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Professor Mark Harrison: how student days in 1970s Moscow laid the ground for his eminent Economic History career

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Professor Mark Harrison: how student days in 1970s Moscow laid the ground for his eminent Economic History career

What research projects are you currently involved with?

Sometimes I call it ‘the economics of bad behaviour,’ but I’ve spent most of my career researching the economics, the political economy and the history of communism, mostly in Russia but also looking at Eastern Europe and China – so that’s my broad field. It’s very hard to do this work without also looking at conflict, so I’ve also spent a lot of time looking at the economic history of 20th century conflict.

Currently I’m working on a paper on the recruitment and management of KGB informers. About ten years ago I discovered the archive of the Lithuanian KGB, which is one of the few KGB archives that’s now open for research, and it’s got a mass of fascinating material. It’s all the more fascinating for me as I was a student in Moscow in the 1970s. There was a small group of us studying in Moscow University, and we were all aware that it was a police state but none of us had much idea of what that meant, so we had all sorts of questions that we could never answer for ourselves – did they care where we went, did they follow us, keep tabs on who we were friends with, the conversations we were having? Thanks to this archive I now know the answers to all of these questions. And they’re all yes!

My informers make up a very small sample – just 21 cases, but the documents are quite rare and therefore valuable. The documents were meant to be used to educate KGB officers in how people would come to them, and how they could make them productive as informers. This was quite a complicated process because often people said yes to recruitment without really meaning to, possibly because they were frightened, and then the task was to make them conscientious and loyal servants of the security police.

I look at this as an economist, because it’s about contracting, and it’s also about management and quality in delivering services. It’s curiosity-driven research – how did this really work? The paper I’m writing is looking at best practice because all these cases were described in order to explain how things ought to work, and we know from lots of other documentation that in reality many informers were a hopeless waste of time, and many handlers were incompetent. It’s not a representative sample but it’s an illuminating one because it shows you how they thought the security police ought to have worked in the right hands.

I was privileged to have the opportunity to visit the then-Soviet Union when I was still at school, at the height of the Cold War. This was another world – for some it was the adversary but for others it was also the alternative to capitalism.
Professor Mark Harrison

What interested you about this area of research?

I got bitten by the bug early. I was privileged to have the opportunity to visit the then-Soviet Union when I was still at school, at the height of the Cold War. This was another world – for some it was the adversary but for others it was also the alternative to capitalism.

I was a student in the late 60s when most people that I knew had some sort of engagement in revolutionary student politics, so I had very strong personal reasons to be interested. And over a long period of time I learned that this was a world that was even weirder than it appeared on the surface.

When communism collapsed, a lot of people in my situation decided to go with transition economics and politics and policy making. I thought to myself no, I wanted to know what this world was really like on the inside, so I stayed with economic history, and started doing archival research which was relatively easy to do in the 90s. It was slightly adventurous but I had some excellent collaborators.

Until that point doing research on the Soviet economy was – by modern standards - just extraordinarily tough because we had to rely on official publications that were repetitive and boring and full of distortions and lies and the problem was to tell the distortions from the lies, in the case of the distortions to work out what was the methodology behind them that perhaps you could correct for, and this was often frustrating and soul destroying but it felt important because how else could you find out the truth? Then suddenly the walls collapsed and there was this vast archive of what my co-authors and I have described as the world’s best documented dictatorship. Every page was stamped Secret or Top Secret, and the opportunities were just immense.

After a while I begin to think: how do you investigate this system of secrecy? That was the question I asked myself then, and I didn’t really know what the answer was, but ten or 15 years later I realised that the body responsible for secrecy was the KGB, and I had in my hands the documents that would allow me to understand this system. This really was the most secretive society the world has ever known. You can see it today only in a place like North Korea. China is different, China has evolved a different system of rule that is compatible with the internet and mass media and foreign travel. The Soviet system was totalitarian rule for the era of print and paper and telephony, before peer-to-peer communication. It’s very hard for people of today to imagine the closed, claustrophobic nature of Soviet society.

What relevance do you hope your work might have for society?

You could say that what I do doesn’t have great practical value for today, it’s history – but it’s a part of history that is quite recent, has a lot of echoes in the present, and yet is poorly understood.

