it is my fault; on 28 June I contributed a summary of some remarks on the subject. I concluded:

Liberal capitalism isn’t perfect, but it has done far more for human welfare than communism. It has been the solution more often than the problem. Last time capitalism experienced some difficulties, many countries went off on a search for alternatives. That search for alternatives led nowhere. It wasn’t just unproductive. It was a terrible mistake that cost many tens of millions of lives. Lots of people have forgotten this history. Now is a good time to remember it.

On 31 July, the blogger UnlearningEconomics responded:

In my opinion, this view rests on a highly selective interpretation of events. It requires that we gloss over two major historical points: first, the historical circumstances of existing communism; second, the history of capitalist countries. It fails to acknowledge the fact that existing socialism occurred primarily in undeveloped countries, which we would naturally expect to exhibit lower standards of living than developed ones. It ignores the deliberate campaign of destruction and sabotage toward the socialist states by the capitalist states, a process comprehensively documented by US foreign policy critic William Blum (Blum, 2003). It also requires that we define past and present abuses of capitalist states as somehow 'outside' capitalism, in order to place ourselves above the (real or imagined) abuses of the communists.

I do not hope to defend anyone's atrocities, though I am happy to refute some of the absurd exaggerations that sometimes pervade these debates. In any case, my main aim is to show two things: first, the abuses of existing socialist states are better explained by their political circumstances than their innate evils of the ideology; second, capitalist countries have a similarly abhorrent record, one which is not so easily explained by political necessities. My rendition will definitely annoy capitalists and anti-communists by being too sympathetic toward communism, which is a dirty word for many. It will also potentially annoy communists and socialists by not being sympathetic enough and repeating some of the more simplistic mainstream narratives. However, the important thing is that we examine the history of both systems in context, rather than lazily parading the kill count of the other side to try and shut down debate.

UnlearningEconomics (below I'll call him or her "UE") goes on to present "brief" (but, for a blog, quite lengthy) histories of both communism and capitalism. The general story is that if communism has had a bloody history it is mainly because communist revolutions occurred under unfavourable circumstances and had to struggle against the encirclement and aggression of the surrounding capitalist states; as for capitalism, it has its own bloody history, which is too often ignored.

What is there here that we can agree on? Perhaps we might agree that twentieth century warfare was terrible enough that it could damage social norms and other institutions of a relatively poor country like Russia or China; in such conditions organized minorities with unscrupulous leaders could seize power and use it to do terrible things. The efforts of other countries to intervene and prevent this, then as now, were largely fruitless or even counterproductive; perhaps they should not have tried, although politicians are not generally selected for lack of ambition and public opinion too often demands that something must be done.

UE goes beyond this to suggest that somehow history has been unfair to those same minorities and psychopathic leaders by allowing them to seize power only under terribly adverse circumstances. We owe it to them (the argument seems to go) to compensate them for their disadvantage; we should allow them at least a few decades of unchallenged power, so that they have a fair chance to show what they can achieve. But this seems completely unhinged.

In bringing up my children, I tried to teach them that people show their inner qualities when things go badly. It is easy to look good when things go well. Only good people will still be good when things go badly; adversity reveals character. I believe this rule can also be applied to politics. It is when things go badly that we see political leaders and their programmes and ideals put to the test.

Can systems be blamed for atrocities of whatever kind? It is not systems that take food from the mouths of the hungry or put bullets into the back of anyone’s head. People do this. But the system matters, nonetheless. What the system does is to leave more or less scope for the concentration of power in the hands of people who are inclined to exploit it without restraint. Liberal capitalism at least allows the separation of economic power from politics and decentralizes decisions to firms and households in markets. This is because, in the words of North, Wallis, and Weingast (2011), it is an “open-access order.” Communism is a “closed-access” order that restricts who may exercise political power and concentrates control of the economy in the hands of that privileged elite. Given that, ask which of these systems is more likely to permit the abuse of power and allow abuses to be hidden from the public gaze?

