With grant from NEH, Rowan history professor to research Russia’s underground economy

With grant from NEH, Rowan history professor to research Russia’s underground economy


A prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant assisted Rowan University history professor Jim Heinzen in the research for his critically acclaimed 2016 book, which examined corruption and the culture of bribery under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1940s and ’50s.

Now, Heinzen, a scholar of Russian history, has been awarded a second NEH grant to assist with his research for his third book, which examines the black market and the “shadow” economy in Russia from the 1950s to the 1980s.

“It’s a good grant to get,” Heinzen says with understatement of the NEH’s $6,000 grant through its Summer Stipends program.

Awarded by the NEH’s Division of Research Programs, Summer Stipends support individuals pursuing advanced research that is of value to humanities scholars, general audiences, or both. The grants, which are highly competitive and coveted by humanities scholars, support continuous full-time work on a humanities project for a period of two consecutive months.

In the last five years, the program has a funding ratio of just 9 percent, according to NEH officials. During that time, the program has received an average of 834 applications annually and has funded an average of 77 awards, NEH officials note.

Heinzen, who received his first NEH grant in 2008, will travel to Russia next summer to conduct research for his book project, Underground Entrepreneurs and the Shadow Economy Under Late Soviet Socialism, 1950s-1980s.

The book will build upon research he conducted for The Art of the Bribe: Corruption Under Stalin, 1943-1953, which was published by Yale University Press. The Art of the Bribe, which examined the corruption by public officials in the post-war Soviet world during the last years of Stalin’s life, “adds multiple dimensions to our understanding of the social and cultural complexity of authoritarian regimes,” according to a review in the Journal of Social History.

The Art of the Bribe looked at ways that, in a time of great poverty after World War II, the Soviet people figured out ways to get by in an oppressive situation,” says Heinzen.

In Underground Entrepreneurs, Heinzen will examine how the black market emerged and thrived in the USSR under Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. The book will include an examination of Khrushchev’s decision to institute the death penalty for economic criminals in Russia. Altogether, 300 people were executed from 1961-1964, including 21 in the Kirgiz Affair, an underground clothing operation based in Frunze (now Bishkek).

“My newest project lies at the intersection of the political, the criminal, and everyday life in the final decades of the Soviet empire,” Heinzen says. “The shadow economy was essential for the survival of the Soviet system. Yet in spite of its importance, little has been written about it beyond the anecdotal. I’m particularly interested in the social and cultural aspects of the shadow economy.”

The underground operations were clever, creative, sophisticated, and ambitious in scope, producing coveted items such as clothing, shoes, counterfeit copies of American records, and household goods such as carpeting and curtains, Heinzen says.

“They used all of the institutions of a formal economy, but for illegal purposes,” says Heinzen. “The Soviet economy was very good at building big things, but very poor at producing consumer goods. There was a huge black market in western goods.”

Heinzen’s research will include examining recently declassified archival material in the State Archive of the Russian Federation that “exposes in granular detail the sophistication, ambition and geographic reach of Soviet underground entrepreneurs” as far back as the 1950s. Additionally, he’ll study the trial transcript of the 1962 Kirgiz Affair, which is arguably considered the most important economic crime trial in Soviet history.

“To my knowledge, these unique materials have not been used by any scholar,” says Heinzen.

Heinzen also has located a cache of 25 taped interviews with underground entrepreneurs, police and prosecutors. The interviews, conducted by an American economist in the 1980s, tell the story of the Soviet black market from the inside out, Heinzen says.

“The interviews have never been used by any scholar,” says Heinzen.

A Rowan professor since 2000, Heinzen also is the author of Inventing a Soviet Countryside: The Soviet State and the Transformation of Rural Russia before Collectivization (2004, University of Pittsburgh Press). In 2013, he was a visiting professor of history at Princeton University, where he taught on the history of the Soviet Union.

Heinzen, who was in Russia during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991-’92, also was a visiting scholar at L’Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (The Institute for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences) in Paris, where he gave talks on his research on the Russian black market.