On December 14, 2022, the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) and the FREE Network will host a seminar with Konstantin Sonin who will discuss the disastrous decisions made by dictators in the past and present.
Paper Presented in the Seminar
Many, if not most, personalistic dictatorships end up with a disastrous, suicidal decision such as Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, Hirohito’s government launching a war against the United States, or Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Even if the disastrous decision is not ultimately fatal for the regime such as Mao’s Big Leap Forward or the Pol Pot’s collectivization drive, they typically involve monumental miscalculation and lack of competence. We offer a theory of non-democratic regimes, in which the need for regime security dictates, in difficult circumstances, replacement of technocrats by incompetent loyalists, leading, in turn, to disastrous decisions.
About the Speaker
Konstantin Sonin is John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. His research interests include political economics, development, and economic theory. His papers have been published in leading academic journals in economics and political science.
Konstantin Sonin earned MSc and PhD in mathematics from Moscow State University and MA in economics at Moscow’s New Economic School (NES), was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a visiting professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, and served on the faculty of NES and HSE University in Moscow. In addition to his academic work, Sonin has been writing columns and Op-Eds and a blog on Russian political and economic issues.
The event will take place in room Ragnar at SSE, Bertil Ohlins gata 5, 113 50 Stockholm. The event will also be streamed online via Zoom for those who cannot join the event in person. Please register via the Trippus platform (here). A confirmation email will be sent to you within a few minutes. If you have not received the confirmation email within 10 minutes, please check your SPAM folder.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed during events and conferences are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
The recently declassified proceedings of the Swedish Academy shed new light on why it awarded Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn the literature prize in 1970. His novels reflected unique experiences of many prisoners. The Academy characterized his work as a renewal of the great Russian literary tradition. On the other hand, Soviet authorities prohibited publication of his novels, however, they were widely circulated underground or published abroad. We now know that his novel In the First Circle as it was published in 1968 was only a shortened version that Solzhenitsyn had hoped would pass the censorship. The complete version, published recently in many languages, gives an even better inside picture of the Soviet state, its leaders and ordinary citizens, and thus strengthen the Academy’s motivations for the award.
The decisions by the Nobel prize committees are declassified after fifty years. Therefore, we recently got a better insight on the motivations by the Academy for giving the 1970 prize in literature to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The proceedings of the Academy add to what was known at the time, from leakages to the press and rumours by initiated persons. Remarkable Western journalists and scholars could describe the main events in the Soviet cultural life surrounding Solzhenitsyn and the Nobel prize. (Saraskina 2008; Scammell 1984). What has now been revealed from the Academy archives are the opinions of the Academy members and in particular the motivations in the propositions submitted in 1969–70 from entitled personalities.
The decision to award Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature was preceded by his own struggle in the USSR to make his novels available to a wider public. In the last year of the Second World War, he was sentenced for allegedly subversive correspondence with another officer in the Red Army. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to a long term in the camps. However, much of this time he spent in a special design bureau operated by MGB, the secret services’ so-called “sharashki”. After his release, Solzhenitsyn worked as teacher in a distant province. Here, he managed to write novels and short stories, based on what he had himself experienced or heard from other prisoners. He must, of course, keep his writings secret.
With the “thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s, an opening was found for Solzhenitsyn to get his short story “A Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” published in the renowned journal Novyi Mir. It seemed that he would then get his novels published; a contract was given for the novel The Cancer Ward (Rakovyi korpus). However, the literature climate changed as Khrushchev was ousted in 1964. The authorities stopped all plans to publish Solzhenitsyn’s works. In those days, there circulated many transcripts of unpublished works, in the so-called samizdat. It is even today an open question, for researchers, just how many hundreds or even thousands of readers throughout the Soviet Union were in those days familiar with literature that the censorship authorities would not allow to be printed.
These hardened attitudes of the Communist authorities only spurred Solzhenitsyn to have his works published abroad. He managed to organize a solid network for smuggling his manuscripts abroad, and to have responsible publishers contracted. In the late 1960s, The Cancer Ward – based on his observations during treatment in a Soviet hospital – and In the First Circle (V kruge pervom) – describing a design bureau where sentenced scientists were to develop high-technological equipment – were published in the USA and many countries in Europe.
His books were not only best-sellers, but highly esteemed by literary critics. Already in 1969, the Swedish Academy received applications from their authorized contributors, that the Nobel prize in literature be awarded to Solzhenitsyn. The Academy member and author Lars Gyllensten formulated a detailed analysis of Solzhenitsyn’s books. He emphasized Solzhenitsyn’s talent for psychologically pertinent portraits of a plethora of individuals in the most extreme conditions. However, in 1969, the Swedish Academy decided to award its literature prize to Samuel Beckett, as a dramatist with a much longer career. The next year, Francois Mauriac (Nobel laureate in 1952) jointly with a group of influential French authors formulated a proposition concerning Solzhenitsyn to the Academy. It had also received an anonymous Prize proposition written by a dozen members of the Soviet Union of Authors who emphasized the pathbreaking character of Solzhenitsyn’s novels. After deliberations within the Swedish academy, with only one dissenting member, it was announced that the 1970 prize in literature was awarded to Solzhenitsyn.
The Soviet authorities had a dilemma. In 1965, the appraised Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov had received the prize in Stockholm and lectured here on his renowned novel And Quiet flows the Don (Tikhii Don). On the other hand, in 1958, the equally famous Boris Pasternak was nominated for his novel Doctor Zhivago. However, Pasternak was forced, under humiliating circumstances, to renounce the prize. The situation in 1970 for Solzhenitsyn thus presented several dilemmas. He rightly feared, as the nowadays available documents also confirm, that if he would go to the Nobel prize ceremony in Sweden, the Communist party leaders would most probably withdraw his citizenship and thus force him into exile. Consequently, he informed the Academy that he was honored and would accept the prize, but that he was not prepared to travel to Stockholm. Discussions with Swedish diplomats in Moscow concerned the alternative to arrange a ceremony at our embassy. Finally, this option was cancelled in 1971 when the chairman of the Swedish academy Karl Ragnar Gierow was denied a visa to the USSR.
