Tag: Former Soviet Union

New Insights Concerning the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Image with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn representing his work and Nobel Prize

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.

The Southern Urals as a Touchstone for Soviet Wartime Performance

Image of a Soviet tank representing soviet war performance

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).

Checking the blueprints for IS heavy tank at the Kirov Tank Factory in Cheliabinsk.

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.

Evacuated equipment installed, under open skies, even before the factory walls were built!

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.

Assembly of engines at the Urals Automotive Factory (UAZ) in the Miass city.

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.

A meeting at the Cheliabinsk Kirov Factory: Tank industry minister Isaak Zaltsman (2d from left), Region party secretary Nikolai Patolichev (4thfrom left), chief tank designer Zjozef Kotin (9th from left).

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.

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.

Problems and Progress in the Historiography of the USSR: Robert W. Davies and his Pioneering Research

Stack of books

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.

Figure 1

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).

Figure 2

Figure 3

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.

Figure 4

Figure 5

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.

Figure 6

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.

Stylized Facts from 25 Years of Growth in Transition

20180226 Stylized facts from 25 years of growth Image 01

This brief summarizes the growth experience of transition countries 25 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We divide our sample into two main groups: the 10 transition countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that became EU members in 2004 and 2007 (EU10); and the 12 countries (ex Baltics) that emerge from the Soviet Union (FSU12). The growth experiences of these two groups have been distinctly different. The magnitude of the initial transition decline in output was much more severe in the FSU12 group. Despite growing almost 2 percentage points faster than the average EU10 for the following fifteen years, the FSU12 group is still further behind the EU10 group than they were at the beginning of transition. This illustrates how hard it is for countries to recover from large negative income shocks and thus the importance for countries to avoid such negative events. However, there are no signs of transition countries being stuck in a low or middle-income trap or that natural resource wealth leads to lower growth during this period.

2017 marked the 25-years anniversary after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the transition for the economies in the region. In a recent paper, we explore the growth experience of transition countries over these 25 years (Becker and Olofsgård, 2017). The paper has four main parts: an overview of the transition literature focusing on growth; a part that provides a detailed description of growth in transition; an analytical section that investigate if we can explain growth in transition countries with a standard growth model; and finally an exploration of whether institutional and other variables that have been highlighted in the transition literature (but are excluded from the basic growth model) are correlated with growth in transition countries. This brief summarizes the descriptive part of the paper, while the more analytical sections will be the topic of future briefs.

For most of the paper, we divide our sample into two main groups; the 10 transition countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that became EU members in 2004 and 2007 (EU10); and the 12 countries that emerged from the Soviet Union (FSU12). In addition, we include three transition countries that are not part of either group (Croatia, Albania and Macedonia – Other3) and we also divide the FSU12 group into the four countries that export significant amounts of fuel (FSUF) and the eight countries that do not (FSUNF). There are of course remaining differences within these groups, but this aggregate analysis allows us to see certain patterns in the transition process more clearly.

Initial output collapses

The focus in economics is often on how to generate higher growth and not about protecting against significant drops in output. There are some exceptions, including Becker and Mauro (2006) and Cerra and Saxena (2007), where the focus is on output losses and how countries recover after crises. For transition countries, a very important feature of the economic development process is exactly the initial drop in income and the time it has taken countries to recover from the initial phase of transition. Table 1 shows how much income fell in the different country groups and the time it took to get back to the pre-transition income level.

Table 1. Output drops and recoveries

Source: Becker and Olofsgård (2017)

The initial collapse in the FSU12 group was enormous, with income cut in half. The EU10 countries also had massive output losses, but “only” lost a quarter of their income on average. This took over a decade to recover from, while the path back to pre-transition income levels in the average FSU12 country was almost twice as long. There have been many papers written on the economic chaos that was part of the initial transition process, and explanations for this decline has been attributed to, e.g., misleading data, lack of functioning markets, shock therapy and poor economic and legal institutions in general. All of these factors have likely played important roles in the process, but regardless of the explanation, this was a very unfavorable time in terms of economic outcomes for hundreds of millions of people in these countries. Avoiding such costly drops in output should be a top priority for economic policy makers in any country at all times, not just in transition.

