Five Books: The Butcher’s Bill of the Soviet Experience

Communism kills. 100 million lost souls in the 20th century, not from war or natural causes, but from state execution.  Let that sink in – 100 MILLION.


OK, now back to scholarly recommendations for books to learn about and understand this experience.  Obviously, the classic work in this regard is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (originally published in 1973). The impact of this work cannot be overstated. And, it should be read by every student of civilization in the 20th century.

In addition to the official prison system that the Soviet system utilized for repression, there existed the day-to-day repression of everyday life and social interaction outside of the prison walls. But it was still a prison culture of the mind.  The best book I know of to explore this is Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (originally published in 2008). The book demonstrates how daily life revolved around having to whisper to your close confidantes to hide from the prying eyes and ears of state surveillance. There were also those who you believed would be your confidantes who themselves would strategically whisper behind your back.

In one of my books on post-communism, I relay the story of Vera Wollenberger, who was a leader of the dissident group “The Church from Below” in East Germany. After the collapse of communism and German re-unification, she agitated for the Stasi to open their files as part of the reconciliation process. When her file was opened, it turned out her own husband – Knud Wollenberger – continually filed reports on her activities with the Stasi.


Think through the logic of attempting to live under such a regime.


The most comprehensive study of the archives and the death toll under communism in the 20th century is The Black Book of Communism edited by Stéphane Courtois (originally published in 1997). This is the book that establishes in excruciating detail from the archives the 90 to 100 million deaths by communist governments in the 20th century through political repression, execution, labor camps, and orchestrated famines.  As I said to start this section – COMMUNISM KILLS.


Another gruesome tour through the crimes against humanity committed in the name of communism is Steven Rosefielde’s Red Holocaust (originally published in 2010), which argues that the most accurate number is 60 million. Still Rosefielde admits that there are most likely tens of millions more that we just cannot corroborate with the archival data and never will because they are lost.


Let me end this section referencing a book by Alain Besancon, that ties together the ideology, the institutional manifestations, and the terror of the Soviet experience.  There are other great sweeping books in this genre, such as Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich’s Utopia in Power (1988), but if you had to read one book to make sense of the economic deprivation and political repression of the Soviet Union, and why those in the west misunderstood for so long it would be Alain Besancon’s The Origins of the Gulag (originally published 1981).



I used to kid around with my students about “nonsense speak” in writing papers, and I would give as the example someone starting a paper with the phrase, “The history of the Soviet Union is very, very, very interesting.”  Of course it is, but lots of things are very, very, very interesting. But that sort of opening phrase  says nothing. Do not do it. Claims in social science papers should have a bite, they should be bold, and they should be potentially wrong. Science and scholarship should “hurt” if we are wrong. “The history of the Soviet Union demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of communism as an ideal.”  Now we can begin a contested conversation over a claim. We must offer conjectures subject to refutation in the dialogue with our peers.


Key to understanding Soviet Socialism is coming to grips with the claim that communism is not an ideal that humanity failed to live up to, but that communism is an ideology that is simply incompatible with humanity and human betterment.  It is an ideology, as Oscar Wilde warned, that robs the soul of man, and it is an ideology, as Ludwig von Mises warned, that destroys the means of our material progress.  The greatest large-scale social experiment of the 20th century was also the greatest large-scale social failure of the 20th century.


Hopefully, this reading guide will get you started on your own course of study to see what the lessons learned from this experiment are, and why we must never forget them.



Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.

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Will COVID-19 kill Europe’s state aid discipline?

My colleague Carlo Stagnaro and I reviewed Thomas Philippon’s The Great Reversal for Law & Liberty.

Philippon’s book is ingenious and thought-provoking. The main thesis is that the EU became, as it were, more pro-competitive than the US. One of the pieces of evidence Philippon produces is the European discipline on state aid. National government subsidies to businesses are disciplined by Brussels and that helped in fostering a more competitive environment European-wide.

Yet is that going to last? Carlo and I are skeptical. COVID-19 is jeopardizing the genuine pro-market elements in European competition policy.

It is not a surprise—and perhaps it may warrant a new chapter in the next edition of The Great Reversal—that member states seized the opportunity of the coronavirus crisis to call for a de facto suspension of the state aid discipline. While the new, more permissive framework is deemed to be “temporary,” only time will tell how long “temporary” measures will last.


