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March 22, 2021
Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/mharrison/moscow1982/
This column is about a moment when three wars collided: the Cold War, the Second World War, and the Falklands War. It was April 1982; the Cold War was in full swing, and East-West relations were not in good shape. I was in Moscow for a month, thanks to the British Academy's exchange programme with the Soviet Academy of Sciences; I was engaged in a project on the Soviet economy in the Second World War. As I arrived, the Falklands War broke out.
The events that led directly to the Falklands War were taking place as I left the UK. But I had paid little or no attention, so I arrived in Moscow more or less unaware that the Falklands Islands were a British possession, that their sovereignty was disputed, who lived there, and even which hemisphere or ocean they were in. Once in Moscow I was pretty much on my own, with no access to Western radio or newspapers, and I was busy, so I did not even try to follow the news. All in all, I was the last person to find out.
The first I knew of the conflict was a chance remark at the Institute of USSR History, where I was visiting – someone I knew distantly broke into a conversation in a corridor to as: "Why is your country at war with Argentina?" I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. As I recall, I thought it must be some obscure Soviet joke that I did not understand, so I probably smiled enigmatically and carried on with the conversation as before.
After that, I tried to catch up. But my only source was Pravda, the daily party newspaper. In the first days of the conflict, the Soviet line was strongly anti-imperialist and pro-Argentinian, so they called the Falklands the Malvinas, and they portrayed Argentina as helping the Falkland Islanders to free themselves from colonial oppression and exploitation. I picked up the idea that the islanders were originally brought there as plantation slaves.
After a few days the line shifted. I don't know why, but the Soviet stance became more neutral. The press began to refer to the "Falklands/Malvinas" and, most importantly from my perspective, to report developments from both sides in a more objective way. So I began to get a more accurate fix on what was going on.
In the midst of all this I continued to work on my project, which was on Soviet economic planning in the Second World War and would lead eventually to my first book. Something I was trying to puzzle out was the reliability and consistency of the Soviet official measures of the scale of the war effort. In those days there was absolutely no question of getting archival access to such information, so I had spent a long time combing through all the Soviet publications on World War II and putting together all the data I could find. Not surprisingly, I was left with a lot of questions: things like the concepts and methods used to calculate the growth and scale of Soviet war production, the proportions of resources used for the war, the squeeze on wartime consumption, the role of Allied aid, and so on. The reason I wanted to do this was to be able to make more accurate comparisons of how the different countries fought the war.
I hoped that in Moscow I might find some answers. Of course, I knew that all this information was quite sensitive. I also knew that the Soviets were very proud of their war effort, but I did not see any way in which my digging away would threaten that. With that in mind, asking for help seemed reasonable to me.
In the Institute of USSR History I was attached to the sector on military history. I had a number of interesting conversations there, but i did not get any help with my data issues. When I raised this, I was told: You'd better talk to Mitrofanova.
Avgusta Vasil'evna Mitrofanova was a well-known figure; she'd written the definitive history of the Soviet working class in the war, and at least some of the figures I was puzzling over came from her big book (published in 1971), so this seemed like a good idea. A meeting was arranged. As I was not completely confident in my Russian, I wrote my questions down.
The afternoon of our meeting came around. We met at the institute in a large, rather dingy room. Avgusta Vasil'evna (as I called her, respectfully) was in her early sixties. After all this time I couldn't give much of a description, but I remember a trim lady with an authoritative manner and unshakeable self-possession. There was no small talk. I described my project, and I explained that I had a bunch of unresolved questions which I'd written down, and I passed her the list. She took it and read it. Then, she looked up at me. She said:
Mr Harrison, tell me. Are you an economist, or a historian -- or what?
This was not a good start. Not everyone will recall the atmosphere of the time, but the Cold War meaning of "or what" was perfectly clear to me in that moment. She was asking me if I was a spy. I replied politely. I said that I was a scholar, an economist by training, and my field was economic history: I was an economic historian.
Her next question:
Mr Harrison, who told you to work on these questions?
She might as well have asked who put me up to it. I explained that it had been my decision: no one had assigned the topic to me. She gave me to understand she didn't believe me; I was too young and too junior to choose my own research. Afterwards I remember figuring out that perhaps she was just thinking on Soviet lines. If I'd been a young Soviet scholar, I wouldn't have had the authority to define my own project. My department or sector would have had a plan of work, agreed with the administration and the party committee, and I would have been assigned a part of that plan. Anyway, her implication was that I was really just a hired investigator.
By then I knew I was in trouble. I would have continued to argue my case, but she said to me:
Mr Harrison, I don't know the answers to your questions.
And, if I did, I wouldn't tell you.
After that, there were no more questions. Instead, she gave me a lecture. As I recall, it went on for well over an hour, maybe an hour and a half. It certainly felt like a long time. The highlights that I can remember were the great sacrifices of the Soviet people in the war, her own personal sacrifice (her husband was killed in the defence of Moscow), the huge costs of the war effort, the deaths, the destruction, the homeless refugees, the struggle for postwar recovery. I wondered what I could say. Then I realized there was no point my saying anything. I was not expected to respond.
When Mitrofanova reached her conclusion, I nearly tried to prolong the discussion. I think she'd gone back to the iniquities of capitalism and the shirking and backstabbing of the Soviet Union by the wartime Allies. Her final words were:
But, you see, ours is a different social system. We don't need other people's islands.
Ah! I thought. Now we're back in the present, and she's thinking about the Falklands. But me, I'm thinking about an interesting analogy: If yours is a different social system, why does the Soviet Union continue to hold onto the Kurile Islands and Southern Sakhalin, which historically belonged to Japan but were occupied in the final days of World War II and never returned? That's a great question! Why don’t I ask her?
Perhaps better not. My desire to escape from the room defeated my curiosity. I held my tongue. The meeting was over. Mitrofanova swept out through the door, and I strolled after her into the bright sunlight and the warm breeze of an April afternoon.
Avgusta Vasil'evna Mitrofanova lived for another 30 years, dying in 2003 according to an obituary that I found online. She was born in Akmolinsk in 1910. Her childhood and adolescence were marked by war, revolution, civil war, and famine. Evidently a true believer, she became a party worker in the press and a party lecturer; that's how she passed the years of collectivization, more famine, rearmament, terror, and war again. A woman in a man's world, she successfully converted her skills to scholarship, at least as the Soviet Union understood the term.
In our only meeting she was condescending and confrontational, but in the Soviet Union it was often hard to know who was sincere and who was just playing the role that the situation required of them. Maybe the circumstances and timing of our meeting were sure to provoke an East-West confrontation. Maybe in less formal circumstances or at another time she'd have looked for some common ground. But I think she probably meant every word.
One thing that never occurred to me was to say to her: Why are we fighting? Aren't we both on the same side? For, like her, at that time I was a communist party member. All I can say is that it didn't feel as if we were on the same side. Her communism wasn't mine, and I didn't want to pretend it was.
As for the questions on my list, I had to wait another ten years. In April 1982, the country was on the edge of change. Most of the top party leaders were near the end of their biological lifespans. Leonid Brezhnev was 75 and obviously ill. He died before the end of the year. The Politburo voted twice for continuity, appointing first Yurii Andropov (who died in 1984), then Konstantin Chernenko (who died in 1985).
At last the Politburo bowed to the inevitable, turning to the next generation in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev. After several years of attempted reforms, Gorbachev surrendered the party's monopoly of power. It turned out there was nothing else to the pillars holding up the temple, which collapsed. In 1992 the secret archives were opened, and I found my answers (the result was another book).
In 1982 the spring weather was beautiful. During my time in Moscow I walked around with a camera in my pocket (an Olympus Xa-1 or Xa-2, I think) and I took a ton of photographs. I walked a lot around Oktyabr'skaya square, where I was staying, the roads to the city centre, and a few other places. I remember a disused monastery, a visit to friends in the suburb of Sviblovo, and a short trip out of town to the flea market in Malakhovka.
Recently I noticed that my photos were fading. I decided to scan them and to put them online as my record of Moscow towards the end of the Cold War, on the edge of unimaginable changes.
April 28, 2020
Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/papers/there_was_a_front_ver_6.pdf
For a few months in the 1970s I was a graduate student in Moscow. Capitalism and communism were fighting the Cold War. What was it like? I was dazed and confused. Now I've written a short memoir of that time. It covers cultural exchange, learning Russian, travelling to Russia, making wonderful friends, learning about informers and surveillance, feeling my way through Soviet academia and economic thought, being misunderstood, trust and mistrust, and travelling for work and for leisure, including my epic visit to a collective farm near Voronezh. I include a few photos from the time. Also, I reflect on what we know now about the Soviet system that I didn’t know then.
My memoir is called: “There was a front, but damned if we knew where.” To explain why, here is an excerpt from towards the end, a section that describes my homecoming. If you want to read more, the full version is here.
It was time to leave. I booked a train ticket on the direct service from Moscow to London, three days and two nights via Warsaw and East Berlin, including a Channel crossing by boat from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. Out of interest, I added on a 24-hour layover in Warsaw – my only visit to another East European country under communism.
I was sad to leave but I was also tired and ready. It was a long journey and I would sit the whole way in a shared compartment. There was some small talk in the carriage, but the countryside was flat and monotonous, and the hours of daylight were few.
At the Soviet border, the whole train was raised off the track while the broad-gauge bogeys were removed and replaced by standard-gauge for the remainder of the journey. While this was done the carriages were inspected inside and out, under and over, by the Soviet border troops, looking for contraband manuscripts and Soviet citizens who for any reason did not want to live out the rest of their lives in the socialist paradise.
In Warsaw, I wandered around the old city, meticulously restored after the war. The only language I had in common with most Poles was Russian, which did little for friendship.
Berlin was shocking. The train rolled through the divided city in the middle of the night. I blinked at the sudden passage from the darkened East to the bright lights of West Berlin. We did not stop, and the lights went out again after a few minutes because West Berlin was an island, and the train rolled back over into the Eastern zone.
As with the journey out, it was better to travel than to arrive. Adjusting to home life was hard. It was hard for me and I’m sure I did not make it easy for others. Time had not stood still while I was away. My friends and loved ones had as much stored up to tell me as I had to tell them. The Britain to which I returned was not the normal country of the anecdote; it was preoccupied with its own class struggle. Many of my friends were warriors for social justice, and I aspired to be one too. To some the Soviet Union was a distraction; to others, it was “my enemy’s enemy” and therefore perhaps a friend. Their appetite for my stories was limited.
For weeks I dreamed about Moscow night after night. In my dreams Moscow was dark, confusing, and utterly strange; I was lost in it and could not find my way back. I saved myself by pouring everything into finishing my dissertation. Looking back, I am reminded of the words that Joan Littlewood put in the mouths of the soldiers returning from the Great War:
And when they ask us,
How dangerous it was,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them:
We spent our pay in some café,
And fought wild women night and day,
’Twas the cushiest job
We ever had.
And when they ask us,
And they're certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win
The Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them
There was a front,
But damned if we knew where.
The Cold War was not the Great War, and we were not soldiers. In Moscow no rockets flew nor bullets winged. The hazards we faced were only moral. Still, I had been to the other side, and I had returned, and I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It changed my life. I spent the decades from then to now trying to understand where I had been and to come to terms with it. I am still trying. The only ones to whom I had nothing to explain were the former comrades-in-arms who had been there too, whose lives were also changed, just as surely as mine. So, I was not alone.
March 13, 2020
Writing about web page https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/fellows/maxine-berg-FBA
Recently I was asked to say a few words at a conference held to celebrate the career of Maxine Berg, who is one of the world’s best early modern economic historians. I was on a panel about the links between economics and economic history. A theme of Maxine’s recent research in economic history has been luxury in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and especially the production and consumption of luxury objects. I thought of contributing to the occasion by saying a few words about luxury objects in another setting and in a much more recent period: the Soviet Union under communist rule.