Solzhenitsyn’s Later Path-breaking Contributions
In the meantime, Solzhenitsyn would continue his writing of the multi-volume historical novel The Red Wheel (Krasnoe Koleso) on the last period of Imperial Russia and his interpretation of the 1917 February revolution. He was also more engaged than before in publishing manifestoes and letters to the authorities, in a struggle against the oppressive regime. Much changed as more dissident voices in the Soviet Union manifested themselves in the early 1970s. A new landmark in Soviet literature would come in early 1974, with the publication of the first parts of The GULAG Archipelago. Although concerned Western readers had a vague notion of the Soviet camp system, Solzhenitsyn had managed to assemble hundreds of eye-witness stories from former prisoners that really shocked the public. In France and several other countries, the intellectual climate changed dramatically as The GULAG Archipelago made its imprint. In the 1980s, it was not yet possible to undertake serious historical research on the Soviet penitential, prison and camp system. Only with glasnost and Gorbachev’s perestroika was the seal on the secret archives opened and many of Solzhenitsyn’s originally earth-shaking revelations could be put into a solid factual framework. We now know who the more than two hundred personalities were who had sent Solzhenitsyn their stories in the early 1960s, as they had read his “Ivan Denisovich” short story. Solzhenitsyn’s guesswork, in the absence of statistics, concerning the economic significance of the GULAG camp system can instead be analyzed by the solid documentary collections from the archives (Jesipov 2018). A major contribution was made by the French historian Nicolas Werth and his colleagues, who jointly with archivists in Russia, assembled and wrote commentaries to the exhaustive, seven volumes Istoriia stalinskogo GULAGa. Solzhenitsyn’s original work undertaken under the direst possible circumstances stand out as pioneering. He could not even dream of having his manuscript fact-checked by experts, let alone read in wider circles. It deserves emphasis therefore that President Putin took the initiative to have an abridged version of The GULAG Archipelago edited for the Russian school. Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalia Dmitrovna accomplished this careful selection and added commentaries as necessary for young readers.
The 1970 Nobel Literature Prize Reconsidered in Hindsight
Finally, a reflection on how Swedish opinions on Solzhenitsyn has changed over time – from the enthusiastic reception in the 1960s of his novels to the skeptical attitude in the 1990s and early 2000s to Solzhenitsyn’s allegedly nationalistic worldview. It cannot enough be emphasized under how horrible circumstances he wrote classical contributions to world literature. To take only one example. If the Swedish Academy – hypothetically – had known the original version of The First Circle, and not only the abridged version published in the late 1960s, with its far less political implications, they could with even greater emphasis have nominated him for the Literature Prize. It demands a lot from contemporary readers to imagine how one man like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who even in his early age in the late 1930s dreamt of writing novels on the Russian revolution, after much suffering in the camps managed to vividly describe, in the novels here presented, the many-faceted Soviet system from inside its prisons, camps and deportation cities.
- Carlisle, Olga, Solzhenitsyn and the Secret Circle, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1978.
- Jesipov, Valerii, Kniga, obmanuvshaya mir: Ob “Arkhipelage GULAG” A. Solzhenitsyna nachistotu, Moscow: Letnii Sad, 2018; Swedish abbridged translation Boken som lurade världen: Om Aleksandr Solzjenitsyns GULAG-arkipelagen, Stockholm 2020.
- Ostrovskii, Aleksandr, Solzhenitsyn – Proshchanie s mifom, (Farewell to the Myth) Moscow: Jauza 2004.
- Samuelson, Lennart, ”Nya ingångar i Solzjenitsyns Nobelpris när sekretessen hävs”, Respons, 3/2021, http://tidskriftenrespons.se/artikel/nya-ingangar-i-solzjenitsyns-nobelpris-nar-sekretessen-havs/.
- Saraskina,:Liudmila, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Moscow: Molodaya Gvardija 2008;
- Saraskina, Liudmila (ed.), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Vzgliad iz XXI veka: materialy Mezhdunarodnoi nauchnoi konferentsii, posviashchennoi 100-letiiu so dnia rochdeniia, Moscow, Russkii Put, 2019.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
From the early days of the Soviet Union, the regime designated the educated elite as Enemies of the People. They were political opponents and considered a threat to the regime. Between the late 1920s and early 1950s, millions of enemies of the people were rounded up and forcedly resettled to remote locations within the GULAG, a system of labor camps spread across the Soviet Union. In recent research (Toews and Vezina, 2021), we show that these forced relocations have long-term consequences on local economies. Places close to camps that hosted more enemies of the people among prisoners are more prosperous today. We suggest that this result can be explained by the intergenerational transmission of education and a resulting positive effect on local development, which can still be observed to this day.
Targeting the educated elite, collectively referring to them as Enemies of the People and advocating their imprisonment, can be traced back to the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917. After consolidating power a decade later, Stalin launched the expansion of the GULAG system, which at its peak consisted of more than a hundred camps with over 1.5 million prisoners (see Figure 1). A large number of historians extensively described this dark episode in Russian history (Applebaum (2012), Khlevniuk (2004), and Solzhenitsyn (1974)). During the darkest hours of this episode, the Great Terror, 1.5 million enemies were arrested in just about two years. While half were executed immediately, the other half was forcedly allocated to GULAG camps spread across the Soviet Union and mixed with non-political prisoners (see Figure 2). Enemies accounted for about a third of GULAG prisoners after the Great Terror. As a result, education levels were higher in the GULAG than in society. In 1939, the share of GULAG prisoners withtertiary education was 1.8%, while, according to the Soviet Census of the same year, only 0.6% of the population had tertiary education.
