Tag: Network

Enemies of the People

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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.

Historical Background

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 were 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 with tertiary 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

Notes: The circles are proportional to the prisoner population of camps. The data is from the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) and Memorial

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

Notes: The solid line shows the number of Gulag camps while the dashed line shows the total number of prisoners in the Gulag. The two vertical dash lines indicate the years that can define the start and end of the Gulag, starting with Stalin’s 5-year plan in 1928 and ending with Stalin’s death in 1953. The shaded areas show specific periods of marked change for the Gulag, starting with dekulakization in 1929, when when Stalin announced the liquidation of the kulaks as a class and 1.8 million well-off peasants were relocated or executed. The Great Terror of 1936-1938, also referred to as the Great Purge, is the most brutal episode under Stalin’s rule, when 1.5 million enemies were arrested, and half of them executed. The Gulag’s prisoner population went down during WW2, as non-political prisoners were enlisted in the Red Army, and as the conditions in camps deteriorated and mortality increased. Source: Memorial.

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

Notes: The scatters show the relationship between the share of enemies in camps in 1952 and night lights per capita within 30 km of camps in 2000 and 2015. Each circle is a 30km-radius area around a camp, and the size of the circles is proportional to the camps’ prisoner populations. The biggest circle is Khabarovsk. The solid lines show the linear fit, and the shaded areas show the 95% confidence interval. Areas near camps with a higher share of enemies have brighter night lights per capita both in 2000 and 2015. The data on Gulags is from the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) and the data on night lights is from the DMSP-OLS satellite program and made available by the Earth Observation Group and the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center. The data on population is from the gridded population of the world from SEDAC.

Intergenerational Transmission

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.

Ethnic Networks in Ex-USSR

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Do ethnic networks facilitate international trade when formal institutions are weak? Using data collected by ethnologists on the share of ethnic groups across countries, this study assesses the effect of ethnic networks on bilateral trade across the sphere of the former Soviet Union. This region provides a perfect setting to test for this effect as both forced re-settlement of entire ethnic groups during the Stalin era and artificially drawn borders in Central Asia led to an exogenous ethnic composition within countries. While ethnic networks do not seem to have played a role in inter-republic trade during the Soviet Union, they did facilitate trade in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a transitional period when formal institutions were weak. This effect, however, eroded steadily from the early 2000s.

Economists and historians alike study the role of ethnic networks in international trade. Some prominent examples are the Greek commercial diaspora of the Black Sea in the 19th century (Loannides and Minoglou, 2005), the Maghribi traders in 11th-century North Africa (Greif, 1993), or the overseas Chinese all around the world in the last decades (Rauch and Trindade, 2002). Such networks facilitate trade by building trust relationships, enforcing contractual agreements in weak legal environments, matching buyers with faraway sellers that speak different languages, and by exchanging information on arbitrage opportunities.

In “Ethnic Minorities and Trade: The Soviet Union as a Natural Experiment”, forthcoming in The World Economy, we study the Soviet Union (USSR) to assess the role of ethnic networks in international trade. We argue that ex-USSR countries are particularly well suited for such a study. Indeed, the ethnic diversity of ex-USSR countries is exogenous, partly due to the creation of artificial borders cutting through ethnic homelands, and partly due to forced relocations (deportations) during the Stalin era, which brought ethnic groups to various remote regions of the USSR. This exogeneity adds power to our empirical strategy.

Ethnic Networks in the USSR

We first build a measure of ethnic networks based on the size of common ethnic groups using ethnologists’ data from the Ethnic Power Relations Dataset on the resulting ethnic groups across ex-USSR countries (Vogt et al., 2015; Bormann et al., Forthcoming). It covers all ethnic groups in every country of the world from 1946 to 2013. While there is some yearly variation in the data, we focus on the cross-section average for the pre-1991 period as per our identification strategy based on exogenous distributions.

Figure 1 gives an overview of the spatial distribution of ethnic groups, such as Russian, Kazakh, or Uzbek.

Figure 1. Ethnic Groups in the USSR

Source: Authors’ own ArcGIS mapping based on the EPR-ED dataset.

Russians are ubiquitous across the Soviet sphere. Countries with the largest ethnic Russian populations are Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia and Moldova. At the same time, Russia is very diverse. Almost all of the 60 ex-USSR ethnic groups are present in Russia, and ethnic Russians account for only 62% of the population. Most countries are ethnically diverse. Kazakhstan for example is home to Russians as well as Germans, Tatars, Ukrainians, Uzbeks and Uighurs.