A thing can be more than a thing
First, what should economists learn from Maxine’s writing about luxury objects? We learn, first, that a thing is much more than a thing. When we acquire a thing, we do not just acquire the thing itself, or the use of it. We also gain access to the feelings that go with owning it or using it and these feelings can be powerful factors in our choices and our behaviour.
Maxine has written about the many feelings associated with luxury objects. From one angle, they evoke “the vices of luxurious excess”: gluttony and greed. From another angle, they bring us “modern comfort and convenience, enjoyment and sociability, taste, aesthetics and refinement.” From a third angle, they raise questions about “individual and national virtue, the canons of taste, definitions of the self.”
In economics we often refer to concepts of self-interest and of stable preferences as drivers of human behaviour. Increasingly, modern economists also ask questions about the identity of the self that is self-interested; that is, self-interest may not be primitive, but may be formed in association with our feelings of identity. The idea of self implies individual difference, and this leads naturally to the question of how we differentiate ourselves from others in society through the things we consume. The evolution of style and fashion shows that our preferences are not as fixed or stable as economic theory would once have liked them to be, and economists increasingly ask questions about how preferences are formed and what economic and social pressures might cause them to change. In all of these respects, the study of luxury objects suggests fascinating lines of inquiry.
There is more. If we spend a few minutes thinking about luxury objects under communism, we’ll find that they take us in a nearly straight line to the dark heart of the Soviet system of power.
As an exchange student and later a young scholar in Moscow during the Cold War, I saw among my Russian friends a longing for luxury (the Russian words were roskosh’ or uyutnost’) that would have been immediately familiar to Maxine and her team of collaborators, working on luxury in a much earlier period. The people in my own circle showed a yearning for something more than the basic standardized means of life. They sought out small luxuries that would provide some kind of individual difference or distinction. They were fascinated especially by foreign objects of luxury, which were rarely encountered other than at second-hand through the censored media and were therefore novel and unfamiliar by definition.
I was a foreigner: what foreign goods did the Soviet people around me seem to aspire to? Denim jeans, leather goods, cosmetics, handbags, electronic goods, and also images of foreign life including Western-branded plastic carrier bags. Invited to dinner, more than once I bought a bottle of wine or vodka at the local liquor store and carried it to the apartment of my hosts in some plastic bag that had found its way from England into my luggage. When I arrived, the bottle would be accepted with a conventional thank you. The bag it came in would be snatched out of my hands, smoothed carefully, folded with precision, and placed to one side for future use on special occasions. Such things were so much more than "just things."
The Soviet social order was designed and managed by a power-building party elite who believed that power lay in the production of things – especially motors, planes, tanks, and guns. These were things, too, but, like luxury objects, they were also more than just things. Like luxury objects, rockets and tanks were also valued for their capacity to evoke feelings. Unlike luxury objects, however, the feelings were of national pride and power on one side, and fear and submission on the other.
This vision of society was not just for the elite. It was for the masses too. The masses were supposed to be included into this vision of a powerful modern nation through pride in the Soviet state and party, reinforced by gratitude to the ruling party for the provision of standardized, affordable, basic household goods and services.
Within that somewhat Spartan vision, luxury did play a role. More precisely, there were two kinds of luxury, one approved and permitted, the other censured and restricted to the greatest degree possible.
Approved luxuries were goods that would encourage hard-working families to aspire to a simple, healthy, educated way of life topped off with the elements of modernity: a cooker (later a fridge, washing machine, and vacuum cleaner), soap and basic cosmetics, books and a display bookcase, pictures and family photographs, a telephone, a radio (later TV), a samovar (later an electrovar), patterned china, patterned wallpaper, household ornaments, a bicycle (later a motor car) – all Soviet made, allowing limited scope for distinctions of taste and elegantnost’ – another Russian word but interestingly one with an obvious foreign origin.
Such things were not just things; they were supposed to make you feel proud, especially given that (as everyone knew from the novels of Dickens) working families in the capitalist West lived in poverty and children went barefoot.
These notions of luxury went back to the 1930s when the Stalin regime began to design the legitimate aspirations of young, skilled, highly productive workers – the Stakhanovites. You work hard and fulfil or overfulfil the quota, so you get a bonus – but what’s the point if there’s nothing to spend it on? The 1930s answer was: spend it on permitted luxury. That was then, but it was followed by the war and a 20-year pause of living standards, so permitted Soviet luxury was not remotely widespread until the 1960s.
The approved luxuries were priced to be within the budget of a skilled worker household, but from in the 1950s even through the 1980s they remained in chronically short supply. Worst in that regard were apartments, cars, and phones, for which waiting lists ran to years or decades; a second-hand car could cost you much more than a new one, regardless of condition.
The effect of chronic shortages was that, if you met your friend in the street and saw they had acquired something desirable or pretty or unusual, you did not ask: — Where did you buy that? That was not even a question, because you already knew it could not be bought. So instead you asked, with a lowered voice: — How did you get hold of that?
And the answer to that question was that your friend got hold it either through “special distribution,” which allowed them to exercise the privileges of party membership or key-worker status, or else they had worked their connections to some semi-legal or even criminal under-the-counter network.
From another world, there were also forbidden luxuries. Foreign literature, clothes, cosmetics, and electronic goods were available only to people with privileged access, or with private connections to foreigners, which were discouraged.
This might make you wonder how the forbidden luxuries were different from the permitted ones. The answer is that the permitted luxuries were on sale to domestic residents in government outlets – in principle. (Just not in practice, the shelves being bare for the ordinary shopper.) The forbidden luxuries were not available in that way, even in principle.
In rare cases a few forbidden luxuries could be found on sale in the so-called “currency stores.” These stores were not open to the public. Ordinary people could not see them and did not know they were there. Their street doors were unmarked and their windows were curtained. No one was admitted who could not show papers proving their right to hold foreign currency. On sale inside, along with caviar, cameras, furs, and the best vodka, could sometimes be found the works of Akhmatova, Pasternak, and other "edgy" authors, whose works were printed and published in the Soviet Union but sold only to the export market. Because I was a Westerner with foreign currency in my pociet, I could go in and buy them; occasionally my friends would ask me -- beg me -- to get hold of copies for them, which I did gladly.
