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.


To Commemorate the 1917 Revolution in Russia – Occasions More for Reflections than for Celebrations

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The centennial of the 1917 revolution in Russia provide opportunities for the public to refresh knowledge of the tumultuous events that dramatically changed the country’s history. Conferences, television series and debates, exhibitions at historical and art museums are some of the activities that will illuminate the February and October revolutions in 1917. The complex, intertwined and contradictory historical process and the following tragic Civil war 1918 – 1922 calls for careful, objective and dispassionate approaches and evaluations.

Over the last years, Russia has officially sponsored or encouraged great historical commemorations, e.g. the bicentennial of the war against Napoleon in 1812 and the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. In contrast, this year’s commemoration of the 1917 revolution(s) in Russia – the first in February and the other in October (old style calendar) – pose a whole range of difficult questions. In the contemporary school curriculum in Russia, the most often used concept is ‘the Great 1917 Revolution in Russia’, thereby avoiding the previous, inappropriately counter posed February vs. October revolution. Instead, emphasis shifts to a continuous spectrum of revolutionary processes on different levels of the state and in various social groups throughout 1917. Likewise, this concept captures the multi-ethnic character of the revolution better than ‘the Russian revolution’.

In this brief, I outline the expected results from professional historians and archivists, by academic institutions and museums. In a forthcoming study of recent Russian historiographic debates (Samuelson, 2018), I intend to analyze also the changing official assessments of the 1917 revolutions.

In the Soviet era until the glasnost in the late 1980s, party-controlled historians described the ‘Great Socialist October revolution’ tendentiously, with many obfuscations and ‘white spots’. Not only were the opponents of the Bolsheviks depicted in caricature forms; also, the later oppositionists to Stalin’s party line were eliminated from the 1917 history, or mentioned merely for the alleged mistakes. In the West, on the other hand, there existed a plethora of interpretations of the Russian revolution, reflecting ideologies and worldviews of liberals, conservatives, as well as exiled Russian politicians (see e.g. Mazour, 1971 or Laqueur, 1967).

In the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian historians have profoundly enriched our knowledge of the 1917 revolutionary process as well as the ensuing Civil war. ‘Un-persons’ like Lev Trotsky, and hundreds of other who were expelled later from the Communist party, got back their due place in history. Works have been published of monarchists, liberals and socialists who led the Provisional governments during 1917. Historical studies by exiled scholars, as well as memoirs by politicians and diplomats that were once published in the West, have now been reprinted by Russian publishing companies (for the best survey, see Gennadyi Bordiugov, 2013 (1,520 pages!!)).

In today’s Russia, there co-exist an abundance of interpretations and assessments of the 1917 revolutions. The February strikes and uprising in Petrograd triggered the abdication of tsar Nikolay II, led to the founding of a republic and the formation of new government. The revolutionary changes outside the capital, throughout the whole empire, took quite different forms and only in recent years, regional scholars could describe them objectively.

Naturally, the fundamental changes in the political landscape in Russia after the return from exile of Vladimir Lenin in spring 1917 have attracted interest by scholars. Solid biographies of Lenin by Dmitrii Volgogonov (1994), Vladlen Loginov(2017), Anatolii Latyshev(1996) and Elena Kotelenets(2017), to mention only a few, give the Russian public a more nuanced figure than the more hagiographic works published in the Soviet epoch. The British historian Catherine Merridale (2016) gives a fascinating narrative of how Lenin’s return from exile in Switzerland would completely change the perspectives of the revolution. The renowned Russian specialist Vladimir Buldakov wrote profound reinterpretations of the ‘Red Troubled times’ (Krasnaya smuta) of 1917 in the first of a series of path-breaking research in the central and regional archives (Buldakov 2010, 2015).

As we approached the centennial of this decisive and deeply divisive year in Russia’s long history, many observers wondered how it was to be officially observed. Just like similar jubilee years, for example in 1989 of the French Revolution, it seemed obvious that this was not a time for triumphant celebrations as had been the case of the annual October Revolution holiday (on 7th November, new calendar) in the Soviet era. On the other hand, it would equally be unfortunate to pass over in silence this eventful revolutionary year. So by support from the Ministry of Culture, the Russian Historical Society (abbrev. RIO) set up a vast program of conferences, round tables, exhibitions and publications. Universities all over the Russian Federation will organize gatherings for historians and students. Central and regional archives arrange exhibitions, the explicit purpose of which is, not to give any definite value judgments, but to let the public form their own views on the personalities by pondering over original documents on Tsar Nikolai II and the tsarist family, the politicians of various parties, as well as on Lenin, Bolsheviks and others of the Left.

The call from the Russian political leaders has been to strive for a balanced, as dispassionate as possible, reassessment of the 1917 revolution in Russia. The ensuing civil war 1918–1922 created a generation-long, deep division among Russians, inside the country and in exile. Just as was the case in other countries, e.g. Finland and Spain, where civil wars scarred the national fabric in the 20th century, at present, the goal should be for reconciliation and mutual understanding of the historical actors on all sides of the political spectrum.

