My current projects

Objective of the project:The project examines Russo-Danish relations in the 18th and the 19th centuries. For the entire 18th century, the two states were very close in terms of economic and institutional development, but after the abolition of serfdom in Denmark in 1800 their paths diverged significantly. This was most striking with the gradual collapse of the Danish empire, and the subsequent rapid development of the remaining territory, whereas Russia remains relatively “backward”, but with its territory largely intact. From the 1860s until the 1920s a much-reduced Denmark became a teacher to its larger partner through the transfer of knowledge, expertise, and experts – a process which aided Russian development, and demonstrates the links between the two countries. The historical literature has largely overlooked the links and similarities between the Danish and Russian Empires. But in fact, from the 15th century, either implicitly or explicitly, Russia and Denmark were united in opposition to a common enemy, Sweden. Both initially looked rather similar: two sizable monarchies covering large parts of northern and continental Europe, as well as Artic territories, with relatively “backward” institutional and technological bases. Until the late nineteenth century both could maintain an illusion of self-sufficiency. Thus, goods from industrial heartlands (e.g. Schleswig and Holstein in the case of Denmark, and the European heartland of Russia, and the Urals) could be traded with inhabitants of fertile agricultural lands (including Denmark proper and the southern part of Russia) or of mountainous regions rich in national resources (Norway and the Urals). Moreover, institutional similarities, most obviously serfdom and an absolutist monarchy, hampered economic and social development. The overarching question motivating the project is to explore what accounts for the ultimately divergent pathways of the two empires as well as the rapid disintegration of the Danish Empire and the survival of the Russian Empire, given their initial similarities.

Objective of the project: GDP per capita at decadal frequency is estimated for Russia from the 1690s to the 1880s. Although Peter the Great’s reforms ushered in a period of positive growth between the 1690s and 1760s, this was followed by a period of negative growth between the 1760s and 1800s as population growth outstripped the ability of agriculture to maintain per capita food supply. GDP per capita then stagnated between the 1800s and 1880s, including the years after the 1861 abolition of serfdom. Although large-scale industry grew more rapidly than the rest of the economy, it was starting from a low base and the economy continued to be dominated by the slow-growing agriculture, small-scale industry and services. Russian economic growth before the 1760s resulted in catching-up on the West, but this was followed by a period of relative decline, leaving mid-nineteenth century Russia further behind than at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Objective of the project: Recent measurements of living standards of the past provide new insights into comparative economic and social development in the long run. This research gives a necessary quantitative benchmark for the evaluation of literary sources and opens new avenues in researching consumption and material culture. Russian economic history still lacks sufficient research on the topic, and the Russian 18th century is especially unlucky in this respect. More quantitative research of living standards in 18th century Russia is particularly needed to resolve never-ending speculation about stagnated economic development under serfdom. We measure living standards of seasonal workers in 18th century Moscow. We apply the approach by Robert Allen. The method involves calculating the ratio of annual incomes of unskilled labourers to the costs of a “subsistence basket”, which is constructed based on national consumption patterns. This approach allows us to assess living standards even in a data sparse environment. We also compare incomes from unskilled work in Moscow to incomes from agriculture in the same region. We use new data from the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts combined with data from secondary sources. The results show that the economy of the Moscow region experienced periods of both growth and decline. Nominal wages and prices increased consistently. In the middle of the 18th century the welfare ratio of seasonal workers was quite high, at 2.2, however it was declining over time. At the end of the century it was between 1 and 1.5; the latter is typical for most European cities. Our finding of decline in living standards is consistent with recent estimations of falling national GDP per capita (Broadberry and Korchmina, 2022), as well as being consistent with the decline of conscripts’ heights. Notably, after the decline, there was a negative urban wage premium: the annual income from unskilled work in Moscow was lower than the annual income in agriculture in surrounding areas.

“The Grain Invasion and the Abolition of Serfdom.”

With Jonathan Chapman (University of Bologna)

Objective of the project: This project investigates the interconnections between sweeping economic and political changes in Russia’s long nineteenth-century. From the 1810s onwards, Russian markets became increasingly integrated into world markets, as technological progress facilitated grain exports to Western Europe. We will test whether this process was facilitated by the 1861 Abolition of Serfdom—an institution often claimed to have restricted market development and hence held back Russia’s modernization. We will then investigate whether growing export potential itself provided one source of demand for abolition, as market integration made economic inefficiency both more salient and more costly for noble landowners.

Objective of the project:Political actors can twist historical events into a disingenuous narrative to serve as the pretext for war. This problem is particularly acute in autocracies, because of the amount of power in the hands of one person and their cronies. In 2021, autocracies were on the rise and harboured 70% of the world population. Yet the proportion of the articles about autocracies in leading social science journals is tiny. While scientists are failing to study how autocracies work, non-democratic leaders are using national myths to define ‘honest’ narratives of the past to legitimize dangerous geopolitical moves: Vladmir Putin’s bogus history of the Russian people ‘justified’ his invasion of Ukraine, and undermined global peace and stability. This project de-mythologises the history of the Russian Empire by developing a novel quantitative approach, combining theory and methods from across the social sciences and history. A misplaced focus on the ‘heroic’ autocrat with a need for military victories and territorial expansion has erased local governments, communities and women out of Russia’s historical and current political narrative. This project will tackle this lacuna in three interlinked problems: 1) Launch a quantitative methodology to estimate the economic costs and benefits of Russia’s imperial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. 2) Pioneer a theory-based method for understanding the role and impact of women in the pre-industrial economy. 3) Reconceptualise serfdom as a flexible and dynamic system rather than an unchanging, stagnant, ‘bad’ institution that restricted economic progress. By deconstructing Russia’s imperial experience the project will both deepen our understanding of the preindustrial world and cast new light on the timeless challenges of forced labor, misogyny, and imperial ambition.