A Bit More about Theory in Historical Political Economy

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

As Volha mentioned in her post on Monday, she, Eugene Finkel, and I are working on something—a review of the field of historical political economy for an audience of political scientists. As part of that process, I have been thinking about the role of theory in HPE. Sean Gailmard’s recent guest post is a useful starting point, as is his more extensive discussion in Jeff’s new Journal of Historical Political Economy. So is Scott Ashworth, Chris Berry, and Ethan Bueno de Mesquita’s excellent Theory and Credibility, which although not explicitly focused on HPE has much to say about the relationship between theory and empirics in social science.

I find it useful to think about these issues with a particular example in mind. Readers will forgive me if I reach for one of my own papers: “Collective Action and Representation in Autocracies: Evidence from Russia’s Great Reforms,” which I wrote with Paul Castañeda Dower, Eugene Finkel, and Steve Nafziger. To my eye, ours was an unusually theoretically motivated exercise for the HPE literature. Focusing on this example can thus help to illustrate the potential and limits of theory in a historical setting.

A bit of background. Our paper addresses a classic question in (historical) political economy: When do autocratic elites transfer power to excluded groups? The predominant view in the literature, expressed in numerous papers and books (including my own), is that regime change and liberalization are more likely when excluded groups find it easier to overcome their collective-action problems. Yet this view is not unanimous. In a series of influential contributions, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue precisely the opposite. In their view, representation (democratization) is a commitment mechanism that is exploited only when the elite is otherwise unable to credibly commit to future redistribution—that is, when the majority poses an infrequent threat of unrest.

Our paper is an attempt to adjudicate this debate. We focus on the creation in (autocratic) Russia in 1864 of the zemstvo, an institution of local self-government with the power to tax and spend. The authority to make these decisions was granted to elected assemblies, with statutory allotments of seats for the gentry, urban property owners, and peasantry that varied greatly across the 365 districts in which zemstva were established. We relate peasant representation in these assemblies to the frequency of peasant unrest in the twelve years prior to creation of the zemstvo. To correct for measurement error in the unrest data and to support a causal interpretation of our results, we employ an instrumental-variables strategy that exploits two important and plausibly exogenous determinants of unrest in the pre-reform period: the historical incidence of serfdom (controlling for distance from Moscow, soil fertility, and the relative size of the rural/peasant population, among other variables) and religious polarization.

Let’s step back. We have an open question, with established theory on both sides of the debate. We have a research setting that provides within-country variation in the outcome and determinant of interest, with a roadmap for credibly identifying the relationship between the former and the latter. This research setting happens to be located in the nineteenth century, under a regime that no longer exists, justifying the qualifier “historical” before “political economy.” This would seem to be a classic example of what Volha on Monday referred to as “us[ing] the past as a setting to investigate general theoretical issues.”

The problem is, much of this theory relates only approximately to the empirical setting. From the perspective of Scott, Chris, and Ethan’s work, we need to worry about whether the target of the theoretical model overlaps with the target of the research design. There is a particular burden on Acemoglu and Robinson’s model, given that it stands alone on one side of the debate we address. The problem is that their outcome (democratization) differs slightly from what we observe in the data (representation): the former is 0/1, whereas the latter is continuous. To expand the overlap, we therefore extend the Acemoglu-Robinson model to allow for a continuous institutional choice by the elite. As we show, the key theoretical implication of the Acemoglu-Robinson generalizes: the more frequently some excluded majority poses a credible threat of unrest, the less representation the elite provides to the majority.

Here, a side note: It turns out that the central proposition in Acemoglu and Robinson’s “Why Did the West Extend the Franchise?” is incorrect. As Daron and Jim discuss in a research note from 2017, when the probability the excluded group poses a credible threat of unrest is neither too low nor too high, the government in fact mixes between democratizing and not democratizing, with positive probability of revolution on the equilibrium path. In a short paper, Paul, Eugene, Steve, and I show that this probability closely tracks the equilibrium level of representation in our extension of the Acemoglu-Robinson model.

So what do we find? Peasants were granted less representation in districts with more frequent unrest in preceding years, as induced by idiosyncratic variation in the historical prevalence of serfdom and religious polarization. Score one for the Acemoglu-Robinson model, score zero for many others (including my own). Still, this is a weak test of the commitment mechanism at the heart of the Acemoglu-Robinson model. In principle, there could be other, unmodeled mechanisms driving the negative relationship between representation and capacity for collective action that we observe in the data. We therefore proceed to “elaborate” on our original analysis, as Scott, Chris, and Ethan put it, drawing out additional theoretical implications that we can take to the data. To wit: As our extension of the Acemoglu-Robinson model shows, capacity for collective action should have a stronger, more positive impact on redistribution where representative institutions have not been granted. We examine this prediction using data on construction of rural schools in post-reform Russia, in districts with and without zemstva. And we find exactly the opposite of what the commitment mechanism in the Acemoglu-Robinson model would suggest.

Where does this leave us? I vaguely remember that Emily once accused us (winkingly) of nihilism, of rejecting all the principles that we thought might govern the relationship between collective action and representation while presenting nothing to replace them. Perhaps in response to that criticism, we conclude the published article with discussion of a few alternative mechanisms that might rationalize our empirical findings. My favorite, I think, is that Russian officials provided less representation to peasants with a history of rebellion in the interests of “demobilization.” Reformers, we speculate, may have feared that providing representation to rebelling peasants would simply fan the flames—say, because peasants now had access to the machinery of the state. But it is true that we fall short of Sean’s aspiration that (H)PE add to the “library of [formalized] mechanisms” with which social scientists interpret historical phenomena. There is only so much that you can say in 12,000 words.

So what have we learned from this exercise? As Sean makes clear, and as John Huber discussed previously, a within-country design that takes causal identification seriously is ultimately a case study. Without theory, we learn little beyond the case itself—to some extent, we must assume what we want to know. That may be fine: as Volha writes, much of HPE endeavors to understand the past for its own sake. I am embedded in a community of scholars who share my idiosyncratic interest in Russian politics and Russian political economy. I am thrilled that they know of our work and what we find. But I think Paul, Eugene, Steve, and I aspired to do more than just that—to contribute to our theoretical understanding of the relationship between collective action and representation in autocracies.

Did we accomplish this goal? At some level, I think our primary theoretical contribution came at the beginning of the project, when we extended the Acemoglu-Robinson model in a direction that better captured our empirical setting. We also teased out a novel theoretical implication of the commitment mechanism at the core of that model—one that I believe was not recognized prior to our work. In principle, both of these could have been accomplished without ever coding up a single district’s worth of data on peasant unrest and representation in zemstvo assemblies. But would we, or anybody else, have thought to do so? I suspect not. This is the sense in which our historical work contributes to theory, even as theory informs our historical work.

State Power and the Power Law

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

Pavi had a great post recently on the different ways that historical political economists have conceptualized and measured state capacity. I want to follow up with a small point that doesn’t have anything directly to do with historical political economy, but that I believe is important for historical political economists and anyone else thinking about state capacity.

As Pavi discusses, one component of state capacity is “bureaucratic capacity,” which following Michael Mann she conceptualizes as “the ability of the state to penetrate society and implement policies.” Various authors cited in Pavi’s post have measured such capacity as the number of bureaucrats per capita in some administrative unit: municipality, region, and so forth. With an important adjustment I discuss below, I did much the same in my work with David Brown and John Earle on bureaucratic capacity and privatization performance in postcommunist Russia.

