Gathering Statistical Materials for the Russian
Far East and Central Asia

Yoshiaki Nishimura

The State of Statistics in the Soviet Far East and Central Asia

As the reader knows, the Soviet Union was comprised of fifteen republics. They were not independent, however, and the Soviet state was highly unified. For this reason, there have been almost no studies of the different Central Asia countries conducted by Japanese researchers. At most, from a comparative perspective, there has been occasional reference to country-by-country figures taken from the statistical materials for the whole of the Soviet Union. A number of volumes of collected republic statistics with these kinds of figures have been published, but they were not gathered with any particular zeal. Indeed, the issue of gathering statistics from the Far East, which comprised no more than a single region of the Soviet Union, seemed to be of little importance from the perspective of research on the Soviet economy. One reason for this is that while Japan neighbors the Russian Far East and has conducted some regular economic exchange with it, the region was a major Soviet military base during the Cold War and held a large concentration of military-related industries. Therefore Far Eastern economic statistics were enveloped in a secretive veil. Further, we must not forget that during the Stalin era, all Soviet economic statistics were treated as top secrets, and publications such as National Economy of the Soviet Union (Yearbook) were not opened to the public until the latter half of the 1950s.

Given these conditions, the volume Russian Far East Economic Survey was, as the dust jacket stated, a pioneering work in revealing economic information on "a vast and unknown land." It was published in Russian in 1994 by the Russian Academy of Sciences Economic Research Institute Far Eastern branch, and the Japanese version was edited by Mochizuki Kiichi and Nagayama Sadanori. Nevertheless, little of the information gathered in the book dates from prior to 1970. For the isolated inland island of central Asia, such publications do not even exist in Japan. This was the situation with regard to the state of economic statistics in the Far East and Central Asia as the Asian Historical Statistics Project started up.

Activities of the Russia and Central Asia Group

The first issue for the Far East and central Asia group was therefore to start gathering and ordering easily obtainable materials from recent years, and at the same time to gather materials from as far back into the past as possible. To find old materials, we had to search in the field or use the information networks of Soviet and Russian specialist bookstores.

One cannot purchase materials in used bookstores when gathering materials in Central Asia's Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, so there is no alternative to using personal connections to buy published statistical collections. We were able to collect a substantial amount of statistical information, but in view of the Statistics Project's goal of gathering materials from as far back as the pre-World War II era, a lot of gaps remained, so we felt considerable pressure to press forward in our search.

In the Far East, thanks to the assistance of the Institute of Economic Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Far Eastern Division, we were able to look into the activities of the Khabarovsk and Vladivostok regional offices of the State Statistics Committee (Goskomstat) and the Economic Document Archive. What we learned in the first instance was that Goskomstat offices in each of the Far Eastern oblastjs (states) aggregate data gathered from enterprises as designated by the central Goskomstat office in Moscow, and then send the aggregated figures to the center. The regional Goskomstat offices store the collected data for ten years, and then transfer it to the corresponding Economic Document Archive. This information provided a valuable understanding of the compilation and storage systems of statistical data in the Russian regions, and it inevitably drew our attention to the oblastj Economic Document Archives. But conducting research in the Document Archives is "like entering a massive forest and losing your compass" (as Kiichi Mochizuki put it in "Compiling Long-term Economic Statistical Data for the Russian Far East," Newsletter No. 3, 1996). You use a card search to make a preliminary guess and order something from the middle of a mountainous pile of material, and then, one by one, you receive primary materials showing information classified by years, by enterprises, by production figures broken down by region, and so on. Investigating such materials one after another and aggregating them for separate oblastjs constitutes an enormous task. It would mean our conducting a task on which the government expended vast amounts of money and human resources, and it exceeds our resources. However, this reminded us that there were also materials in Moscow, where they had been forwarded by the oblastj Goskomstat offices.

At that point our materials gathering efforts were stymied, but another of our search outlets, a specialist bookstore, then turned up some very welcome information. First, the bookstore was able to obtain photocopies of books of statistics published and distributed in the Soviet Union until around 1970 from a list we held (the list itself is available in the Institute of Economic Research library at Hitotsubashi University). This was especially cheering because the books also included a large volume of materials published on central Asia and the Russian Far East from the 1920s through the mid-1930s. Owing to economic conditions in Russia, libraries and document centers are short of paper and toner, so copy services are slow. The copies we ordered over half a year ago have not yet arrived but we expect to receive them soon.

The Soviet Secret Economic Statistics Databasing Project

The second piece of news we received concerned the Soviet Secret Economic Statistics Databasing Project conducted at the Russian State Archive of the Economy in Moscow. Because the rule mandating that materials must be transferred to and stored at Economic Document Archives applies to the center as well as the regions, the various secret statistics compiled by the Soviet Goskomstat (once named the Soviet Goskomstat Planning Committee Statistics Bureau) are stored in the Russian State Archive of the Economy. (The secret documents include those marked secret as well as those simply not open to the public.) These include materials from the end of the revolution through the mid-1960s which are being opened to the public under new 30-year declassification laws. There is a plan to spend ten months and 100,000 dollars to compile an explanatory list and turn it into a database so that researchers from around the world will be able to access the data. The news about the database was quite cheering. It would enable us to look at regional statistics of the Stalin era, and it might also be possible to glean information on how statistics were compiled during the Soviet era.

Three members of our research group left to conduct field research in February 1997. The primary goal was to gather data from among the formerly secret statistical materials on the Far East and central Asia. The secondary goal was to verify the significance and practicability of the proposed project, both of which become very clear when we actually try to find the materials. When we actually tried to find data, we were able to find quite valuable information. However, we felt at that time the same as we had felt at the Economic Document Archives in the Far East, that is, that we can certainly find the data we want, but if we do so by wandering through the mazes of the Economic Document Archives, the process will be terribly inefficient. We felt that it was very important, and essential, that the secret statistics be entered in a database.

However, it would be too costly to incorporate this project into the Statistics Project, and for a number of reasons the project cannot very easily qualify for Ministry of Education scientific research funding. We thus find ourselves in the position of needing a sponsor, but that is a task hardly less difficult than finding the statistical data. Further, even if we resolve this problem, it will take even more time before we can use the database. So for this year we have to continue our wandering journey.

The Coming Issue

Several problems regarding Soviet economic statistics have been pointed out. First, in addition to the conceptual and technical problems with the statistics, there are data distortions such as the inflated reports on production put out under the Soviet centralized system. Since information was hidden and twisted under the Cold War structure, it would be hard to argue that there are no problems in the published official statistics. We certainly cannot say that statistics are accurate because they are official, and the stance of the researcher must be to suspect problems. However, it is certain that no other statistical data exists. Further, as our experiences at the Goskomstat offices in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok made clear, our trying to take the place of the Soviet officials in correcting the statistics for even a single product in a single oblastj would be an absurdly huge undertaking. It is, in reality, impossible. Studying data at the enterprise level is all the more impossible at this point.

This is the present situation, but it does not mean that there is nothing that we can do. It may be possible to use improved methods to recompute the figures. We might also be able to gain some new insights by comparing recently opened secret data with previously announced statistics. At the least, we should be able to fill in some areas which have been incomplete up to now. Further, people who produced statistical materials during the Soviet era are still living, so we should be able to conduct sociological research to better understand the reality of the data compilation. Finally, we want to include any and all new information in the economic database for central Asia and the Far East.

Hitotsubashi University, Institute of Economic Research