Another way in which the forbidden luxuries were different from the approved ones is that you were not supposed to show interest in them or accept them, even if offered.
The forbidden luxuries were proscribed because they were so much more than just things. They too evoked feelings, but these were feelings that the party and state stigmatised as disruptive and dangerous: desire to escape the limitations of Soviet life, admiration of foreign technologies, and interest in Western ideas of free choice (which the Soviet press would call "so-called 'freedom'"). For this reason, the loyal citizen was expected to spurn them. When this did not happen, the KGB would regularly pull in people who praised Western consumer goods or the quality of foreign cars (not for a beating, but at least for a ticking off).
Everyone belonged to the mass
This was how the ruling party controlled Soviet identity: everyone could aspire to Soviet luxury, but only if it was the same luxury for all. In luxury, people could find distinctions, but only within the narrow limits permitted by the ruling party. Beneath that, everyone belonged to the mass.
In conversation with a female acquaintance, I once remarked: — Sitting on the Moscow subway, I like it that I can look around and not know who’s rich or poor. People dress the same. My friend replied, or rather she shouted back at me: — YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND! YOU COMPLETE IDIOT, DO YOU THINK WE ALL WANT TO LOOK THE SAME? THE UNIFORMITY THAT YOU LIKE IS FORCED UPON US. WE HAVE NO CHOICE.
From this I understood that beneath the surface of uniformity, there was a deep inequality that was hidden from the naïve observer. There was inequality of choice. Even more, there was inequality of power. The aspirations of millions were restricted by the self-interested decisions of a tiny, power-building elite. It’s something I think about when I come across complaints that today’s formerly communist societies used to be so much more equal than they are today.
Anyway, the point of this story is to confirm what Maxine Berg has already proved to us with such talent and energy, that the origins of modern luxury and the attributes of luxury objects are fascinating and well worthy of the attention of both economists and economic historians.
April 25, 2019
Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/cage/manage/publications/408-2019_harrison.pdf
Here's a Soviet joke (translated from Misha Mel’nichenko's Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov), Moscow 2014).
Parked at the embassy is an American automobile of an expensive make and the latest model. Two pedestrians walk up from opposite directions and stop involuntarily. One of them exclaims: “An amazing foreign car!” Then he panics and tries to correct his gaffe: “An amazing Soviet car. I think it’s Soviet. Yes, yes, it must be. Of course!” “What, you can’t tell an American automobile from a Soviet one at first glance?” “At first glance I can’t tell an informer from a decent person.”
This joke nicely captures two things. One is that the KGB recruited "undercover helpers" to keep Soviet society under continual surveillance by KGB informers. The other is that the existence of informers was an open secret, but no one knew who they were, so Soviet society was also permeated by the fear that anyone, known or unknown, might turn out to be an informer.
Recently I wrote a paper about KGB informers. As I wrote the paper, I developed its economic motivation: to understand how the informers were recruited and managed, which takes us into the economics of human capital and contracting. The paper also goes into the roles of trust and mistrust in the Soviet system of rule, which are more complicated than might appear. But the reason I was drawn to the subject in the first place was more direct: I was captivated by the stories I found, and I wanted to tell them.
My paper is based on twenty-one stories of the recruitment and development of KGB informers in Soviet Lithuania in the 1960s and 1970s. My paper focuses on their common features, but in their specifics these tales are extraordinarily varied. Their tone ranges from light to dark and from humorous to utterly grim. All of them are told in my paper, either in the text or in an appendix. In the hope that I can make you want more, here are two of them, which turned out to be one story. If you want the others, read my paper.
The story of KGB agents "Korabel'nik" and "Komandulis" grabbed me more than any other, because it is also a story of fathers and son. The fathers make a dreadful mistake, one that threatens to tear their families apart. It is beyond their powers to fix it by themselves. The KGB lends a hand; the families are saved. What price did the families pay? You decide.
One of the channels of Baltic migration in the interwar period led to South America. Among these were families from Lithuania. They had left their homeland to escape persecution, because they were Jews or socialists. Separated from the old country by a generation and an ocean, they still thought of it as home. It was the 1950s; the war was over, and Stalin was dead. From the other side of the ocean, the emigrants looked back at the old country now under Soviet rule and made a fateful choice: they decided to return.
In returning home, they made a terrible mistake. They brought their teenage children. Arriving in the old country, the young generation took a close look and realized immediately what they wanted more than anything: to leave as quickly as possible. But this was the one thing that the Soviet authorities could not permit under any circumstances.
On first refusal, the young people did not give up. They banded together and shared and nurtured what the KGB called their “emigrationist inclinations.” They made contacts with the diplomats representing the countries from which they had come. They travelled to Moscow and tried to obtain access to the embassies. They wrote petitions, demanding the right to leave. They wrote articles for publication abroad, protesting their situation. These things were worse than individual misdemeanours, for they were coordinated and took on the character of conspiracy. They drew the attention of the KGB, which began to watch them and open their letters.
Up to a point, the KGB’s attention was solicitous. These young people were ripe for exploitation by foreign powers intent on disrupting the Soviet political and social order. They were heading straight for a collision with authority, from which they could not emerge unscathed. Could a damaging confrontation be averted? Could their course be corrected in time? The KGB looked for ways to bring its influence to bear.
One idea was to infiltrate an “undercover helper” into the group. The outsider was rebuffed. The group remained solid and its course did not change.
The KGB approached the problem from another angle. They looked again at the group and singled out two of its members as weaker links. The common denominator was the parents: the KGB classed both fathers as politically reliable because of their personal records of engagement with communist politics in their former lives in Latin America. And who but a parent would share more sincerely the KGB’s interest in stopping these young men from destroying themselves over a childish dream?