In my view, relating bureaucratic capacity to the size of the bureaucracy makes obvious sense: increasing the quantity of labor pushes out the production-possibility frontier in any process that requires human effort. If you are skeptical, you might ask yourself whether the time you spend mailing a package at the post office depends on the number of people behind the counter. (In principle, too many postal workers could create congestion, but this is not an issue in any post office I have frequented.)

In thinking about the size of the bureaucracy, however, it is important to recognize that, as in many areas of human activity, there are economies of scale in public administration. How many central bankers does Iceland need? One. How many does China need? One. That works out to approximately 4,000 times more central bankers per capita in Iceland than in China. Include the entire staff of the central bank, and the ratio will shrink somewhat, but not enough to eliminate the impression that Iceland is to China as modern France is to Neolithic Europe.

In other words, in “normalizing” the size of the bureaucracy, we need to do more than simply divide through by population. We should ask: how large is the bureaucracy, relative to the size of the administrative unit being governed, taking into account economies of scale in public administration? There is a straightforward way to do this, as David, John, and I discovered in the work cited above, and as I discuss further in a review piece published around the same time.

It turns out that the relationship between size of the bureaucracy and size of the administrative unit being governed follows, like so many things in the biological and social world, a power law. Increase the size of the population by 1%, and the size of the bureaucracy should increase by approximately X% to keep pace. Looking across Russia’s regions in the 1990s, X was around 3/4.

Here is one way of looking at this. For Russia’s regions, plot log bureaucrats per capita against log population.

The relationship is linear, which follows from the underlying power-law relationship, with a slope of approximately -1/4. (Recall that log a/b = log a – log b, so a regression of log bureaucracy per capita on log population with an estimated coefficient of -1/4 is equivalent to a regression of log bureaucracy on log population with an estimated coefficient of 3/4.) Larger regions need smaller bureaucracies on a per-capita basis. Regions that lie above the regression line can be said to have large bureaucracies; those that lie below the regression line have comparatively small bureaucracies.

To the extent that this relationship holds in other datasets, the practical implication for empirical work in which bureaucratic capacity is a determinant of some outcome is to include log bureaucracy (or log bureaucracy per capita) and log population as right-hand-side variables. The coefficient on log bureaucracy measures the effect of bureaucratic capacity (as proxied by size of the bureaucracy), taking into account economies of scale in public administration.

Is this just about Russia? I don’t think so. Here is the relationship between bureaucracy size and population for the nine postcommunist countries examined in the review piece I cite above.

There is a secular increase in bureaucracy size between 1992 and 2004, reflecting among other things the creation of a state apparatus to replace the old Party bureaucracy, but the general relationship is remarkably unchanged across a decade of profound transformation. Unless I have missed something recently, there don’t appear to be comparable data on public-administration employment for the world at large that are reported on a regular basis, but there is a World Bank study from the late 1990s that provides “detailed statistical and econometric evidence on government employment and pay.” With the help of Dmitrii Kofanov, I looked at this a few years ago. In a regression of log central bureaucracy on log population in a sample of 124 countries, X equals approximately 4/5. The fit is tight, with an R-squared of over 0.70. Include “continent” dummies and X drops to around 3/4, much as we observe across regions in Russia. Hardly the last word—somebody really should look at this systematically—but I think sufficient evidence that one should routinely check for such relationships when measuring state capacity using bureaucracy size.

A final point: Many but not all bureaucrats interact with people. Some interact instead with animals, plants, or minerals. When that is the case, economies of scale will be not in human population but in whatever else is being governed. We see this, again in Russia (h/t to Delgerjargal Uvsh and the rest of the team working in Volker Radeloff’s lab at Wisconsin), if we look at the relationship between size of the regional forest bureaucracy and the forest area under management.

Regions with more forest acreage need fewer forest bureaucrats per acre. The log-log relationship is again remarkably linear—the signature of a power law.

What Did Stalinist Industrialization Accomplish?

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

The spring quarter at Chicago starts in a week. I will be teaching a course on the political economy of communism and the postcommunist transition. I love this class, which I taught at Wisconsin for many years, and not just because it is an opportunity to subject a captive audience to my repertoire of Soviet-era jokes. State socialism was the great social experiment of the twentieth century. Understanding why it failed, and understanding why the transition from state socialism was not always successful, teaches us much about politics and economics.

We begin the quarter with what János Kornai calls the “classical socialist system”: the central features of political and economic governance in the Soviet Union under both Stalin and Brezhnev, and also in many East European countries between 1945 and 1989. We read Francis Spufford’s superlative novel Red Plenty, which presents in the most readable fashion the underlying reasons why repeated attempts to reform the Soviet economy failed. We dig into those incentive problems, many of which have resonance in other forms of governance. And we learn of the famine and terror that accompanied a utopian vision that would not be achieved.

You see, the Soviet experiment was one of the world’s first attempts at structural transformation—at moving from an inefficient agrarian economy to an urbanized, industrialized economy. In a few short years the Soviet cityscape was populated with factories and smokestacks; Soviet industrial power helped to win the war. To make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs—or so the many copycats of the Soviet experiment undoubtedly told themselves as they launched their own tragic transformations.

This view receded into memory as evidence of Stalin’s horrors became impossible to ignore and as Soviet economic growth slowed in the 1970s and 1980s. Recently, however, there has been renewed debate about what Stalin accomplished. Two works stand out. Robert Allen’s Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution recasts the Soviet Union as one of the world’s most successful developing countries. Anton Cheremukhin, Mikhail Golosov, Sergei Guriev, and Aleh Tsyvinski present a far less positive view in “The Industrialization and Economic Development of Russia through the Lens of a Neoclassical Growth Model,” published in the Review of Economic Studies.

The stakes of this debate—for how we understand history, and for what sort of policies developing countries might still be willing to adopt—are important. To help Broadstreet readers understand what is at issue, I spoke with Sergei Guriev. (Sergei, for those who don’t know, is a prominent Russian economist, currently at Sciences Po, who previously was rector of the New Economic School in Moscow and for several years chief economist at the EBRD.)

Scott: Sergei, welcome to Broadstreet! I have a number of questions about your paper, but first, why don’t you tell us a bit about what you and your coauthors do.

Sergei: Thanks! In this paper, we build and calibrate a two-sector (agriculture vs. non-agriculture) macroeconomic model of a market economy with distortions. The Tsarist economy was a market economy, but it was not a frictionless market economy. Explicitly modeling and estimating the various market frictions and barriers to reallocation from farm to factory is therefore crucial for understanding the performance—and underperformance—of the Tsarist economy. We calibrate this model on data from 1885 to 1913 and then extrapolate Tsarist economic performance for decades to come. Our analysis helps us understand the main reasons for Russia’s pre-1913 inefficiencies. We show that these were driven by the lack of competition in the industrial sector; we refer to extensive historical evidence consistent with this analysis.

We then use the same approach to understand Stalin’s industrialization from 1928 to 1940. Stalin’s economy was not a market economy, but our model helps to estimate the kind of distortions a market economy would have had to have in order to replicate Soviet economic performance. We can therefore directly compare not only the aggregate performance of the Tsarist and Stalinist economies, but also unpack the specific reasons why these differed. We show that while Stalin’s industrialization was brutally effective in moving labor from farm to factory, it greatly undermined productivity growth in both agriculture and industry, so on balance it only slightly outperformed the Tsarist trend.

