The dictator’s approach to electoral patterns

Konstantin Sonin 09 August 2008



While the people of the developed world are fascinated by electoral campaigns, more than a half of the world’s population does not have a chance to participate in elections. Yet any dictator needs some popular support; the difference is that he can trim his constituency, eliminating those who do not support him.

For democratic politics, Glaeser and Shleifer (2005) described how politicians use policy leverage to force some social groups out of their districts. In non-democracies, examples abound. Fidel Castro in Cuba and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe pushed thousands of “undesirables” into emigration, increasing the share of supporters among those who remained. “Ethnic cleansing”, as ugly as ubiquitous a means of boosting support for the government in times of war, is another example of trimming the constituency. Dictators in the former Soviet Union countries such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus or Islom Karimov of Uzbekistan rely upon open borders to force out those who disagree with their leadership. In totalitarian countries, the dictator can – in extreme cases – physically eliminate those who would not have voted for him in open elections.

One approach to understand the structure of dictatorial behaviour is to study the strategy of the most famous of them, Joseph Stalin of Soviet Russia. Twentieth century dictators, from communist leaders to Saddam Hussein, have claimed to be his disciples in the science of power.

Stalin’s mass terror campaigns

Stalin's killing and imprisonment of millions of Soviet citizens are cited as irrational acts attributed by psychiatrists to paranoia or worse mental illness (Rancour-Lafferiere, 2004), to his violent Caucasus upbringing (Baberowski, 2005), or to other idiosyncratic factors that render the deaths of millions a "historical accident." If dictatorial behaviour, such as this, is the consequence of personality quirks, historical accidents, or mental illness, further economic investigation is closed off. Such subject matter would be the stuff for historians; economists are interested in motivations that are general ("Stalin killed millions because he thought it would secure his regime") rather than idiosyncratic ("Stalin killed millions because he was crazy") (Harrison, 2006).

Yet, one might see a rational motive behind the killing and imprisonment of millions of people. Unlike democracies, where politicians adjust polices to the median voter to be elected, brutal dictators might adjust their constituency by eliminating citizens who are in opposition to the regime. The facts of Stalin's mass terror campaigns against the general population were earlier hidden behind a veil of secrecy. In fact, many associate the Great Terror only with Stalin's decimation of the party elite. However the facts of mass repressions have been revealed in great detail with the opening of the Soviet state and party archives since 1991. The planning of terror campaigns, it seems, was like the planning of goods and services, although the "product" was different – executions and imprisonments of political enemies versus the production of goods and services. Those charged with fulfilling plans, industrial managers in the case of economic plans and the OGPU or NKVD in the case of terror plans, were judged on the basis of fulfilment of plan "limits".

These archival data – despite the horrible reality behind the numbers – contain a wealth of information and thus the unique opportunity to research the inner workings and logic of dictatorships.

Modelling rational dictators

A trimming of the constituency by a dictator can either occur via physical eliminations (execution, imprisonment or exile) or legal measures (disenfranchisement of voters or candidates). In our research, our data and model primarily covers physical eliminations (Gregory, Schrôder, and Sonin 2006). Furthermore, within the model, we assume that the dictator chooses to act once the share of enemies in the population exceeds some critical limit at which he will be (or believes to be) at risk of overthrow. Although this approach might seem, at first glance, exotic or even bizarre, it follows a tradition of modelling dictators, beginning with Hayek's brutal dictator (1944), Olson's (1995) pro-growth stationary bandit, and Wintrobe's (1990) cursed dictator.

The contribution of our work is twofold. Firstly, it provides concise and archival data based account of Stalin's three large scale terror campaigns directed against his own citizens occurring between 1930-1940. We distil the stylised facts of dictatorial repression from these data. Secondly, the paper proposes a simple "eliminations" model and applies it to Stalin's mass repressions. We ask whether a relatively simple model – -a dictator eliminating enemies in order to not exceed a certain revolution constraint – explains (or is consistent with) stylised historical facts.

In doing this, we put aside issues of morality, but condemnation of a dictator's lack of morality does not really further understanding of dictatorial systems as such. Stalin's routine arrests of spouses and siblings of his closest associates were immoral, but, for a dictator who requires absolute loyalty, loyal service after such arrests was the ultimate test. Among others, Stalin arrested the wives of his loyal deputy V. Molotov, his personal secretary, his state security heads, Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Ezhov, and of his nominal head of state, Mikhail Kalinin. On this, see Baberowski (2005), p. 98. Stalin's deputy, V.M. Molotov, at first refused to vote for his wife's arrest, but belatedly gave in:

"I acknowledge my heavy sense of remorse for not having prevented Zhemchuzhina [Molotov's wife], a person dear to me, from making her mistakes and from forming ties with anti-Soviet Jewish nationalists, such as Mikhoels." (Cited in Gorlizki and Khlevnyuk, 2004, pp.75-79)

But the fact that brutal repressions of citizens repeat in history and appear to be linked to specific types of economic and political systems makes systematic examination paramount. Research into dictatorial systems must – whether we like it or not – abstract from moral issues and concentrate on rational choice behaviour based upon a dictatorial objective function if it is to be applicable to other times, places and circumstances.

