Stalin’s Terror and the Long-Term Political Effects of Mass Repression

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Abstract:

Repression has a long-term negative effect on political participation.
Using millions of arrest records from archival documents, and polling-station level election results, we examine how past exposure to repression during the Stalin era has affected voter turnout in Putin’s Russia. To identify the effect of repression on voting, we use an instrumental variable design, exploiting exogenous variation in repression due to the structure of mid-century Soviet railroads, and travel distances to Gulag camps. We find that communities more heavily repressed under Stalin are consistently less likely to vote today. The electoral legacy of Stalin’s terror — decades after the Soviet collapse, and across multiple election cycles (2003-2012) — is systematically lower turnout. To show that our result is not unique to the Putin regime, we replicate our analysis in neighboring Ukraine (2004-2014), and find similar patterns. These results challenge emerging findings that exposure to violence increases political participation.