The documentation tells the two stories separately. Martin (not his real name), from a Jewish family, was identified as being more suggestible than others (“it was established that his anti-Soviet judgements were the result of an incorrect understanding of Soviet actuality”) and the KGB began preparations to call him in for a warning (“preventive discussion”).
Before talking directly to Martin, the KGB applied pressure indirectly. The pressure came from two angles. One angle was Martin’s father, whom surveillance had identified as a potential ally. In preparation for addressing Martin directly, the KGB decided to recruit his father as an informer. The father proved a willing collaborator, talking freely to his handler about Martin’s activities. The handling officer set about training the father how to talk more persuasively to his son – in particular, using examples drawn from life to prove the superiority of the Soviet system to his son.
Another angle for KGB pressure was found at Martin’s workplace, a local newspaper. It turned out that the young man’s direct superior was also a KGB agent. Through this agent, Martin’s managers were given details of his anti-Soviet activities and were asked to use their influence on him to bring him back into line.
Finally, the timing was favourable. A few days before the KGB interviewed him, Martin had been given an apartment in a new building.
The interview went as well as could be hoped. Martin proved to be receptive to the KGB message. He was open about his connections and past behaviour, including contacts with foreigners and attempts to send documents abroad. He put the blame on his own lack of knowledge and thoughtlessness. Why had he changed his mind? Because of his father’s influence, he said, and the influence of his colleagues at work, and because he now better understood how working people lived in the Soviet Union. In short, the KGB approach had worked.
Moreover, Martin appeared more and more to be a suitable candidate for recruitment himself. He spoke Spanish, Russian, Lithuanian, and Hebrew. He had a large network of friends and excellent opportunities to be of value to KGB counter-intelligence. When the subject was raised, Martin consented to recruitment, choosing the codename “Korabel’nik” (shipwright). (This was in 1960, when Martin was 22.)
Not only was Martin willing in principle; he immediately began to give information about other young men of South American origin who were seeking a way out of the country. One of these had served in the armed forces of his country of birth and was allegedly supplying information via the country’s Moscow embassy. Another was currently serving in the Soviet Army in the western borderland of Kaliningrad province; it turned out that military counter-intelligence already had him under surveillance. Later, agent “Korabel’nik” visited him in Kaliningrad; his mission was monitored by a KGB officer who reported back that the new informer had behaved properly while on the assignment.
During his meetings the KGB handler continued the re-education of “Korabel’nik” that his father had begun. The two talked over the Soviet Union’s internal affairs and international relations as well as the KGB’s assignments for the young man. The KGB’s conclusion was that they had made a successful investment: the young man, it was reported, “can be used for the investigation of persons suspected of participation in the agent networks of American and Israeli intelligence.”
The other weaker link was Nicolas (again, not his real name, which we don’t know), the only son of a father who again had a history of close links with one of the South American communist parties. Approached by a KGB informer outside the family, the father was open about the family predicament, blamed his son’s behaviour on the influence of his friends and their lack of understanding of “Soviet actuality,” and expressed deep fears for Nicolas’s future, which seemed set on a criminal course.
The KGB again set out to train the father in how to manage his child. On the handler’s instruction, the informer counselled the father to explain to Nicolas various examples of the virtues and advantages of the Soviet system. The informer also evidently made acquaintance with Nicolas and got him to share some documents (perhaps these were writings of some kind that showed the Soviet Union in a good light) with his friends.
At this point Nicolas too became a potential candidate for recruitment as a KGB informer. Over two months, the KGB evaluated him. At this time, Nicolas received an instruction to report to the local military unit for a medical examination – a disturbing occurrence, one must suppose, for a young man who was doubtful about living in the Soviet Union, let alone accepting compulsory military service. Now the KGB handler took a direct hand, meeting Nicolas face to face at the military unit, at first maintaining his cover, then openly. Nicolas responded well, talked freely about his friends, and afterwards made no attempt to disclose the KGB approach to others. He became a willing and productive informer on the group, choosing the codename “Komandulis” (commander), and working with “Korabel’nik.”
In this story an accident of family ties had made two young people into active resisters to one of the core principles of Soviet rule – the closed border. To resolve the situation the KGB successfully exploited the same family ties. The fathers were willing to help if it would keep their children out of trouble – and who could blame them when the KGB was holding a gun to the heads of their sons? But first the handling officers had to teach the fathers to talk to their sons, and also to become more persuasive advocates of communist rule. The fathers became informers on the sons. This was productive not only in terms of information passed; it also helped to build the agent network. In turn, the sons also became undercover helpers, informing on their friends.
What happened to the other young people in the group of would-be re-emigrants? Frustratingly, we have no idea.
February 01, 2019
It's Friday evening. Time for some fun!
I've been writing a paper about the KGB, the Soviet secret police, and its informers. While the operations of the Soviet KGB undercover informer network were completely secret, and the identities of the informers were closely guarded, their presence in Soviet society was an open secret -- everyone knew they existed, they just didn't know who they were.
That's what I recall from personal experience, anyway. But personal experience isn't everything, so I wondered what evidence there might be to support what I remembered. I thought of jokes: if ordinary Soviet citizens didn't know about informers, how could there be jokes? I turned to the excellent compilation of 5,852 Soviet jokes by Misha Mel'nichenko (Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov). Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2014). I quickly found a joke about inforners -- in fact, I found 39 jokes listed in the index, a number that I will use in my paper as evidence that knowledge of the existence of informers was widespread. For the weekend, here's joke no. 1617, somewhat abbreviated:
A husband decides to hold a party for his wife. He takes the guest list to the local security police and explains that, to avoid suspicion, he's happy to include the officer and any of his colleagues. The officer glances at the list and replies: "There's no need for that. You've already invited eight of our people."
You might wonder what's the truth in the joke. One point was a simple one: nobody knew whether some friend might be an informer. An objection to the joke might be that the officer's reply was unrepresentative: on average, the true density of informers in Soviet society was far below what the joke might be taken to imply. But, conditional on a person being already under investigation, the reply was actually quite realistic: once the KGB had you in its cross-hairs, it was no more than good practice to set several informants on you in order to cross-tally their reports. Anyway, it was still an important point that nobody knew and nobody could know.