When general outlooks clash, it is not always enough to stay with generalities. Sometimes we have to get down with the particular facts. History is full of good stories, and UE tells some of them well. The problem is that not all good stories are true, but this becomes evident only when they are confronted with the detail. So, I will confront some of UE's history with the detail. I will not cover everything; I will focus for the most part on the "brief history" of communism, where I think I have more to offer.

  • UE says: Unfavourable views of communism ignore “the fact that existing socialism occurred primarily in undeveloped countries, which we would naturally expect to exhibit lower standards of living than developed ones.”

This is seriously incomplete. Existing socialism occurred in relatively few undeveloped countries, and generally only in those weakened by war (Russia, China, Korea, and Indochina). Central Europe would scarcely have counted as undeveloped; there the precondition was war followed by military occupation. Cuba may be the only example of a country that had a communist revolution without a foreign war. In 1945 in several places the boundary of “existing socialism” was laid down in the middle of a region that was previously economically and ethnolinguistically integrated. As well as showing that warfare counted for more than lack of development, these examples also provide natural experiments for the long run consequences of system change. Think of Estonia versus Finland, East versus West Germany, and North versus South Korea. For discussion see Harrison (2013).

  • UE says: Unfavourable views of communism also ignore “the deliberate campaign of destruction and sabotage toward the socialist states by the capitalist states” (citing William Blum).

Again, seriously incomplete. The UE view of postwar history rests on selection, overstatement of the capacity of outsiders to intervene in Russia and Eastern Europe, exaggeration of popular support for communism (the most popular communist party in Europe at the end of the war was probably the French party with no more than a quarter of the popular vote), and ignorance of the documented process whereby Stalin’s secret police entered Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945 “embedded” with the Red Army and armed with a template for dictatorship that they began to apply immediately, regardless of whether or not communists were in the government (Applebaum 2012). Far from resenting western "sabotage," millions of Central and East Europeans felt abandoned by the West as Stalin crushed their hopes for national self-determination. Finally, it forgets that the one American initiative that could have decisively altered the trajectory of Eastern Europe was not “destruction and sabotage” but Marshall Aid, which Stalin instructed his allies to reject.

  • UE says: The unfavourable conditions of the Russian Revolution are shown by the fact that “Russia had suffered the worst losses out of any country during the war.”

No. It is hard to imagine that Russia would have suffered the Revolution without three years of world war, and it is true that battle and non-battle deaths of Russian soldiers up to 1917 were heavy (1.8 million). At the same time Russia's losses were fewer than Germany’s absolutely, and (given Russia’s large population) were proportionately fewer than of those of Britain, France, Italy, Serbia, Rumania, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey (Broadberry and Harrison 2005). Russia’s economic loss of GDP per head up to 1917 was less than that of Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Turkey (Markevich and Harrison 2011). The latter conclude: “We have seen that the economic decline up to 1917 was not more severe in Russia than elsewhere. In short, we will probably not be able to explain why Russia was the first to descend into revolution and civil war without reference to historical factors that were unique to that country and period.”

  • UE says: “By the time Joseph Stalin took (absolute) power in 1929, many – including, perhaps, himself – believed the threats the USSR faced were justifications for his purges and the Gulags.”

Seriously incomplete. There is no “perhaps” here: Stalin had a precise understanding that is now well documented (e.g. Khlevniuk 1995; Simonov 1996; Davies et al. 2003; Harrison 2008; Velikanova 2013). In 1921, 1924, 1927, and 1929 there was no foreign threat. But rumours of war were frequent, because the Soviet Union’s strategy of inciting revolution and mutiny abroad kept Soviet foreign relations in a state of continual tension. In domestic society, Stalin's secret police told him, every rumour was destabilizing; peasants and workers started to wonder when the chance would come to get rid of the Bolsheviks. Stalin was aware that above all he had to secure the regime internally and externally and that drift could only weaken him. This is why he launched Soviet society simultaneously on the courses of forced industrialization, mass collectivization of the peasantry, and political violence. Justification? Yes, of course, if taking power and holding it are sufficient motivations. Not otherwise. Khrushchev was personally responsible for tens of thousands of killings under Stalin, and this left him with a bad conscience. In trying to come to terms with it he blamed Stalin many times but not Hitler, the CIA, or anyone else outside the country.

