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New Study Assesses Economic, Political Impact Of Holocaust In Russia

  • Robert Coalson

Jews pray in memory of those who died during the Holocaust at a synagogue in Moscow

Jews pray in memory of those who died during the Holocaust at a synagogue in Moscow

A group of American researchers has issued a new paper demonstrating that the 11 regions of western Russia that were most severely affected by the Holocaust lag behind the rest of the country economically and are more politically conservative to the present day.

The researchers speculate that the effects may have been caused by the fact that the Holocaust, in targeting Jews, disproportionately devastated the most highly educated and economically productive segments of local society.

The paper's authors (economist Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, political scientist James Robinson of Harvard, and economist Tarek Hassan of the University of Chicago) are quick to point out that although there is a strong correlation between these phenomena, it is not possible to assert definitively that the Holocaust caused these economic and political outcomes.

Robinson says the data show that regions that were occupied by the Nazis for at least six months have deviated economically and politically from the rest of the country in subsequent decades. "We found that places where the Holocaust was more intense are poorer, have lower wages, and tend to vote in systematically different ways subsequently," Robinson said.

"We found that they are more likely to support Communist candidates in the 1990s and they are more likely to vote in favor of maintaining the Soviet Union in the famous plebiscite that Gorbachev held in 1991."

Lower GDP

The Jewish population of the 11 districts studied declined on average by 39 percent between the 1939 and 1959 censuses. The average GDP of those regions in 2002 was some 23 percent lower than the average for Russia as a whole.

Robinson and his colleagues hypothesize that the Holocaust may have had this impact because it disproportionately targeted the most economically productive segment of society.

"One of the basic ideas of the paper is that the reason that this shock -- this kind of huge demographic shock called genocide -- had a long-run effect was because it differentially killed sort of relatively skilled, highly educated people."

Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and researcher with the American Enterprise Institute, says the study seems to provide support for the notion that demographic disruptions have profound, long-term consequences.

"What demographers will generally tell you is that the implications of demographic perturbations -- and the Holocaust is the most tragic sort of perturbation -- last a long time. They reverberate for decades or even generations. That's certainly what this study would suggest," Eberstadt said.

Census Problems

However, the study also highlights the difficulty of conducting this kind of research. It relies heavily on the 1939 Soviet census, which was issued after dictator Josef Stalin suppressed the 1937 census and convicted many of its organizers of sabotage because its figures too accurately reflected the demographic disaster of forced collectivization.

The 1939 census was hastily organized and reflected population figures much more in line with what Stalin had predicted at a speech to a Soviet party congress in 1934. Longtime Soviet demographer Murray Feshbach describes the 1939 census as "badly compromised."

"The dependence on the 1939 census of population is bothersome to me because there were too many problems with its veracity," Feshbach said.

Eberstadt agrees that the 1939 census -- like a lot of Soviet data -- is "a problem," but says it is still possible to do quantitative research of this type, albeit cautiously and with qualifications.

Robinson defends the study, saying the data that was most central to the research was not compromised by Stalin's interference.

"We talked to a lot of scholars who are experts on this and there are problems with both the censuses -- both the one that was stopped and the one that was completed. But our sense was that this didn't really bias the estimates of the number of Jewish people, which was mostly what we were concerned with," Robinson said.

He adds that fragmentary reports from the German Einsatzgruppen, the paramilitary death squads that perpetrated the Holocaust in the region, correspond to the information gleaned from the Soviet data.

The researchers also took great pains to isolate the impact of the Holocaust from those of other major disruptions this region experienced in the period between the revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, including industrialization, collectivization, the war, economic centralization, the relocation of industry, and others.

Eberstadt says it would be beneficial if this research stimulated comparative studies of the Holocaust's impact in other regions.

"There is so much that is peculiar about the Soviet experience, I would have liked to have seen a comparison, but that's a much bigger project. The Soviet Union wasn't the only area where Hitler murdered the Jews. There were enormous demographic losses in Poland. There were enormous demographic losses in Romania," Eberstadt said.I'm curious to see someday whether the same patterns that Acemoglu, et al, found for the Soviet Union are replicated in some of the other countries where the Holocaust was perpetrated."

Robinson also expresses the hope that the study will generate interest and further research in the topic in order to better understand how historical experience leads to differences in economic and political development.
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to

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