A Good Workshop

A Good Workshop

Cross-posted from Broadstreet, a blog devoted to historical political economy.

A few years ago, in reflecting on the annual meeting of the Society for Institutional and Organizational Economics, I wrote:

What makes for a good conference? The opportunity to see old friends and make new ones. Quality panels with work that challenges and crosses intellectual boundaries. Outstanding plenary sessions. Pleasantly situated receptions and dinners.

Such was the ambition of the third annual Summer Workshop in the Economic History and Historical Political Economy of Russia, held last month (summer somewhere) at the University of Chicago. We gathered on the top floor of the University’s fabulous new Rubenstein Forum for two days of economics, history, and political science. A few participants joined us remotely, but those who were in Chicago enjoyed dinner in Old Town the first night, and dinner at our apartment in Hyde Park the second. Good people, good times.

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, various frictions discourage the free flow of ideas across disciplinary boundaries. One goal of the workshop is to reduce those frictions by forcing engagement with the “how” as well as the “what” of others’ research. Our working assumption is that this is more successful when papers are read, so we ask authors to keep the papers short—put all the referee proofing in an online appendix, if you must—and ask participants to read the papers in advance. We give the authors five minutes to remind us of the main idea, and then we open it up for discussion. It seems to work.

What did we read and discuss this year? Perhaps it would be useful to organize the contributions by period rather than discipline. Stephen Broadberry and Elena Korchmina presented new estimates of Russian GDP from the eighteenth century, while Igor Fedyukin unveiled his work on state building during the same era, as seen through the lens of the Imperial Confiscation Chancellery. I believe that these are the only papers across three workshops to focus on the eighteenth century, for which the data do not flow so freely as for later periods.

The late Imperial Russian state, in contrast, left behind a wealth of data, many conveniently organized in tabular form and published in volumes that may be sitting on a dusty shelf in your university library. Such data have been progressively digitized over the past decade, even as additional records have been plied loose from the archives. Several papers focused on this period: Dmitrii Kofanov’s exploration of the legacy of serfdom for peasant unrest; Dmitry Ismagilov’s work on “state-crafted” and “peasant-crafted” institutions in village communities after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861; Viktor Malein’s study of the role of German settlers in Imperial industrialization; Pawel Charasz’s analysis of the effects of the loss of city status in Congress Poland; and Kofanov, Malein, and Steve Nafziger’s work on distortions in late Imperial labor and land markets.

The Soviet state was stronger still, of course—far stronger—but also far more secretive. In my last post, I wrote about some of the secrets the archives have given up, and about the substantial work, across disciplines, that has revisited the Soviet experience. That work continues. Focusing on one end of the 70-year socialist experiment, Paul Castañeda Dower, Andrei Markevich, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya examine the institution of Central Asian republics at the dawn of the Bolshevik regime. At the other, Kristy Ironside explore the long dream of a Canadian entrepreneur to bring McDonald’s to Russia, culminating in the world’s most famous franchise opening, on Moscow’s Pushkin Square, less than two years before the Soviet Union’s collapse. In between, Harunobu Saijo investigates the nature of Stalin’s purges; Maxim Ananyev and Michael Poyker trace the impact of the Gulag on homophobic attitudes; and Tomila Lankina, Alexander Libman, and Katerina Tertytchnaya track the survival of the Tsarist middle classes across decades of Soviet repression.

Oh, and the keynotes! Nancy Qian presented her work with Markevich and Natalya Naumenko on the great famine that accompanied Stalin’s collectivization campaign. Bringing new data to an old debate, Nancy, Andrei, and Natalya demonstrate that ethnic Ukrainians were indeed disproportionately targeted during the campaign—and not just in Ukraine, but also in other Soviet republics. Faith Hillis, in turn, presented her great new book Utopia’s Discontents, which explores the Russian émigré communities scattered across Europe before 1917 and the consequences of the intellectual ferment that they fostered. (Check out Faith’s GIS side project on the geography of these communities.)

There was time for taking stock at the end of the workshop: how are we doing, where do we go from here, that sort of thing. Lots of discussion, but what stands out was Andrei Markevich’s assessment: We’re doing great. You have no idea how few people were working on these topics when I started, he said. (Andrei, for the record, is younger than I am, though he has worked for longer and far more extensively on Russian economic history: I am a mere dilettante by comparison.) Today we can sustain an annual workshop for faculty and graduate students in the field, even during COVID times. The state of the field is strong.

And yet I wonder: How successful are we really at promoting the cross-fertilization that makes for a healthy field—not to mention a great workshop? The economists and political scientists are working with each other, but that doesn’t take much, given the convergence in methods. More a work in progress, I think, is the relationship between history and the social sciences. That is harder, as Tracy and I have discussed in previous posts. Based in part on our experience at these workshops, she and I are trying to plot a path forward. More to come, here at Broadstreet and eventually in the Oxford Handbook that Jeff and Jared are co-editing.