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Reviewed by:
  • Statistique et révolution en Russie: Un compromise impossible (1880–1930), and: L’anarchie bureaucratique: Statistique et pouvoir sous Staline
  • Michael D. Gordin
Martine Mespoulet , Statistique et révolution en Russie: Un compromise impossible (1880–1930) [Statistics and Revolution in Russia: An Impossible Compromise (1880–1930)]. 337 pp. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2001. ISBN 2868476120. €20.00.
Alain Blum and Martine Mespoulet , L’anarchie bureaucratique: Statistique et pouvoir sous Staline [Bureaucratic Anarchy: Statistics and Power under Stalin]. 372 pp. Paris: La Découverte, 2003. ISBN 2707139033. €29.00.

Numbers are indispensable to understanding the history of late imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. This is not just because it is important to know such data as rates of economic growth, urban population, war casualties, and so on, in order to tell a detailed and nuanced history of the period from 1850 onward, but also because the late tsarist and nascent Soviet regimes saw much of their governance as about numbers. Figures such as census data, iron output, and net revenues do not just enable historians to evaluate these regimes; these data represent, to a degree, how these regimes evaluated themselves. The extent to which Russia was successful as a European power was tied to these figures, and the very nature of the Soviet economy—under war communism, the New Economic Policy (NEP), or Stalinism, to constrain ourselves to the period before 1940—demanded numbers for the sake of planning and for propaganda to demonstrate the victories of socialism over the reign of Nicholas II or the bourgeois West.

Given the centrality of numbers to Russian statecraft, historians to date have shown remarkably little sensitivity to how those numbers were produced and what the process of their production can tell us about the state and polity in which those numbers were so centrally embedded. The two books under review, therefore, both expose a lacuna in the set of questions historians have asked about the period from 1880 to 1940—and go a long way toward completely closing the gap with detailed, perceptive analysis of the importance of statistics as a lens for examining the rise of Soviet governance. As such, they are vital reading for anyone interested in how the Soviet state built itself out of pieces from the ancien régime, and for anyone who craves a rich account of the interior workings of a crucial but strangely invisible organ of government.

These two books form an almost continuous narrative from the beginning of the reign of Tsar Alexander III (1881-94) to the outbreak of World [End Page 803] War II, with a substantial overlap during the NEP of the 1920s, when both Mespoulet and Blum and Mespoulet see a deep—and disastrous—transformation in the role of statistics and the fate of statisticians in Russia. Mespoulet's book, Statistique et révolution en Russie, is largely a history of the statistical profession in Russia, told from the perspective of those specialists who worked gathering data for the zemstvos, the rural councils established by Alexander II as one of the Great Reforms in 1864.1 Her narrative is one of professionalization and then what she terms "deprofessionalization" as the statisticians were forced to adapt to the increasing control of the Soviet environment. Blum and Mespoulet, however, begin L'anarchie bureaucratique after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and are primarily interested in what the fate of statistics can tell us about the nascent Stalinist state. Both works are thoroughly researched, well argued, and nuanced in interpretation; and they leave one with a sense of despair at what became of the statisticians. The picture of a "lost world" that flourished under tsarism and then was crushed by the State Planning Committee (Gosplan), the Party, and the security organs underlies the overwhelming strengths of these works, as well as the relatively slight missteps and paths not taken in their analysis. By looking at both books together, one can see the illumination they cast, as well as the shadowy spots where their viewpoint will not let them travel.

For the story of the Old Regime, one must turn to Mespoulet, who offers in this work the only sustained study...


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