More on this when I finish writing my paper.
For now, jokes about informers are to be found in a section of the book headed "The staff of the organs of state security." Inevitably, I've spent some time browsing. Here are some that I could understand and I think could work across the divides of space, time, language and culture. (This seems an appropriate moment, by the way, for me to offer a confession. Confession -- ha ha!! By their nature, jokes are informal. And my informal Russian is not that fluent. My Bolshevik Russian, in contrast, is excellent, and that's what you need to study the Soviet period. But what this means is that a lot of Russian jokes go straight over my head. As for translation, quite a number also rely on word plays that are funny in the original but can't work in English without laborious explanation.)
Soviet jokes came in many varieties. Here are a few, in a mix of free translation and paraphrase.
Nationalistic (#1595). "In France crimes are cleared in four weeks. In England, two weeks. But the Soviet Union has the best police in the world: every crime is cleared two weeks before it happens."
Philosophical (#1609, a rare case of a wordplay (бытие/битье) that translates directly). Marx's law that being determines consciousness, rendered for Soviet conditions: "Beating determines consciousness."
Harsh (#1612). Interrogator: "How old are you?" Prisoner: "I'll be fifty next month." Interrogator: "No, you won't."
Legalistic (#1602). Prosecutor's motto: "Give me the man, I'll find the law."
Anthropomorphic (#1603). Two hares run through a field and into each other. "Why are you rushing?" "Haven't you heard? They've announced that all camels are to be castrated!" "But you're not a camel." "Well, they catch you and castrate you and then you have to prove you're not a camel."
Downright nasty (#1644). Every Soviet organization had a personnel section the first task of which was to report to the KGB on the political loyalty of the workforce. A worker rushes into the chief's office. "The personnel officer has hanged himself in the warehouse!" "Have they cut him down?" "Not yet, he's still alive."
Not funny? You need to enter the frame of mind of a society where any of these would have given rise to a knowing smile and a shake of the head.
Enjoy the weekend.
December 30, 2018
My parents said I’d better go. A letter from my boarding school advised them that in the summer I could travel with my class mates, under the supervision of a teacher, across Scandinavia to Finland and over the Soviet frontier to Leningrad and Moscow. The return journey would take three weeks. The cost was £70 which may not sound like much, but this was 1964 and the purchasing power of that sum would be between £1,000 and £1,500 in today’s money.
I was reminded of this by a charming column that appeared recently on the Pushkin House blog. There, Jeremy Poynton tells the story of a 1960s school trip to the USSR. Reading it I realized that, although his adventure took place several years after mine (in 1968), and his itinerary was much more of an adventure (from the Finnish border to the Trans-Caucasus), there was nonetheless a clear connection. His school was mine (The Leys School), and the intrepid leader of his expedition (Richard Armstrong) was also mine. And an incident that seals the link: Jeremy relates an incident that took place during the 1964 expedition, to which I was an eye witness, when Mr Armstrong was briefly but excitingly detained on suspicion of espionage.
The whole business was an unusual experience for a British teenager, and it had a marked effect on my life. This is how it came about.
In those days you could take O-levels twice a year, in December and June. (O-levels were the forerunner of the GCSE.) My French class had taken the exam early, in December, and somebody’s rules obliged us to continue to learn a foreign language until the school year ended in July. In those six months our teacher, Richard Armstrong, introduced us to the first rudiments of the Russian language: a new script, the pronouns and a few verbs, and some basic greetings. We began to read stories by Pushkin and Lermontov.
The class was most amused by the Russian vowel ы (transliterated to English as y). “I was” in Russian is spoken “ya byl.” My class included Hugh Beale, later a distinguished legal scholar, whose parental home was in Edgbaston in Birmingham. We decided that the easiest way to the correct rendering of “byl” was to speak Hugh’s family name with what passed among us for a strong Birmingham accent, and we all did this frequently and loudly, whether required to or not. Such was the dog-eat-dog humour of our community.
We set off in a people-carrier of the day, a Commer space van. As I recall there were half a dozen of us schoolboys and three drivers: Richard Armstrong, our leader; a friend of his, of a similar age; and a younger adult, a recent former pupil, much admired for his Minolta 16mm spy camera (that’s what we called it). I had a camera, too, the family Brownie Instamatic. I took some pictures, or so I thought, but when the film was processed later there was nothing on it. So I have no photographic mementoes.
My memory of the adventure is episodic, so that’s how I’ll tell it.
1. Ferry across the North Sea from Newcastle to Gothenburg. The weather was blowy and the seas were enough to unsettle the inexperienced stomach. I was queasy but not sick. I looked out to sea on the windward side of the lower deck. On the upper deck another passenger did the same, and threw up. The results ended up in my hair. In the ship’s refectory I discovered Scandinavian brown cheese and ate so much of it that to this day I have never wanted to try it again.
2. We drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm. Wide roads and dark woods.
3. Overnight ferry from Stockholm to the Finnish port of Turku. Heavy seas (or so we thought) with lots of passengers throwing up everywhere. No one slept. By dawn the sea was a flat calm, and the vessel glided into port through an archipelago of green islets in a blue sea lit mistily by the rising sun.
4. Crossing the border. We travelled by road from Turku to Leningrad, crossing the border at Vyborg. At the border, the guards went through our baggage item by item, giving special attention to books. We all brought paperbacks to read and we shared them round. Among them was Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, first published in 1957, which had just been made into a film. But James Bond’s reputation had not yet reached Russia. The guards were intrigued by the title, which they spelled out carefully. They considered briefly, decided the book must be harmless, and returned it to us wreathed in smiles.