Stalin’s mass eliminations

Our research is not about Stalin's purge of political rivals, which peaked between December of 1934 and 1938, during which, according to Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech of February 1956, 1,108 of the 1,966 delegates to the Seventeenth Party Congress were arrested on charges of counter-revolutionary crimes [of whom 848 were executed].

Palace intrigues of this sort are commonplace throughout history. We study instead the repression and elimination of massive numbers of ordinary citizens – i.e. a trimming of the constituency. Stalin ordered three such mass repressions: the "dekulakisation" of the countryside between 1930 and 1932, the "mass operations" of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938, and "national operations" against ethnic minorities starting in 1937 and proceeding into the early postwar period. These operations were directed against Stalin's own citizens on a massive scale.

Official state security statistics show that 715,272 persons were executed and 928,892 persons were imprisoned in camps of the Gulag in the years 1930-1932 and 1937-1938 for counter-revolutionary offenses by extra-judicial tribunals.

These astonishing figures cumulate to equal 1.5%of the adult population of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Democracies rarely repress their own citizens but authoritarian and totalitarian regimes do. According to one estimate (See Table 1), of the 110 million persons repressed by Marxist-Leninist regimes in the twentieth century, more than 90% were their own citizens. In democracies, less than 0.5% of victims were own citizens. It is statistics, such as these, that suggest some "generality" in Stalin's behaviour. Empirical studies also suggest that totalitarian regimes generate more "violence" than democracies (Mulligan, Gil, Sala-I-Martin, 2004).

Table 1. Victims of repression, twentieth century (through 1993)

Type of government Total Own citizens Others
Democratic 2,028,000 159,000 1,858,000
Authoritarian 28,676,000 26,092,000 2,584,000
Totalitarian, non-Marxist-Leninist 27,691,000 1,265,000 26,425,000
Marxist-Leninist 110,286,000 101,929,000 8,357,000
Other (guerillas) 518,000 464,000 54,000

Source: Gunnar Heinsohn, Lexikon der Völkermorde (Hamburg: Rowolt, 1998: 53).

Our model suggests that the number of eliminations depends on the probability of correctly identifying enemies, the number of enemies, and the “threat” that the enemy poses. Although we are unable to “prove” our model based on the stylised facts of the three repressions, we can show that the model is consistent with these facts. The model makes one prediction that is consistent with Stalin’s observed behaviour that is far from intuitively obvious. A rational dictator will deliberately eliminate innocent citizens and will eliminate more innocents when enemies are difficult to identify. Stalin’s slaughter of innocents is cited by historians as a sign of his mental derangement, but in our model it is the predicted behaviour of a dictator facing a binding revolution constraint.


Baberowski, Joerg (2005). Zivilisation der Gewalt: Die Kulturellen Urspruenge des Stalinismus, Historische Zeitschrift, Band 281.

Glaeser, Edward and Andrei Shleifer (2005). “The Curley Effect: The Economics of Shaping the Electorate,” The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, 21(1): 1-19.

Gregory, Paul, Philipp Schrôder, and Konstantin Sonin (2006). “Dictators, Repression and the Median Citizen: An “Eliminations Model” of Stalin’s Terror,” CEPR Discussion Paper 6014.

Harrison, Mark (2006). “The Rational Choice Dictator: Reply,” Europe-Asia Studies 58(3).

Hayek, F.A. (1944). The Road to Serfdom.

Heinsohn, Gunnar (1998). Lexikon der Völkermorde. Hamburg: Rowolt.

Olson, Mancur (1995). “The Devolution of Power in Post-Communist Societies,” in Robert Skidelsky (ed.), Russia’s Stormy Path to Reform. London: The Social Market Foundation.

Rancour-Lafferiere, Daniel (2004). “The Mind of Stalin Revisited,” Paper presented at AAASS Annual Meeting, Boston, Mass., November.

Wintrobe, Ronald (199). “The Tinpot and the Totalitarian: An Economic Theory of Dictatorship,” American Political Science Review 84: 849-872.



Topics:  Politics and economics

Tags:  Stalin, Soviet Union, revolution

John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor, Irving B. Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago


CEPR Policy Research