is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Russian Economic Development over Three Centuries: New Data and Inferences

Editor(s):Kuboniwa, Masaaki
Nakamura, Yasushi
Kumo, Kazuhiro
Shida, Yoshisada
Reviewer(s):Nafziger,, Steven

Published by EH.Net (March 2021)

Masaaki Kuboniwa, Yasushi Nakamura, Kazuhiro Kumo, and Yoshisada Shida, editors, Russian Economic Development over Three Centuries: New Data and Inferences. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. xxxi + 443 pp. $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-981-13-8428-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Steven Nafziger, Department of Economics, Williams College.


Most economic historians are in love with their data. A plausible “meet-cute” story opens with a lonely economic historian sitting somewhere dusty — library alcove, middle-of-nowhere archive, a COVID-era office or bedroom — flipping through some massive tome published by the Ministry of Money and Other Stuff, squinting at the impenetrable handwriting of Big Textile Firm’s surely intoxicated accountant, or going blind from excessive Google Booking of that obscure Maltese household survey. All of a sudden, there they are! The beautiful data she or he never knew existed to answer that question that just came to mind. Now, the economic historian may have been in a committed relationship with data from an older project, but they are quickly forgotten as the regression possibilities with these sexy new observations are just too exciting to ignore. [Side note: where do online dating apps fit into this metaphor?] Wooing and vows follow. Of course, a happy union (progeny?) requires coding, checking, summarizing, and analyzing the new data, all of which involve tears, laughter, telling looks, heated arguments, and (un)comfortable silences. But the economic historian is committed, through sickness and health. At least until a new source catches his or her eye.

Although I have no knowledge of their actual experiences, Masaki Kuboniwa (Hitotsubashi University) and his editorial and authorial colleagues — all esteemed Japanese scholars of Russian and Soviet economic history and development — appear to have had many such rewarding data relationships over their careers, as evidenced by this fascinating and useful volume: Russian Economic Development over Three Centuries: New Data and Inferences. Reading through the 450+ pages of this edited volume, topic by topic, data table by methodological note, I was reminded again and again of just how central the work of creating, evaluating, and interpreting data is to the economic history occupation. What would most of us be if not sweethearts to the data loves of our lives?

The volume covers the period from roughly 1850 to 2015, and it necessarily discusses — often in depth — the changes of borders and units as the research subject evolved from the Russian Empire, to the Soviet Union, to the Russian Federation. Following an introductory chapter and a chapter on the sources and structures of official state statistics over the period, different sets of authors then offer ten topical chapters that discuss sources and produce statistical series for population, labor, sectoral developments in agricultural and industry, money and finance, government budgets, foreign trade and earnings, GDP, and, finally, output and rents in the oil and natural gas sectors. Everything is couched in the System of National Accounts framework, with the result that aggregate and macroeconomic time-series indicators available in some form for all or much of the period are the focal points and take precedence over micro-level or geographic variation. Considerable attention is paid to the peculiarities induced in data series by the non-market, Marxist nature of the Soviet economy and the associated definitional issues and statistical practices. Almost uniformly, the chapters make plain their level of confidence in the underlying source material and in any alternative series from the secondary literature. Throughout the volume, Japan naturally serves as an implicit and often explicit point of comparison, often to great effect.

The greatest contribution of this study is to collect and knit together such a large amount of quantitative material documenting long-run trends in Russian and Soviet economic history. Most of the volume’s data originated in official or state-generated sources, but the authors have delved into the archives here and there in an effort to fill in gaps. In general, the focus is on description and summarization rather than analysis; nevertheless, the volume shows the deep knowledge of the region among the authors and provides several substantive contributions to our understanding of Russian/Soviet economic history that are worth spotlighting. I focus on four of the chapters that make particularly important increments to existing scholarship.

First, the chapter on population provides a clear and definitive accounting of how demographic data of various sorts were produced, aggregated, and often politicized over the entire period. The author (Kazuhiro Kumo of Hitotsubashi University) then draws on these underlying sources to construct aggregate series for population, crude birth and death rates, and infant mortality on a roughly annual basis. The result is one of the most carefully executed (and fully documented!) studies of long-run demographic change that this reviewer has ever seen, which, while it does not dramatically change our understanding of Russian/Soviet population history, should be seen as the definitive account going forward. Second, the two sectoral chapters on agriculture and industry bring together in English and in a more condensed way than before the definitive data “spade-work” of Manabu Suhara (Nihon University), which has generally only been available in Japanese. Suhara’s measured and detailed generation of indices of aggregate output in these two sectors (and the underlying sub-sector, input, and price series) — in comparison to other extant series such as those provided by the regime and those produced by the CIA — show how definitions, source accuracy, and missing data within official or otherwise available sources impact resulting interpretations of Soviet (and Imperial) economic development. [An aside: the chapter on state budgets by Shinichiro and Tomoko Tabata (Hokkaido University) similarly sets the standard for central government revenue and expenditure data going forward.] Finally, a chapter by Kuboniwa, Yoshisada Shida (The Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia), and Shichiro Tabata provides a new set of GDP series for 1860–2015 (with considerable additional work on measuring the large informal economy through household budget data in the Soviet period). Their work extends earlier research by a host of scholars and argues, more emphatically than previous studies, for the especially high volatility of growth rates in the Imperial period, followed by very low volatility in the Soviet period and then a return to very high variance after 1990. These important facts have possible implications for our understanding of well-being and policymaking over the entire period. Moreover, by explicitly comparing their series to those of Japan, they establish that economic growth was surprisingly equal in the two countries until the 1960s.

While there is much to admire about this volume, such an endeavor naturally generates items with which a specialist might quibble. While all of the chapters are readable (albeit with numerous examples of non-standard English) and present important insights, the ones on foreign trade earnings and oil and gas rents could have been integrated elsewhere in the text (or included as appendices), and there is some unnecessary repetition of material across the volume. The concentrated focus on the Russian Federation and its direct antecedents means that data and developments of the other former Soviet republics are not really explored, particularly as to how their inclusion or exclusion impacts our understanding of the fall of the Soviet Union and the transition period. Some selective work with important micro-data sources — industrial censuses, household surveys, etc. — would have usefully complemented the emphasis on aggregate data. Relatedly, topics such as living standards, distributional issues, innovation, asset prices, and several others receive, as the authors themselves note, very little attention. The authors do provide some relevant international comparisons but not quite enough for this reviewer’s liking. Finally, for a volume presenting and consolidating so much data, the internal web links to the resulting materials are seemingly broken (as of March 2021). Hopefully, the publisher and research team will rectify that soon (the data appendices are currently available here: Any scholar or student interested in the economic development of this critical region over the last 150 years will benefit from not only reading Russian Economic Development, but also from using, analyzing, and building upon their pioneering (and surely loving) data work.


Steven Nafziger is Professor of Economics and Faculty Affiliate in History at Williams College. Recent publications include “Eastern Europe and the Global Economy, 1800–1914,” (with Matthias Morys) in Matthias Morys, ed. The Economic History of Central, East, and South-East Europe, 1800 to the Present Day (2021) and “The Slow Road from Serfdom: Labor Coercion and Long-Run Development in the Former Russian Empire” (with Johannes Buggle), Review of Economics and Statistics (2021).

Copyright (c) 2021 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (March 2021). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII