In the Soviet Union, university programs in finance and economics did exist but they were nothing like their Western counterparts. To be sure, Western economies and financial systems were studied but providing a thorough understanding of a capitalist system was not the natural objective of these programs.
Rather, the courses distributed to students evidence of the supposed failings of the capitalist system, which instructors and textbooks painted as backwards. When capitalism’s longevity proved superior to that of socialism, which was promptly abandoned before the end of the last century, university programs in finance and economics were overhauled just as quickly. Thereafter, instruction in Russia and other former Soviet republics came to resemble their Western counterparts.
Soviet Finance Education
Though the Soviet state may have awarded the designation of ‘economist’ to the students of economics departments at its universities, there was little need to develop knowledge of market-based economies in a state-controlled system. This was not completely neglected though. Soviet universities did offer a limited education in the economic and financial systems of capitalist economies, but Soviet economists were measured by their ability to explain why socialist policies were superior.
This element of that education was the same even for those seeking technical careers. After all, the typical graduate was generally considered for managerial positions at large-owned firms. Regardless, even here there was little need to analyze incentives, costs, or benefits as a capitalist would. Rather, reciting and extolling socialist virtues was required.
Though less studied than economics, programs in finance were not unknown in Soviet universities. Vilnius University in Lithuania, one of the oldest universities in Eastern Europe, came under Soviet control after the Second World War. Its ‘Economics, Cybernetics and Finance College’ included a Finance and Credit Department.
Until the end of communism, this department’s curriculum consisted of ten courses. Within it, some attention was paid to finance in capitalist countries and courses included the likes of ‘Finances of Western Capitalist Countries’ and the ‘Circulation of Money and Credit in Western Capitalist Countries’. However, even the courses on capitalist economies generally focused on the public finances and the state with topics of study including the state budget, taxation systems, and government bonds. Below is a listing of the courses included in the finance and credit curriculum at Vilnius.
The ‘Finance of Enterprises’ course taught the manner in which state run firms were capitalized, with a notable preference for the word ‘funds’ in place of Western ‘capital’ in its material. ‘Finance of Industries’ meanwhile covered the allocation of raw materials and production along with teaching the superiority of a centrally planned economy in avoiding business cycles.
Classes on the ‘Circulation of Money and Credit in Western Capitalist Countries’ introduced central banks, commercial banks, credit, and securities. The corresponding course on the Soviet Union taught of alternative units of account favored by socialist orthodoxy, such as those measuring human energy. Since in the Soviet economic system, banks helped the state enforce economic plans by doling out credit only to compliant state firms, students were instructed in this practice in the course ‘Organizing and Planning of Short-Term Credit’.
The nature of economics instruction in the Soviet Union has been more widely studied than financial education. At Moscow State University, one of the most prestigious in the Soviet Union, the works of Marx and Lenin were central to the program of studies of its economics departments, especially its political economy program.
At Soviet universities, one would also have found departments of ‘economic cybernetics’ as it was called in Russia. This was mathematical economics, separate from and something of a rival school to political economy. Economic cybernetics focused on optimization techniques for production and often earned the suspicion of hard-liners in the more-dogmatic area of political economy.
Nonetheless, even this discipline rested on the presumption of a planned economy where ‘optimization’ meant the improved execution of the directives of the state. There was no consideration given to the impulses of consumers, producers, and traders in response to market signals which were suppressed in the country. Occasionally though, ‘shadow prices’ used in these optimization problems were at odds with the labor theory of value, suggesting some genuine divergence from Marxist orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, the area of political economy was more political than economic and even Soviet officials routinely criticized the science as useless and actually quite unscientific. In any case, whether in conventional political economy courses or in cybernetics, students at Moscow State University were required to take a three-year sequence of political economy courses where Marx and Lenin would be encountered repeatedly. Though Western economists might be introduced in courses on economic thought, this instruction still sought to prove the fabled crises of capitalism.
Perestroika and Professors
Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, the Soviet economy began to change, as too did instruction in finance and economics. A new economics textbook was approved by the Soviet Ministry of Education in 1988. Though it still contained much of the same content as older textbooks, it also included a more favorable presentation of some elements of capitalism. This was an era of increased academic freedom and professors with more to offer than proofs of socialism’s virtues were increasingly valued.
