Igor Birman, 82, a Russian emigre and economist who predicted the implosion of the Soviet economy and the fall of the Soviet Union a decade before the events occurred, died April 6 at his home in Rockville. He had a brain tumor.
In the years leading up to the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, many economists — foreign and domestic — foretold the Soviet economic meltdown. Dr. Birman was regarded as the first to predict the outcome, and he did so with impressive accuracy.
Before arriving in the United States in 1974, Dr. Birman was a high-ranking economist in Moscow, where he worked as a director of planning for Soviet factories.
In an essay in The Washington Post on Oct. 27, 1980, Dr. Birman dissected the CIA’s estimates on the Soviet economy, including the agency’s belief that the Soviet standard of living was equal to about half of that in America.
The reality, Dr. Birman argued, was starkly different, with a standard of living closer to one-fourth or one-fifth of that in the United States.
He wrote that Americans spent about 17 percent of their income on food but that residents of the Soviet Union spent about half. Practically no Soviet households had two bathrooms, and “walk-in closets do not exist because people don’t need them.” There were at most 3,000 swimming pools, he wrote.
Dr. Birman also asserted that the Soviet government spent close to 20 percent of the gross national product on the military — nearly double the CIA estimate — which he called a “backbreaking” expenditure.
Dr. Birman concluded that the best strategy for the United States would be to ramp up the arms race and bankrupt the Soviet Union into submission.
In subsequent articles, he said the Russian government was running a dangerous budget deficit and camouflaging that fact in its official data. He argued that the weak Soviet economy would ultimately destroy the country itself.
“If the Soviet Union continues to raise production of goods and services as it has done over the past 23 years,” Dr. Birman said at an international conference in 1985, “then it will catch up with the United States’ 1976 level in 62 years in fruit, 74 years in meat, 142 years in housing, 176 years in automobiles, 188 years in telephones and 298 years in roads.”
Dr. Birman’s was a lonely voice among U.S. government experts, who widely believed the Soviet economy was stable and growing.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said Dr. Birman’s opinions were considered biased because he was a sharp-tongued and abrasive outsider who “did not build political coalitions in a way that would have been bureaucratically advantageous.”
Decades after his predictions, Dr. Birman was largely proved correct by records released by the Russian government. Scholars said his estimates were consistently among the most accurate, including his prediction of extremely high Soviet military spending, later calculated to be at least 25 percent of the Soviet GNP.
“I was alone in the world, saying the huge CIA is wrong,” Dr. Birman told journalist Ronald Kessler in an interview for his 1992 book “Inside the CIA.” “The wonderful American press has criticized the CIA for spy operations, but never for their analysis. I did. I knew I was alone, and if I say the truth, nobody would believe me.”
Igor Yakovlevich Birman was born July 25, 1928 in Moscow. He received a master’s degree and a doctorate in economics in Soviet universities and worked for the government as an industrial economist conducting research on the construction and lumber industries.
After Dr. Birman’s 1980 article was published in The Post, he was invited by Defense Department futurist Andrew Marshall to give briefings at the Pentagon and was hired as a contractor.
For many years, Dr. Birman served as president of the Foundation for Soviet Studies and published his articles in scholarly periodicals, including the journal Russia, which he helped establish. He retired in the early 1990s.
His first marriage, to Maya Israilevitch, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Albina Tretyakova Birman of Rockville; a daughter from his first marriage, Julia Shildkret of Queens, N.Y.; two children from his second marriage, Dina Birman of Chicago and Igor Birman of Herndon; and six grandchildren.
In 1984, Dr. Birman wrote to Robert M. Gates, then a senior CIA analyst, asking for the opportunity to discuss the Soviet economy. His request was denied, and instead he was interviewed by junior CIA officers.
“I tried to tell Gates in the letter that his people were not convinceable,” Dr. Birman told the New York Times in 1991 shortly before Gates became director of central intelligence. “Now he’s castigating his people for not listening to me. Why couldn’t he talk to me, especially since I was right?”