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Building a Ruin

Building a Ruin

The Cold War Politics of Soviet Economic Reform

Yakov Feygin

ISBN 9780674240995

Publication date: 06/11/2024

A masterful account of the global Cold War’s decisive influence on Soviet economic reform, and the national decay that followed.

What brought down the Soviet Union? From some perspectives the answers seem obvious, even teleological—communism was simply destined to fail. When Yakov Feygin studied the question, he came to another conclusion: at least one crucial factor was a deep contradiction within the Soviet political economy brought about by the country’s attempt to transition from Stalinist mass mobilization to a consumer society.

Building a Ruin explores what happened in the Soviet Union as institutions designed for warfighting capacity and maximum heavy industrial output were reimagined by a new breed of reformers focused on “peaceful socioeconomic competition.” From Khrushchev on, influential schools of Soviet planning measured Cold War success in the same terms as their Western rivals: productivity, growth, and the availability of abundant and varied consumer goods. The shift was both material and intellectual, with reformers taking a novel approach to economics. Instead of trumpeting their ideological bona fides and leveraging their connections with party leaders, the new economists stressed technical expertise. The result was a long and taxing struggle for the meaning of communism itself, as old-guard management cadres clashed with reformers over the future of central planning and the state’s relationship to the global economic order.

Feygin argues that Soviet policymakers never resolved these tensions, leading to stagnation, instability, and eventually collapse. Yet the legacy of reform lingers, its factional dynamics haunting contemporary Russian politics.


  • Deeply researched, original, and illuminating. Feygin’s sophisticated account of the political origins of Soviet economic thought overturns the conventional argument that Soviet economic reforms foundered against the resistance of self-interested bureaucrats. Building a Ruin is important for understanding not only the Soviet economy, but also the broader history of the late twentieth century.

    —Artemy Kalinovsky, author of Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan


  • Yakov Feygin is Associate Director of the Future of Capitalism program at the Berggruen Institute. Previously a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, he has written for Foreign Policy, Bloomberg, Financial Times, Phenomenal World, and Noema.

Book Details

  • 280 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press