From collapse to growth

In most transition countries, the initial phase of decline in transition lasted several years, but eventually the negative growth rates turned positive (Figure 1). Again, we can see that the EU10 group had fewer years of declining incomes with growth resuming in 1993, while for the FSU12 group, growth in transition only started in 1996/7.

Figure 1. Bust-Boom countries

Source: Becker and Olofsgård (2017)

What is less visible in Figure 1 due to the wide scale needed to capture the initial output drops is that the FSU12 groups has shown significantly higher growth than the EU10 group in the last 15 years. Over the more recent period, the average FSU12 country has grown by close to 6 percent, while growth for the EU10 has been around 4 percent per annum (Table 2).

Table 2. Real GDP/cap growth

Source: Becker and Olofsgård (2017)

The faster growth in FSU12 countries is particularly pronounced among the fuel exporters, which were growing by one and a half percentage point faster than the non-fuel exporters between 2000 and 2015. But the table also shows that the very negative growth experience during the first ten years of transition is hard to erase and the EU10 countries have grown faster over the full 25-year period compared to the FSU12 countries. In terms of understanding the growth experience of the different country groups and time periods, it is clear that the sharp increase in international oil prices during the last 15 years of the period generated high growth in the fuel exporting countries in the FSU12 group. Interestingly though, also the non-fuel exporters grew faster than the EU10 in this time period. This is likely linked to spillovers from Russia to the other countries in the region, but could also be related to some recovering after the massive initial declines in output. Such macro and external factors are not always stressed in discussions of growth in transition countries, which more often focus on the pace of reforms or strength of institutions, but seem to be relevant at this aggregate level when comparing the initial and later phases of transition.

Relative incomes in transition countries

Growth or the lack thereof is of importance in determining income levels, which is what we generally think is what influences welfare. The question is then what the growth processes we have analyzed imply for income levels in transition countries, and in particular, how the income levels in these countries compare with other countries.

Figure 2. Income relative to 15 old EU countries

Source: Becker and Olofsgård (2017)

The short story here is that the relative ranking of the different groups is largely unchanged from the start of transition until the end of 2015. The group of countries that eventually joined the EU has the highest income level while the non-fuel exporting FSU countries have the lowest. However, the leading group still only has around 60 percent of the income of the average “old” EU country while the average FSU12 country has half of that or around 30 percent of the income of the old EU countries. This puts the relatively high growth rates of the FSU12 group over the last 15 years in perspective; the road to reach old EU level incomes is long indeed. Also, within the FSU group, it is clear that there is a sharp dividing line between the fuel exporters and the rest. This is in stark contrast to the notion of a “natural resource curse” that is often blamed for poor growth in oil and mineral rich countries.

Growth traps in transition?

One issue that comes up with regards to both low and middle-income countries is if they are stuck at a certain level in the relative income rankings of the world. This is referred to as the low or middle-income trap and the question is if there are signs of transition countries being stuck in such traps.

Figure 3. Moving up the income ladder

Source: Becker and Olofsgård (2017)

Figure 3 shows how transition countries are classified into the World Banks income groups low income (1 in the Figures scale), lower middle income (2), higher middle income (3) and high income (4) groups.

It is clear that the FUS 12 group of countries was sliding down the scale initially, but since the beginning of the 2000’s, all of the transition countries have been climbing up the World Bank income ranking scale without any apparent signs of a low or middle-income trap.

Policy conclusions

There are of course country differences along all the dimensions discussed in this brief but grouping the transition countries together provides some interesting general observations of growth in transition. First of all, it is clear that it is very hard to fully recover from large drops in income. Even with the help of some extra growth following a crisis, it seems to take a long time for most countries to make up for lost ground. This suggests that policy makers in transition as well as other countries need to take measures to hedge the really bad outcomes and not only focus on how to generate an extra one percent of growth.