Academics were themselves exposed to the economic changes underway. Reduced public funding of education and the transition to capitalism meant that professors were more likely than ever to be part-timers, splitting their time between the university and work in industry, banks, and the government. Private universities specializing in economics and law were also established, addressing shortages of those with these increasingly-valued skills.
Exchanges of ideas unthinkable a decade earlier were now commonplace. In 1992, a three-week seminar on market economics was held at Moscow State University and this event was attended by seventy professors. In a post-seminar questionnaire, many of the academic attendees reported having some familiarity with certain topics in capitalist thought; they reported being aware of microeconomic theories and Keynesian economics. Other areas were more foreign, especially around international trade and finance. Nonetheless, most of these seventy professors would find themselves teaching free market economics within three years.
To modernize its curriculum, Moscow State University collaborated with the London School of Economics, Sorbonne Université in Paris, and the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands. As a flagship institution in the USSR, Moscow State University influenced economics education in other Soviet republics, even after their independence.
For example, Belarus State University in Minsk, which previously had no dedicated economics department, explicitly modelled its new curriculum on what was taught at Moscow. The Ministry of Education in Belarus in turn used the Belarus State University curriculum as the compulsory standard for post-independence Belarus. Belarus State University also introduced a specialization in management starting in about 1995, again mimicking Moscow. In this way, what happened at Moscow was significant to the whole of Soviet university instruction, in economics and other disciplines.
Courses and Textbooks
The reforms underway as the socialist system was abandoned made old textbooks obsolete. So, new Russian-language editions of standard American economics textbooks were published, including by the former publishing house of the Communist Party itself. One new book saw 500,000 copies printed and this became the standard textbook for introductory economics courses throughout Russia. In a fitting end, approving this textbook was one of the last acts of the communist government before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The new rector of Moscow State University applauded the textbook at a dedication ceremony. Introductory economics courses, now with a capitalist foundation, were required of all students of Russian universities.
At Vilnius meanwhile, a finance and credit class in ‘Organizing and Planning the Circulation of Money’ was replaced with a more capitalism-oriented ‘Monetary Economic Regulation’ course. In all, of the ten courses that originally made up the finance and credit curriculum at Vilnius, only the two that already covered capitalist economies were retained. New classes replaced the old and these new courses addressed the likes of privatization, small business financing, and cash flow analysis of firms.
Whatever socialist holdovers remained by the late 1990s, the economics programs at universities like Moscow State were simply transformed. Old political economy and cybernetics programs evolved into an amalgamation of economics and business administration. The attention paid to Marx and Lenin was gone, as were special seminars on Marx’s Capital and other artifacts of socialist orthodoxy.
As with other universities in the former Soviet Union, the economics programs at Moscow would now open with introductory courses in macro and microeconomics. In line with the Western profession, the importance of mathematics in the economics curriculum also increased. The curriculum was now familiar to a Westerner and many of the textbooks used in Russian universities, and those in the other former Soviet republics, were translations of Western, usually American, textbooks.
Prior to 1990, Marx and Lenin dominated Soviet university instruction in finance and economics. Up until a couple years earlier, when figures in capitalist thought did make appearances, they were usually criticized. By the mid-point of the decade, socialism wasn’t just in retreat, it was very quickly evaporating in the economics departments of universities.
Yet, while textbooks and courses were replaced, professors were not. In many cases, the same instructors who taught the virtues of socialism in 1988 were denunciating it, or at least moving on from it, by 1992. While students were graduating from departments that looked nothing like the ones they entered, and found their nation dissolved, the shock that came to those with decades of experience under the old regime was usually tougher to adjust to.
More from the Tontine Coffee-House
1. Alexeev, Michael, et al. “Economics in the Former Soviet Union.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 6, no. 2, 1992, pp. 137–148.
2. Brue, Stanley L., and Craig R. Macphee. “From Marx to Markets: Reform of the University Economics Curriculum in Russia.” The Journal of Economic Education, vol. 26, no. 2, May 1995, pp. 182–194.
3. Bubnys, Edward L. “The Finance Curriculum in the Former Soviet Union: Consequences of a Command System.” Journal of Financial Education, vol. 22, 1996, pp. 90–93.
4. Kovzik, Alexander, and Michael Watts. “Reforming Undergraduate Instruction in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.” The Journal of Economic Education, vol. 32, no. 1, Feb. 2001, pp. 78–92.