After Stalin’s death, labor camps started closing rapidly, but many ex-prisoners settled close to the campsites. New cities were created and existing cities in the proximity of camps started growing fast (Mikhailova, 2012). Enemies remained once freed for a combination of political, economic, and psychological reasons. Politically, they were constrained in their choice of location by Stalin-era restrictions on mobility. Economically, they had few outside options and could keep on working for the camps’ industrial projects. On the psychological level, prisoners had become attached to the location of the camp, as Solzhenitsyn (1974) clearly puts it: “Exile relieved us of the need to choose a place of residence for ourselves, and so from troublesome uncertainties and errors. No place would have been right, except that to which they had sent us.”.
Figure 1. Location and size of camps in the Soviet Gulag system
Enemies of the People and Local Prosperity
At the heart of our analysis is a dataset on GULAG camps which we collected at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). It allows us to differentiate between prisoners who were imprisoned for political reasons (Enemies of the People) and those arrested for non-political crimes. The share of enemies varied greatly across camps, and we argue that this variation was quasi-random. We back this up by the historical narrative, according to which the resettlement process was driven by political rather than economic forces, suggesting that strategic placements played little role in the allocation of enemies (Khlevniuk (1995) and Ertz (2008)). Moreover, while the forced nature of allocation to camps allows us to rule out endogenous location decisions, we also show that neither economic activities nor geographic attributes, such as climatic conditions, soil quality, or the availability of resources, predict the share of enemies across camps.
To estimate the long-run effects of enemies on local prosperity, we link the location of camps in 1952, the year before Stalin’s death and at the peak of the GULAG system, to post-Soviet data covering the period 2000-2018.
Figure 2. The rise and fall of the Gulag
In particular, the camp level information is linked to the location of firms from the Russian firm census (2018), data on night-lights (2000-2015), as well as data from household and firm-level surveys (2016 and 2011-2014, respectively). Our results suggest that one standard deviation (28 percentage point) increase in the share of enemies of the people increases night-lights intensity per capita by 58%, profits per employee by 65%, and average wages by 22%. A large number of specifications confirm the relationship depicted in Figure 3, which illustrates the positive association between the share of enemies across camps and night-lights intensity per capita.
Figure 3. Share of enemies vs. night lights per capita across Gulags
We suggest that the relationship between enemies and modern prosperity is due to the long-run persistence of high education levels, notably via intergenerational transmission, and their role in increasing firm productivity. For the identification of the intergenerational link, we rely on a household survey collected by the EBRD in which interviewees are explicitly asked whether their grandparents have been imprisoned for political reasons during Soviet times. Exploiting this information, we show that the grandchildren of enemies of the people are today relatively more educated. We also find that grandchildren of enemies are more likely to be residing near camps that had a higher share of enemies of the people among prisoners in 1952. An alternative explanation for our results could be that the leadership of the Soviet Union may have strategically chosen to invest more during the post-GULAG period in locations that had received more enemies to exploit complementarities between human and physical capital. We find no evidence for this mechanism. We document that Soviet investment in railroads, factories of the defence industry, or universities was, if anything, lower in places with a large share of enemies.
We show that the massive and forced re-allocation of human capital that took place under Stalin had long-run effects on local development. Sixty years after the death of Stalin and the demise of the GULAG, areas around camps that had a higher share of enemies are richer today, as captured by firms’ wages and profits, as well as by night-lights per capita. We argue that the education transferred from forcedly displaced enemies of the people to their children and grandchildren partly explains variation in prosperity across localities of Russia. This can be seen as a historical natural experiment that identifies the long-run persistence of higher education and its effect on long-run prosperity. Sadly, it also highlights how atrocious acts by powerful individuals can shape the development path of localities over many generations.
- Applebaum, A., Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, Penguin Books Limited, 2012.
- Ertz, Simon. Making Sense of the Gulag: Analyzing and Interpreting the Function of the Stalinist Camp System. No. 50. PERSA Working Paper, 2008.
- Khlevnyuk, Oleg, “The objectives of the Great Terror, 1937–1938.” In Soviet History, 1917–53, pp. 158-176. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1995.
- Khlevnyuk, Oleg, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror Annals of Communism, Yale University Press, 2004.
- Mikhailova, Tatiana, “Gulag, WWII and the long-run patterns of Soviet city growth,” 2012.
- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, New York: Harper Row, 1973.
- Toews, Gerhard, and Pierre-Louis Vézina. “Enemies of the people.” (2021).
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
As time passes and archives open, ever more topics in Russian military-economic history can be studied with primary sources. One such theme is the colossal evacuation of industrial enterprises and equipment from July 1941 onwards. Thousands of railway cars and lorries carried equipment, raw materials, as well as personnel from Ukraine, the Baltics, and western regions of the Russian Federation to the Urals and beyond. A recent documentary collection Put’ k Pobede (The Road to Victory) opens new areas for research on the southern Urals. These regional sources illustrate and add details to documents from the federal archives on the history of the Soviet military-industrial complex. Successful evacuation of industrial capacity eastwards was a decisive factor for the Soviet endurance and finally its victory in 1945. However, many empirical questions remain to be answered and analytical calculations to be done, on how in fact the Soviet system managed simultaneously to successfully evacuate factories eastwards and thousands of troop transports westwards to the fronts.
New Frontiers for Research on the Soviet War effort, 1939–1945
The role of the new industrial centers in the Urals and Siberia for the Soviet defense potential has been recognized long ago (1). From the mid-1920s, Soviet military leaders included projections for full mobilization of industrial and human resources in contingency plans for the case of war. Evacuation projects outlined which important factories were to be re-located from close-to-border areas (within the range of enemy air bombings) to well-prepared interior locations (2). Industrial plans in the late 1930s put significant emphasis on the enhancing of defense-related production, as well as on modernization of the armed forces (3).
