Development Politics and India’s Cold War Triangle: An Interview with David Engerman

David Engerman, Professor of History, Yale University

In The Price of Aid: The Economic Cold War in India (Harvard University Press, 2018), David Engerman, a leading historian of US and Soviet modernization ideology and expertise, extends his focus to the intricacy of Cold War competition in India. Through an adroit study of Indian, American, and Soviet domestic and international politics regarding aid for Indian development, he analyzes the complex dance behind how and why particular development projects were built. The debates that surrounded these projects attempted to shape, and were in turn shaped by Cold War conflict and the political maneuvering of the Indian state. Price of Aid deftly captures and articulates the contradiction at the heart of development assistance—that international aid for nation-building projects sought by post-colonial states came with consequences that constrained the very state sovereignty those projects aimed to serve.

Our conversation, at Intelligentsia Coffee in Watertown, MA this June, was wide-ranging—on the arc of Engerman’s remarkable intellectual career, the evolution of the historiography on development, the relationship between decolonization and the Cold War, and that of governmentality and geopolitics, to flag just a few themes that arise in the following interview.

Lydia Walker

Soviet Socialism with Chinese Characterisics? Understanding the Collapse of the Soviet Economy with Christopher Miller

Comparing the shifting fortunes of Russia and China over the last fifty years, one cannot but be struck by the dramatic reversal in the two countries’ fates. In 1967, the Soviet Union was in the midst of a massive military buildup that would eventually enable it to reach superiority in conventional arms and parity in nuclear arms with the United States. The Prague Spring was a year away, and in spite of earlier interventions in Hungary, socialism in the Eastern Bloc enjoyed prestige among intellectuals in the West. The Soviet economy grew at a respectable five percent annually or so. China, meanwhile, was still reeling from the effects of the Great Leap Forward when, in 1966, Mao Zedong plunged the country into the Cultural Revolution. Millions of people were persecuted, and China’s leadership nearly triggered a war with the USSR following clashes over islands in Northeast Eurasia.

Today, the two countries present quite a different story. True, since Vladimir Putin was named, then elected, President in 2000, Russia’s economy year after year until the global recession of 2008-09. And having prevented the collapse of a Middle Eastern client in Syria, not to mention Russian influence in European and American elections, Putin can present himself as a confident paladin of Russian power in the world. Yet these triumphs were built only upon the ruins of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in December 1991. And Russia today has to deal not only with the United States, but also a rising People’s Republic of China whose economy is nearly an order of magnitude larger than Russia’s. Even on a per-capita-basis, Russians are only approximately 10% wealthier than their Chinese counterparts.

Reviewing this reversal, those contemplating the decline (and subsequent revival) of Russian state power might point to 1989 as the crucial turning point. In the summer of that year, the PRC’s government imposed martial law as student protesters swarmed Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party declared the protests “counter-revolutionary” and launched a massive crackdown that resulted in perhaps thousands of deaths. Communist Party control over China—albeit now promoting “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—remained intact, as it does today.

In Eastern Europe, however, the Soviet General Secretary’s refusal to use Soviet military force to put down mass protests in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and elsewhere led to the collapse of satellite regimes won at the cost of 26,000,000 lives. And whereas Chinese economic reforms strengthened the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party, soon, in the Soviet Union itself, Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic reforms contributed to the centrifugal dissolution of the world’s largest land country into fifteen successor states.

“The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR” (UNC Press, 2016)

Could things have gone differently? Could the Soviets have reformed their economy into something along the lines of the Chinese success story? Could there have been a Soviet Tiananmen Square scenario that would have prevented Boris Yeltsin from coming to power, and thus averted what Vladimir Putin dubs the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”? It’s a huge question—and also one that our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Christopher Miller (the Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale) takes on in his recent book The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Using sources in Russian and Chinese and exploiting underutilized Soviet archives, Miller’s work challenges the conventional wisdom about the great Soviet-Chinese counterfactual. Far from ignorant of Deng Xiaoping’s reinvention of Chinese socialism, Mikhail Gorbachev and the advisors around him were well aware of how the Chinese were transforming their economy. While some criticized the Chinese for abandoning socialism altogether, Gorbachev and his team consciously sought to imitiate Chinese reforms throughout the 1980s. It wasn’t for a lack of awareness or effort that would-be Soviet reformers failed to match Deng Xiaoping’s results. Rather, Miller suggests, the answer to the failure of Soviet economic reforms lies in the political economy of interest groups in the late Soviet Union. Indeed, it was precisely because large lobbies in the military, the oil and gas industry, and collective farms refused reforms that a Soviet Tiananmen would have been impossible in content if not in form. Even had the coup planners who briefly seized power from Gorbachev in August 1991, there was no way they could have imposed the austerity measures on Russians that Deng imposed on Chinese, for such cuts would have meant cutting into their own bloated budgets.