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Five (More) Books: Revisionist Accounts of the Soviet Experience

In my previous posts, I offered recommendations for reading on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet economy, and the Ethnography of Soviet life.


As you can glean from my recommendations for reading so far, I have stressed learning about the dysfunctions and dystopian aspects of the system.  I will come back to that in my final post in this series. But right now I do think it is valuable to also acknowledge alternative perspectives.

During the 1970s, a “revisionist school” of historians rose to challenge the standard “Cold War” totalitarian system narrative. They provided counter evidence to say either that they system was more decentralized and democratic than the totalitarian model suggested, or that it was less repressive than the totalitarian model claimed; or that the economic system was more successful than the critics acknowledged.  Some of these claims made in the 1970s were subsequently challenged when the archives opened in the 1990s, revealing the full extent of Soviet repression. Other claims are still part of the ongoing contested conversation in Soviet studies.  I personally believe that many of the revisionist accounts have important insights, but that in general they tend to miss critical aspects of even the stories they are telling.  I also think, and of course I would, that there are serious errors of a methodological and analytical nature committed in many of these revisionist accounts due to ideological precommitments. Still, to become an informed student, one must be knowledgeable of these alternative accounts.


The first one to read would be Jerry Hough’s The Soviet Prefects (originally published in 1969) explores the role that local party organs play in industrial decision making. It is a challenge to the idea of a unified and comprehensive central plan.  Hough’s work was an initial challenge to the idea that Stalin’s regime represented an institutionally strong and robust centralized administration, and starts to push toward the revisionist account that the Stalinist system was actually institutionally weak, and thus the totalitarian account of the control and repression of the system must be exaggerated.


Hough was not as strong in that revisionist account as  was Arch Getty, who in Origins of the Great Purges (originally published in 1985) argued that the archival evidence from the 1930s demonstrates that the Communist Party under Stalin was chaotic and confused rather than ruthlessly efficienct in its execution of terror. The totalitarian account must be exaggerated, Getty concluded.  Stalin didn’t orchestrate the terror, but was responding to political threats as they arose in the struggle for survival.


Stephen Cohen’s wonderful book Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (originally published in 1973) tells the story of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experience through the eyes of one of its main architects, who was later a tragic casualty of the betrayal of the revolutionary ideas.  I am extremely partial to this because Bukharin wrote seriously about the economics of communism.  Bukharin, in fact, actually spent time in Vienna attending Bohm-Bawerk’s famous seminar, and he wrote a book criticizing the Austrian School of Economics.  He was familiar with the works of Ludwig von Mises, and in fact would invoke Mises during debates within the Soviet Union on the shift toward the New Economic Policy. He was dubbed “the most learned critic of communism”.  Bukharin wrote the economic policies for the initial communist period which I mentioned earlier in reference to the work of Malle, and he wrote the New Economic Policy after the collapse of the Russian economy forced the Bolsheviks to chart of new course to stay in power.  He was named by Lenin, along with Trotsky and Stalin, as the potential successor to his leadership in 1923, ironically sealing his fate. Stalin first aligned with Bukharin to purge Trotsky for exhibiting “left-wing childishness”, and then flipped sides to purge Bukharin for “right wing opportunism”.  Cohen’s book asks the question, what if Bukharin had won out in that political struggle rather than Stalin?  Many communists had been asking a similar question about Trotsky ever since Stalin had him murdered in Mexico, but Cohen successfully got a new generation to ask that similar question.  As perestroika matured as public policy under Gorbachev, Bukharin would be “liberated” and even became a symbol of market reforms such as the “Cooperatives Act of 1987”, and photos of Bukharin could be seen around Moscow.


Back to the nitty gritty of Soviet history, one of the most horrific tales of the Soviet experience is the Holodomor, as depicted in Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow (1986) or more recently in Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine (2017). But the revisionist account by R. W. Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft in their book The Years of Hunger (originally published in 2004) argues that the famine was not intentional, but resulted from mismanagement and environmental circumstances.  Similar to what I mentioned in my previous post about the “debate” between Malia and Pipes, it appears difficult at times for academics to see their way to explanations that blend ideas and interests with historical circumstances to tell a more nuanced story, as their penchant is for either/or narratives.  That said, detailed scholarship and careful reworking of numerical information is always valuable in helping gain an understanding.