  • UE says: “The country did face a very real Nazi threat that, failing industrialisation, it would not have been able to overcome.”

No. Stalin changed course towards industrialization, collectivization, and mass violence in 1929, when there was no significant external threat. The Nazis came to power in 1933, and no European leader (including Stalin) recognized the threat from Hitler before 1935. Before Hitler, a threat to Siberia appeared from the East in 1931 with the Japanese annexation of Manchuria. These threats came after, not before, Stalin’s “revolution from above.” As for whether the Nazi threat justified Stalin’s policies after the event, I have written about this in many places (most recently Harrison 2010).

  • UE says: “This reasoning is consistent with the fact that once Stalin died and the more immediate western threats disappeared, ‘de-Stalinisation’ took place: the Gulags were softened and reduced in size; the cult of personality was dismantled … things certainly improved once the Nazi threat had been eliminated.”

No. The Nazi threat was eliminated in 1945. The softening of the Soviet regime after 1953 had everything to do with Stalin’s death and nothing to do with the disappearance of “immediate western threats.” De-Stalinization took place not because of the disappearance of western threats but because the entire Soviet leadership was tired of living in fear of their own lives, and then went further because Khrushchev and Mikoyan had bad consciences about their own responsibility for past mass killings. The Gulag was dismantled immediately, not because of the disappearance of western threats but because Lavrentii Beriia had long before determined that it was an economic drain and a source of social contagion but Stalin had prevented him from acting on his findings. There was bitter resistance to dismantling the cult of Stalin from other communist leaders (especially Mao), not because of western threats but because it threatened their own legitimacy (and their own cults). The cult of Stalin was dismantled but was soon replaced by the cult of Khrushchev.

  • UE says: “The Great Leap Forward (GLF) … undoubtedly caused a large degree of famine, surely because of the over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy.”

Seriously incomplete. A centralized, inflexible policy was enough to start a famine, but it does not begin to explain explain how the famine proceeded, nor does it explain the secrecy that then shrouded it for decades.

Think about what is required for an act of policy to cause millions of famine deaths. Here is the problem: When people starve to death, they do not die suddenly and unexpectedly. It takes them months, even many months to weaken, become sick, and die. Some die before others. Some die of hunger; some are carried off by diseases to which they lose immunity. Some die at home; some drop dead in the street. Some die passively; some steal or even kill for food; a few turn to cannibalism. In other words, a policy that causes millions of famine deaths (such as in the USSR in 1932 to 1934) or tens of millions (in China in 1958 to 1960) cannot go unnoticed by those carrying out the policy.

In fact, in both the USSR and China, the famine process worked like this (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004; Chen and Kung 2011). First, the leaders issued quotas for the collection of food, province by province. They also gave the provincial leaders to understand that their future depended on meeting the quota. The provincial leaders competed to raise more grain than their neighbours in order to show loyalty and to save their own lives and the lives of their families. And they passed these incentives down the line to their subordinates charged with doing the actual work. When some people reported that the quotas were too heavy, or they resisted or dragged their feet, they were arrested and others took their place. Food collections began and the first people started to die. When some people reported that other people were dying, they were told that this was just “simulation or provocation”: enemies were maliciously withholding food and starving their own children to cause trouble (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004, p. 206).

