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Stealing the State

Stealing the State

Control and Collapse in Soviet Institutions

Steven L. Solnick

ISBN 9780674836808

Publication date: 01/07/1998

What led to the breakdown of the Soviet Union? Steven Solnick argues, contrary to most current literature, that the Soviet system did not fall victim to stalemate at the top or to a revolution from below, but rather to opportunism from within. In three case studies--on the Communist Youth League, the system of job assignments for university graduates, and military conscription--Solnick makes use of rich archival sources and interviews to tell the story from a new perspective, and to employ and test Western theories of the firm in the Soviet environment. He finds that even before Gorbachev, mechanisms for controlling bureaucrats in Soviet organizations were weak, allowing these individuals great latitude in their actions. Once reforms began, they translated this latitude into open insubordination by seizing the very organizational assets they were supposed to be managing. Thus, the Soviet system, Solnick argues, suffered the organizational equivalent of a colossal bank run. When the servants of the state stopped obeying orders from above, the state's fate was sealed.

By incorporating economic theories of institutions into a political theory of Soviet breakdown and collapse, Stealing the State offers a powerful and dynamic account of the most important international political event of the later twentieth century.


  • Amid lamentations over 'reforms' stymied by Communist troglodytes, the repudiation of socialism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union seemed to come out of the blue. An institutional loss of confidence turned into a self-fulfilling spiral. 'Soviet institutions,' explains Steven L. Solnick, 'were victimized by the organizational equivalent of a colossal bank run.' Soviet officials sensed the impending doom, and they 'rushed to claim...assets before the bureaucratic doors shut for good.' Of course, 'unlike [in] a bank run, the defecting officials were not depositors claiming their rightful assets, but employees of the state appropriating state assets.' And they grabbed everything that was 'fungible.' (From the wreckage Solnick himself plucked a valuable book.)

    —Stephen Kotkin, New Republic


  • Steven L. Solnick is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.

Book Details

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