In the early 2000s, a grand research project started on the history of the Russian and Soviet military-industrial complex by exploring the main federal archives (GARF, RGAE, RGVA, and others). The project has so far resulted in five volumes that cover the period from 1914 till 1942. The first volumes show the evolution of the Russian defense industries until the mid-1930s, with special emphasis on how military considerations influenced the five-year plans for 1928–32 and 1933–37. The fourth volume starts (p. 5–85) with a historical preface by Professor Andrei Sokolov (1941–2015), who was also the author of a most informative study of the military-industrial complex. It contains documents for the crucial period up to June 1941 (4). The fifth volume reproduces relevant documents from several archives concerning the first war-years 1941 and 1942. (5)
How did Soviet security concerns change in the first stage of World War Two? In August 1939, the Red Army won a momentous victory over the Japanese forces at Khalkhin-Gol in Mongolia. Japan thereafter gave up their invasion plans against the Soviet Far East, and shifted its aggression southwards to the Philippines and Indochina. Thus, the risk diminished considerably of the USSR facing a two-front war, with tough enemy coalitions in Europe as well as in the East. (6). This strategic significance of the Red Army’s victory was apparently missed in Berlin. In 1940, the German military leaders paid attention mostly to the poor performance of the Soviet army in the Winter War against Finland (7). Encouraged by an easy victory over France by June 1940, Hitler ordered Wehrmacht to plan for war against Russia.
When the Soviet leaders in 1939 concluded a non-aggression pact with Germany, they obviously calculated that France and Great Britain were to wage a long-drawn-out war against Germany for many years, yet with uncertainty as to who would be the winning one. The drastically changed outlook after the sudden defeat of France in 1940 challenged the Soviet leaders to speed up already expansive plans for military-industrial production.
The American engineer John Scott who had worked as a welder in Magnitogorsk in the 1930s, and thereafter as a correspondent in Moscow for a British newspaper, compiled a massive dossier for the Research and Analysis department of the American intelligence O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Studies). His 1943 exhaustive “Heavy industry in the Soviet Union east of the Volga; a report prepared for the Board of Economic Warfare” covered a unique amount of data on new industrial enterprises obtained from open sources. While stationed in Stockholm as O.S.S. agent later in World War II, under the cover of a Time-Life correspondent, John Scott lectured in many cities in Sweden over his best-selling book “Behind the Urals”, which in Swedish had the more pertinent subtitle “The secret of the endurance of the Russian defense” (8). Scott emphasized that Stalinist forced drive in the 1930s had created completely new industrial zones far beyond the borders, out of reach for even long-range German air raids. This had been a revelation for many Westerners. British and American military attachés in Moscow were profoundly mistaken in 1941 when they predicted a rapid German victory. As Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa came to a standstill in the winter of 1941-42, Western assessments of the real Soviet military-industrial capabilities had to be reconsidered (9).
Relocation of a Minor Industrial Nation – the 1941-42 Evacuations
A crucial factor – likewise often neglected in Western historiography – for the Soviet military-industrial endurance was the evacuation of industry. In an unprecedented way, another Soviet defense-industrial basis would rapidly emerge east of Volga, in the Urals and in Siberia.
A fundamental Russian 12-volume work on the Great Patriotic war describes main traits of the industrial evacuation (10). Already a few days after the German invasion, the situation on the fronts forced the Soviet leadership to consider completely unexpected scenarios. It was soon obvious that the German invasion could not be stopped, as the principal Red Army doctrine had expected, at the borders. All pre-war considerations of how to mobilize the Soviet military-industrial potential were up for revision. The unforeseen disasters on Soviet territory, not covered in pre-war plans for industrial mobilization, led to the formation of a council for evacuation of factories. Tens of thousands industrial workers and millions in the civilian population must be evacuated.
The massive evacuations of entire factories, or at least the most crucial equipment, started already in July 1941 from the Baltic republics, Ukraine, and Russia’s Western regions. The council on the evacuation sent directives concerning which factories to relocate eastwards and to which cities.
Evacuation organs were responsible for rail, road, and river transports, as well as for the integration of evacuated resources to existing factories or to new building sites.
Facilities and stock that could not be evacuated were destroyed so as not to fall into the hands of the enemy (“scorched earth policy”). Most complicated from a logistic point of view was the evacuation of the industrial, transport, and energy production facilities. These had to be constantly re-adapted as the military situation changed with the German armies’ further advance towards Moscow, Leningrad, and in Ukraine in particular. Troop transports towards the fronts had priority; thus, evacuation trains sometimes had to wait on sidetracks for many days.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians were evacuated from Ukraine, southern and western parts of the Russian Federation, and sent to Uzbekistan and other interior regions. Western literature has described few aspects of the evacuation, with emphasis on problems by influx of thousands of refugees, e.g. in the cities of Kirov (now Viatka) and Tashkent (11).
Mentioned should be the successful evacuation of the country’s cultural treasures. One telling example is how the staff of the Hermitage museum and hundreds of volunteers in Leningrad managed to pack down much of the museum’s exhibits. Over a million works of art were sent in special trains to Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), where they were safely stored until 1945. Remaining paintings and sculptures were stored in the underground of the Hermitage. When evacuation could not be accomplished, German occupation forces plundered art collections, and thousands of war trophies sent home by Nazi generals.
An Innovative Source Collection Volume from Cheliabinsk
In regional studies more complex, detailed analyses of the evacuation, its successes and failures have been presented. A documentary collection Put’ k Pobede (The Road to Victory) from the Cheliabinsk State Archives (OGAChO), shows how formerly restricted topics can be studies as archive holdings are declassified. The Road to Victory contains over sixty photocopied documents. It gives short biographies of industrial managers and contains many pertinent photographs from enterprises. The interested reader of the photocopies will find a great amount of new information that calls for analysis (12). One of the primary findings in the archives is that the number of enterprises, whole or parts thereof, set up and restarted in Cheliabinsk and other cities in the southern Urals were 329 enterprises from 27 different ministries (commissariats). That is substantially larger a figure than the previously assumed number of enterprises. The leading historian on this topic, Marina Potiomkina, professor at the G.I. Nosov Magnitogorsk State Technical University, gives a thorough presentation of how evacuated enterprises in fact managed to integrate into the existing factories (13). The dimensions of this emergency relocation of entire industrial plants are enormous. Often German troops were approaching closely and the factories were under bombardment. One striking example is the report on evacuation from Zaporozhie to Magnitogorsk in 1941 as the front skirmishes already threatened several factories.