From the information on ethnic populations within each country, we create an ethnic network index as the sum of products of common ethnic groups as a share of the country’s population. Figure 2 presents a matrix overview of the ethnic network index among country pairs with darker shades corresponding to higher scores. Some high scoring country pairs are Russia—Kazakhstan, Ukraine—Russia, Uzbekistan—Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan—Uzbekistan, Latvia—Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—Kazakhstan.

Figure 2. Ethnic Networks Index

Source: Authors’ estimates. The index is the sum of products of common ethnicities as a share of the country’s population.

Effect of Ethnic Networks on Bilateral Trade in the USSR

Next, we evaluate the impact of ethnic networks on aggregate trade between the countries of the former Soviet sphere. We use trade data from two sources. First, the data on internal trade between Soviet republics from 1987 to 1991 are from the input-output tables of each Soviet Union republic as compiled by the World Bank mission to the Commonwealth of Independent States (Belkindas and Ivanova, 1995). Second, the Post-1991 to 2009 trade data are from the Correlates of War Project (Barbieri et al., 2009, 2016), which offers the best coverage of the trade in the region.

We follow the migrant network and trade literature and estimate a standard log-linear gravity equation controlling for importer-year and exporter-year fixed effects (Anderson and van Wincoop, 2003).

Figure 3 presents the results on the effect of ethnic networks on trade over time. We observe that there is no effect in the period before the end of the USSR, a positive effect after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and an erosion of this effect from 2000s on (omitting Russia from the sample does not alter the results).

These results can be explained with the fact that in the Soviet Union ethnic ties did not matter as official production and trade were centrally planned by the State Planning Committee, Gosplan, and by State Supplies of the USSR, or Gossnab, which was in charge of allocating producer goods to enterprises. Free trade was forbidden. However, once the Soviet system collapsed and before countries could establish more formal trade ties, the first reaction and fallback option for many people was to reach out to their co-ethnics (in the 1990s) to substitute for the broken chains of the centrally planned trade (Gokmen, 2017). The other reason is that the institutional framework was at its weakest in this transitional period, and hence, reliance on informal institutions such as ethnic networks may have been especially strong (Greif, 1993). Once systematic and formal trade ties could be established, more and more traders no longer had to rely on their ethnic networks and this could explain the decline in the effect in the 2000s.

Figure 3. The Effect of Ethnic Networks on Trade over Time

Source: Authors’ estimates. Estimate of the effect of ethnic networks on bilateral trade in a gravity model controlling for distance, contiguity, and importer and exporter fixed effects.


This study shows that ethnic minorities played a role in shaping trade patterns across ex-USSR countries, but only in the early years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus, we argue that reliance on informal institutions, such as ethnic networks, in forming trade relations is especially strong when the institutional framework is at its weakest in the transition period. This message may hold, not only for transition countries, but also for other developing countries with poor institutions.


  • Anderson, J. E. and E. van Wincoop, 2003. “Gravity with Gravitas: A Solution to the Border Puzzle,” American Economic Review, 93, 170-192.
  • Barbieri, K., M. G. Omar, and O. Keshk, 2016. “Correlates of War Project Trade Data Set Codebook, Version 4.0.”
  • Barbieri, K., M. G. Omar, O. Keshk, and B. Pollins, 2009. “TRADING DATA: Evaluating our Assumptions and Coding Rules,” Conflict Management and Peace Science, 26, 471-491.
  • Belkindas, M. and O. Ivanova, 1995. “Foreign Trade Statistics in the USSR and Successor States,” Tech. rep., The World Bank, Washington, DC.
  • Bormann, N. C., L. E. Cederman, and M. Vogt, Forthcoming. “Language, Religion, and Ethnic Civil War,” Journal of Conflict Resolution.
  • Gokmen, G., 2017. “Clash of civilizations and the impact of cultural differences on trade,” Journal of Development Economics, 127, 449-458.
  • Gokmen, Gunes; Elena Nickishina; and Pierre-Louis Vezina, forthcoming. “Ethnic Minorities and Trade: The Soviet Union as a Natural Experiment”, The World Economy.
  • Greif, A., 1993. “Contract enforceability and economic institutions in early trade: The Maghribi traders’ coalition”, The American Economic Review, 525-548.
  • Loannides, S.; and I. P. Minoglou, 2005. “Diaspora Entrepreneurship between History and Theory”, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 163-189.
  • Rauch, J. E. and V. Trindade, 2002. “Ethnic Chinese networks in international trade”, Review of Economics and Statistics, 84, 116-130.
  • Vogt, M., N. C. Bormann, S. Regger, L. E. Cederman, P. Hunziker, and L. Girardin, 2015. “Integrating Data on Ethnicity, Geography, and Conflict: The Ethnic Power Relations Dataset Family,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1327-1342.