Authority on Soviet economy, Gregory Grossman, passes away

BERKELEY —

UC Berkeley, economist Gregory Grossman, considered a towering figure in the study of the Soviet economy who shaped the thinking of generations of scholars, died on Aug. 14 at the age of 93, at a Berkeley care facility due to complications from a fall.

He received his undergraduate degree in economics from Berkeley in 1942 and his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University in 1952, before returning to Berkeley, where he spent his entire career. He retired in 1993. 

Professor emeritus Gregory Grossman.

Professor emeritus Gregory Grossman

Grossman was born July 5, 1921, in Kiev, Ukraine. In early 1923 the family fled the post-Russian Revolution chaos and famine and took a month-long journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Harbin, Manchuria. After completing high school in 1937 in Tientsin, China, he boarded a Japanese ocean liner en route to attend Berkeley.

During World War II, Grossman served as artillery observer with the 731st Field Artillery Battalion during the Battle of the Bulge and completed his war duty in Czechoslovakia.

Grossman’s seminal 1963 article “Notes for a Theory of the Command Economy” both coined this term and identified the ways to expect economic behavior to be shaped by the formal “command” organization. As his former student, Pennsylvania State University professor Barry Ickes, has noted: “His formulation of the command economy hypothesis provided the framework used by scholars of several generations.” The article also is said to have demonstrated why only partial reform of that system could not work. 

Another article, “The Second Economy of the USSR” (1977), drew the field’s attention to how Soviet society worked around the restrictions of the command economy to create, purchase or sell economic goods that were not readily available in the formal economy. 

Berkeley economist Gerard Roland noted that as Grossman anticipated, ”the logic of the second economy tended over time to undermine the logic of the command system and to lead to expanding black markets.” 

Grossman worked with professor Vladimir Treml at Duke University and others to conduct more than a decade of research on all aspects of this second economy, gathering massive amounts of evidence based on interviews with emigres from the Soviet Union. “There was a point at which Greg could tell you the going price for illicit purchase of an official position in one or another region of the country,” said Berkeley colleague George Breslauer, a political scientist and expert on Soviet affairs.

Grossman was the author of several books and many highly influential articles, for which he was awarded in 1991 a lifetime achievement award from the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. Citing Grossman’s works on the “command economy” and the “second economy,” the award also noted his earlier, path-breaking book, Soviet Statistics of Physical Output of Industrial Commodities (1960), saying that the book “provided the profession with basic rules for working with distorted Soviet economic statistics and avoiding the many pitfalls of that enterprise.”

A colleague at Berkeley, Benjamin Ward, said there was a period in the Cold War of maybe 20 years in which Grossman “was the most knowledgeable person in the world about the Soviet economy.”

Grossman was a polymath who also understood the political, ideological, social and cultural underpinnings of economic life in the Soviet Union. As a result, he was widely sought out by his peers for comments on their scholarship. 

Grossman was also known to be a consummate gentleman. As Breslauer noted: “I never saw him present his ideas aggressively.  He let the evidence and logic speak for themselves. In the end, the passage of time proved him right on almost all scores.” 

Family members said that, while he traveled widely, he had a particular love for Berkeley and the Bay Area’s lifestyle, culture, beautiful vistas and good weather.

In 1952 he married Cynthia Green and they had two children. In 1972, he married Joan Delaney, a UC Berkeley professor of Slavic Studies.  He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Joan Grossman; two children, Joel Grossman of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Amy Di Costanzo of Berkeley, Calif.; six grandchildren and one great granddaughter. 

Contributions in his memory can be made to the International Rescue Committee, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley or charities of individual choice.

An on-campus memorial for Grossman will take place this fall at a date to be determined.