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The Soviet “Transition,” Economic Expertise, and (the Elisions of) Neo-Liberal World-History
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Please join the Harriman Institute for a Director’s Seminar with Adam Leeds. Moderated by Valentina Izmirlieva.

In and beyond academia, the Soviet collapse is taken as the culmination, whether triumphal or disastrous, of a global neoliberal turn since the 1960s. Economists are often taken as that epoch’s agents, theorists, or avatars, and the Soviet case seems exemplary: economist Yegor Gaidar was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation in 1991, and over thirteen months managed the collapse of the Soviet economy into one that was, if not liberal, at least clearly capitalist. But as I will show, Gaidar was no “Chicago [or Harvard] Boy,” as he is often labeled. He was neither a Westernized economist, nor even a mathematical economist; neither a neoliberal, nor even a liberal. Gaidar was a specialist in the accounting practices of socialist enterprises, a young participant in a well-established and highly active world of socialist reform economics. His work in the 1980s progressed from arguments about how best to construct accounting “indicators” for value added to a theory of how to transition the Soviet economy to a self-managed socialism on the Yugoslav or Hungarian models. By the end of the decade, he had developed a new critique of the Soviet economy as in fact no longer centrally planned at all, but rather a sort of bureaucratic morass. Introducing markets would be not the end of socialist planning, but the very possibility of it—a thought which has become unintelligible in liberal terms that equate markets with capitalism. The Soviet collapse was the moment from which neo-liberal Weltgeschichte was retrospectively constructed. But what then happens to this understanding of our epochal location if Gaidar was no neoliberal, and if the Soviet collapse is not best understood as a neoliberal transition?

Adam Leeds is Assistant Professor in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, where he is also affiliated with the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, the Center for Science and Society, and the Harriman Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. His research is concerned with how it came to pass and what it means that in modern times the art of politics co-exists alongside the science of economics, that the polity is reduplicated by the economy, particularly from the socialist and Soviet vantage points. More broadly, he is interested in the narrative structures by which “we” have located ourselves in specific historical times and the politics implied thereby. He is completing a monograph entitled A Science for Socialism: Soviet Economic Theory and Cold War Modernity, 1893-1993.