This also leads to my last revisionist work, and I think the one that most challenges my own priors about Soviet economic performance through time, Robert Allen’s Farm to Factory (originally published in 2003). He argues against the now conventional wisdom that the Soviet experiment was a horrific failure, and that if you measure correctly it must be counted as one of the greatest economic development stories of the 20th century.  One cannot be conversant in the contemporary conversation about the legacy of the Soviet Union without careful study of Allen’s bold reinterpretation.



Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.

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Five (More) Books: Economic, Political and Social Ethnography of Soviet Life

In my previous two posts, I offered recommendations for reading on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet economy. Today, I’d like to turn our attention everyday life in the Soviet Union.

My most cherished comment on one of my books dealing with the Soviet system was from then Department Chair of Economics at Moscow State University, who upon reading my discussion of the contrast between how the system was supposed to work and how it really worked wrote to me to tell me that my description fit perfectly with the daily life that he and his family had to endure.  I had done my job then.  I think the purpose of economic theory is to aid us in our task of making sense of the political economy of everyday life.  Not theorems and graphs on blackboards and textbooks, but the lived reality out the window in the social settings we find ourselves exploring as social scientists and scholars.

Perhaps the best window into everyday life is through ethnographies, either loose ones such as those written by journalists, or rigorous ones written by social scientists.  Since this was always my intent, rather than merely writing down the history of the political leaders, I was from the beginning drawn to first-person accounts and the impact of the Soviet experience on the lives of ordinary citizens.  Obviously, given the weight I place on ideology and policy initiatives, I think you also have to pay attention to the official view and the official documents. But truth lies in the interaction between the official policy and the impact felt in the day-to-day life of people experiencing those policies.


The first work I would suggest then is Emma Goldman’s My Disillusionment in Russia (originally published in 1923) based on her time in Russia in 1920 and 1921.

Emma Goldman was a Russian anarchist who had emigrated with her family to the United States in 1885. She was arrested multiple times in the US for political activism and for distributing pamphlets advocating for social change. She was deported from the US under the Anarchist Exclusion Act, and she went to Finland and then eventually to Russia.  A revolutionary, Goldman was originally prone to view the Russian Revolution as a positive signal of world-wide revolution, but once inside the system her disillusionment began.  She witnessed first-hand an economic system that could not work, and the origins of political terror which were unspeakable to her.  One of my favorite scenes in her book is the description of a May Day parade which was supposed to exhibit great enthusiasm for the revolution but instead only revealed the thinly veiled pain and suffering of the people in the streets with forced shows of support for the regime.  Read this book and then watch the movie Reds, with a new appreciation for the scene where Emma Goldman confronts John Reed with the reality of the situation in 1921.


Shelia Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism (originally published in 1999) is a wonderful social history exploring the systems of survival that ordinary individuals developed to cope with the scarcity and repression of the Stalin regime.  The informal norms and networks that make life possible in such harsh conditions are unearthed in Fitzpatrick’s account.


Warren Nutter’s The Strange World of Ivan Ivanov (originally published in 1969) is an examination in comparative terms of the economic life of an ordinary individual and their family in the Soviet system as compared to the US. It is an eye opening comparison, and one that anyone hoping to understand the impact of communism on the lives of those who have the misfortune of having to live under that system. Any romantic notion of a move from a “kingdom of necessity” to a “kingdom of freedom” will be disabused quickly by any cursory reading of Goldman, Fitzpatrick, and Nutter.


There are two journalistic accounts from the Brezhnev years and from the Gorbachev years that I would suggest are foundational to get a window into the daily life of a Soviet citizen.  The first would be Hedrick Smith’s The Russians (originally published in 1975), which explained the underground market, the queuing system, and the samizdat culture (including jazz music).  The second is David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb (originally published in 1993), which details everyday life during the last days of the Soviet empire.  Both of these books give a fantastic bottom-up account of the day-to-day life of ordinary individuals struggling to survive and cope with the difficult conditions and changing circumstances as the Soviet system economically, politically and socially corrosively eats itself from within.



Peter J. Boettke is University Professor of Economics & Philosophy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030.

As an Amazon Associate, Econlib earns from qualifying purchases.


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