Scott: You are not the first to investigate Soviet industrialization. Robert Allen, for example, notably argued that investment in heavy industry under Stalin increased growth and living standards. How is what you do different?

Sergei: Our analysis is based on the state-of-the-art methodology used in modern analyses of the macroeconomic impact of policies and market distortions. This approach was pioneered by Cole and Ohanian (2002, 2004), Chari, Kehoe and McGrattan (2007), and Hayashi and Prescott (2008) for analyses of the U.S., UK and Japanese economies. Our paper is the first to use this approach for a non-market economy. The advantage of this approach is that distortions (both in Soviet and Tsarist times) reflect policies; thus, given the policies we can project the performance of the economy. Furthermore, the methodology allows us to carry out counterfactual analyses—for example, what would have happened to the Tsarist economy if it had different frictions.

In his 2003 book Farm to Factory, Robert Allen used a more traditional simulation model. In many ways, his model is more detailed. For example, he has three sectors: agriculture, production of producer goods, and production of consumer goods; he also allows for centralized vs. decentralized procurement of agricultural production and so forth. However, as is usually done in such traditional models, certain key economic variables (for example, the allocation of capital between sectors or rural-urban mobility) are fixed by the modeler rather than determined endogenously (as in our model).

Like Allen, we find that the Tsarist economy was inefficient. Our analysis helps identify the main source of the inefficiency, which is entry barriers and monopoly power in the nonagricultural sector. Furthermore, similarly to Allen’s work, we find that the main contribution of Soviet policies to industrialization and growth was the massive movement of both capital and labour from farm to factory. Unlike Allen, however, we show that Soviet industrialization resulted in significant underperformance of both agricultural and industrial productivities relative to the Tsarist trend; this explains why our analysis finds that the Soviet economy outperformed the Tsarist counterfactual only slightly. We agree with Allen’s argument that collectivization was very costly and that the continuation of NEP [Scott: Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which reintroduced elements of a market economy after the Russian Civil War] without collectivization would have substantially outperformed the actual scenario. (We do not report our analysis of NEP in the published paper, but it is presented in the working paper that preceded it.)

Scott: The economy the Bolsheviks inherited was overwhelmingly agrarian. At least since Gerschenkron, scholars have argued that the peasant commune, with the limited labor mobility it implied, was to blame. Is that what you find?

Sergei: We discuss this issue and find evidence that the wage differential between farm and factory was substantial: urban wages were twice as high as rural ones from 1885 to 1913. This may indeed be explained by huge barriers to labor mobility from farm to factory, which can be traced back to the role of the commune. However, it may also be explained by the costs of obtaining the skills necessary for working in factories—or by other barriers to mobility. One of the disadvantages of our study is that we do not model the role of skills in pre-1917 industrialization. We have not been able to find reliable data on human capital for that period; I believe this is an important question for future research. Anyway, even if we attribute the full magnitude of mobility barriers to the commune, it is still less important quantitatively than “monopoly capitalism”: the entry barriers and market power in the industrial sector.

Scott: Stalin forced industrialization by coercively redirecting resources from the rural, agrarian economy to the urban, manufacturing economy. The human toll of these policies—mostly centrally, collectivization—was enormous, with millions killed during the Great Famine of 1932–33. But it was arguably a sort of Big Push, a top-down reallocation of resources that could not have been accomplished otherwise. Did Soviet productivity increase as a result?

Sergei: If industry is substantially more productive than agriculture then, indeed, a reallocation of labor from farm to factory would per se greatly increase the economy’s aggregate productivity. At the beginning of Soviet industrialization, 87 percent of Soviet employment was in agriculture, but agriculture accounted only for 48 percent of GDP. A simple calculation suggests that moving 20 percent of labor from farm to factory would have increased GDP by 69 percent.1 One therefore can agree with Acemoglu and Robinson’s statement in Why Nations Fail that there was “huge…economic potential from reallocating…labor from agriculture to industry.”

However, these calculations presume that productivities in both agriculture and industry would remain unchanged. Our analysis shows that this assumption is wrong: Stalin’s collectivization and industrialization greatly undermined both agricultural and industrial productivity.

Scott: One of the interesting ideas of this project (and also Allen’s work) is to explore different counterfactuals. What if, for example, the Bolsheviks had not seized power and the Tsarist regime had somehow managed to reform? What would have happened to the Russian economy?

Sergei: This is indeed a major advantage of our approach: our methodology allows us to carry out counterfactual analysis in a credible way. What would have happened to the Russian economy if it had Japanese policies and market frictions? How would Mao’s industrialization have proceeded if he had followed Stalin’s policies? We have answered these and some other questions in our papers on Soviet and Chinese industrialization. As to your particular question, in the first of these papers we find that if there had been no entry barriers or monopoly power in the non-agricultural sector, then, by 1940, GDP per capita in the Tsarist economy would have been about 50 percent higher than in the actual Soviet data.

Scott: Circling around some of the same issues, the working-paper version of this article asked (echoing Alec Nové), “Was Stalin Necessary for Russia’s Economic Development?” Was he?

Sergei: The answer is certainly “no.” Even without accounting for the huge human and social costs of Stalin’s policies, we find that Stalin’s economic performance only slightly outperformed the inefficient Tsarist trend. Both significantly lagged behind Japan’s performance. Japan is the most natural contemporaneous comparator for Russia and the Soviet Union—as mentioned by Millar (1970), who discussed Alec Nové’s thesis. Indeed, over the period from 1885 to 1913, the Russian Empire and Japan had similar levels and dynamics of GDP per capita. Before World War I, Japan also had substantial distortions and barriers to allocation; we show that these distortions were similar to those of Tsarist Russia. However, in the interwar period, Japan managed to reduce those distortions and to accelerate industrial productivity growth. Our quantitative analysis suggests that a Russia with Japan’s policies would have substantially outperformed the actual dynamics of Soviet GDP.

Scott: Stepping back a bit, there is a lot of interest among young scholars in Imperial and Soviet economic history and historical political economy. Did writing this paper highlight for you any questions about the Russian and Soviet economy that have yet to be answered?

Sergei: Andrei Markevich, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, and I are now working on a survey of recent research on Russian and Soviet economic history that has been commissioned by the Journal of Economic Literature. In the last 15–20 years, this field has grown substantially in both quantity and quality, resulting in many publications not only in economic-history but also in general economics journals. Yet, even with this exciting growth, we see many unanswered questions. As we are not finished with our review, let me refrain for the moment from offering a list of those questions. The complete draft—hopefully available in a few months—will certainly outline an agenda for future research.


  1. [20 * (1 – 0.48) / (1 – 0.87)] – [20 * 0.48 / 0.87].

What Joe Biden Could Learn About Reform from Tsar Alexander II

Joint with Eugene (Evgeny) Finkel. Cross-posted from Broadstreet, a blog devoted to historical political economy.