In short, Miller’s work offers not only a tight empirical reconstruction of key events in the history of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, but also offers a new vista on the political economy of Russia and China as they emerged from that annus horribilus (for the regimes, if not tens of millions of Europeans) of 1989. In order to discuss some of the issues raised by The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Dr. Miller to discuss his road to writing the book, some of the results of his research, as well as his ongoing research agenda.…

Call for Applications: PhD and MA Scholarships in Comparative History (Central European University, Budapest)

For readers of the Global History Blog or Forum interested in Eurasian history—here understood in terms of the space of interactions between the Russian, Habsburg, and Ottoman Empires and their successor states—here is a terrific call for Masters’ and doctoral scholarships at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary: The Department of History at Central European University (CEU)…

CFP: “Re-thinking the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a Global Event in Local Contexts” (University of Essex, England, September 15-16, 2017)

For scholars of Russian history in particular, but also followers of global history, here’s a terrific opportunity to plan next year’ academic events as a recent call for papers “Re-thinking the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a global event in local contexts” taking place on September 15-16, 2017 at the University of Essex at England. The call…

Wartime Ghosts and Souls in Transit: Placing Soviet History in a Global Context with Franziska Exeler

Even at a time of a supposed turn towards more global history, our perspectives of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remain dogged by an insistence on the inescapability of regional specificities. Not least among these are the names for these places themselves – Eastern Europe, itself a relatively recent moniker, cuts off places that once tallied among the richest in all of geographical Europe, like Prague, from a “real Europe” of Paris, London, and Rome, as if “Eastern Europe” itself has a specific, idiosyncratic but common character in a way not true of “Western Europe.” Even if the process of EU expansion and economic integration has rendered formerly ridiculed “Polacks” into Europeans, the same courtesy is not always extended to Ukrainians or Belarusians. As recent Western discourse over the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine shows, commentators are eager to ethnicize and classify “Russian-speakers” from “Ukrainian-speakers,” as if the place is explainable only through reference to ethnicity and identity.

Obviously, the experience of both the Cold War and, for countries further east, membership in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, matters greatly for the present and future of countries like Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and, not least, Russia. But to acknowledge the importance of local specifics or the Soviet heritage is not to admit to its monolithic mattering for the direction of those societies. Kiev and Warsaw as much as Singapore and London can be interrogated with the same array of questions, and with the same comparativist’s gaze, that seemingly “more global” sites might invite.

Franziska Exeler, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

That’s why we’re delighted to welcome as our guest to the Global History Forum Franziska Exeler, a historian of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, whose research explores the impact that extreme violence has on state and societies. In her work, she analyzes the choices that inhabitants of the Soviet European borderlands made and were forced to make under Nazi wartime rule, and examines their political, social and personal repercussions. By locating the Soviet case within the larger, indeed global moment of legal, political, and personal reckonings with the Second World War, she also investigates how community rebuilding could occur within, and at times through, an illiberal regime.

Franziska, who completed her PhD in History at Princeton University in 2013, is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. We had the chance to sit down with her recently to discuss her work and her reflections on how historians of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union might profitably situate their work in an international or global context.…

Down Under, Transnational, Global: Exploring Russian and Soviet History with Philippa Hetherington

The Black Sea is in the news for all of the wrong reasons these days. Whether it’s the Russian annexation of Crimea, uncertainty surrounding the outcome of parliamentary elections in Moldova, or the breakdown of Moscow’s plans to conduct a natural gas pipeline to Europe via the Balkans, these former Tsarist borderlands (and shores) have become an object of geopolitical intrigue that few would have predicted only a year or two ago.

Lost among fears of a revived Cold War is another ongoing crisis in the region: namely, sex trafficking, or what earlier generations would have known as “the traffic in women.” Even as countries like Russia are some of the largest destination for immigrants from other parts of the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s former western borderlands–Ukraine and especially Moldova–constitute some of the largest “exporters” of women into the international sex trade. Sold into criminal gangs as “white” women, women from these countries may find themselves trafficked to brothels in Russia, Turkey, Israel, the UAE, or other destinations. For countries like Ukraine and Moldova, where per-capita income is the same as in Sudan, human traffickers find ideal conditions, helping make human trafficking the third most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, according to the United Nations.

