“From ‘Model Pupils’ to Model Teachers” Dissertation Report from Kevin Axe

Jun 29, 2024

AABS is pleased to recognize Kevin Axe for the completion of the grant associated with his dissertation “From “Model Pupils” to Model Teachers: Estonian Economists and the Globalization of the (Post)Socialist World,” for which he received the AABS Dissertation Grant in the 2023-2024 cycle.

A man wearing a black sweater

©Kevin Axe, 2024

Kevin Axe is a PhD candidate at the Free University of Berlin and researcher within Berlin’s “Contestations of the Liberal Script” (SCRIPTS) Cluster of Excellence. His research is focused on the spread of (neo)liberal economic thought within the (post)socialist world.


The Impact of an Award: Report from Kevin Axe

After the completion of his grant, Kevin Axe submitted a reflection to AABS.
We thank him for his permission to publish his thoughts, which have been lightly edited.


In 2023, AABS generously offered me a Dissertation Grant to help me finish my PhD dissertation at the Free University of Berlin, supervised by Tobias Rupprecht and Lars Fredrik Stöcker. This project focuses on Estonia’s role as a hub of (neo)liberal economic thought, both before and after its return to independence. Thanks in part to the grant, I expect to finish my dissertation by summer 2024.

This Baltic state’s marketization was remarkably swift and bold, and, combined with its rapid economic growth and unusual policy decisions, quickly made it a neoliberal darling. Estonia was the first post-Soviet state to begin transitioning away from a planned economy. It also accomplished this transformation more swiftly and to a more comprehensive degree than other newly independent states, especially in terms of privatization and price liberalization. Furthermore, Estonia was also the first country to leave the ruble zone and institute its own national currency. Indeed, it went so far towards a free market that the EU mandated that Estonia add new trade barriers, including its first tariffs, as a membership condition. Estonia endured severe shortages of energy and goods and rapid deindustrialization in the 1990s, followed by severe decreases in GDP, industrial production, and employment due to the 2007–2008 financial crisis. Despite these crises, the neoliberal policies at the heart of the Estonian political economy have remained remarkably intact, even over the course of nine parliamentary elections and eighteen cabinets. The attention these early feats attracted, coupled with the state’s Soviet heritage as an intellectual laboratory, helped make Estonia a lasting hub of economic ideas, on either side of its return to independence.

I trace Estonia’s currently neoliberal economic system to lively pre-1991 economic debate and experimentation, greatly influenced by the intra-socialist exchange of market thought (especially tied to Hungary, Moscow, and Novosibirsk). I then demonstrate how this made Estonia not just a “neoliberal exemplar” or mere pupil of outside ideas, but a hub of (neo)liberal market thought, which it continues to spread today, especially to other post-socialist states. By demonstrating an influential transnational connection between socialist economists, especially through a mix of archival documents, memoirs, and interviews with economists, I show that market principles and mechanisms were not simply a Western import but were also created by and spread within the socialist and post-socialist worlds. Ultimately, I test the newly emerging argument that that one factor setting Estonia apart from many other former command economies transitioning in the 1990s was its earlier study and adoption of neoliberal thought and market reforms in active engagement with global experiences, especially in other socialist polities.

A man stands in front of Estonian and Ukrainian flags

Kevin Axe at the Riigikogu in Tallinn following an interview

A woman stands in a red stone castle window

A political cartoon from the archives

I will add to a discussion among global history scholars by demonstrating how a diffusionist focus on what the formerly socialist world learned from the West has hidden what it already had learned and done on its own, thanks to intra-socialist exchange. My project also helps restore credit to local actors, who appear more aware and in contact with foreign counterparts than previously understood while contributing to the study of global intellectual history, neoliberalism, market socialism and liberalism, socialist transition, and more generally the histories of Estonia and the Soviet Union.

In tracing Estonia’s path from importer to exporter of liberal economic thought, I begin with an underexamined period of Estonian economic intellectual history, the Andropov interregnum, and how connections and policies established during this period enabled Estonia to become a hub of economic experimentation. I then highlight the relative freedom to experiment and travel experienced by Estonian economists during perestroika, compared to many of their counterparts elsewhere in the Soviet Union, and how they used a proposal for economic self-management (the famous 1987 “IME” proposal) to further their own aims within national discussions over sovereignty and independence. Independence did not bring a clean break with the Soviet era, despite frequent claims by some Estonian politicians, their foreign allies, and some outside scholars. Instead, networks of Soviet-era actors were important in exporting ideas both before and immediately following independence. Finally, I demonstrate how the process of importing and localizing liberal ideas resulted in the exportation of market thought and the “Estonian Model,” following Estonia’s capitalist transition.

January evening in Estonia

At work in the Rahvusarhiiv

Although I had been able to visit Estonia for research earlier, my dissertation project had shifted in terms of scope, including a greater focus on events after Estonia’s return to independence. This necessitated collecting new information in Estonia. The dissertation grant AABS gifted me was a major boon, allowing me to return, conduct further research, follow up leads I had found earlier, and meet with local scholars in related fields. With the costs of travel and accommodations covered, I was able to return to Estonian archives and libraries in search of letters, reports, personal notes, memoirs, orders, and newspaper articles and editorials. I was also able to interview economists of interest from the 1980s and 90s, some of whom are now well-known professors and politicians. The grant also enabled me to further immerse myself in the Estonian language. This research visit thus allowed me to create a more novel, pertinent dissertation.

– Kevin Axe, 2024

Kevin Axe

What is the Dissertation Grant?

AABS Dissertation Grants for Graduate Students are grants of up to $4,000 to support doctoral dissertation research and write-up in any field of Baltic Studies. Funds may be used for travel to research site, equipment, duplication or other needs as specified. Proposals are evaluated according to the scholarly potential of the applicant, and the quality and scholarly importance of the proposed work, especially to the development of Baltic Studies.

The application deadline for academic year 2024-2025 has passed. Award notifications were made in spring 2024.

“From ‘Model Pupils’ to Model Teachers” Dissertation Report from Kevin Axe

AABS is pleased to recognize Kevin Axe for the completion of the grant associated with his dissertation “From “Model Pupils” to Model Teachers: Estonian Economists and the Globalization of the (Post)Socialist World," for which he received the AABS Dissertation Grant...

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