Historians like to unscramble interesting information from seemingly peripheral, marginal notes in such documents. There are lots of “food for thought” in the commentaries by the wartime managers. The reader furthermore gets a clear perspective on the massive change of the urban landscape in the region. The new administrative structure is reflected in biographies of leading managers and designers, in detailed information on every known evacuation site, as well as in the characterization of affiliate people’s commissariats (ministries) that were moved from Moscow to Cheliabinsk. Important wartime reports with photos, diagrams, and drawings are reproduced in a rich illustrative section of this book. The documentary clarifies how the relocation of equipment from the Kirov Works in Leningrad to the Tractor Factory in Cheliabinsk laid the foundations for the consolidated tank industry in the Urals. Contemporary correspondence reflects both complaints and achievements, in particular under the most severe conditions in winter 1941–42.
At the end of the war in 1945 many cadres, engineers, and workers could return to their home cities in western parts of Russia. The Cheliabinsk region had undergone dramatic changes. It was then a mix of the original factories, established in the 1930s or even earlier. To this was added trainloads of evacuated equipment from Leningrad, Kharkov, and other cities. New branches, in particular of defense-related industries thus formed the basis for the postwar planning. Any of the documents in Put’ k Pobede can serve as a starting point for discussions concerning the undoubtedly strong aspects of the Soviet command economy, on the one hand, and also on which reforms might have been called for even at that time period, on the other hand.
In conclusion and forward-looking, it should be mentioned that Professor Potiomkina has recently surveyed the entire historiography of Soviet wartime industrial evacuation. Her article includes not only her own and others’ works on the Urals, but also an impressive number of contributions from other regions. Her evaluation of the character of the evacuation calls for a stricter methodology, for a common conceptualization, and for a better grasp of the primary sources, in order to estimate the relative weight of planning versus improvisation, of success stories as compared to failures in the evacuation process. (14)
Note: Illustrations reproduced with permission by Cheliabinsk Regional Archive (OGAChO).
- (1) Compare my previous SITE Policy Briefs in 2015, https://www.hhs.se/sv/om-oss/news/site-publications/2015/research-of-formerly-secret-archives-sheds-new-light-on-the-soviet-wartime-economy/ and https://freepolicybriefs.org/2015/05/04/new-light-on-the-eastern-front-contributions-from-russia-to-the-70th-anniversary-of-the-victory-in-europe-in-world-war-two/; see also Samuelson, Tankograd (Swedish, English or Russian version, chapters 7, 8 and 9.
- (2) Meliia, Aleksei, Mobilizatsionnaia podgotovka narodnogo khoziaistva SSSR, [Mobilization preparedness of the Soviet economy], Moscow: Alpina Biznes Buks, 2004.
- (3) For a most recent work, see Robert W. Davies et altere, The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia 7: The Soviet economy and the Approach of war, 1937–1939, by, London 2018, referred to in previous Policy Brief: https://freepolicybriefs.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/freepolicybriefs20200702-1.pdf
- (4) Sokolov, Andrei K. Ot Voenproma k VPK: Sovetskaia voennaia promyshlennost 1917–iiun 1941, [From Voenprom to VPK: Soviet military industry 1917–June 1941], Moscow: Novyi Khronograf, 2012, chapter IV. Compare Sokolov (ed.), Oboronno-promyshlennyi kompleks SSSR nakanune Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny (1938 – iium 1941), [The Defence-industry complex of the USSR prior to the Great Patriotic war (1938 – June 1941], vol. IV, Moscow 2014.
- (5) Artizov, Andrei (ed.) et altere, Oboronno-promyshlennui kompleks SSSR v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny, iiun 1941–1942, [The Defence-industry complex of the USSR during the Great Patriotic war, June 1941–1942], Moscow: Compare lecture by RGAE Director Elena A. Tiurina on this documentary volume, Оборонно-промышленный комплекс СССР в годы Великой Отечественной войны – Российское историческоеобщество (historyrussia.org) .
- (6) Goldman, Stuart D., Nomonhan, 1939; The Red Army’s Victory That Shaped World War II, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 2012, for analysis of this decisive battle that was previously neglected in Western historiography.
- (7) Compare Carl Van Dyke, The Soviet Invasion of Finland, 1939–1940, London: Routledge, 1997, for a pioneer study based on declassified Soviet archival sources, that shows lessons Stalin and his generals drew from the Winter War 1939–40.
- (8) See John Scott, Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel, London, 1989, new edition in with foreword by Stephen Kotkin). Idem, Vad gör Ryssland bortom Ural?: Hemligheten med det ryska försvarets kraft, Stockholm: Natur och Kultur 1943. Scott’s O.S.S. study of prewar industry in the Urals and Siberia is in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC (Manuscript Division).
- (9) For the – mostly mistaken! – Western estimates of Soviet military capabilities before the fascist invasion as well as many months later in 1941 – 42, compare Martin Kahn, The Western Allies and Soviet Potential in World War II: Economy, Society and Military Power, London: Routledge 2019.
- (10) Velikaia Otechestvennaia voin 1941–1945 godov. Tom 7. Ekonomika i oruzhie voiny, [The Great Patriotic war, 1941–1945. Volume 7: The Economy and Armaments of the War], Moscow 2013, “Mobilizatsiia ekonomiki SSSR i perekhod k ekonomike voennogo vremeni”, p. 60 – 117; “Evakuatsiia kak sostavnaia chast perestroika ekonomiki v voennoe vremia”, p. 118 – 144; “Sozdanie ekonomicheskikh predposylok dlia korennogo pereloma v voine”, p. 145 – 196.
- (11) Larry E. Holmes, Stalin’s World War II Evacuations: Triumph and Troubles in Kirov, University Press of Kansas 2017; Rebecca Manley, To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War, Cormell University Press 2009.