Climate change, racial equity, immigration, healthcare: Joe Biden has a lot on his plate beyond bringing the pandemic to an end. In possession of the narrowest of majorities in the House and a ten-seat deficit in the Senate on all business that can be filibustered, the temptation will be to bypass the legislative process and rule by executive order. With a restive Democratic base pushing for action, such a strategy would seem to offer the best hope of notching some quick wins. But there is risk in this approach, even beyond the likelihood of reversal when a Republican next sits in the White House—the possibility that those responsible for implementing policy will be less attentive to an executive order than to legislation. As Barack Obama relates in A Promised Land, this is why he ultimately sought a legislative repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—Bill Clinton’s pained compromise on gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members—rather than simply to suspend discharges based on sexual conduct.

Half a loaf is better than none, you may respond, and from a policy perspective that may be right. The politics, however, are more complicated. Once set in motion, reform represents a promise that its intended beneficiaries expect to be kept. Politicians who raise expectations but fail to meet them do so at their peril, as the members of the French National Assembly who rashly declared the end of feudalism in August 1789 soon discovered. Such a promise could not be met in an environment of rapidly disintegrating state authority; the failure to live up to the implicit contract represented by that promise contributed to the collapse of the old regime.

We explore this and other cases in recent work on Reform and Rebellion in Weak States, a short book in the series Cambridge Elements in Political Economy. Revolutionary France, Ancient Rome, Ottoman Turkey, Latin America: the pattern we describe appears in myriad environments. Sometimes, reform promotes rather than upends social stability, as improvements on the status quo encourage those who would rebel instead to stay home. But when those with a stake in the status quo have the ability to block reform’s implementation, the result is often unrest—this even though rebellion is itself costly to reform’s opponents.

We see this play out most clearly in a particular case of reform for which we have detailed data on unrest: Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of Russia’s serfs in 1861. Our discussion in Reform and Rebellion in Weak States builds on our earlier analysis with Tricia Olsen, in which we first asked, “Does Reform Prevent Rebellion?” The key feature of Russia’s emancipation reform is that the newly liberated serfs were promised use rights in, and eventual ownership of, land previously held by the nobility. The tsar and his ministers, conscious of the perceived failure of earlier “landless” emancipations, considered land reform essential, but the actual process of carrying out this complicated policy lay substantially with the nobility whose privileges were at issue.

Russia in the mid-nineteenth century was a poor country with very limited state capacity outside of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and a few provincial capitals. Put differently, the nobility were themselves the state where it most mattered for reform: on the estate itself. The reform statutes required that the landlord and (largely illiterate) peasant community draw up “regulatory charters” (ustavnye gramoty) specifying land allotments and obligations. In principle, a newly created institution of “peace arbitrators” (mirovye posredniki) was to mediate between landowners and peasants, helping to ensure an implementation of reform consistent with its intent. In practice, the peace arbitrators—Leo Tolstoy was one—were often sidelined or even run out of town by the local nobility.

The upshot of all this is that the nobility ran roughshod over the process, especially where the land was fertile and worth fighting over. Allotments were gerrymandered so that landowners got the best land; in some cases, peasants had access to less land after emancipation than before. Such outcomes fell far short of what the peasants felt they had been promised when the tsar’s Emancipation Manifesto was read out in Sunday church services across the Empire. The resulting grievances generated a wave of unrest that required numerous local police and more than eighty infantry and cavalry regiments to suppress.

A typical event, in June and July 1862: Peasants refuse to till the fields in response to a “cutoff” of good land. Troops follow.

From an econometric perspective, we can see the causal effect of reform on rebellion by comparing unrest among (former) serfs before and after emancipation, versus that among an equally numerous population of peasants who resided on state land and were not directly affected by reform. Among the former, there was an enormous increase in refusals to till the land and provide other obligations to the landowner, as well as outright acts of theft and violence; among the latter, crickets. Moreover, we can peer into individual events using the descriptions provided by the Soviet historians who assembled the chronicles on which our data are based. In early and mid-1862, when the terms of the regulatory charters were being finalized, we see a spike in events in which archival records indicate that peasants were rejecting the terms of emancipation.

So, to everybody in government, be careful what you promise—and understand that reform itself is the promise. Clearly articulating the goals of reform can incentivize those with responsibility to implement it, but it can also create disappointment if—when—agents of the state nonetheless drag their feet. Most important, if there is a choice between a short road and a difficult path to the same end, take the long way if doing so leaves less discretion in the hands of those who would frustrate reform, or creates institutions to monitor the same. Those you intend to help will thank you.

Novyi god

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

What is the New Year’s holiday? For many Americans, it is an opportunity to stay up late, to take a day off work, to watch some football, to resolve to do better. And that’s in a good year. It is no surprise that a 2011 poll found that few ranked New Year’s their favorite holiday. Only baby boomers had it in their top five, and even they were more likely to name Halloween, decades after they last trick-or-treated.

It is quite different in Russia, where I have spent the majority of my New Year’s holidays since meeting my wife in 1997. In Russia, Novyi god [New Year, roughly pronounced NO-vee goad] is the big family holiday. Celebration is nearly universal, with some 70 percent of Russians marking the holiday at home with family and close friends. Ded Moroz [Grandfather Frost] brings gifts, which await discovery under the New Year’s tree. Small apartments make room for big tables set with favorite dishes. Beloved New Year’s films play on the television in the background, and just before midnight, the Russian president (every year, the same Russian president) addresses the nation. The bells of the Kremlin ring, glasses are raised, presents are opened, friends are called. This goes on for many a merry hour.

If much of this sounds familiar, that is no coincidence. Novyi god adopts many of the traditions of Orthodox Christmas, but with a twist: It is a secular holiday, enjoyed by nearly all, whatever their religious background. Thus the seeming incongruity of what to Western eyes looks like a giant Christmas tree overshadowing the Ahmad Kadyrov Mosque in central Grozny, the capital of Chechnya:

How all this came about is an interesting story. Nineteenth-century Russia was a multiconfessional empire ruled by Orthodox Christian tsars. Under Nicholas I, the official ideology was formulated as Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality, in that order. It was a classic example of legitimacy bestowed by religious authorities in return for favors and protection—a pattern that my Broadstreet colleague Jared Rubin describes in Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not. This promoted a certain stability in the Russian heartland, where Orthodoxy was predominant, but the western and eastern borderlands were more polarized, with conflict more frequent—anti-Jewish pogroms, of course, and also peasant unrest, as Paul Castañeda Dower, Evgeny Finkel, Steve Nafziger, and I document in “Collective Action and Representation in Autocracies: Evidence from Russia’s Great Reforms.”

The Bolsheviks had little time for religion, which, following Marx, they considered both facilitator and outgrowth of the oppressive conditions which history, through Bolshevik agency, would eliminate. Ded Moroz made a quick exit following the Revolution, when churches were seized and clerics killed, but he was eventually welcomed back as part of a Sovietized New Year’s holiday that served as a functional substitute for, and broader replacement of, the old Christmas celebration. Just as the Catholic Church repurposed pagan gods as Christian saints, the Communists found new use for old rituals, which they believed could turn the masses toward scientific atheism. Beyond Novyi god, Soviet citizens commemorated major life events through birth ceremonies, “red” weddings, and atheist funerals; they learned the “sacred” texts of Lenin and other socialist leaders. It was an accommodation to human nature, a remembrance of old ways even as authorities encouraged Soviet citizens to forget the traditional forms. (Upon entering the Soviet Union for the first and last time in 1987, via train from Helsinki, I was questioned by a border guard: Did I have any Bibles in my possession? Fifteen years later, I shared a conversation over the Atlantic with an American traveling to Moscow to teach Russian Jews the seder ritual.)

Ultimately, the communist experiment in forced secularization was only partially successful. Since the Soviet collapse, an increasing number of Russians have identified as Orthodox Christian, though most only occasionally attend church services. (The Catholic Hapsburgs seem to have been more successful at suppressing religion: a Pew survey in 2015 found that only three out of ten Czechs professed a belief in God.) The Russian state is now fully aligned with the Orthodox Church, which blesses Putin’s rule and receives in return such accommodations as real estate for a cathedral on the Seine and a repressive campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Yet certain Soviet rituals survive. When I got married in St. Petersburg, it was at Wedding Palace #1 (thankfully, a real palace), with a ceremony led by a schoolmarmish official who must have learned her trade under the old regime—an exercise in anthropology by my bride, who came of age during the Gorbachev era. And now I get to celebrate two family holidays in December: Christmas with my family, and Novyi god with Masha’s (this year via Zoom). It’s an odd thing, that a holiday that brings everybody together could emerge from such a violent and atomizing regime, but history works in interesting ways. S Novym godom, Broadstreet readers. Have a healthy and happy new year.

The (Limited) Power of Persuasion

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

Among the numerous consequences of COVID for everyday life, there is this: Many Americans will not venture beyond their own dining rooms for Thanksgiving this year, and so will miss out on the opportunity to speak with someone whose political views differ from their own. I confess to enjoying these conversations—I even think I have learned a thing or two—but not everybody is a political scientist. More typical, I suspect, is the angst implied by an op-ed in The Hill last year, which offered advice on “How to Shut Down Your Trump-Supporting Family Member at Thanksgiving Dinner.” Dread at what Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have wrought since you last sat down to turkey and stuffing—this is the American holiday condition.

Listen, the Fox News effect is real, as Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan showed in a much-cited paper. But we give too much credit to Roger Ailes if we grant magical powers to propaganda and misinformation. Political scientists should be especially skeptical—after all, it was William Riker who famously dismissed rhetoric in favor of the more consequential “heresthetic.” Skillful politicians, Riker argued, focus on out-maneuvering their opponents rather than persuading them. More recently, models of Bayesian persuasion have shown that biased information can be effective at changing the beliefs of even fully rational individuals, but there are limits: insist that the sky is always blue (or that a million people showed up at one’s inauguration), and people will tune out the message. Given a choice, they may even change the channel, as Konstantin Sonin and I argued in “Government Control of the Media”—a phenomenon currently at work in Belarus, as citizens desperate for information on COVID turn away from state media.

Historical political economy provides a useful vantage point on these issues. As Ali argued the day after the election, there is nothing older than fake news. And among the twentieth century’s numerous purveyors of a false world view, perhaps none is understood to be more successful than Adolf Hitler. Volker Ullrich’s magisterial Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939 is typical in this regard. No crude propagandist, Ullrich argues, Hitler knows how to read the room: demagogic rabble rouser at the Hofbrauhaus, polite anti-Semite at the Wagners’ salon. Time and again, he moves his audience to tears, to anger, to action. Not least, there is the trial after the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, when Hitler “use[s] the tribunal as pulpit” and “turn[s] a fiasco into a propaganda triumph.”1 After Hitler was released from prison, most of Germany’s federal states banned him from speaking in public, apparently fearing his words as much as his stormtroopers.

But how effective were Hitler’s speeches really? Not so much, argue Peter Selb and Simon Munzert in “Examining a Most Likely Case for Strong Campaign Effects: Hitler’s Speeches and the Rise of the Nazi Party, 1927–1933.” Employing a sort of differences-in-differences estimator that accounts for the deliberate allocation of campaign resources, Selb and Munzert find that Hitler’s campaign appearances—his speeches—had effects on Nazi vote share in the neighborhood of one percentage point. One percentage point. As Selb and Munzert suggest, if you can’t find strong local effects for speeches by a charismatic politician largely shut out of traditional media, you are unlikely to find them anywhere.

That said, maybe the point is precisely that the Nazis did not have access to radio before they were in power—an idea explored by Maja Adena, Ruben Enikolopov, Maria Petrova, Veronica Santarosa, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya in “Radio and the Rise of the Nazis in Prewar Germany.” Certainly Joseph Goebbels thought radio important. After Hitler seized control of the country, Goebbels wrote, “Now it will be easy to carry on the fight, for we can call on all the resources of the State. Radio and press are at our disposal.”2 Yet the actual effects appear relatively small, though perhaps pivotal given the political instability of the Weimar Republic. Had Nazi propaganda not been banned in 1930, Hitler’s party might have increased their vote share on the order of four percentage points. Had Hitler not gained control of radio after being named chancellor in January 1933, the Nazis might have received three percentage points less support in the March 1933 elections. Perhaps more consequential is how Hitler and Goebbels subsequently used radio to build a narrative around public policy: In “Highway to Hitler,” Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth show that the impact of Autobahn construction on voting in the 1934 plebiscite was greater where radio was more available.

Adena, Enikolopov, Petrova, Santarosa, and Zhuarvskaya identify effects of Nazi propaganda not only via changes in the content of radio programming, but also through variation in access to radio. They further examine the influence of radio after the consolidation of Nazi power—and here is another lesson, one not immediately implied by models of Bayesian persuasion. Nazi radio encouraged various anti-Semitic acts in regions with a history of anti-Semitism, but actually discouraged it in areas without that history. The propaganda backlash implied by these results is not unique to the Nazi setting. In work on contemporary Ukraine, for example, Leonid Peisakhin and Arturas Rozenas find that access to Russian television increased support for pro-Russia parties in Eastern Ukraine among individuals with pro-Russian attitudes ex ante, but if anything decreased it among those with the opposite views.

All of these studies examine the impact of comparatively short-term exposure to propaganda. A further question is what effect long-term exposure might have. In “Nazi Indoctrination and Anti-Semitic Beliefs in Germany,” Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth demonstrate that Germans born in the 1920s and 1930—those who were exposed to Nazi propaganda as students and as members of the Hitler Youth—harbored more anti-Semitic attitudes decades later than did those who were born before or after the Hitler generation. Precisely because such exposure was universal, this sort of cohort analysis has its limits, though Voigtländer and Voth further show that the effects of growing up under Hitler were strongest in parts of Germany with a history of voting for anti-Semitic parties. As with radio, childhood indoctrination seems to have been most effective where there was fertile soil for Nazi propaganda.

One more caveat is in order: Studies of Hitler’s speeches or Nazi radio implicitly focus on top-down propaganda. A potentially more insidious form of persuasion exploits preexisting social networks. As Georgy Egorov and Konstantin Sonin show in unpublished work on “Persuasion on Networks,” propaganda can be most effective if it targets peripheral members of a network, such as those who might congregate in singers’ associations or gymnastics clubs. In the slyly titled “Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party,” Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer, and Hans-Joachim Voth show that Nazi Party membership grew more quickly in towns and cities with an abundance of such groups. Apolitical organizations, in this telling, facilitated the “unplanned propaganda of daily social life” that brought the Nazis to power.

In the preface to Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939, Volker Ullrich asks, given the surfeit of scholarship on Hitler, if yet another biography is needed. Recent work in historical political economy has illustrated that there is still much to learn not only about the Nazi leader, but also about such general topics as propaganda. Whether future biographers will incorporate this research into their understanding of Adolf Hitler—that will depend in part on social scientists’ power of persuasion.


