Reading Lord of the Rings in Soviet Russia
WHY READING LORD OF THE RINGS IN SOVIET RUSSIA MADE ME THE ECONOMIST I AM TODAY
Professor Mark Harrison, Department of Economics
Moscow and Mordor are not two places you would readily associate with one another but, for economist Professor Mark Harrison, the two play central roles in a story that shaped who he is today. In an interview for the Gaidar Foundation, Professor Harrison explained what the two locations mean to him.
When Professor Mark Harrison visited Moscow in April (2013), he was interviewed, for the Gaidar Foundation, by Ilya Venyavkin. The interview was originally published in Russian. This is an English translation by Professor Harrison.
Ilya: Why did you become interested in the Soviet economy?
Mark: I’m a child of the Cold War - my parents followed events in the Soviet Union closely and felt the fear of nuclear war. At the age of six or seven, I already knew of the Soviet Union as a threat. An incident when I was in school had quite an influence on me: during English class we had to demonstrate correct usage of the idiom “a household name” (“a person that everyone knows”). When my turn came, I said: “Khrushchev.” Then my problems began. First, the teacher began to ask me why I named Khrushchev and not, for example, Kennedy; then my classmates teased me that I was a communist. At the time I had no idea what that meant and, in the end, I decided to find out. A few years later I began studying economics, and one of the reasons I became interested in it was Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. I read it and asked my father if what was written there was true. My father said he didn’t know, and then I decided to look into that too.
The end of the 1960s, when I went to university, was a time when youth culture and student movements flourished: we were all revolutionaries and socialists. I studied at Cambridge and we had lectures from Charles Feinstein, one of the leading economic historians of the twentieth century. Charles was born in South Africa and was a member of the Communist Party of South Africa. In his homeland he faced a choice: leave the country or go to jail. He ended up in England and I learned a lot from him. Another of my teachers was Maurice Dobb: he was a member of the British communist party, and he wrote the first serious (although somewhat biased) history of the Soviet economy. All this led me naturally to the idea of studying the Russian economy.
Ilya: And you also became a leftist?
Mark: Yes, and I stayed on the left for quite a long time.
Ilya: Were you hoping to find in the USSR a model of a more just social and economic order?
Mark: That’s what I hoped but it’s not what I found. I can describe clearly the impact on me of visiting the USSR in 1972. I brought two thick books: one was the works of Jane Austen and the other was The Lord of the Rings in three volumes. I read Jane Austen first, and that was great because it was a complete escape from life in the Soviet Union. Then I started to read The Lord of the Rings, and a depression descended on me because I saw something just like the Soviet Union: border guards, barbed wire, a secret police.
To live in the Soviet Union was both frightening and interesting. As a foreigner I lived a privileged life; we always knew that nothing would happen to us, unless we did something really stupid. We knew we were living in a police state, and we quickly learned the simple rules – for example, always to call only from a phone booth, if possible, and not to tell anyone about one’s plans.
Ilya: Did you come across the secret services during your first visit?
Mark: Not directly. But I’ll tell you a story: before going to the USSR (our student trip fell under an intergovernmental agreement), we attended a meeting at the Foreign Office where a diplomat, who was in charge of the meeting, told us:
Last year, I chanced on a document in the archives of the KGB, dating back to the end of the 1960s. The document says that the British Foreign Office is advising everyone who visits the Soviet Union about the working methods of the KGB. It goes on to detail all the advice that our diplomat gave us. I was reading the paper and I was wondering what they would write at the end – would they say that this was pernicious anti-Soviet propaganda? But in the last paragraph I found the words:
We circulate this information to all operative staff so that they can be aware that our working methods are known.
Ilya: Do you remember exactly when you became disillusioned in the system?
Mark: I continued to believe in the possibility of a more just world order and I was attracted by the idea of Euro-communism – the ideas of reform communism that arose in Italy, France and Spain. With many friends I was very excited when Gorbachev came to power. We hoped that he would be able to combine the ideas of socialism and democracy. But this did not happen. That was when I realized that I needed to move on – the stage of my life that began in 1970 came to an end in 1991.
I think it’s a very interesting example of how each new generation came to the Soviet experience with new knowledge and new hope. New knowledge meant an understanding of how terrible everything could be, but there was always the hope that it could all still be put right, and Khrushchev had that, and then the Eurocommunists, and then Gorbachev. Today what I believed then looks completely crazy, but nonetheless I believed it wholeheartedly.Page 2 >>
Professor Mark Harrison has spent much of the past five years working with archives of the KGB of Soviet Lithuania held at the Hoover Institution Archive. This work is in a paper he has coming out soon in the Journal of Economic History and in other work in progress or under review.
Image: A friend through many dangers: Not Shadowfax but another white horse. Photograph taken during an expedition in the Sayan Mountains, Russia, August 2011, by Daniel Beilinson (via Flickr).
Mark Harrison’s three must-read books for those that are starting out in economic history.
The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. Lizzie Collingham. (Allen Lane, 2011).
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Jared Diamond. (Norton, 1997).
Terror by Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin (an Archival Study). Paul Gregory. (Yale University Press, 2009).
Great War, Civil War, and recovery: Russia's national income, 1913 to 1928.
Andreĭ Markevich and Mark Harrison (2011).
The mutual extraction industry: drug use and the normative structure of social capital in the Russian far north.
Hilary Pilkington and El’vira Sharifullina, (2009).