- (12) Nikolai A. Antipin et altere (ed.), Put’ k Pobede: Evakuatsiia promysjlennosti predpriiatii v Cheliabinskuiu oblast v godu Velikoi Otechestvennoi voine 194 –1945 gg., [The Road to Victory: The Evacuation of industrial factories to the Cheliabinsk region during the Great Patriotic war 1941–1945], Cheliabinsk 2020.
- (13) See Marina N. Potiomkina, in Put’ k Pobede, p. 7–21; idem, Evakuatsiia v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny na Urale: liudi i sudby, [Evacuation in the Urals during the Great Patriotic war: People and destinies], Magnitogorsk 2002; idem, Evakuatsiia naseleniia v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny na Ural: Gendernoe izmerenie, [The Evacuation of the populations to the Urals during the Great Patriotic war: The Gender dimension], Magnitogorsk 2019; idem, Demograficheskii aspect evakuatsii naseleniia v sovetskii tyl v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi vony, [The Demographic aspect of the evacuation of the population to the Soviet interiors during the Great Patriotic war], Magnitogorsk 2019.
- (14) Potiomkina, Marina N. & Aleksei Yu. Klimanov, ”Sovremennaia otechestvennaia istriografiia i perspektivy izuchenija promyshlennoi evakuatsii perioda Belikoi Otechestvennoi voiny”, [Contemporary Russian historiography and perspectives on the study of industrial evacuation in the Great Patriotic War], Noveishaia istoria Rossii, Tom 10, No 3, 2020.
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This essay highlights the advancement of studies on the Soviet Union since the 1980s, as reflected in the grand research project of the British economic historian Robert W. Davies. In 7 volumes and over 3.000 pages of dense information, “The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia” stands out as almost an encyclopedia of the dramatic and eventful period from the late 1920s to 1939.
After the Second World War, the British authorities recognized that before 1939 their knowledge of the USSR was insufficient and misleading as to the accomplishments of the Soviet leadership. This fact hampered British assessments in the initial period of the German-Soviet war. As the Swedish economic historian Martin Kahn explained, London had underestimated the military-industrial strength of the USSR, and in 1941 projected that a Nazi victory on the Eastern front was probably only a matter of months.
Consequently, given the unexpected Soviet army’s victory, and its mobilized economy outperforming the German military industry, British authorities during the Cold War spurred their scholars in social and economic sciences for more solid research of the USSR. A pioneer was Alexander Baykov (1899–1963) who was active at the well-known institute in Prague, where S.N. Prokopovich (1871–1955) and other émigré Russians had published surveys of Soviet economic development. After the Nazi occupation of the Czech Republic in spring 1939, Baykov fled to Britain. After the war, Baykov published The Development of the Soviet economic system, a standard handbook at Anglo-Saxon universities that was republished in numerous editions from 1946 till 1988. He was appointed professor at Birmingham University and founded a one-man Department of Economics and Institutions of the USSR. One of his Ph.D. students was Robert W. Davies (b. 1925) who defended a thesis on the Soviet budgetary system. As the “Thaw” had changed Soviet-Western relations in the late 1950s, Baykov actively proposed a broadening of studies on the USSR. One result was the foundation of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) at Birmingham University in 1963.
As director at CREES, Robert Davies established valuable exchanges of study visits, conferences and seminars with Soviet institutions. Among the first scholars from CREES to spend long research visits in Moscow and Leningrad were Robert Davies, Julian Cooper and other Ph.D. students. The research program at CREES on Soviet technology produced several fundamental studies by Julian Cooper, Ronald Annan and Robert Lewis. Soviet economists were invited for study visits at CREES. Among the more prominent can be noted Vasilii Nemchinov (1894–1964) and Nikolai Fedorenko (1917–2006) who were both engaged in the reform debates in the 1960s and applied mathematical and cybernetic methods.
A common problem in those days was that for the 1920s only printed sources were available. However, for the New Economic Policy (NEP) years, these were considered as reliable. On the other hand, the hardening censorship of the 1930s hindered objective research by Western observers. Such was the conclusion of the British historian Edward H. Carr (1892–1982) who decided to stop his study of Soviet history by 1929. However, his 14 (!) volumes A History of Soviet Russia bear witness to how much research could be done with merely printed sources. As explained by his biographer Jonathan Haslam, Carr’s legacy is disputed concerning his political theory, but not his impressive History of Soviet Russia. Even Soviet-time critics of “bourgeois falsifiers” recognized Carr’s contribution as outstanding.
For the volumes on the Soviet economy in the final years of the NEP period, Carr invited Robert Davies as his co-author. Their two volumes in Foundations of a Planned Economy, 1926–1929 (1969) treated the debates among the Soviet leadership on how to replace the mixed-market economy with long-term economic planning.
Based on the experience from the above-mentioned joint project with Carr, Davies decided to continue research on the industrialization of Soviet Russia. His first volumes in the new project, The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, published in 1980, are in-depth studies, based on printed sources from the USSR, concerning the collectivization of agriculture and the formal statutes and real conditions of the new collective farms. A few years earlier, at the Sorbonne, the Russian-born scholar Moshe Lewin (1921–2010) had presented his doctoral thesis La Paysannierie et le Pouvoir Soviétique, 1928–1930. This was one of the more important forerunners to Davies’ own research of the topic. Jonathan Haslam has studied the correspondence between Lewin and Carr concerning the collectivization of the peasantry. Carr raised numerous objections and questions to Lewin’s interpretations. Between 1968 and 1978 Lewin joined CREES as researcher and lecturer. Lewin gave many impulses for a broader social and economic history of the USSR. In particular, Lewin approached the debates among Bolshevik leaders in the 1920s and much later, in post-Stalin era, of reformers in the 1960s, with a keen eye for the fine print or allusions in the heavily censored printed sources. The telling title of his research project is Political undercurrents in Soviet economic debates (1974).
Davies’ third volume on industrialization was published in 1989. He there analyzes the launching of the first five-year plan – for 1928–32, and successive upscaling towards more unrealistic final planning targets. Although the French economist Eugène Zaleski and others had earlier treated this most disputed Soviet planning effort, Davies managed to add a lot of detailed information based on a careful reading of newspapers, statistical reports and memoirs.