While the first ones were dying, the people responsible for extracting grain from the villages had to go deeper and deeper into the countryside to find food and take it by force. On every journey along all the different routes they took, they had to go past the people from whom they had already taken food, who were now dead or dying, to find more food that they could take. In China, the provincial leaders of lower rank had more to prove and Chen and Kung (2011) show these people tried harder, so that more grain was collected and more people died in their provinces. Returning from every journey past the already dying and dead people, they sometimes reported what they had seen (although it was sometimes “forbidden to keep an official record”) but in public they had to remain absolutely silent about, not just at the time but for the rest of their lives. The same applied to everyone with business that required them to move around the countryside. While they were doing this, others had to be ordered to stop some of the dying people who were not dead yet from moving out in search of food elsewhere. They had to be ordered to stop them because the food that had been collected and stored elsewhere was destined for others; if the dying people were allowed to eat it, it would not be available to feed Stalin’s Great Breakthrough or Mao’s Great Leap Forward. A particular reason for these orders is that when hungry people are allowed to mix with people that have enough to eat, it is extraordinary difficult to stop kind people from giving some of their food to starving families; the Germans found this in occupied Europe when they tried to cut Jewish communities off from food, and this is one reason why they first herded Jews into ghettoes and later decided to accelerate the Holocaust (Collingham 2010, pp. 205 ff). Finally, both at the time and later, the surviving victims and perpetrators alike learned never to talk about it, perhaps not even to their children. As a result, witnesses of terrible things (such as Yang 2012) often concluded the events they had seen were isolated and exceptional.

In other words, the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy” was enough to start a famine, but further deliberate actions were required to ensure government priorities for food supplies when millions of people were dying of hunger. All this must be read into the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy,” and it suggests why those words do not begin to provide a full explanation.

  • UE says: “It is also worth noting that the remaining Cold War paranoia was certainly not a USSR-only phenomenon, with McCarthyism and the red scare in the US reaching levels which now seem ridiculous to most.”

No. McCarthyism was ridiculous and, partly as a result of it, the FBI missed many Soviet agents that were actually at work in American government and society after the war (Moynihan Commission 1997).

  • UE says: “In Poland, the popular party Solidarity wanted some form of worker ownership – in other words, socialism – until, in desperation, they had to turn to the IMF, who made capitalist policies a condition for any aid. In Russia, Boris Yeltin’s ‘free market’ reforms were resisted, which was met with force; similarly, in China, the Tienanmen Square massacres were not made in favour of capitalism but in favour of democracy and worker control” (citing Naomi Klein).

No. None of us can possibly know what demonstrators in China or elsewhere “really” wanted. Politics is the art of the possible, and for this reason people tend to express their choices strategically, in the light of the constraints they perceive and the choices they expect others to make. I saw this myself in Russia: As long as the communist party was in full control, many dissenters preferred to limit their demands by appealing to rights guaranteed by the Soviet constitution, asking for a return to “true” Leninism, calling to rehabilitate Old Bolsheviks like Trotsky and Bukharin, and so forth. Only when the communist monopoly gave way did it become politically and psychologically possible for free thinkers to go further; some didn't but many did. UE refers to IMF conditionality in a disparaging way; but why would a responsible aid donor give aid without wishing to rule out uses of its resources that would be damaging or counterproductive? UE relies on Klein’s Shock Doctrine as a source; on its use of evidence see Harrison (2009).

  • UE says: “While estimates of deaths from Mao’s GLF are exaggerated using dubious estimation techniques (which effectively allow the demographers to pick the number arbitrarily), little to no cover has been given to the increase in Russian deaths during the ‘transition’ to capitalism, which, by a reasonable estimation method of simply counting the increase in death rates, claimed 4 million lives between 1990 and 1996” (citing Utsa Patnaik).

No. UE (or perhaps Utsa Patnaik) seems to confuse demographic studies with the literary and journalistic accounts written by people who do not have a good understanding of error margins. Demographers know that when people die in numbers so large that they are not recorded individually there is always an error margin. The error margin has several sources: mismeasurement of the population before and after the shock, imputation of normal mortality during the shock (required to infer excess mortality), and correctly apportioning the birth deficit between babies not born (or miscarried) and babies born and died within the famine period. In other words the best available estimation techniques give rise to ranges rather than point estimates, and it is from these ranges that nonspecialists feel entitled to pick and choose.