  1. Quotations from pp. 160 and 162, respectively.
  2. Quoted in Adena et al., p. 1886. Many Germans would have heard Hitler’s speeches on the Volksempfänger, or People’s Receiver, pictured above.

Life and Death During the Transition Depression

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

The New York Times published an interesting pair of reports on Tuesday. The first related a recent study in Health Affairs that documents a staggering, and unexpected, decline in hospital admissions since the arrival of COVID in the United States earlier this year. With the important exception of those areas where COVID infections are spiking, hospital beds are sitting empty, as admissions have declined for ailments ranging from asthma to pneumonia to heart attacks. Increased exercise and improvements to air quality—I remember both during my Parisian lockdown earlier this year—may be driving much of the decrease.

Then again, maybe not. The second story reports on estimates of “excess mortality” by the Centers for Disease Control. According to the CDC, there have been 300,000 more deaths this year than would have normally been anticipated—this against the backdrop of 216,025 deaths officially attributed to the novel coronavirus. Some of the difference may be due to fear of contracting COVID in a hospital setting, leading even seriously ill patients to defer medical care.

Understanding the health impact of COVID is difficult because the pandemic is an economic as well as a health crisis. When U.S. states first started locking down, some policymakers and pundits predicted large negative consequences for public health. Peter Navarro led the charge from the White House, warning of the “very significant losses of life and blows to American families that may result from an extended economic shutdown.” Others disagreed, pointing to large improvements to population health during the Great Depression, which saw output declines of a similar magnitude.

We have been down this road before. The argument that economic collapse increases mortality echoes claims made during one of the most important economic events of the past half-century: the transition from centrally planned economies in the ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In the worst-affected areas, the “transition depression” saw declines in output larger than in the United States during the Great Depression. Coincident with this economic collapse was a large spike in mortality among working-age men. It seemed as if shock therapy was killing the patient.

In a much-publicized article in the Lancet, David Stuckler, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee offered a particular version of this thesis: that mass privatization of formerly state owned enterprises led to increased unemployment, which in turn contributed to social stress (not directly observed) and thus mortality. “Mass Murder and the Market,” trumpeted the Economist. Post-Soviet reformers and their foreign enablers were guilty not just of economic mismanagement but of manslaughter.

Or were they? Here’s a little secret: medical journals are better equipped to handle randomized control trials than they are observational studies using country-level aggregates. What Stuckler, King, and McKee did made superficial sense—regressions on a country panel with two-way fixed effects—but as John Earle and I subsequently showed (in a letter to the Lancet, and then in this full paper), the Lancet study was a classic case of failing to check for differences in pre-existing trends. The estimated effect of mortality is substantially attenuated if one corrects for these differences. And it disappears entirely if we assume that it takes at least a year after privatization for men to lose their jobs, become unhealthy, and die.

But let’s take a step back: Is it even true that mass privatization resulted in increased unemployment? Not according to the best available estimates. In three of the four postcommunist countries studied by David Brown, John Earle, and Álmos Telegdy, privatization increased productivity, which holding output constant reduces employment—but it similarly increased output, implying no net effect on employment. (Liberalization, not privatization, was responsible for the output collapse, but that’s another story.) In Russia, in contrast, privatization initially decreased both productivity and output, but again with no net effect on employment.

Anyway, we can do better than cross-country analysis. In Russia, as John and I showed, some regions pursued mass privatization more aggressively than others—and the extent of privatization is uncorrelated with changes in mortality among working-age men. Nor do we see any pattern if we disaggregate mortality by cause of death. I could go on. If you’re interested, check out the complete exchange in the Lancet, which also includes a strong critique of the privatization thesis by Christopher Gerry, Tomasz Mickiewicz, and Zlatko Nikoloski.

So, if not mass privatization, what does account for the mortality spike among working-age men in some postcommunist countries during the early 1990s? Many of these men were drinking themselves to death, so it is reasonable to ask what was happening to alcohol markets during this period. Remember Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign? That saved a lot of lives in the short run. But when effective prohibition ended,1 some of the men who would have otherwise died five years earlier died then. That catch-up presents itself as a mortality spike. And here’s the kicker: The spike is less pronounced in ex-Soviet republics with large Muslim populations—anti-alcohol campaigns are less consequential for public health where people are less likely to drink to begin with. Jay Bhattacharya, Christina Gathmann, and Grant Miller have a nice paper that demonstrates this. Meanwhile, price regulation in a context of general hyperinflation resulted in a dramatic fall in the relative price of alcohol. Daniel Treisman shows that variation across regions in the extent of this drop does much to explain variation in mortality.

What’s the moral of this story? In postcommunist countries, there was no simple mapping from economic output to health outcomes. Nor would I expect one in the current crisis. With the economy disrupted in massive and differential ways, the impact on health is hard to pin down. Scholars will be working for years to understand life and death during the COVID pandemic.


1 Witness the very non-Soviet display of vodka in the image at the top.

Navigating the Frontier between History and Social Science

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

The hottest debate in academia the past week has concerned the appropriateness of a new article on “Frontier Culture” by Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse. In his post on Monday, Jared unpacked the paper’s argument and summarized the diverse evidence the authors bring to bear on one part of Frederick Jackson Turner’s (in)famous thesis. It’s what we do at Broadstreet: reasoned commentary on important work in historical political economy. Yet I expect the Twitter wars to continue.

Is mutual antagonism between history and the social sciences the inevitable consequence of the historical turn in economics and political science? I don’t think so, but if the relationship is to survive, each side needs to try—seriously try—to understand the other. As Tracy and I discussed in our inaugural post, we have been working hard to foster that understanding in our community of scholars working on Imperial and Soviet Russia. Let me describe a few things I think I have learned about historians from that experience and from the historical turn in my own research.

Historians worry more about the ideological origins of ideas than social scientists do

With the advantage of hindsight, it was probably inevitable that a paper with “Frontier Thesis” in the abstract would provoke a firestorm. As I read the commentary by historians on Twitter, the use of a phrase so closely associated with the nineteenth century suggests acceptance of the murder and expropriation of millions of native Americans and the cultural attitudes of those who displaced them. For a social scientist, in contrast, the Frontier Thesis is a rich source of ideas for empirical work.

For better or worse, social scientists are just more comfortable separating the text from the author and his times. Indeed, they may not even remember the author! Here is a test: Ask a graduate student in economics to explain to you the roots of utility theory in moral philosophy. Most will be unable to do so. To a historian, I suspect, that is simply inconceivable—that Ph.D. training does not school students in the origins of the most fundamental ideas in the discipline. Indeed, to many historians, the origin of ideas is the question, not just useful context.

Historians are kind of like “traditional” comparativists

For those not in political science, comparative politics is the study of the domestic politics of countries other than the United States. (Weird, I know.) Traditionally, it was the preserve of political scientists who were especially good at languages and not particularly afraid of contracting malaria. Comparativists really knew countries; they were the scholars who got invited onto the evening news to discuss a crisis in some remote corner of the world. Somewhat uncomfortably, comparativists attended the same department meetings as Americanists, who knew fixed-point theorems and probability theory. Comparativists were skeptical that you could understand politics in their countries with those things.