Ideas about socialism and communism continue to have echoes today, for example in the situation in Venezuela. Surveillance is still debated today, and my response on that is, you have to understand the purpose of the surveillance. The question we need to ask ourselves is what are the proper purposes of surveillance in a free society, and how much space should there be for privacy. I do think my research has something to tell us about that. I also think, generally speaking, if you do economics the primary thing you learn is that there’s an awful lot of ways of wasting money. I know a lot of special ways to lose money that are to do with the nature of state intervention and the way that states can try to control things, and the purposes of state control.

Why did you decide to become an economist?

My parents thought it would be very good if I became a lawyer. I wasn’t strongly against this but I wasn’t very interested. While I was still at school I saw a book in my local bookshop – I can still visualise it though I don’t have it any more - called The Essential Left. It had some basic writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and I thought ‘I wonder what this is’ and I went home and I read the Communist Manifesto. Which is a very exciting document, it’s very powerfully written, and I said to my dad ‘OK, so I’ve read this – is it true? And he said, to his credit, that he didn’t know. Then I thought, how do I find out? It seemed to me that I had to do economics, and because it was history I would also have to do history. In other words I was already interested in economic history, and because I had the opportunity to visit Russia when I was a schoolboy that was an additional motive, and I’d learnt a smattering of Russian at school, so that was the fuel, to take me a long way.

Why did you join the Economics Department at Warwick?

Warwick was then, as it is now, very committed to economic history. I had a first degree in economics and a PhD in modern history - so by modern standards I missed a few tricks in terms of the kind of training that PhD students now get in economics but nonetheless, there I was on the market.

Nick Crafts was already here as a fairly junior lecturer, but he was going on a year’s leave and I was his temporary replacement. I came for a year and I was very fortunate to stay.

Warwick has been a wonderful place to be. Right from the start, I had the sense that the department wanted to be at the forefront. It wanted to be policy relevant and it wanted to be research driven. And so the department was full of people who were doing cutting edge applied economics, and they didn’t care if you were interested in the present or the past. Moreover, if you were interested in the past they were ready to let you be interested in the story; they didn’t expect you just to grab the data and run. In global terms Warwick is a mainstream department. We do mainstream economics, but not defined in an exclusive or conservative way of establishing orthodoxy. Our people are always willing to draw in new ideas, take in things that were heterodox and put them to use, and it’s a very inclusive concept of the mainstream.

I also think the department has an ethos of self-betterment. The only way you can become better is by continually taking in new ideas and comparing yourself with the best and bringing the best to Warwick. We’ve always been very open to people visiting, they come to Warwick and we see if we’re as good as they are - and hopefully they’re better than we are and we can learn from them or even try to hire them, not just try to replicate ourselves in the same boring way. That sort of open-mindedness is truly valued.

What has been your most memorable experience during your time in the department?

To me, the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) exemplifies something that Warwick has achieved. CAGE came about just as I stepped down as head of department but we planned it while I was in post. I think it validates the idea that economic history can exist in its own right but also have something to say that’s going to resonate in society both generally and among people who are interested in policy.

In the years that CAGE has existed it has grown and developed its network of people outside Warwick. The range of issues that are being addressed in CAGE is fantastic: people who are not economists sometimes have a somewhat distorted idea that economics is just about finance and forecasting - which are obviously important - but it’s much more than that. It’s also about figuring out the world and where we came from and where we are going.

I think some of the message of economic history ought to be optimistic. There’s a lot of pessimism around, and academics are just as capable of pessimism as everyone else, whether it’s the state of the western alliance or the global economy or our own society as it faces up to Brexit. Economic history encourages us to take a long view, and I think the long view of the world should not be a pessimistic one.

In the last 200 years our world has been transformed in terms of the burden of disease and poverty and the position of women in society, and the number of children that survive childbirth and infancy and become educated, the number of girls who become educated. And that’s not to say that it’s a finished project, but there are lots of things going on that should give us confidence that we can face up to the challenges of the next 200 years and we should not give in to pessimism – which often drives people to do things that are quite unwise.

We need to take stock of the things that are at work that have enabled our world to improve, and economic history is one of the disciplines that can help us to do that.

Recent Publications

Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences

In March 2019 Mark became a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences for his achievements as a leading scholar on the economic history of modern Russia, the comparative economics of the two World Wars, and the historical economics of violence and rule-breaking behaviour. He was formally welcomed to the Academy at a ceremony hosted by the President of the Academy, Sir Ivor Crewe, on 20 June 2019.

article updated on 24 June 2019