As for the cause of Russia’s mortality spike in the transition years, the research attributing it to mass privatization (Stuckler and McKee 2009) has been widely disseminated; less well known is that it has also been thoroughly criticized (Earle 2009; Earle and Gehlbach 2010; Brown, Earle, and Telegdy 2010; Battacharya, Gathmann, and Miller 2013; see also reply by Stuckler and McKee 2010). In the last years of the Soviet Union Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign temporarily prevented millions of Russians from drinking themselves to death. However, it did not alter their desire to drink. Their deaths were postponed and so stored up and waiting to happen when alcohol became cheaper again and more easily available. Thus, the increase in Russian deaths during transition is more plausibly attributed to an increase in the availability and collapse in the price of alcohol.

I’ll conclude on the subject of atrocity. UE writes: “I do not hope to defend anyone's atrocities, though I am happy to refute some of the absurd exaggerations that sometimes pervade these debates … the important thing is that we examine the history of both systems in context, rather than lazily parading the kill count of the other side to try and shut down debate.” I noticed that the UE blog goes further, wishing to move debate on from “disingenuous ‘Black Book of Communism’-style kill count porn” (the "Black Book" reference is to Courtois et al. 1999).

This shocked me. Is there room for debate over the scale, causes, and significance of the excess deaths that arose around the world from communist policies? Absolutely. Should any figure in the Black Book of Communism be above discussion? Of course not. But kill count porn? The demand for these people to be remembered and their suffering acknowledged comes from the victims themselves. “We were forgotten. For our broken lives. For our executed fathers. No one apologized. If we don’t preserve the historical memory, we shall continue to make the same mistakes” (Fekla Andreeva, resettled as a child with her “kulak” family, whose father was executed in the Great Terror, cited by Reshetova 2013; see also Gregory 2013).


  • Applebaum, Anne. 2012. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. London: Allen Lane.
  • Bhattacharya, Jay, Christina Gathmann, and Grant Miller. 2013. Gorbachev’s Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia's Mortality Crisis. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5(2): 232-60.
  • Broadberry, Stephen, and Mark Harrison. 2005. The Economics of World War I: an Overview. In The Economics of World War I: 3-40. Edited by Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, J. David, John S. Earle, and Álmos Telegdy. 2010. Employment and Wage Effects of Privatisation: Evidence from Hungary, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.”Economic Journal 120, no. 545: 683-708.
  • Chen, S. and Kung, J. (2011), ‘The Tragedy of the Nomenklatura: Career Incentives and Political Radicalism during China’s Great Leap Famine’, American Political Science Review, 105(1): 27-45.
  • Collingham, Lizzie. 2010. The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. London: Allen Lane.
  • Courtois, Stephane, Mark Kramer, Jonathan Murphy, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. 1999. The Black Book of Communism. Ed Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Davies, R. W., and Stephen Wheatcroft. 2003. The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, vol. 5: The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
  • Davies, R. W., Oleg Khlevniuk, E. A. Rees, Liudmila P. Kosheleva, and Larisa A. Rogovaia, eds. 2003. The Stalin-Kaganovich Correspondence, 1931-36. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Earle, John S. 2009. Mass Privatisation and Mortality. The Lancet 373 (April 11), p. 1247
  • Earle, John S., and Scott Gehlbach. 2010. Did Mass Privatisation Really Increase Post-Communist Mortality? The Lancet 375 (January 30), p. 372.
  • Gregory, Paul R. 2013. Women of the Gulag. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2008. The Dictator and Defense. In Guns and Rubles: the Defense Industry in the Stalinist State, pp. 1-30. Edited by Mark Harrison. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2009. Credibility Crunch: A Comment on The Shock Doctrine. University of Warwick. Department of Economics.
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  • Khlevniuk, Oleg. 1995. The Objectives of the Great Terror, 1937-38. In Soviet History, 1917-1953: Essays in Honour of R. W. Davies: 158-76. Edited by J. M. Cooper, Maureen Perrie, and E. A. Rees. New York, NY: St Martin's.
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  • Reshetova, Natalia. 2013. Women of the Gulag. Hoover Digest no. 3, 108-115.
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  • Stuckler, David, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee. 2009. Mass Privatisation and the Post-Communist Mortality Crisis: a Cross-National Analysis. The Lancet no. 373 (January 31, 2009): 399-407.
  • Stuckler, David, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee. 2010. Did Mass Privatisation Really Increase Post-Communist Mortality? – Authors’ Reply. The Lancet 375 (January 30, 2010), pp 372-74.
  • Velikanova, Olga. 2013. Popular Perceptions of Soviet Politics in the 1920s: Disenchantment of the Dreamers. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Yang Jisheng. 2012. Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine. London: Allen Lane.