With glasnost and perestroika merely a few years later, conditions for studying the Soviet era changed radically. Robert Davies keenly observed the changes in the Russian information sphere in his surveys Soviet History in the Gorbachev Revolution (1989) and Soviet History in the Yeltsin Era (1997). These two surveys are a good introduction to the latest historiographical changes in Russia, the struggle against a conservative heritage and for an objective and complex historiography of the Soviet period.
The opening of formerly closed archives favored a radical broadening of Davies’ project. In the fourth volume Crisis and progress in the Soviet Economy, 1931–1933 (1996) the primary sources from archives give a better understanding of how the first 5-year plan actually proceeded and what the real accomplishments were. Davies gives concise and pertinent commentaries on numerous Soviet leaders, managers, planners, and economists, even far below the well-known top brass in the Communist Party, adding understanding of the decision-makers’ backgrounds and the otherwise often anonymous bureaucracy.
The fifth volume The Years of Hunger, Soviet agriculture, 1931–1933 (2004) contains analyses of the multiple causes of the famines in various parts of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. Davies wrote this volume together with Stephen G. Wheatcroft, an eminent specialist on Russian agriculture and Soviet-era statistics. In 1930, the grain harvest from the forcibly established collective farms had surpassed the expectations of the authorities. Between 1932 and 1933, on the contrary, the countryside was struck by widespread famine.
This volume concerns a topic that is hotly debated by Russian and Ukrainian historians. Consequently, there was a demand for a Russian translation: Gody goloda. Selskoe khoziaistva SSSR, 1931–1933. Davies and Wheatcroft discern a multitude of causes and separate several forms of the famines in the early 1930s – in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and certain regions of Russia. The detailed statistics provided by Davies and Wheatcroft as well as a methodological appendix to the volume may serve as basis for any discussion of the various interpretations of the causes of the 1932 – 33 famine, and how this issue has been politicized in certain countries. They emphasize the fundamental mistakes made by the regime. They also argue that there can hardly have been a genocidal intent from Stalin, Kaganovich and other leaders. The British historian Robert Conquest had argued, in his Harvest of Sorrow in the mid-1980s, that the Soviet leaders intentionally committed a genocidal action against the Ukrainian peasantry. After reading Years of Hunger, Conquest changed his mind and frankly declared that the famine was unintentional albeit possibly avoidable with other policies.
An important aspect of Soviet-era historiography has been the publication of source and documentary volumes. At CREES, the historian Arfon Rees had published several monographs on the legendary Bolshevik manager Lazar Kaganovich, the people’s commissar of transport and politburo member since the 1930s. As the very informative correspondence between Stalin during his summer vacation at the Black Sea, and his colleagues in Moscow revealed much on the deliberations among the leaders, viewpoints that were not seen in the final resolutions, Davies and Rees edited two volumes. One in Russian that gives the complete collection of all letters sent by courier to and from Stalin; the other in English but abridged with explanatory introduction and comments by the editors.
The sixth volume The Years of Progress: The Soviet Economy, 1934–1936 (2014) covers in detail the advance of industry, capital investment, domestic and foreign trade. Davies places special emphasis on the dual threat of war, in the east from Japan, especially after their occupation of Manchuria in 1931, and in the west from Germany after Hitler’s takeover of power. The Soviet defense industry got higher priorities given these threat assessments. Davies frames the latter part of the 1930s as consisting of two distinct periods. Hard lessons were learned from misjudged efforts during the first five-year period. It was a period when the dominant drive to set up heavy industry was revised in favor of a more balanced attempt to promote the growth of consumer-oriented branches. Investment calculations and development targets were thereafter set with a better grasp of what managers, engineers, and workers in various enterprises could eventually handle.
Davies again collaborated with Wheatcroft, a specialist on Soviet agriculture, but also with Oleg Khlevniuk, one of Russia’s best experts on the history of Stalinism. Khlevniuk contributed to the sections concerning the Gulag camp system and its role in the economy. For a short period, there was also a certain relaxation of repressive measures, particularly those that targeted specialists who had been persecuted previously.
Davies’ panorama of all Soviet industrial branches underscores the undeniable high growth rates in industry and the accompanying indicators of a more evenly distributed advancement of the economy as a whole. The book has a well-organized structure and a straightforward chronological layout that makes reading this exhaustive study fascinating: first comes a lucid introduction of Soviet forecasts and plans; second the problems of quarterly or even monthly implementation of those plans; and finally an analysis of each year’s achievements “in retrospect”.
This highlights how the decision-making processes actually were egalitarian, even at a time when Joseph Stalin, as general secretary of the Communist Party, was considered the undisputed leader. An appendix clearly illustrates this thesis by a detailed scheme of how the collection of grain was decreed for peasants throughout 1936.
While a theoretical approach to the Soviet economic system may start with the concepts of a totalitarian system, the rich empirical evidence of conflicting Soviet realities and a mix of economic viewpoints suggests that until recently we held oversimplified views of the system. The fact that Soviet leaders in the mid-1930s meticulously scrutinized their own failures—more often casting such failures in concrete, technical terms than attributing them to “sabotage” by “enemies of the people”—indicates the need for multiple frameworks of interpretation. The contrast could hardly be greater than between the proclaimed triumph of socialism in 1936, and the staged show-trials of Party members as well as mass-scale deportations or execution of millions of ordinary citizens.
In each volume of Industrialization of Soviet Russia the reader will find plenty of hints for further research, reflections on debates among specialists on the USSR as well as discussion on the source base. Davies also edited and contributed to shorter articles in two textbooks with articles by Western specialists on the Tsarist, NEP and Stalinist period economics. In less than one hundred pages he also skillfully explained the main problems in Soviet economic development from Lenin to Khrushchev (1998).