5. First night in the Soviet Union. Our route across Soviet territory and all our stopping places were pre-booked and pre-approved; our visas required us to to stick to it and not deviate by a day or a kilometre. We stayed in campsites near the major towns; these were well set up and crowded. The weather was fabulous: dry, sunny, and hot. Unlike home, the temperature did not fall when the sun went down, so the evenings were warm and convivial. Our first night was spent in a large tent; we slept on wooden bunks. In the late evening, harsh male voices were heard approaching, apparently going from tent to tent; perhaps they were looking for unoccupied spaces. When they came to us, they barked: “Male or female?” Richard Armstrong responded in a high, quavering voice: “Ne znayu” (I don’t know). There was a puzzled silence; the voices went away.
6. Leningrad. I remember the Neva embankment and the golden needle of St Isaac’s Cathedral. Probably we went to the Hermitage and did stuff like that.
7. Driving across Russia. By day, long straight roads through endless pine forests. Little traffic, mostly lumbering trucks. We overtook them with difficulty because the driver of our British vehicle sat on the wrong side for driving on the right. The driver asked: “mozhno?” (Can I?) The front seat passenger, with better forward vision, would reply: “mozhno!” At night, a problem was that Soviet vehicles did not have the facility to dip their main beams. In traffic they drove on sidelights, even on unlit roads. They either dazzled us or were barely visible. And we, driving on dipped beams, infuriated them, so that they flashed us repeatedly until we submitted and went over to sidelights only.
8. The Kremlin at Novgorod. This was Great Novgorod on the Volkhov River – not the better-known Nizhnii Novgorod far to the East on the Volga. I learned that every town of any significance has a Kremlin (fortress). I bought a print of the Kremlin at Novgorod for my parents, which I still have:
Nearing Moscow, we visited the Tchaikovsky museum in the small town of Klin. In every town and settlement there were party banners and slogans. Most memorable was “Miru mir” (Peace to the World), which we endlessly repeated to each other.
9. The Mushroom Incident. The writer of a contemporaneous account (in The Leys Fortnightly, 23 October 1964) relates “the Mushroom Incident, or, ‘How we Nearly got Sent to Siberia all because of Mr Armstrong’s Insistence on Taking Pictures of Things he Shouldn’t’”:
On the way to Moscow we gave a man and a basket of mushrooms a lift into a town with the sinister name of Klin.
Even after more than half a century I retain the impression that the man was uncomfortable in our company. This was hardly surprising. Most likely he was taking what he had gathered in the woods to sell in the town market. When we picked him up, he probably had no clue that he’d accepted a lift from a bunch of foreigners. By sitting down with us he was enjoying "unauthorised contact with foreigners," a violation of the code of conduct for Soviet citizens in the regions where tourists were permitted. This was a misdemeanour, if not a crime. The trouble that ensued was inevitable.
As a memento, Mr Armstrong took a photo of him. At our next stop, Tchaikovsky’s house, Mr Armstrong was interviewed by two secret policemen who had been told by an upright Russian tovarisch that we had taken a photograph of a strategic object, which we afterwards concluded to be a few electricity pylons. The police expressed their desire to have the film, which Mr Armstrong in his characteristically pleasant manner declined to give them, and so we eventually went off with another tale to tell.
We were told (I recollect) that the farmer had also been detained, and Richard Armstrong bravely protested against this, but of course I did not witness his conversation with the police.
10. Moscow and Red Square. On the approach to Red Square we made an illegal turn, paid a fine, and blew a tire. I had played with Meccano as a child but I had no other mechanical knowledge or experience, and I was physically lazy, so I took no part in the repair. We visited Red Square, the Lenin Mausoleum, and GUM, the State Universal Store. I remember the summer heat and cloudless blue of the sky. I also remember the queues for everything. In GUM I waited in line to buy a red Young Pioneer scarf. Did I buy a balalaika? Maybe. Some of us did, and I might have been one of them. If so, it was never played, but hung around at home for a few years. Ordinary people were friendly and curious, I guess, but I was a bit of a Young Sheldon. If anybody spoke to me, I was probably scared to death. I do remember someone tried to buy the jeans I was wearing. I’m pretty sure they were my only trousers, so I have no idea what I was expected to do on selling them, but I didn’t. The official reporter notes that, in Moscow and Leningrad alike:
We were often confronted by children demanding ball-point pens, chewing gum and stamps in return for badges often depicting Lenin or the Heroes of the Cosmos. Once two of our members were confronted by a Russian when the conversation went as follows: “English?” – “Yes, English.” Pause. “Beatles?” – “Yes, Beatles!”
11. Food and drink. Food: I discovered the indispensable vegetable of Soviet times: pickled cabbage. Drink: at that time the Soviet consumer was beginning to thirst for Coca Cola. What they got was street vending machines that dispensed sweet fizzy sodas of no particular flavour. A glass, chained to the machine for everyone to drink from, was supposed to be washed between users. We all used it, and as far as I know we suffered no harm.
12. The return journey. As we drew near to Leningrad, we made our only deviation from the permitted route: Richard Armstrong and one or two others paid a clandestine visit to the suburban home of an Orthodox priest of his acquaintance (how the acquaintance arose I never found out). Of our second visit to Leningrad I remember only coming across the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was not in the splendid condition of today, which you can see in a photo that I took of it last year:
In 1964 the church was in a sorry state, in use as a warehouse and closed to visitors.
13. Soviet roads. Near the border, after 1,500 kilometres of ruts and potholes, our faithful Commer van ran into the ground. A rear spring collapsed. One of us got underneath and counted the number of steel leaves in the spring to compare with a nearby Soviet vehicle of comparable size. Ours had seven leaves; the Soviet equivalent was thirteen, so roughly twice as many.
14. Farewell to the Soviet Union. Driving slowly and with great care, we limped our way to the Soviet border. Nearing the border, we stopped for a roadside comfort break. This was understood to be the right way to say good bye to Soviet rule. At the border we held our breath. After inspection, we were waved through to Finland and freedom.
15. Home again. From Finland we returned to the UK in comfort, by rail and boat. No doubt there was some extra expense, of which I knew nothing. In Oslo I strolled around the harbour and visited the Vasa, a wooden warship recently recovered from the waters of the bay. Our van, now barely drivable, was emptied of boys and baggage, and one of our drivers was detached from the party to bring it home.