February 04, 2013

Alternatives to Capitalism: When Dream Turned to Nightmare

Writing about web page

On Friday evening I found myself debating "Socialism vs Capitalism: The future of economic systems" at the Peking Conference of the Warwick China Public Affairs and Social Service Society. The organizers also invited my colleagues Sayantan Ghosal, Omer Moav, and Michael McMahon, who spoke eloquently. The element of debate was not too prominent because we all said similar things in different ways. I'm an economic historian and the great advantage of history is that it gives you hindsight. Anyway, here is what I said:

Let’s start from some history. There was a time between the two world wars when the capitalist democracies, like America, Britain, France, and Germany, were in a lot of trouble. In 1929 a huge financial crisis began in the United States and went global. There was a Great Depression. Around the world, many tens of millions of farmers were ruined. Tens of millions of workers lost their jobs.

As today, people asked: What was the cause of the problem? One answer they came up with was: Capitalism is the problem. Lots of people decided: the problem is the free market economy! The government should step in to take over resources and direct them! The government should get us all back to work! The government should get us building new cities, power stations, and motorways!

Another answer many of the same people came up with was: Democracy is the problem. Lots of people decided: the problem is too much politics! We need a strong ruler to stop the squabbling! Someone who can make decisions for the nation! Someone who can organize us to build a common future together!

So there was a search for alternatives to capitalism. Different countries tried different alternatives. The alternatives they tried included national socialism (or fascism) and communism under various dictators, like Hitler and Stalin.

What happened next? On average the dictators’ economies did recover from the Depression faster than the capitalist democracies.

(Here's a chart I made earlier to illustrate the point, but I did not have the opportunity to use it in my talk. Reading from the bottom, the democracies are the USA, France, and the UK; the dictatorships are Italy, Germany, Japan, and the USSR. You can see that Italy does not conform to the rule that the dictators' economies recovered faster. Without Italy, the average economic performance of the dictatorships would have looked even better.)

Seven major economies in the Great Depression

But solving one problem led to another. Before the 1930s were over the dictators’ policies had already caused millions of deaths. A Japanese invasion killed millions in China (I'm not sure how many). An Italian invasion killed 300,000 in North Africa. Soviet economic policies caused 5 to 6 million hunger deaths in their own country and Stalin had a million more executed.

And another problem: As political scientists have shown, democracies don’t go to war (with each other). Dictators go to war with democracies (and the other way round). And dictators go to war with each other. The result of this was that in the 1940s there was World War II. Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, and Stalin went to war -- with the democracies and with each other. Sixty million more people died.

After the war, capitalism recovered. In fact, far from being a problem, it became the solution. By the 1960s all the lost growth had been made up. Think of the economic losses from two World Wars and the Great Depression. If all you knew about capitalist growth was 1870 to 1914 and 1960 onwards, you’d never know two World Wars and the Great Depression happened in between.