The first volumes of Carr’s History of Soviet Russia were published when the Cold War was intensive and ideological confrontations were reflected even in academic historiography. They had been received critically by a number of Western specialists, who were opposed to Carr’s detached, non-moralizing but strictly analytical approach, as he explained in his famous lectures What is History? As his History of Soviet Russia expanded to over a dozen solid and well-researched volumes, admiration predominated for Carr’s outstanding grasp of an enormous basis of sources. In comparison, Davies’ Industrialization has been received positively in the academic communities and in particular in those countries where an empiricist approach is appreciated. Japanese scholars have even coined the term “the Birmingham school of Soviet studies”, with respect to the standards set by Baykov, Carr and Davies and their followers at CREES.
The final volume The Soviet economy and the Approach of war, 1937–1939 (2018) covers one of the darkest times in Soviet history. The economic changes must be contextualized in different ways here. As before but more urgently, the assessments of a future war became more acute with the advances of Japan in occupied China, the civil war in Spain and the outspoken revanchist policy of Nazi Germany. In 1937–38, repressions widened from the Communist party and industry captains to hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. On dubious ethnic or social criteria, they were convicted to forced labour in camps or executed. The authors analyze in detail how the high-level and also mass repressions paralyzed the functioning of the state administration. The growing role of the Gulag system for the economy in various regions is set out clearly.
An important contribution is the chapter on how two population censuses were carried out; the results of the first census of 1937 were unacceptable to Stalin as they clearly showed the devastating effects of collectivization and famine. The next census in 1939 tried to fix the data and embellish the statistics. The real demographic outcome of the 1930s was only discerned in the post-Soviet period, when the primary data of the first census was declassified and published in documentary volumes.
The main aspect of the volume is reflected in the title; how the growing threat of a major war influenced a particular industry. The investments in defense enterprises set the basis for a much more militarized economy. The special aspect of Soviet planning were the so-called mobilization plans that were based on carefully assessed maximum production capabilities in case of war. The modernization of Soviet artillery, tanks and aircraft and the preparedness for mass production in wartime had become the main goal by 1939.
The final chapter of volume 7 sets the whole project of Soviet industrialization in historical perspective, given the Tsarist background, on the one hand, and the outcome, the collapse of the system in 1991, on the other hand. The authors reflect on the forced industrialization and the lack of incentives in the system. The statistical system was basically professional, however, the political goals tended to distort the result presentation. In the end, even the leadership would lack a reliable data basis for their planning. The militarization of the economy that received its definite form in the late 1930s proved capable of outperforming even the German war economy. The foundation of this war preparedness had been outlined already in the late 1920s, as various development strategies were discussed. Its basic structure would remain more or less reformed till the end of the Soviet period. As mentioned above, the special discipline of Soviet studies was institutionalized in Great Britain right after the Second World War. The Soviet economic performance formed a part of so-called development economics from the 1950s onwards. The Soviet model of development was used as textbook reference for comparative studies of industrialized and less-developed countries in the Third World. This final chapter carefully discerns the undisputable success performance of the Soviet economy up to 1939, but likewise underlines all the negative or even disastrous aspects in the break-neck social and economic transformation. In an afterword, alas far too brief, Davies himself reflects on how his own view of Soviet history has changed, from the 1950s and 1960s when he wrote Foundations of a planned economy.
The seven volumes of The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia by Robert Davies, and for the four last volumes in cooperation with eminent specialists on various aspects of the Soviet economy, Stephen G. Wheatcroft, Oleg Khlevniuk and Mark Harrison, will stand out as foundations for any further research on this period. Given their empirical richness, strict chronological pattern and thematic clarity, as well as the massive amount of tables with pertinent source evaluations, they may even serve as an encyclopedia on a crucial period, 1929–1939, in Russia’s modern history.
© Book cover illustrations reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
Carr, E.H., What is History?: Trevelyan Lectures in the University of Cambridge, London 1961, and numerous later editions.
Carr, E.H. & R.W. Davies, Foundations of a Planned Economy, 1926 – 1929, vol. 1: part 1–2, London 1969.
Cox, M. (ed.) E.H. Carr: A critical appraisal, Basingstoke 2000.
Cooper, J. & R. Amman, Industrial Innovation in the Soviet Union, London, 1982.
Cooper, J. & R. Amman (eds.), Technical Progress and Soviet Economic Development, Blackwell, Oxford, 1986.
Davies, R.W., The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, vol. 1. The Socialist Offensive: The collectivization of Soviet agriculture, 1929–1930, vol. 2. The Soviet Collective Farm, 1929–1930, vol. 3. The Soviet economy in turmoil, 1929–1930, vol. 4. Crisis and progress in the Soviet economy, 1931 – 1933, vol. 5. The Years of hunger, 1931–1933, vol. 6. The Years of progress: The Soviet economy, 1934–1936, vol. 7. The Soviet economy and the approach of war, 1937–1939 (London: Macmillan/Palgrave 1980–2018).
Davies, R.W., Soviet economic development from Lenin to Khrushchev, Cambridge 1998.
Davies, R.W. & O.V. Khlevniuk & E.A. Rees & Kosheleva, L.P. & Rogovaya, L.A., The Stalin–Kaganovich Correspondence, 1931–1936, New Haven, 2008 (abridged translation of Stalin i Kaganovich Perepiska, 1931–1936 gg. Moscow 2001).
Davies, R.W., ‘Carr’s Changing Views of the Soviet Union’, pp. 91–108 in E.H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Michael Cox, London, 2000.
Haslam, J., The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr 1892–1982, London 2000.
Kahn, M., Measuring Stalin’s strength during total war : U.S. and British intelligence on the economic and military potential of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, 1939–45, Gothenburg University 2004.
Lewin, M., La Paysannerie et le Pouvoir Soviétique, 1928–1930, Paris 1966, (transl. Russian peasants and Soviet power: A study of collectivization, London 1968).
Lewin, M., Political undercurrents in Soviet economic debates: From Bukharin to the Modern reformers, Princeton 1974.
Zaleski, E., Planning for economic growth in the Soviet Union, 1918–1932, Chapel Hill, 1971 (transl. Planification de la croissance et fluctuations économiques en URSS. T. 1, 1918-1932, Paris 1962.