Historians are kind of like that. Having invested in learning the trees, they are uncomfortable with attempts to statistically describe the forest; historians know facts, not “stylized facts.” Try discussing your weather variable with a demographic historian. He will tell you—and rightly so—that there are more types of bad weather than are dreamt of in your methodology. Your response that the weather variable is nonetheless highly correlated with grain production is likely to fall on deaf ears.

I suspect that some of the students who a generation ago would have gone into comparative politics today gravitate toward history. That’s fine: it is useful to have an academy sorted by interest and comparative advantage. But it means that the conversations that I remember from my graduate coursework in political science are today more likely to happen when historians and social scientists find themselves in the same room.

Historians believe that social scientists are inattentive to data quality

The typical historian does not understand how much social scientists obsess over the error term. Consequently, when they see that a social scientist has used some data source that historians know to be a mess, they assume they cannot believe the results. Garbage in, garbage out. The idea that one can statistically compensate for measurement error is learned in econometrics, not historical method.

I have experienced this in my own historical work, much of which examines the causes and consequences of peasant unrest in late Imperial Russia. The primary data source for unrest is a multi-volume chronicle of the “peasant movement” compiled by Soviet historians working during the Khrushchev thaw. Those historians, in turn, relied on a variety of sources, including reports by Tsarist-era provincial governors and secret police. There is a lot to worry about here: the incentives of Russian officials to report what they knew, differential capacity to monitor unrest across space and over time, the presence in the chronicles of politically irrelevant events alongside major disturbances involving thousands of peasants. I’ve heard it all.

The thing is, the chronicles give us a lot of leverage to deal with these issues. We know the archives on which particular entries are based, so we can aggregate up from events reported only by officials whom we presume—based on what we know from historians—to be less biased in their reporting. Moreover, when peasant unrest is on the right-hand side of the regression equation, we can exploit the historical record to locate plausibly exogenous variation in disturbances. Historians identify problems with the data, but they also (sometimes unknowingly) give us solutions. We should express our gratitude.

Historians are deeply frustrated when social scientists ignore the historiography on a topic

Hey, political scientists are deeply frustrated when economists “discover” a question on which political scientists have worked for decades. Economists are deeply frustrated when humanists base their understanding of the economy more on Marx than on Econ 101. We could do this all day. The point is this: If you want people to take you seriously, you need to signal that you have read and understand their work. With all due respect to Bazzi, Fiszbein, and Gebresilasse, who wrote a really careful paper, a single paragraph acknowledging that “Turner’s work has attracted immense attention and vast criticism” doesn’t send that signal. It certainly doesn’t capture the discipline’s rejection not just of Turner’s particular arguments, but of his way doing history, his school.

I understand that there is essentially zero publication incentive to devote space to another discipline’s debates, and that even those who want to do so may find that their editors disagree.1 Fine, but if we don’t, we shouldn’t be surprised if the other discipline returns the favor. Moreover, if we really are interested in learning the literature, we shouldn’t assume that we can do it on the cheap. Interdisciplinary workshops help, as Tracy and I discussed in our last post, but the best way to understand another discipline is to take a class. I was fortunate at Wisconsin to have an outstanding historian of Imperial Russia as a colleague. David McDonald let me sit in on his graduate seminar, where we read and debated the historiography of Tsarist Russia. It was the start of an education, still ongoing.


1 Still, with 50-page appendixes now the norm for empirical papers, perhaps we could spare a page or two in the appendix for a more substantial literature review that is signposted in the main text.

An Interdisciplinary Conversation

A conversation with Tracy Dennison, cross-posted from Broadstreet, a new blog devoted to historical political economy.

Scott: Tracy, this is the first post at Broadstreet for both of us. Welcome!

Tracy: And welcome to you! It feels a bit like cheating to make the first post a shared effort, but it’s very much in the interdisciplinary spirit of the blog itself.

Scott: A historian and a political economist talking to each other…sort of like one of Gail Collins and Bret Stephens’ periodic conversations.

Tracy: Just like that, but different! Better, even. Like political economy without the politics.

Scott: In fairness, we’ve had practice. Last year, in Madison, we held the first annual Summer Workshop in the Economic History and Historical Political Economy of Russia. Economists, historians, and political scientists all in the same room together, discussing each others’ papers. It was mostly wonderful, though I recall we did have a spirited conversation about “the relationship” at the end.

Tracy: It’s inevitable. I think it’s part of the peace process. I can only assume there were no hard feelings, as everyone wanted to come back and do it again this year!

Scott: And that’s what we would have done—in Paris, moreover—if the world hadn’t turned upside down this past spring. In the end, we moved the workshop online, like most every other part of our daily existence.

Tracy: It was a big disappointment to have to move to Zoom. Not only because it meant giving up Paris, but because the inaugural meeting in Madison had fostered so many productive in-person interactions. It wasn’t clear how we’d be able to recreate that atmosphere online.

Scott: That’s an interesting question—whether we were able to do so. We opened up the workshop to anybody in the field, which attracted a much larger audience than we were aware existed. But do you think we were talking to each other or only past each other?

Tracy: I think the constraints of Zoom were evident—it’s difficult to hash out those thorny questions of methodology or interpretation without being in the same room with one another and without being able to continue those conversations later in the bar. That said, I was delighted by how well it went in the end.

Scott: We had some great papers, and an online poster session to boot. (Here’s the program.) Mark Harrison, one of the deans of the field, led off the workshop with a keynote address on the KGB in Lithuania.

Tracy: Yes, it was the perfect opening; it really set up the interdisciplinary context nicely. The paper examines a question that has long interested historians of the Soviet Union: how effective were attempts to prevent deviant—as defined by Soviet authorities—behavior? And how can we measure these effects? It touched on a number of important issues, including the reliability of Soviet source materials, variation across space and time, and the changing priorities of both officials and Soviet citizens.

Scott: Once we moved to the paper sessions, it was interesting to see certain themes emerge. We had two papers on deportations under Stalin, and two on what we might call “rural political economy.” I don’t think that was an intentional choice on our part. It just reflects the state of the field.

Tracy: It was exciting to see so much new work on some of the bigger problems in Soviet history—industrialization, markets and finance, political repression, collectivization—from younger colleagues in the field. I was impressed by the ways in which they were using new sources and new methods to approach these questions. They certainly provided the group with much to discuss and debate.

Scott: You and I have been in the room where these discussions happen for awhile now. One recurring debate has centered on the use of digitized archival records by economists and political scientists. Roughly speaking, I would characterize the conversation as, Historian: You have no idea how noisy these data are and how biased is their selection into the archives. Social scientist: I understand at least some of that, and my fancy research design is intended to compensate.

Tracy: That sounds about right. I think it often boils down to one really fundamental issue: historians’ skepticism about numbers and social scientists’ doubts about textual evidence (please don’t call it anecdotal!). Somehow our “relationship discussions” always seem to revolve around some version of this problem. This is something I hope to explore in greater detail in future blogposts.

Scott: We had some variant of this in our session devoted to a new paper by Andrei Markevich, Natalya Naumenko, and Nancy Qian on the Stalin-era “Great Famine.” It’s really fascinating work that addresses an old question—whether Ukrainians, who died in enormous numbers during the famine, were targeted deliberately or merely caught up in a monumentally catastrophic policy. Many well-known historians have weighed in on this—Stephen Kotkin, Timothy Snyder, and Anne Applebaum come to mind—but Andrei, Natalya, and Nancy are the first to try to answer this question econometrically. (The working paper is online for those interested in their answer.)