Aftermath. On the surface, I appeared to have returned home safely and without consequences. In reality, without knowing it, I had contracted an incurable infection: a fascination with Russia that would never leave me.
I’ll finish with Richard Armstrong. He was one of the few teachers that seemed to me to be a genuinely kind person. He was slightly built with a sharp, intelligent face. He did not seem to have any particular age; I suppose he was in his thirties. He was physically tough; he helped to establish and coach the school rowing club and to lead school expeditions into the wilderness. His manner was normally gentle and good humoured; he was sharp only in the face of rudeness. He did not shape my way of thinking about the world, but his Russian class and the adventure that he made for us triggered my interest in Russia and set the course of my research for life.
August 24, 2018
Writing about web page https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/infected-08082018173807.html
Sometimes it is said that a popular image or tweet or a video clip has "gone viral." That means that it has been shared from person to person many times, like an infection.
When we use this image, we think of ideas spreading on an epidemiological model. Some people have little resistance and so they are highly vulnerable. After just one exposure, they are taken over by the idea and become carriers. Then, they pass it on to more people like themselves who are also of low resistance. A pool is formed of people who pass the idea in question backwards and forwards and, in the process, expose many others. These others might be more highly resistant, and are captured by the idea only after repeated exposure, which happens over a period of time. Eventually, as more and more people are exposed more and more times, the infection will spread to everyone who is not for some reason immune.
The same model, according to which ideas spread like a disease, is often found in the practical thinking of authoritarian regimes. Such regimes often prescribe a particular set of ideas as "healthy" -- for example, obedience to the state and loyalty to the ruler, each embodying or personifying the nation. A source of danger to the regime is then the spread of "unhealthy" ideas, which might encourage disrespect of authority or public demonstrations of discontent. They worry that ideas about free speech or the accountability of rulers, if unchecked, might go viral, undermining the stability of the regime.
The epidemiological model also prescribes the remedy. Risks to public health are contained by keeping the community under continuous surveillance, by quickly identifying outbreaks of disease, and stepping in immediately to isolate the people who have become ideologically sick, preventing them from passing on their infection more widely.
This remedy can be seen at work today in China's province of Xinjiang, where the Chinese state is trying to manage the largely Muslim ethnic minority of Uighurs. On August 18, The Economist reported:
During the past year campaigners, academics and journalists have been shedding light on the detention for “re-education” of vast numbers of ethnic-Uighur Muslims in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang. On August 13th the topic was raised at the UN, when experts undertaking an audit of China’s policies towards ethnic minorities said they had heard that as many as 1m Uighurs are being locked away.
The Economist's report went on to cite a recording by the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region communist party youth league, made last year and published on WeChat. The full transcript can be found on the Radio Free Asia website, and that's where I have taken the following excerpt:
In recent times, amid a growing heavy crackdown, a small number of people—particularly young people—have gone to re-education camps to study. However, their parents, friends and relatives, and the general public don’t understand the benefits of re-education, and as a result they are worried and fearful. So let us give answers to their questions and their concerns today.
Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient. In recent years, there have been violent incidents occurring in Xinjiang, one after another, instigated by the “three evil forces [of “terrorism,” “religious extremism,” and “separatism”], which has threatened the safety of people from all ethnic communities and caused serious damage and losses. These terrorists have one thing in common: they were infected by religious extremism and a violent terrorism disease.
The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine which confuses the mind of the people. Once they are poisoned by it, some turn into extremists who no longer value even their own lives … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.
Although a certain number of people who have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology have not committed any crimes, they are already infected by the disease. There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public. That is why they must be admitted to a re-education hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind. We must be clear that going into a re-education hospital for treatment is not a way of forcibly arresting people and locking them up for punishment, it is an act that is part of a comprehensive rescue mission to save them.
In order to provide treatment to people who are infected with ideological illnesses and to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment, the Autonomous Regional Party Committee decided to set up re-education camps in all regions, organizing special staff to teach state and provincial laws, regulations, the party’s ethnic and religious policies, and various other guidelines. They mobilized the public to learn the common language [Mandarin Chinese], complete various technical training courses, and take part in cultural and sport activities, teaching them what is correct and incorrect … so they can clearly distinguish right from wrong … At the end of re-education, the infected members of the public return to a healthy ideological state of mind, which guarantees them the ability to live a beautiful happy life with their families.
Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses, in that they must be treated in time, and should never be ignored and allowed to become serious. Otherwise, later we will regret it, as it will be too late … Being infected by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology and not seeking treatment is like being infected by a disease that has not been treated in time, or like taking toxic drugs … There is no guarantee that it will not trigger and affect you in the future. If people don’t attend re-education class because there is no one to take responsibility for the household chores, or if they choose to run away from re-education, that can be considered being very irresponsible to themselves, their families and society.
You can see that the Chinese communist party youth league's model of the spread of ideas, expressed in this long quotation, is not intellectually consistent. The unhealthy ideas are sometimes called a "virus," sometimes a "poisonous medicine." But the general idea of ideological infection could not be clearer: "Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses."
One feature of this perspective is that people who have been infected are not to blame (unless they refuse treatment). Another is that they are not seen as lost to the community; they can be saved (or they must help to save themselves). Nonetheless, as long as they are inflected by unhealthy ideas, they are a danger to the community as well as to themselves -- even if they are legally innocent of any crime. Therefore, compulsion is justified to treat them.
Why am I interested? In another context, the Soviet KGB (security police) used the terminology of "unhealthy" ideas and behaviours, and of methods of "prophylaxis" (a medical term for prevention), all the time in internal correspondence and reports. If you would like to read more about this, there are some human-interest stories and more discussion in my book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear, especially chapter 5.
November 20, 2017
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.
October 28, 2017
Writing about web page https://www.elindependiente.com/opinion/2017/10/28/por-que-colapso-la-economia-sovietica/
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
Writing about web page http://wid.world/
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
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.
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