This spring, the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk organized a round-table on the 1917 revolution. Dozens of scholars presented their research findings and opinions on various events in the region; the protocol’s understatement that “the discussions had often a polemical character” indicate that the Russian revolution is still a subject of hot controversies, even in academic circles. On 29–31 March, the Moscow State University arranged the first of several grand international conferences planned this year. In twenty sessions, hundreds of scholars from all over Russia and from foreign countries gave papers on widely different aspects of the revolutionary processes. Likewise, universities in Samara, Volgograd, Cheliabinsk and other cities have announced their forthcoming conferences on the 1917 Revolution.

The main depository of political archives, RGASPI, in Moscow has contributed over 800 archival documents to a special exhibition, ‘1917. The Code of the Revolution’ at the Central Museum of Contemporary Political History. (https://www.sovrhistory.ru/events/exhibition/58becc2aa0e5981d9da515c4, accessed 31.03 2017). Two grand exhibitions projects with less-known archival documents attempt to give new perspectives, first, on Tsar Nikolai II, and, later this year, on Vladimir Lenin; both are of course well-known personalities, but the archivists and museums’ commissars hope to inspire visitors to renew their perspectives. In St. Petersburg, besides conferences, round-tables and exhibitions, there will be theatrical performances to reproduce dramatic events of 1917 and precisely on the streets and squares where they once upon a time took place. Russian Internet sites will provide pieces of contemporary news from 1917 for each day (https://project1917.com/).

Publishing houses have started new series devoted to the 1917 revolution in Russia, and the shelves in bookshops give abundant ‘food for thought’ for eager readers. Here one can find not only Trotsky’s own renowned History of the Russian Revolution written in his exile in the USSR. There are also memoirs by officers in the White Army during the Civil war, and a multitude of new popular-history works that reflect today’s ‘lessons of history’. The leading publishing company Rosspen will edit an archival documentary series, and compile an encyclopedia on the 1917 Revolution, thus hopefully summing up what has been accomplished in the former states of the USSR concerning the dramatic year of 1917 that was to profoundly change not only the country’s history, but even global history for many years ahead.


  • Dmitrii Volkogonov, Lenin: A New Biography, New York, 1994;
  • Vladlen Loginov, Lenin: How to become a leader, Glasgow 2017;
  • Anatolii Latyshev, Rassekrechennyi Lenin (The declassified Lenin), Moscow 1996;
  • Elena Kotelenets, Bitva za Lenina. Noveishie issledovaniia i diskussii (The Fight over Lenin: Recent research and discussions), Moscow 2017.
  • Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the train (Swedish edition Lenins resa: Vägen till revolutionen 1917), London 2016.
  • Vladimir Buldakov, Krasnaya smuta: Priroda i posledstviia revoljutsionnogo nasiliya (The Red Troubled Times: The nature and consequences of revolutionary violence), Moscow 2010;
  • Vladimir Buldakov, Voina, porodivshaia revoliutsiiu (The War that brought along the revolution), Moscow 2015.
  • Lennart Samuelson, Sovjetepoken i backspegeln.The Soviet Epoch in the Rear-view Mirror’, forthcoming in 2018
  • Anatole G. Mazour, The Writing of History in the Soviet Union, Stanford: Hoover University Press, 1971;
  • Walter Laqueur, The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet History from 1917 to the Present, London: Macmillan, 1967.
  • Gennadyi Bordiugov (ed.), Mezhdu kanunami: Istoricheskie issledovaniia v Rossii za poslednie 25 let, Moscow: AIRO-XXI, 2013

The photograph to this policy brief shows Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and other Russian exiles in Stockholm, 13 April 1917, on their way from Switzerland, to change the course of the Russian Revolution and world history of the 20th century. Social democrat Ture Nerman is talking with Lenin (4th from right, with umbrella).; behind them – mayor Carl Lindhagen and Aleksandra Kollontay, radical feminist who spent World War One here and in the 1930s to return to Stockholm as ambassador of the USSR.

Note: This Swedish photograph is in the public domain in Sweden because one of the following applies: (i) The work is non-artistic (journalistic, etc.) and has been created before 1969, (ii) The photographer is not known, and cannot be traced, and the work has been created before 1944.


Fact or Fiction? The Reversal of the Gender Education Gap Across the World and the Former Soviet Union

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In this policy brief, I discuss the reversal of the gender education gap in many countries around the world – a fact that is still not widely known, although is increasingly gaining attention. I describe recent studies that have documented this fact for both developed and developing countries and have provided evidence on the trend. As there has not been much analysis of the education gap in the former Soviet Union countries, I present some measures of the education gap in the USSR and FSU countries, and compare them to other countries around the world. Finally, I discuss the potential causes of the reversal identified in the literature and how the reversal of the gap is related to other gender disparities.