The other observation is that at the aggregate level, external factors and more mechanical macro boom-bust-boom type of growth factors may dominate what we generally think of as the long-run determinants of growth (such as institutions, education, and micro level reforms to make markets work better) over very long time spans. This does not mean that the focus on the more fundamental growth drivers should diminish, but it is important that reforms in these areas are complemented with a macroeconomic framework that reduces the risks of costly output collapses.

Finally, it is clear that the incomes generated by natural resources can produce growth at the macro level and that there is little evidence that transition countries should be stuck at any particular level in the global income rankings. Go transition countries!


  • Becker, T, and A. Olofsgård (2017), “From abnormal to normal—Two tales of growth from 25 years of transition”, SITE Working paper 43, September.
  • Becker, T., and P. Mauro, (2006). “Output Drops and the Shocks That Matter”. IMF Working Papers 06/172.
  • Cerra, V., and S.C. Saxena (2008). ”Growth Dynamics: The Myth of Economic Recovery”. American Economic Review, 98(1), 439–457.

Did Russian Migration to Russia Affect the Labor Market?

20160125 FREE Network Policy Brief Featured Image

As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, five million Russian and Russian-speaking people repatriated to Russia during 1990-2002. I use this natural experiment to study the effect of a large migration wave on the employment and wages of the local population. Taking into account the non-random choice of location by migrants within Russia, I find a negative effect of the inflows of immigrants on the local population’s employment but not on wages. The initial negative effects on employment are particularly large for local men, but they disappear after about ten years from the peak of the migration wave.

The effect of migration on the labor market of the host country is a long-standing question within economic literature and in public debate. In many cases, researchers try to estimate this effect using the data on large and unanticipated migration movements. The most famous study of this kind is probably Card (1990). Another case is the Russian migration to Russia resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to the 2002 Russian Census, 5.2 million of the people living in Russia in 2002 resided outside the country in 1989. That is, 3.6 percent of the 2002 population immigrated to Russia after 1989. Almost all of them (94.4 percent) immigrated from the former Soviet republics, most notably Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

The existing literature on migration flows in the former Soviet Union (fSU) since its collapse has emphasized the socio-political factors of migration. Locher (2002) finds that ethnic sorting was a major determinant of migration among the fSU countries, with the countries’ stage of transition and wealth level playing a minor role. Yerofeeva (1999) shows that ethnic repatriation was one of the main reasons behind migration from northern and eastern Kazakhstan.

In Lazareva (2015), I study two sides of the labor market effects of the immigration from fSU countries to Russia. The first side is the process of assimilation of migrants in the Russian labor market. The second side is the effect that inflows of immigrants had on the labor market position of the local population in Russia. Data used for estimation span a long period of time, which allows for tracing dynamic long-term effects of the influx of immigrants. This is the first comprehensive study of the labor market effects of one of the largest migration waves in Europe in recent history.


In order to estimate the effects of the inflow of immigrants on the employment and wages of the local population, I exploit variation in the share of immigrants across Russian regions. According to the Census in 2002, migrants were quite dispersed over Russia’s vast territory; their share in population varied from 0.42% in the Tyva region to 8.5% in the Kaliningrad region. A relatively large share of migrants is observed along the border to fSU countries as well as in the oil-rich regions of Western Siberia.

A major problem when using regional variation to estimate labor market effects is that the migrants’ choice of region may be affected by the condition of that region’s labor market. Naturally, migrants tend to choose locations with higher wages and more employment opportunities. If this is the case, the estimates of the labor market effects will be biased.

However, the immigrants’ choice of location was not completely unconstrained due to the costs of migration related to the distance and access to information. Given these constraints, there is a relative crowding of immigrants in the regions of Russia that are closer to the border with fSU countries. Hence, I use the variation in the share of migrants across regions, which depend on the geographical distance from the source countries. In other words, I obtain the estimates from the comparison of regions that are similar in all their characteristics except for the distance to the border with fSU.

