What I Learned from Working with Deceased Soviet Historians

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

Broadstreet readers may know that Jeff and Jared are editing an Oxford Handbook of Historical Political Economy. Tracy and I have committed to writing a chapter on “HPE in History and the Social Sciences” that elaborates on various earlier contributions on the relationship between these two component parts of the field. A particular focus is the possibility of collaboration between historians and social scientists—a theme that Tracy took up in a recent post.

Let me confess at the outset that I have never myself written with historians—or at least had not until Tracy and I began working on this chapter. And yet, at some level, I have spent much of the past decade laboring alongside a collective of Soviet historians—all or nearly all deceased, but present in my research life nonetheless. It was these historians, working during the Khrushchev Thaw, who assembled the chronicle of the peasant movement in nineteenth-century Russia that Eugene Finkel, Tricia Olsen, and I first digitized, and that Dmitrii Kofanov has now extended.

A typical chronicle entry

From a social scientist’s perspective, it was nearly the ideal interdisciplinary collaboration. The archival work on which the chronicle is based is well beyond the reach of the best funded social scientists. It takes a historian’s understanding of sources to pull together even a single entry in the historical record, such as that depicted here. Where does one begin to look for mentions of peasants refusing to plow their fallow fields in response to the loss of land following emancipation? What records does one investigate to corroborate such evidence? How does one understand the incentives of those who recorded such information? These are the skills of a historian—or, in this case, a five-year plan’s worth of historians.

And yet, it is hard to know what to make of this mountain of evidence, without some exercise in aggregation. The authors of the chronicle attempted something along these lines, with tables in the final volume that summarized events in cross-tabular form. The resulting counts (e.g., by region and year) are the sort of “raw data” that I have seen used in a few papers, including my separate work with Finkel and Kofanov on rural unrest during the 1917 Russian Revolution. It’s better than nothing, but it is not the same thing as being able to aggregate up from the original chronicle entries.

By way of example, consider those same accounts of nineteenth-century peasant rebellion. Some of these are quite substantial, involving multiple estates and thousands of participants. Others are more isolated acts of resistance—not quite weapons of the weak, but the sort of thing that would have flown below the radar, if not for the idiosyncratic presence of a local observer. One wants to ensure that any statements about temporal or geospatial patterns of peasant rebellion are not sensitive to the inclusion of such “small” events. Hence the importance of the raw event data: we can check robustness to counts of “large” events only.

Aggregating up from the raw event data can also address other forms of measurement error. A particular concern of our work is the relative incidence of unrest among serfs and “state peasants” (peasants who lived on state lands) before and after Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861. As part of the emancipation process, “peace arbitrators” (Leo Tolstoy was one) were tasked with negotiating settlements between landowners and former serfs. It is conceivable that acts of peasant rebellion during this period would have been better documented on estate lands than on state land, given the temporary presence of peace arbitrators on the former but not the latter. Thankfully, the Soviet historians who assembled the event data we digitized were meticulous about documenting the archives on which each chronicle entry is based (these are listed at the end of the entry depicted above). As an alternative aggregation, we therefore restrict attention to events drawn from the Central State Archive of the October Revolution (TsGAOR), which are primarily disturbances recorded by the tsarist political police—that is, not peace arbitrators.

I could go on. The picture of peasant rebellion that emerges from this collaboration is more complete, the conclusions more confident, than would have been possible had the project ended in the 1960s. Still, this is not full interdisciplinarity. The Soviet historians working during the Khrushchev Thaw were writing for other historians. We were writing mostly for other social scientists. The two groups are separated by theory and method as well as by generations.

Nonetheless, in this experience there is the seed of a model that could support interdisciplinary collaboration in real time. One can imagine teams of historians and social scientists teaming up to identify, digitize, and analyze archival records. Historians’ sensitivity to sources would impart meaning to those documents that are collected. Social scientists’ comfort with data would serve to summarize that information in useful ways. The motivating questions would be substantially distinct, but through collaboration there might be some convergence of interests.

Such collaboration would not be easy, for reasons that Tracy summarizes in her earlier post, but at least in my corner of the world much of the groundwork has been laid. Interdisciplinary workshops have familiarized historians and social scientists with each other’s work. The GIS revolution in history has opened the door to digital methods. Not least, the development of historical political economy as a field has validated the study of the past for a new generation of social scientists. There is an opportunity here, for those who would seize it.

Censorship, Propaganda, and Repression During Putin’s War on Ukraine

My remarks (slightly edited) last night at Ukrainathon, a 24-hour educational marathon benefiting displaced students and scholars from Ukraine.

Thanks to the PONARS leadership for this great initiative.

