On April 6, 2011, Igor Birman, the Moscow-born-and-trained economist whose prediction of the Soviet Union’s collapse fell largely on deaf ears in his adoptive home of Washington, D.C., died at the age of 82.
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Igor Yakovlevich Birman was born on July 25, 1928. He studied economics at the Moscow Statistical Institute, from which he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1949 and his Ph.D. in 1960.
Birman held planning positions at three factories, and he worked as an economist for the Soviet government studying both the lumber and construction industries. It was said that his personal experience was a major factor in his suspicions about official statistics.
Far from being a dissident, though, Birman was a member of a commission on economic reform organized in the late '60s by then-Premier Alexei Kosygin. But the commission didn’t see any of the measures it proposed implemented.
In 1974, Birman was able to emigrate to the United States, settling near Washington, D.C. In 1980, in an op-ed for The Washington Post, he argued that the Central Intelligence Agency was severely overestimating the strength of the Soviet economy, which he described as being in a state of crisis.
The standard of living in his former home was about one-quarter, or even one-fifth, that in the United States, wrote Birman. This countered the widespread assumption among American researchers through the mid-'70s that it was around half the size of the U.S. economy.
For example, if Americans three decades ago spent an estimated 17 percent of their incomes on food, in the USSR that proportion was closer to half, Birman wrote. Almost no households had more than one bathroom, and in the entire Soviet Union there were no more than 3,000 swimming pools, he suggested.
Speaking at a conference in 1985, Birman predicted that if the Soviet Union maintained its production of goods and services at the same rate it had done since the early '60s, “it will catch up with the United States’ 1976 level in 62 years in fruit, 74 years in meat, 142 years in housing, 176 years in automobiles, 188 years in telephones and 298 years in roads.”
Most significantly, Birman questioned the conventional American wisdom that the Soviets spent about 10 percent of their gross national product on defense. His research put the figure at double that or more.
Birman’s advice to U.S. planners in the early '80s was to increase defense spending, with the expectation that this would force the communist regime to expand its own military expenditures. He was convinced that this would eventually bankrupt the regime.
Although a Defense Department futurist named Andrew Marshall invited Birman to speak to planners at the Pentagon as a consultant, Sovietologists tended to scoff at his analysis. In 1984, when Birman was in touch with a senior CIA analyst named Robert Gates, requesting to meet with him to discuss his predictions, Gates turned him down, although he did have a junior agency official interview Birman.
In fact, as late as 1986, CIA analysts were predicting that the Soviet economy was on the brink of a major expansion.
Years later, Gates, who headed the CIA in 1991-93 and was U.S. secretary of defense between 2006 and 2011, acknowledged that the organization had “understated the full cost of the Soviet military — and consequently also understated the burden it imposed on the Soviet economy and society.”
Some figures in Washington hailed Birman in the '80s, but they were in the minority and generally associated with the nascent neoconservative movement. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Birman received belated credit for his numbers, and for the use he made of them.