Published by EH.Net (September 2023).
Mark Harrison. Secret Leviathan: Secrecy and State Capacity under Soviet Communism. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution and Stanford University, 2023. xxv + 341 pp. $65 (hardback), ISBN 978-1503628892.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Anders Åslund, Georgetown University.
Mark Harrison, now Emeritus Professor of Economics of the University of Warwick, has devoted his long academic career to the study of the Soviet economy. He is one of the world’s leading authorities on this topic and is as erudite as he has been prolific. His new book Secret Leviathan: Secrecy and State Capacity under Soviet Communism makes yet another valuable contribution to this subject.
This book is devoted to the Soviet preoccupation with secrecy. Indeed, Soviet history is a story of secrecy. Needless to say, we all know that, but Harrison has much to contribute. He is systematic and comprehensive, going deeply into the evidence. He benefits greatly from archival studies, partly of general Soviet archives, partly from studies of the KGB archives in Lithuania held by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which holds the finest open Soviet archives in the world. Harrison knows the Soviet experience and all the relevant literature and he offers a well-structured eminent analysis. His empirical examples are multiple and illustrative. He makes no factual errors.
Harrison goes through secrecy systematically. His book consists of eight chapters. The first chapter explains what he means with “Secret Leviathan.” The second deals with the tradeoff between secrecy and capacity. The third chapter discusses the secrecy tax, that is, the cost of secrecy, the fourth secrecy and fear. The ensuing two chapters deal with secret policing with regard to discrimination and mistrust, respectively. The seventh chapter, which I find the most interesting, explains how secrecy kept the elite uninformed. The last chapter is forward-looking: secrecy and twenty-first century authoritarianism.
While the chapters are not presented as chronological, they really are. Harrison weaves into his systematic discourse the evolution of secrecy from Lenin via Stalin to Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin.
Harrison’s first point is that Soviet secrecy was extreme. Only every tenth decree was published under Stalin. Pre-revolutionary Russia was not at all that secretive. He provides a wide picture of what was secret. He discusses the effects of secrecy in all conceivable ways and he does so in great detail. A peculiarity of the Soviet regime was its formality: “every action of the Soviet state left a winding paper train of decrees, orders, correspondence, forms, reports, inquiries, investigations, and audits” (p. 1). Only under Mikhail Gorbachev did we learn that Stalin actually approved all death sentences personally.
Harrison’s main preoccupation is the tradeoff between secrecy and state capacity. In two similar figures (pp. 51, 113), he argues that a certain amount of secrecy is beneficial for state capacity but that the Soviet Union always went too far and state capacity declined with excessive secrecy. He argues: “At very low levels, secrecy is productive: it keeps out opportunists and troublemakers. And this enhances capacity. Beyond that point, however, the costs of secrecy increase so much that they begin to detract from state capacity” (p. 50). To the first part of that argument, I ask: Really? This is my only significant objection. The four Nordic countries, for example, have pursued extreme public transparency since the 18th century, and they have not suffered. On the contrary, they have the least corruption and the greatest state capacity in the world. While that is not his main argument, Harrison does not substantiate why he considers a certain secrecy is productive.
His main thesis, however, is that excessive secrecy is very costly. He introduces the concept of secrecy tax. “Soviet organizations had to set aside resources to meet the requirements of secrecy regulation. These regulations acted on the turnover of Soviet political and economic business like a tax on every transaction made” (p. 74). Moreover, “the secrecy tax did not yield a revenue to anyone” (p. 75). The secrecy was so extreme in the late Stalin period that officials “should not be allowed to read the provisions that they were now obliged to follow” (p. 91). The natural consequence was that at “every level, normal business slowed down” to avoid being punished (p. 92).
So why did this far-reaching secrecy exist? The overall objective was regime security, which “was Stalin’s first and foremost concern and state capacity was of value to him only if it was under his control.… Although increased secrecy gave his officials a harder time, it also added to the security of the regime, which was also his personal security” (p. 117). As a consequence, secrecy became ever greater – and more costly – from the revolution until Stalin died, and the easing of secrecy after Stalin was quite limited until the late 1980s.
In the chapter on how the extreme secrecy kept the Soviet elite uninformed, Harrison brings out the extraordinary ignorance of the top elite. “By Brezhnev’s time the defense budget was so secret that most Politburo members were excluded” (p. 197). As president, Gorbachev once complained that when he was second secretary of the CPSU, his good friend Yuri Andropov who was general secretary did not allow him to see the real economic numbers. Harrison goes through the old discussion about the Soviet military expenditures in a very clarifying fashion. He also devotes substantial space to KGB agents and their informers in Lithuania, quite a sordid tale.
Harrison has written a valuable and detailed study of how the extreme Soviet secrecy operated and developed, and how it harmed the economic performance of the country.
Anders Åslund is a retired adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy (Yale University Press, 2019).
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