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Regular version of the site

Expert on Soviet Economic and Demographic History Speaks at HSE

On October 10, Stephen Wheatcroft, Professor of the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne delivered a lecture on ‘The importance of the grain problem in the Russian Revolution and for the next 40 years of Soviet Economics' at HSE Moscow as part of a long and busy schedule. A participant at previous April Conferences at HSE, Professor Wheatcroft is one of the world’s foremost experts on Soviet social, economic and demographic history, as well as famine and food supply problems in modern world history.

A co-author of The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913–1945 and part of a team that has produced an entire series of books on early Soviet agricultural and industrial history, Professor Wheatcroft was named a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 2005. While he was in Moscow, he spoke with the HSE News Service about his research, his views on the evolution of Soviet and Russian history, and his cooperation with HSE.

— Could you please say a few words about the series you have been working on with R.W. Davies, particularly the final volume?

— Professor R.W. Davies is the leading Western economic historian of the USSR and the Foundation Director of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham in Great Britain. The Birmingham Centre had always been a leading centre for the study of Soviet Economics and Soviet Economic History.

A good understanding of Soviet history is of the greatest importance for understanding the twentieth century. For an economic historian, or any historian capable of making sense of statistical data, Soviet history opens up the most detailed statistical records of a population undergoing some of the most extreme social crises

I am an economist with a Russian Area Studies specialization, and I completed my PhD at the Birmingham Centre under the supervision of Bob Davies. I am very proud and feel honoured to have been able to collaborate with him in extending this major work. I assisted him to some extent in writing the earlier volumes as a joint author of Volume 5: The Years of Hunger, Soviet Agriculture 1931-33.

Volume 6: The Years of Progress: The Soviet Economy, 1934-1936, was published in 2014 with myself and Oleg Khlevnuk collaborating in a lesser capacity with Bob. Bob is already over 90, and is no longer in such good health, so we recently included Mark Harrison in our team in an attempt to complete the series this year. We hope that Volume 7: The Years of Terror and Preparations for War, 1937-1939 will be published next year. I am largely responsible for the chapters on agriculture and demography.

— You have been researching agriculture and demography, including famine issues in the Soviet Union, for many years. It seems, though, that interest in this issue among young Russians has waned, which is somehow supported by many officials. How would you recommend presenting these issues to wider audiences and especially to young people so that they can develop a better understanding of Soviet history?

— I agree with E.H. Carr, Progressive intellectual and Historian, that a good understanding of Soviet history is of the greatest importance for understanding the twentieth century. For an economic historian, or any historian capable of making sense of statistical data, Soviet history opens up the most detailed statistical records of a population undergoing some of the most extreme social crises. But they need to be critically understood, and cannot be taken on trust.  Remembering a time when all of these materials were locked away and truths denied, I find it difficult to understand why people are not interested.

It cannot be denied that Soviet history dramatically changed the nature of world history in the twentieth century. The Soviet Union was the first under-developed country to convert itself into a super-power and to save the world from fascist dictatorship and the extension of genocide from the Jews to the Slavs and presumably to all non-Germanic peoples. Nazi war aims for occupied USSR, which it had initially assumed to cover the area west of the Urals, were to depopulate the towns and turn the country into a German agricultural economy. These plans and the horrifying way in which they were implemented are well known to historians. I find it amazing that the population of these areas, particularly in Ukraine, have tended to ignore this history, and that even in Russia students and many officials are not interested in it. Of course, the story of Soviet survival and achievements are marred by the criminal neglect and cover-up of the famine in 1928-33, and of the criminal and morally repulsive activities of the Soviet political leadership and security forces that were temporarily overcome with paranoia and extreme distrust and suspiciousness. But this is no reason for the current generation of historians to try to see these things in perspective. I cannot think of anything more important and am amazed at the lack of interest among Russians in these vital matters. 

Soviet society was extremely well recorded. Contrary to popular perceptions, basic Soviet statistical data are generally very good, but you need to understand the history of any statistical data, and you need to be able to separate out the genuine data from false and distorted presentation of data

— Could you describe your research method? How do you collect your data? 

— I am an economic historian. I am interested in economic and demographic developments. Soviet society was extremely well recorded. Contrary to popular perceptions, basic Soviet statistical data are generally very good, but you need to understand the history of any statistical data, and you need to be able to separate out the genuine data from false and distorted presentation of data. So my main method, for which I have gained a certain amount of recognition, is in understanding the nature and reliability of statistical data, through understanding its history and the history of how the data have been calculated.

I have worked in the archives of the central Soviet statistical agencies, in the republic level of the archives and in many oblast level archives in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan (where I taught for two years at the Nazarbayev University in Astana) and in Moldova, Lithuania and Estonia. I also work in government and ministry archives. The amount of statistical material that was classified, because it gave ‘wrong’ or ‘unacceptable’ results is very large. Although the reporting of the results was often highly distorted, there was no possibility to distort the primary data, and these data were simply clarified and then stored away in the archives.

I am also interested in Gulag statistics and the statistics of the prison and judicial services. Many of these are available in the archives, even though the security service archives remain more difficult. 

— Are you going to visit Russian archives or some other special places during your Moscow visit? 

— Yes, I always visit the archives, where I am always well received. I have known the directors of RGAE, GARF and RGASPI since Soviet times. One of them was one of Danilov’s postgraduate students, and I am treated as part of the team. I have continued to work with her and other former members of the Danilov team on other archival projects.

— What is the most striking and probably unexpected finding you have made?

— The most striking finding was when I plotted the 'raion’ (region) level mortality levels in the 1933 famine for oblasts in Ukraine and across the border in Russia. Contrary to popular claims that there was a sharp break in the level of crisis mortality when you passed over the border from Kharkhov Oblast to Kursk Oblast, my maps strikingly showed that mortality levels remained at crisis levels. This was an unexpected result for many of my Ukrainian colleagues, when I presented these data at a Ukrainian famine conference a few years back.

I have met numerous senior demographers and historians who tell me that my work in trying to make sense of these questions was the first serious thing that they had ever read regarding the scale of repression and famine in the early 1980s

 

— How did your cooperation with HSE start? Do you plan to continue it, and if so, how?

— My cooperation with Russian academics who are now members of the HSE staff goes back a long time before the creation of HSE, and even into Soviet times. I was a British student on an academic exchange to the Plekhanov Institute for two years in the early 1970s, when I got to know many of the leading Soviet historians with whom I would work, and with whose students I would work.

I had tried to make sense of the confusing picture that we had in those times of the scale of repression, terror and excess mortality from famines, executions and labour camps and wrote several discussion papers about these tricky topics in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of my Soviet academic colleagues were really interested in these forbidden topics. The historians Yuri Polyakov and Professor Vladimir Drobyzhev had just been charged with developing a demographic history in a new sector for complex problems in the Institute of History, and to my surprise, they asked me to give their sector a presentation on this topic. I believe that they argued that it was important to know what was being said in the west about these topics, and my presentation went ahead with several copies of my papers handed over to them, which subsequently and miraculously appeared in the Lenin Library, in INION and in the closed collections of various institutes. I have met numerous senior demographers and historians who tell me that my work in trying to make sense of these questions was the first serious thing that they had ever read regarding the scale of repression and famine in the early 1980s.

I took a special interest in trying to understand the history of Soviet statistical agencies, and of the various statistics in order to try to gain an understanding of their reliability, and I was greatly involved in many western disputes over these matters at this time.  Then the Soviet archives began to open up and my Soviet historian colleagues Viktor Danilov, Vladimir Drobizhev and Yuri Polyakov, assisted in helping to me gain access to Soviet archival materials. My association with Oleg Khlevnuk goes back to the Gorbachev period and to his involvement with Danilov in these and other publications, particularly the ‘Kаk lomaly Nep’ (How New Economic Policy Was Broken) series.

For a while the demographers were more aloof. Partly because they were dealing with official data, I had not met many Soviet demographers (apart from Urlanis) until the late 1980s. But all of this changed in the late 1980s, when we could suddenly get our hands on the censuses. I first met Anatoly Vishnevskii and Sergei Zakharov at a conference on Soviet demographic history in Toronto in the late 1980s, and have had close relations with them and with Mikhail Denisenko ever since. Once they moved their Institute of Demography into HSE it became easier to collaborate with them, and most of my recent visits to Moscow to work in archives have been facilitated by them. I normally give a series of seminars to their research groups or to their Master’s students. I have taught a course on the history of global famine for them in the past and expect to do so again in the future.

 Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

 

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