Data and Results

I use panel data on households from the Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey for the period 1995-2009. In the 2009 survey, the respondents were asked since what year they live in the Russian Federation. I define as immigrants, people at the age of 18 and above who moved to Russia after 1989. Note that the RLMS sample, which consists of people residing in the same dwelling units in each round, is unlikely to include illegal migrants or temporary (seasonal) labor migrants. Rather these are mainly people who settled in Russia permanently at some point during the 1990s and 2000s.

In the RLMS sample, 3.6 percent of the respondents moved to Russia after 1989. This is consistent with the national-level statistical data on immigration flows. A majority of the immigrants arrived to Russia in the early and mid-1990s. Immigration peaked in 1994 when almost 1.2 million people moved to Russia. After that, immigration steeply declined; during the 2000s, the registered level of immigration was at about 200,000 people per year.

A majority of the immigrants (71.7%) in the RLMS sample are of Russian ethnicity, and there is a slightly higher share of males. Importantly, migrants are not significantly different from the locals in terms of their education levels. The statistics on marital status show that a higher share of migrants compared to locals have families and children. Apparently, family migration was a large part of this migration wave.

Using the methodology described above, I obtain an insignificant effect of the share of immigrants on the wages of the local population over the period of 1995-2009. The effect of immigrant share on the unemployment of the local population is also insignificant. In contrast, estimates for the labor force participation (LFP) show a significant negative effect of immigration on the LFP of the local population. The size of the effect is non-negligible: a one-percentage point increase in the share of immigrants in a region reduces the probability for a local person to be in the labor force by 0.6 percentage points. Thus, over the whole period of 1995-2009, Russian immigration is estimated to have had some displacement effect, but only in terms of the labor force participation of the local population.

Since the inflow of immigrants was mostly concentrated in the first half of 1990s, I estimate my model for three sub-periods: 1995-2000, 2001-2004, and 2005-2009. The results for the wages remain insignificant in all sub-periods. Immigration is shown to increase the unemployment among locals in the first half of 2000s, but this effect dissipated in the second half of 2000s. The effect of immigration on the labor force participation is negative and highly significant for the late 1990s, still negative and significant but smaller in magnitude in the early 2000s, and disappears in the late 2000s. This analysis suggests that the immigration wave had a quite significant displacement effect for the local population in terms of unemployment and labor force participation, but not in terms of wages. This effect slowly declined and had disappeared by the second half of 2000s. My results also suggest that the negative labor market effects were more significant for men than for women.


The results of this study have implications for the debate on the effect of immigration on local labor markets, in particular on wages and employment opportunities for the native population. The majority of existing studies find only minor negative effects of migration on the labor market position of locals. My results suggest that immigrants who are close substitutes to the local labor force, due to the common language and similar education, have more significant effects on the labor market outcomes of the local population.

The finding that displacement effects in Russia dissipated quite slowly may be related to the very low migration rates of the local population in Russia throughout the transition. In order to reduce negative labor market effects of large influxes of immigrants, policy measures are needed that improve labor mobility across regions. These may include moving or housing subsidies, retraining programs and policies ensuring equal access to jobs and public services for internal migrants across the regions of Russia.


  • Card, David, 1990, The Impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 245-257.
  • Lazareva O. Russian Migrants to Russia: Assimilation and Local Labor Market Effects //IZA Journal of Migration. 2015. No. 4:20
  • Locher, Lilo, 2002, “Migration in the Soviet Successor States,” Applied Economics Quarterly, 48 (1), 2002, 67-84
  • Yerofeyeva, Irina, 1999, “Regional aspects of Slavic migration from Kazakhstan on the basis of examples from North Kazakhstan and East Kazakhstan provinces”. In: Vyatkin, Anatoly, Kosmarskaya, Natalya, Panarin, Sergei (Eds.), V Dvizhenii Dobrovoljnom i Vynuzhdennom [In Motion—Voluntary and Forced]. Natalis, Moscow, pp. 154–179