For my fifteen minutes, I would like to talk about domestic politics in Russia, which is obviously central to this conflict.

Let me begin by revisiting some claims I made a week before the invasion, in a piece at the Monkey Cage blog that I wrote with my Chicago colleague Zhaotian Luo. Zhaotian and I wrote then that:

  • The war was more likely to be hard than easy.
  • That if the war was hard, then we would see a substantial campaign of censorship and propaganda in Russia.
  • And that if censorship and propaganda were unsuccessful, then Russia would become even more repressive than it has been in recent years.

So where are we now, a month later and nearly three weeks after the invasion?

Quite clearly, this is not an easy war. Ukraine is fighting harder, and the West is more united, than Putin apparently anticipated.

In response, we have propaganda in Russia bordering on the absurd. This propaganda has a chance of working only because of draconian censorship. In particular, the Kremlin has banned independent and quasi-independent media, such as TV Rain and the radio station Ekho Moskvy. And it has banned social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Yet there are a few cracks in this new Great Firewall of Russia:

  • Some Russians have access to banned internet sources through a VPN. Russian censors and VPN firms are playing a cat-and-mouse game over access to this workaround.
  • Some Russians hear from friends or family members in Ukraine. Anecdotally, this doesn’t always work to counteract official propaganda, but we should not underestimate the long-term impact.
  • And there are isolated acts of free speech, such as Marina Ovsyannikova’s condemnation of propaganda on Russia’s evening news.

It’s not clear at this point that Russian censorship and propaganda will be unsuccessful, but the effort seems fragile.

And so, perhaps because of this fragility, we are seeing the beginnings of a much more profound repression than has generally characterized Putin’s rule. Putin’s statements, including especially his remarks earlier today, signal the start of something very dark—a campaign of repression against anyone with Western ties or sympathies.

In summary, I think our view a week before the invasion of what might happen to Russian poltics if Russia invaded has so far, unfortunately, largely been borne out. But what’s next? Looking ahead, I think it will be much harder to understand what is happening, precisely because of the censorship already put in place, and that it will be hard not only for outside observers like us but also for Kremlin officials, including especially Putin himself.

Let me emphasize: this censorship is very crude. Rather than microtargeting particular posts and stories, Russia’s censors are shutting down entire social networks and independent media. 

What this means is that, going forward, it will be difficult for Russian authorities to gauge the level of discontent. This is not the Great Firewall of China, which Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Molly Roberts have shown lets through a certain amount of criticism. Nowhere near that level of state capacity exists in Russia, and with the exception of VKontakte there are no local substitutes, under the control of Russian censors, for the social networks that have been banned. Similarly, the fact that one can now face prison time for calling a spade a spade, for calling a war a war, means that opinion firms cannot even ask a proper survey question, and that survey respondents may fear giving honest responses even to relatively innocuous questions. 

The upshot of all of this is that the Kremlin may miss the moment when the public is in need of persuasion. We’re not seeing it at the moment, with the absurd claims of biolabs and denials of any real war in Ukraine, but Kremlin propagandists can be clever. But if the Kremlin never learns that public opinion has turned against it, state television may continue to peddle the same old schlock, long past the point where it is effective. In other words, there is a real risk in imposing censorship too soon, when the public is still inclined to support the war. 

And this leads to my final point: The Kremlin’s actions to date may paradoxically lead to an overreaction, to repression even when that is unnecessary. Repression is not costless. Nobody who saw Putin’s speech today can think that foreign investors will return to Russia anytime soon. Moreover, repression may backfire. It angers people and puts them in a position where they have nothing to lose. Yet, critically, repression is not always necessary. It is entirely possible that the Russian population is willing to go along with Putin’s war on Ukraine with minimal encouragement. Putin—and we, as outside observers—may never know.

This is a manifestation of what Ronald Wintrobe famously called the “dictator’s dilemma”—that by stifling speech, the dictator deprives himself of the information he needs to govern and survive. 

The irony here is that modern dictators have often sidestepped the dilemma by cleverly manipulating the information available to their citizens, such that they are inclined to do what the dictator wants even when that is not in their individual best interest. Putin seems to have decided to abandon that strategy, to rely instead on maximal censorship and increasing repression. It is not a strategy obviously guaranteed to succeed.

What Would a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Mean for Russia?

My Chicago colleague Zhaotian Luo and I weigh in over at the Monkey Cage blog: Putin is Gambling His Future—and Russia’s.

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.

Taking Stock of Russian Economic History

Cross-posted from Broadstreet, a blog devoted to historical political economy. The following remarks were prepared for a roundtable discussion at the annual meeting of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

I am a co-editor of the Broadstreet blog by virtue of a serendipitous discovery: a multivolume chronicle of the “peasant movement” in nineteenth-century Russia that I discovered in the Memorial Library at UW Madison while looking for something else. I initially perceived the historical work that followed as a sort of post-tenure luxury: something I did to scratch an itch, not because anybody else was necessarily interested in these issues. It was a surprise to discover a substantial community of like-minded scholars scattered across three disciplines: economics, history, and political science. My incorporation into that community is one of the great joys of my academic career.

Over the past two decades, this community of scholars has brought new data, fresh perspectives, and contemporary methods to bear on many enduring questions in the economic history and historical political economy of Russia. It is time to take stock. Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Sergei Guriev, and Andrei Markevich (names randomized, per emerging practice) have done precisely that in a review commissioned for the Journal of Economic Literature on the “New Russian Economic History.” The numerous books and papers discussed in the review cover a range of topics: long-term trends in income and living standards, the causes of backwardness in the Russian Empire, institutions and incentives in the Soviet Union, and the historical legacies of various events in the Imperial and Soviet past.

This literature offers up some big lessons. Per Gershchenkron, the economic institutions of Imperial Russia were inefficient; to some extent, the manner in which serfs were emancipated cemented this inefficiency; and the legacy of serfdom continues to cast a shadow over the Russian economy. Yet the nobility sometimes created good incentives for their serfs; emancipation, while imperfect, further improved agricultural efficiency; and the incomplete Stolypin reform corrected much of what emancipation could not. At the same time, recent work shines new light on inefficiencies in the industrial sector of the prerevolutionary economy, with the Imperial incorporation system proving a particular impediment to growth. The Bolshevik revolution promised greater efficiency. Instead, Stalinist industrialization was a failure relative to any reasonable counterfactual, and the repression that was central to the effort continues to influence attitudes and behavior nearly a century later.

What’s missing? To answer this question, it is useful to recall Volha’s typology of work in historical political economy—economic history’s close cousin, and a reasonable label for much of the work in Katia, Sergei, and Andrei’s review. Research in HPE, suggests Volha, is generally motivated by one of three goals: to understand the past for its own sake, to understand the present, and to explore general theoretical claims, including especially those that emerge from a formal model. My read of the “new Russian economic history” is that it includes much of the first, a surprisingly large amount of the second, and very little of the third. The relative absence of work that foregrounds theory is perhaps surprising, as the wealth of data even from the Imperial period—first-world statistics in a third-world country, as my friend Amanda Gregg likes to say—creates unusual opportunities to explore theoretical propositions and, where those do not measure up, to identify new mechanisms. Certainly this is not a problem unique to the study of Russia, but scholars of Russia might do well to push against the trend.

This discussion relates to another point: Notwithstanding the assertion in the paper, this literature is for the most part not motivated by the new political economy of autocracy. There is very little work, for example, on propaganda and censorship. The Soviet dictatorship was very repressive, but it was also informational. Lenin and Stalin both sought to exploit new media, such as radio and film, though such experiments were not always successful. Indoctrination, moreover, was central to Soviet power: what was taught in school and reinforced in youth organizations may have been at least as important as anything shown, or not shown, on the evening news. We need an accounting of such efforts of the sort that has emerged for Nazi Germany. There are some hints from elsewhere in Eastern bloc, but relatively little about the Soviet Union itself. And we know even less about such issues during the Imperial period.

Finally, a note on method. Relatively little of the work covered in Katia, Sergei, and Andrei’s review exploits archival sources in any serious way: much more typical is the digitization of published records from the Imperial and Soviet periods.1 In a sense, this is surprising, as the last major review of work in the field emphasized what could be learned once Stalin’s archives were opened. With nearly two decades of work in the “new Russian economic history” since that review was published, it may be time to ask again what questions can only be answered with archival sources. Such questions might focus on the intent of historical actors, the beliefs that motivated particular actions, the process by which preferences were aggregated in various institutions, and the nature of economic transactions.

There is ample opportunity for interdisciplinary work here, as social scientists’ comfort with data complements historians’ familiarity with, and ability to identify subtle messages from, sources. As has been well documented in this blog, there are numerous obstacles to such interdisciplinarity. There are, however, examples of successful collaboration, including Tracy Dennison and Steve Nafziger’s research on living standards in rural Russia. An implicit goal of my Summer Workshop in the Economic History and Historical Political Economy of Russia is to foster the sort of relationships that make such collaboration possible. Some future review of the field will evaluate whether that goal has been met.


  1. In the discussion that followed these remarks, Andrei Markevich accused me of “Imperialist bias.” Point taken. My historical work has been on the Imperial, not Soviet, period. Much more of the latter has involved archival work.

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.