(To illustrate that point, here's another chart I made earlier, but did not use. It averages the economic performance of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA.)


After World War II fascism and national socialism fell into disrepute, but communism carried on. In China, Mao Zedong’s economic policies caused more deaths. In 1958 to 1962, 15 to 40 million people starved. Communist rule led China into thirty years of stagnation and turmoil. After that Deng Xiaoping made the communist party get its act together. And the communists forgave themselves for their past and agreed to forget about it.

Here's the takeaway.

Liberal capitalism isn’t perfect, but it has done far more for human welfare than communism. It has been the solution more often than the problem. Last time capitalism experienced some difficulties, many countries went off on a search for alternatives. That search for alternatives led nowhere. It wasn’t just unproductive. It was a terrible mistake that cost many tens of millions of lives. Lots of people have forgotten this history. Now is a good time to remember it.

Postscript. At one point I thought of calling this blog "Alternatives to capitalism: the search for a red herring" (a "red herring" is something that doesn't exist but people look for it anyway.) But I realized that would have been wrong, because alternatives to capitalism have actually existed. The problem with the alternatives is not that we cannot find them. It is that the people who went searching for them fell into a dream and woke up to a nightmare.

October 15, 2012

Markets versus Government Regulation: What are the Tail Risks?

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Tail risks are the risks of worst-case scenarios. The risks at the far left tail of the probability distribution are typically small: they are very unlikely, but not impossible, and once or twice a century they will come about. When they do happen, they are disastrous. They are risks we would very much like to avoid.

How can we compare the tail risks of government intervention with the tail risks of leaving things to the market? Put differently, what is the very worst that can happen in either case? Precisely because these worst cases are very infrequent, you have to look to history to find the evidence that answers the question.

To make the case for government intervention as strong as possible, I will focus on markets for long-term assets. Why? Because these are the markets that are most likely to fail disastrously. In 2005 house prices began to collapse across North America and Western Europe, followed in 2007 by a collapse in equity markets. By implication, these markets had got prices wrong; they had become far too high. The correction of this failure, involving large write-downs of important long term assets, led us into the credit crunch and the global recession.

Because financial markets are most likely to fail disastrously, they are also the markets where many people now think someone else is more likely to do a better job.

What's special about finance? Finance looks into the future, and the future is unexplored territory. Only when that future comes about will we know the true value of the long-term investments we are making today in housing, infrastructure, education, and human and social capital. But we actually have no knowledge what the world will be like in forty or even twenty years' time. Instead, we guess. What happens in financial markets is that everyone makes their guess and the market equilibrium comes out of these guesses. But these guesses have the potential to be wildly wrong. So, it is long-term assets that markets are most likely to misprice: houses and equities. When houses and equities are priced very wrongly, chaos results. (And in the chaos, there is much scope for legal and illegal wrongdoing.)

When housing is overvalued, too many houses are built and bought at the high price and households assume too much mortgage debt. When equities are overvalued, companies build too much capacity and borrow too much from lenders. To make things worse, when the correction comes it comes suddenly; markets in long term assets don't do gradual adjustment but go to extremes. In the correction, nearly everyone suffers; the only ones that benefit are the smart lenders that pull out their own money in time and the dishonest borrowers that pull out with other people’s money. It's hard to tell which we resent more.

If markets find it hard to price long term assets correctly, and tend to flip from one extreme to another, a most important question then arises: Who is there that will do a better job?

It's implicit in current criticisms of free-market economics that many people think like this. Financial markets did not do a very good job. It follows, they believe, that someone else could have done better. That being the case, some tend to favour more government regulation to steer investment into favoured sectors. Others prefer more bank regulation to prick asset price bubbles in a boom and underpin prices in a slump. The latter is exactly what the Fed and the Bank of England are doing currently through quantitative easing.

