Taking Stock of Russian Economic History

December 06, 2021

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.