The human trafficking crisis may be forgotten in the light of the region’s other ongoing problems, but like disputes over Ukraine’s place between Europe and Russia or the geopolitics of energy, it, too, has a history. Indeed, perhaps obviously more so than these other two regional problems, the history of “the traffic in women” has obviously global dimensions. Women kidnapped from Chisinau, Kiev, or Minsk may belong to individual nation-states, but the networks that disappear them–and the states and international agencies that sometimes seek to rescue them–are engaged in a battle that takes place above, over, and through the lines on a map. But more than simply reifying all-too-frequent panics over sex trafficking, global history scholarship on the history of sex trafficking must not ignore larger dimensions of racial hierarchy or global migration writ large.

Philippa Hetherington, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

Philippa Hetherington, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

Such nuances lie at the heart of the work of the latest guest to the Global History Forum, Philippa Hetherington. In her work, the recent Harvard PhD explores the emergence of “trafficking in women” as a specific crime in fin-de-siècle Russia, arguing that the legal battle against sex trafficking needs to be understood in terms of larger, global dynamics not unique to just Russia. Working at the intersections of Russian and global history, Philippa recently took time out from her current post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Sydney in her native Australia to speak about her work.…

The Sino-Soviet Split and the Left as Global History: An Interview with Jeremy Friedman

Among the crimes cartographical and otherwise perpetrated by the Mercator projection, the Cold War projection of an Asia dominated by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China numbers among the most egregious. Famous for inflating land areas the further away they were from the Equator, when applied to the world of the early 1950s, the map projection made it seem as if the Communist world was monolithic. The greater part of Asia was covered with red ink, while the freedom-loving (and less cartographically distorted) blue fields of the earth shrunk before the grim crimson blob stretching from Berlin to Vietnam.

Of course, the “Communist world” was never as unified and cohesive as the mapmakers suggested. While the Soviet vision of proletarian workers unifying to overthrow capitalist oppressors and the Maoist vision of peasant armies challenging imperialists from from Hanoi to Havana seemed to march in lockstep to Cold Warriors, by the early 1960s, the two socialist powers came to irreconcilable differences. Soviet advisers were expelled from Beijing as Chinese leaders castigated the Soviets for making peace with the imperialist Americans; Soviet leaders denounced Mao as a revisionist and a nationalist.

But the Sino-Soviet Split, as it is called in English and Russian (“Sino-Soviet Hostility” in Chinese – zhōng sū jiāo’è), had ramifications that went far beyond the oceans of red dye spilled by the Mercator projections. As country after country “the Third World” gained independence, the Soviets and the Chinese were among the few major powers that offered compelling developmental – and historical narratives – to fledgling nations. But what would the meaning of Revolution be in a decolonizing world? Was Revolution really about anti-capitalism, as the Soviets argued? Or was the real essence of Revolution opposition to empire, as their Chinese rivals put forward? How did the Chinese challenge affect the Soviet outreach to the Third World, and vice-versa? And what was the effect of the Sino-Soviet Split on the intellectual repertoire of a global Left?

Jeremy Friedman, whose work forms the basis of this latest installment of the Global History Forum. Image courtesy of Yale University Office of Public Affairs and Communications

Jeremy Friedman, whose work forms the basis of this latest installment of the Global History Forum. Image courtesy of Yale University Office of Public Affairs and Communications

These are among just some of the questions at the heart of the work of Dr. Jeremy Friedman, our guest in this latest installment of the Global History Forum. Friedman, the Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University, is the author of the forthcoming Shadow Cold War, scheduled to appear with the University of North Carolina Press next year, in 2015. Global History Forum spoke with Jeremy recently to discuss his intellectual journey thus far, the book, and a forthcoming project on the history of the Third World.

Excavating “The Last Empire”: Discussing Soviet History and Global History with Serhii Plokhii

Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

Since the USSR formally ceased to exist on December 26, scores of books have been written on the Soviet dissolution, an event that resulted in the creation of fifteen new states across Eurasia and that current Russian President Vladimir Putin famously called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. In his new book, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, Harvard professor Serhii Plokhii offers a definitive account of the end of the Soviet state.

Serhii Plokhii's latest book, "The Last Empire"

Serhii Plokhii’s latest book, “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union”

Based on research in archives in Russia, Ukraine, and the United States interviews with high-level officials, The Last Empire explores the decisions taken in Moscow, Washington, and various Soviet republics between 1989 and 1992 that led to the dissolution of the Soviet experiment. Standing at the center of his story are tensions between Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachëv and élites in the Ukrainian SSR. Already weakened by pressure from Russian President Boris Yeltsin and an abortive coup, Gorbachëv and his visions for a revitalized Soviet confederation were doomed by the decisive results of a December 1991 Ukrainian referendum in favor of independence.

The account of The Last Empire, published by Basic Books this May, might surprise to American readers, many of whom are led to believe that it was decisive action by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as Plokhii shows through exhaustive research–and interviews with important figures like Brent Scowcroft–the Soviet collapse arose far more due to internal Union dynamics than American foreign policy.