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Mark Harrison: Current Research

About my research

This is an essay in autobiography. I describe my time as a graduate student of economic history in Moscow in 1972/73, at a tense moment in the Cold War. I write about my preparations, my induction into academic and non-academic aspects of Soviet life, some short journeys that I made into the provinces, and my confusion on coming home. I tried to see the Cold War from both sides. I conclude by contrasting what I understood then about the Soviet economic system and political order to what I know now. Four appendices reproduce items that are of relevance to my theme but distinct from the narrative.

Work in progress

  • Harrison, Mark. In progress. Secret Leviathan: State Capacity and Secrecy under Soviet Communism. To be published by Stanford University Press in the Stanford-Hoover Series on Authoritarian Regimes.

From Chapter 1:

Leviathan, the all-powerful sea monster of the Old Testament, was Thomas Hobbes’ metaphor for the state: “that Mortall God to which wee owe . . . our peace and defence.” Without Leviathan’s laws and coercive powers, Hobbes maintained, our lives would be “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” By submitting to Leviathan, he argued, we make our lives free and open to the development of civilization.

Since Hobbes we have learned that there are many Leviathans, not all of them benign. A recent authoritative study of state-building classifies them: Despotic Leviathan (the oppressive state), Absent Leviathan (the failed state, or the state that never truly was), and Shackled Leviathan (a state restrained by its own laws and by an active civil society). There is also Paper Leviathan (despotic in some respects, but ineffectively, while absent in others).

In this book I write about the state of the Soviet Union – a regime that was clearly despotic, with a remarkable coercive capacity. Unlike those forms of despotism that rely on informality, every action of the Soviet state left an immensely long paper trail of decrees, orders, correspondence, forms, reports, inquiries, investigations, and audits. But this was no ineffective Paper Leviathan, for the paperwork covered every aspect of Soviet life and the decrees and directives had profound impacts on the lives of every citizen.

The Soviet state existed for 74 years from Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 to its collapse in December 1991. Those seven decades place the Soviet Union among the most long-lived of modern dictatorships. While it existed, it was also among the most secretive of modern states. The disproportion between what went on behind the scenes and what was disclosed to the public was immense. When the state collapsed, its wealth of secret records was suddenly exposed to scholarly investigation. They document in detail the deliberate building of a powerful authoritarian state and of its industrial and military power.

I call this state Secret Leviathan. Secrecy was in the genes of the Soviet state from the first days of its creation. The Soviet state took secrecy to an extreme. When secrecy failed, the state collapsed. This book is about Soviet secrecy and its consequences.

  • Harrison, Mark, and Eugenia Nazrullaeva. 2020. If You Do Not Change Your Behaviour: Managing Threats to State Security in Lithuania under Soviet Rule. This is a paper to a panel at the annual meeting of the Southern Economic Association, 22 November 2020.

In the Soviet Union from the late 1950s to the 1980s, the KGB applied a form of low-intensity “preventive” policing, called profilaktika, to incipient threats to state security. Citizens found to be engaging in everyday political misdemeanors were invited to discuss their behaviour and to receive a warning. Such warnings were thought to be effective in stopping the citizen at risk of committing more serious state crimes from going further. This represented a complete contrast to the Stalin years, when prevention took the form of imprisonment or killing. This became the front line of the Soviet police state. Using a novel documentary dataset from Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, we study the profile of the private citizens who became subjects of interest to the KGB. We also investigate the philosophy, historical origins, and operational focuses of profilaktika..

  • Harrison, Mark. 2020. Economic Warfare in Twentieth-Century History and Strategy. CEPR Discussion Paper no. 14649. This version 20 April 2020. This is a paper to a conference on the economic history of war at the Northwestern University Center for Economic History, currently rescheduled to take place in a calmer time.

In two world wars, both sides committed substantial resources to economic warfare. Before the event, influential thinkers believed that the threat of blockade (and later of bombing) would deter aggression. When war broke out, they hoped that economic action might bring the war to a close without the need for a conclusive military struggle. Why were they disappointed, and what was the true relationship between economic warfare and combat between military forces? The answer to this question depends on the effects of economic warfare, which can be understood only after considering the adversary’s adaptation. When the full range of adaptations is considered, it becomes clear that economic warfare and combat were usually strategic complements; they acted together and did not substitute for each other. The paper examines this question both in breadth and more narrowly, focusing on the Allied air campaign against Germany in World War II. There are implications for history and policy.

The informer network was a part of the human capital of the communist police state, which had the property of dissolving the freestanding social capital of ordinary citizens. How was it built, and what was the agency of the informers in the process? A few documents from the archives of the Soviet security police allow us to see good practices as the KGB saw them. They show some of the routes by which informers came to the attention of the KGB, their varied motivations, and their social and psychological strengths and weaknesses. The pivot of the process was a contract for counter-intelligence services. The contract itself was partly written, partly verbal or implied, and highly incomplete. Before the contract, searching and due diligence were required to identify potential recruits. After the contract, to turn a recruit into a productive informer involved a further period of training and monitoring, often extending to renegotiation and further investments by both sides in the capabilities of the informer and the relationship of trust with the handler. Trust and deception were two sides of the informer’s coin.

  • Harrison, Mark. 2017. Secrecy and State Capacity: a Look Behind the Iron Curtain. CAGE Working Paper no. 312, University of Warwick. First draft: 21 December 2016. This version: 1 June 2017. Presented at the World Conference of Comparative Economics, St Petersburg, 15-17 June 2017. Earlier versions were presented to the WEast (Workshop of the Eastern European Economic History Initiative) meeting, London, 3 April 2017, the International Workshop on Cultures of Secrecy in Soviet Life, Zurich, 25 January 2017, and, much abbreviated and under another title, to a Roundtable on Secrecy and Fact in Soviet Life at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Convention, Philadelphia, 20 November 2015.

The paper reviews two decades of research on the political economy of secrecy, based on the records of former Soviet state and party archives. Secrecy was an element of Soviet state capacity, particularly its capacity for decisiveness, free of the pressures and demands for accountability that might have arisen from a better informed citizenry. But secrecy was double-edged. Its uses also incurred substantial costs that weakened the capacity of the Soviet state to direct and decide. The paper details the costs of secrecy associated with “conspirative” government business processes, adverse selection of management personnel, everyday abuses of authority, and an uninformed leadership.

Mark Harrison

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