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Lessons from economic history

  • 10 May 2022

Gonville & Caius College Fellow Dr Thea Don-Siemion is an economic historian whose research in the inter-war period in Europe has resonated in recent weeks after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Dr Don-Siemion specialises in the financial history of the Great Depression in Central and Eastern Europe, and in particular the case of the Polish economy. She is particularly interested in the role of credible commitment, state capacity, and international political economy in influencing macroeconomic outcomes.

The war on Ukraine and the invasion by Russian troops at the behest of President Putin has led to challenges relating to the supply and demand for oil and gas, for example, and global sanctions imposed on Russia.

She says: “Unfortunately, my research has become quite relevant over the last two months. It’s the same relationship between economics and national security that we’ve been seeing in the Ukraine crisis.

“What’s happening in Ukraine is quite similar to the early years of Polish independence, particularly the Polish-Bolshevik War. Poland got into a war with the Soviet Union in 1919 and that escalated in 1920.

“It was a similar situation in that initially the great powers were uncertain about Poland’s viability as a sovereign state, so they declined to commit themselves to Poland’s support materially, except for the French, to a limited degree. Poland was forced to improvise out of its own resources.

“My research, using quantitative and archival sources, tried to pin down why Poland remained in the Gold Standard for so long. And what I found was that I was primarily to do with Poland’s military alliance with France.”

It will take time to determine the full economic impact of the Ukraine crisis.

She adds: “Ukraine is getting proportionately a bit more in foreign financial assistance than Poland did. But it is the same sort of situation: an unequal contest between two adversaries. One of whom is Russia, one of whom is a newly-independent eastern European power. The underdog coming out ahead, but in the Polish case with pretty severe economic ramifications going forward.

“It will be very interesting to see in a few years’ times how the economics worked.”

Russia and wealthy Russian citizens have been sanctioned, while many international businesses have withdrawn from operating in Russia.

Dr Don-Siemion says: “In the inter-war period various things were tried with sanctions. Most notably there was a large effort to sanction Japan and Italy after invasions. Those sanctions didn’t really work.

“It’s the standard problem of trying to put a large coalition together and other members have an incentive to defect away from it.

“Imperfect though it is I think the EU is really helping to resolve the coordination problem. Instead of 27 countries each promising to levy its own sanctions, we have one central body. Of course, the sanctions are not at the level where they will stop Russia to be able to finance the war, but they might prevent it from escalating.”

Dr Don-Siemion’s research is “relevant, if not directly applicable, to the present day” and she plans to delve deeper into the issues her work has already examined.

She adds: “Currently, I am working on a book on Polish Central Banking between the two World Wars. Once I’ve done that project I plan to spend some more time working out the precise transmission channels of the Great Depression in Poland, from the Gold Standard, through the industrial sector to agriculture.”

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