Tracy: Yes, it generated quite a lively discussion—heated at times (friendly heated!), but exactly the sort of thing we are striving for with this workshop. It is worth noting that many of those who participated in the discussion were continuing a debate on the same set of questions that had been initiated in person last year in Madison. I interpreted this as strong evidence that the workshop is facilitating sustained interactions across battle—er, disciplinary—lines.

Scott: Part of that discussion was whether we should be looking for comments by Stalin or others as evidence of intent, or whether we should let the numbers do the talking. We ended up in this sort of absurd situation where we could not agree on the meaning of the word “anecdote.”

Tracy: True. But it highlighted some important ways in which we do talk past one another. Social scientists see the use of text to support an argument as arbitrary and unreliable, since, in their view, one can just look through a source and cherry-pick some quotes. Historians feel the same way about quantitative evidence. Each side assumes the other understands the value of its methodology and the reasons for skepticism, but this is almost never the case. We need more group therapy, I guess.

Scott: Or more joint training. My History colleague Stephen Pincus and I have discussed teaching a graduate course on “reading across disciplinary divides,” or something like that. We don’t need to turn historians into economists or political scientists, and vice versa, but we do need to be able to read each others’ work critically. You’re one of the few scholars I know who really invested in learning the language of more than one discipline. How did you do it?

Tracy: That is a great idea for a graduate course, and I completely agree about the value of being able to critically read each others’ work. I did my doctoral research in the UK, where there are economic history departments in which a large number of historians and social scientists are forced to cohabit. It was a conscious decision to train as a historian, but along the way I seem to have internalized a social science way of looking at the world.

But Scott, you are also a scholar of this kind. What’s your story?

Scott: I remember struggling before graduate school with the path I would take: political science or economics. Ultimately, I enrolled in a political science program, but I never really resolved the dilemma. I ended up doing as much coursework in economics as in political science, and my degree is in both. And then I discovered history as a field of study when I was a newly tenured professor. But I’m still working to learn the language of history as a discipline. The workshop and all of our conference panels help.

Tracy: I think having intellectual relationships with people from other disciplines is particularly important. As I recall, one of our aims with this workshop was to pave a way to interdisciplinary engagement for younger colleagues in our respective fields, to ensure they would have the ability to make connections across disciplines. Their participation in the project has been invaluable, and gives me hope for enduring collaborative efforts of this sort.

Scott: Since we have the megaphone for a day, we should give a shout-out to the many junior scholars who participated: Gerhard Toews, Natalya Naumenko, Dmitrii Kofanov, Giovanni Cadioli, Otto Kienitz, Viktor Malein, Brendan McElroy, Timur Natkhov, Natalia Vasilenok, Matthew Reichert, Eugenia Nazrullaeva, and Imil Nurutdinov. And we had presentations by a quartet of outstanding senior scholars: Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Pierre-Louis Vézina, Mark Harrison, and Andrei Markevich. The state of the field is strong!

Tracy: It is! Fingers crossed we’ll be able to revisit these debates in person at next year’s workshop. In the meantime, there will be plenty of interdisciplinary collaboration on display here at Broadstreet. Stay tuned!

Leaving Paris

On a warm summer day in late August 2019, we moved into a third-floor apartment in Paris’s residential 15th arrondissement. Standing on our balcony and looking to the left, we could see the district’s mairie—its town hall—and behind it the Eiffel Tower. Directly across the small park in front of us was a row of apartment buildings and a contemporary office structure. Just up the street was the Vaugirard metro station: our gateway to the rest of Paris.

With a bit more foresight, I might have anticipated that we would lose access to that gateway as one of France’s periodic transit strikes disrupted transportation throughout the nation’s capital, and beyond. No understanding of French political economy, however, could have prepared me for the city’s complete lockdown in March as a pandemic hit Paris with particular ferocity. Even after the country’s reopening in May and June, I experienced Paris as Baron Hausmann had envisioned—as a pedestrian.1

In The Walkable City, Mary Soderstrom posits a conversation between Georges-Eugène Hausmann, who under Emperor Napoleon III transformed Paris from medieval city to modern metropolis, and Jane Jacobs, who fought against a similar effort to clear New York’s “slums” a century later. Baron Hausmann was the Robert Moses of his day: an ambitious planner unencumbered by nostalgia for the city’s past. Jacobs would have hated him. And yet, while American urban planning has turned sharply against Moses’s vision, Paris survives as a model for the walkable city.

The difference, I suspect, has something to do with technology. Not only did Hausmann work in a pre-automobile age, but steel-frame construction had yet to emerge as America’s seminal contribution to modern architecture. The quintessential Parisian neighborhood is thus capped at seven stories. With numerous such buildings, Paris is dense, but it is rarely crowded, and it is always light. Many neighborhoods have the feel of a village.

Parisians did not take to the Eiffel Tower at first, but it proved such a draw for tourists that they learned to like it. (The same cannot be said for the unfortunate Tour Montparnasse.) Today, the Eiffel Tower is the iconic symbol of a city that annually draws tens of millions of sightseers. No living Parisian could remember Paris without either tourists or, for those old enough, foreign troops—until this spring. Sometime in March, the city emptied out. During the height of the confinement, I would go for long runs down deserted streets, jogging in the roadway to avoid the few pedestrians about. Even after restrictions were lifted and well-off Parisians returned to the city, the tourists were absent. We could sit on the Champ de Mars in early July with only a handful of picnicking locals in proximity.

People ask if I feel cheated that my sabbatical coincided with the pandemic. Au contraire! I got to see Paris as few have. We were scared at first, but the fear passed even before the danger did, leaving solidarity in its wake. Every evening at 8:00, we joined our neighbors on the balcony to applaud the city’s healthcare workers—and ourselves. For weeks, this daily ritual was our primary social interaction outside of the home. Elderly couple waving a white scarf, woman on distant balcony with long black hair, man in glasses (Nicolas, we eventually learned) one building over…we shared the confinement with you.

By July, even as infections spiked anew at home, we felt secure enough to travel around France by car. After a whirlwind tour of WWI battlefields and the Normandy beaches, we settled into a comfortable rhythm, staying 2–3 nights in each region. We joined our friends Sergei and Katia in Brittany, and we met up with our friends Mike and Brandi in Fontainebleau and Valery and Sonya in Provence. We ate fresh oysters on the Atlantic shore and fresh trout in the Alps, we visited chateaux in the Loire Valley and hillside villages in Provence, and we drank the local wines wherever we went. It was wonderful.

Memory works in interesting ways. If I fast forward through part an audiobook that I have already heard, I can remember where I was at the precise moment that a particular phrase was spoken. But when I again walk the street where I listened to that book, my mind is elsewhere—no visual cue prompts remembrance of the spoken word.

What will I remember when I can finally visit Paris again? I do not know, but I can guess: the embankment of the Seine during the morning hours when running was allowed, the square in front of the mairie where I played tag with my son as we took a break from online schooling, the view from our balcony and the sound of the city applauding. Paris, j’espère te voir bientôt. Tu me manques déjà.

Place Adolphe Chérioux. Artwork by Mike Duncan.


  1. Underground rail came late to Paris: the first Metro line opened only in 1900.