Does this evaluation stand up to an historical perspective?

We’re coming through the worst global financial crisis since 1929. Twice in a century we've seen the worst mess that long-term asset markets can make -- and it's pretty bad. A recent estimate of the cumulative past and future output lost to the U.S. economy from the current recession, by David H. Papell and Ruxandra Prodan of the Boston Fed, is nearly $6 trillion dollars, or two fifths of U.S. output for a year. A global total in dollars would be greater by an order of magnitude. What could be worse?

For the answer, we should ask a parallel question about governments: What is the worst that government regulation of long term investment can do? We'll start with the second worst case in history, which coincided with the last Great Depression.

Beginning in the late 1920s, the Soviet dictator Stalin increasingly overdid long term investment in the industrialization and rearmament of the Soviet Union. Things got so far out of hand that, in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan in 1932/33, as a direct consequence, 5 to 6 million people lost their lives.

How did Stalin's miscalculation kill people? Stalin began with a model that placed a high value (or “priority”) on building new industrial capacity. Prices are relative, so this implied a low valuation of consumer goods. The market told him he was wrong, but he knew better. He substituted one person’s judgement (his own) for the judgement of the market, where millions of judgements interact. He based his policies on that judgement.

Stalin’s policies poured resources into industrial investment and infrastructure. Stalin intended those resources to come from consumption, which he did not value highly. His agents stripped the countryside of food to feed the growing towns and the new workforce in industry and construction. When the farmers told him they did not have enough to eat, he ridiculed this as disloyal complaining. By the time he understood they were telling the truth, it was too late to prevent millions of people from starving to death.

This case was only the second worst in the last century. The worst episode came about in China in 1958, when Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward. A famine resulted. The causal chain was pretty much the same as in the Soviet Union a quarter century before. Between 1958 and 1962, at least 15 and up to 40 million Chinese people lost their lives. (We don’t know exactly because the underlying data are not that good, and scholars have made varying assumptions about underlying trends; the most difficult thing is always to work out the balance between babies not born and babies that were born and starved.)

This was the worst communist famine but it was not the last. In Ethiopia, a much smaller country, up to a million people died for similar reasons between 1982 and 1985. If you want to read more, the place to start is “Making Famine History” by Cormac Ó Gráda in the Journal of Economic Literature 45/1 (2007), pp. 5-38. The RePEc handle of this paper is

Note that I do not claim these deaths were intentional. They were a by-product of government regulation; no one planned them (although some people do argue this). At best, however, those in charge at the time were guilty of manslaughter on a vast scale. In fact, I sometimes wonder why Chinese people still get so mad at Japan. Japanese policies in China between 1931 and 1945 were certainly atrocious and many of the deaths that resulted were intended. Still, if you were minded to ask who killed more Chinese people in the twentieth century, the Japanese imperialists might well have to cede first place to China's communists. However, I guess there is less national humiliation in it when the killers are your fellow countrymen than when they are foreigners.

To conclude, no one has the secret of correctly valuing long term assets like housing and equities. Markets are not very good at it. Governments are not very good at it either.

But the tail risks of government miscalculation are far worse than those of market errors. In historical worst-case scenarios, market errors have lost us trillions of dollars. Government errors have cost us tens of millions of lives.

The reason for this disparity is very simple. Markets are eventually self-correcting. "Eventually" is a slippery word here. Nonetheless, five years after the credit crunch, worldwide stock prices have fallen, house prices have fallen, hundreds of thousands of bankers have lost their jobs, and democratic governments have changed hands. That's correction.

Governments, in contrast, hate to admit mistakes and will do all in their power to persist in them and then cover up the consequences. The truth about the Soviet and Chinese famines was suppressed for decades. The party responsible for the Soviet famine remained in power for 60 more years. In China the party responsible for the worst famine in history is still in charge. School textbooks are silent about the facts, which live on only in the memories of old people and the libraries of scholars.

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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