Politically, it wasn’t an easy time for the family. Leontief’s father, a professor of economics who had studied in Germany, disagreed completely with what was happening in Russia, as did Leontief himself. "There was a great tension," he remembered. If there was one thing he’d learned from his father, it was to speak freely. "I was definitely on the protesting side. I protested with fellow students against censorship. We printed leaflets, and deep at night we went pasting them on the walls in the city."
An important lesson learned
At the age of 15, Leontief was arrested for the first time due to disputes he’d had with his friends, all of them strong defenders of the Bolsheviks. Leontief sided with the other faction of the socialist movement, the Mensheviks. Though times were rough, he remembered how life just went on. "As a young person, I could take it," he explained. "People just continue." But he learned an important lesson back then, "in how hard life can be. It was a very good lesson."
A passionate reader, Leontief took the first important steps towards a successful academic career in the midst of turbulent times. He was given special permission to be admitted to university at a very early age, starting his studies in philosophy, sociology, and eventually economics. He earned his master’s degree in 1924 - when he was only 19 years old.
The first steps towards an academic career
But Leontief soon realized he wouldn’t be able to develop a scientific career in his home country. Censors forbade the publication of his academic articles because he’d campaigned for freedom of speech and institutional autonomy. "And I wanted to leave," he remembered.
In 1925, Leontief got to Germany. Stalin was in power, and it was only a few years before his regime of terror would reach its peak. Leontief knew a little German from his father, but he had to study hard and spent hours in the public library every day to keep up. Though he was extremely poor, he enjoyed every day. "I bought a bottle of milk each morning. And when the milk became sour, it was also a meal. But it was marvelous!"
Before the Nazis took over, Leontief left for the United States. He’d already started his systematic economic research while still at the Institute for the World Economy in Kiel, but had engaged mostly in statistical work on supply and demand curves. At Harvard University, he realized that this wasn’t the approach to understand how an economy works. "To study little pieces, to use very fancy statistical measures, you never understand the economy. One must get the facts, and I developed a theory of how to analyze it."
Leontief started the work that, decades later, would earn him the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and would turn him into a world-renowned academic. "The economic system of a country is like a big computing machine," Leontief said when he introduced his input-output-analysis. "And very often computers break down. Find out what’s wrong with the computer with a good analysis."
How do different industries affect each other?
In general, Leontief’s approach sought to answer the question of how economic sectors’ activities affect each other. "With input-output analysis, we try to describe what happens in an economy. We show how products are distributed," Leontief explained. He was able to depict, for the first time in economic history, how all the different industries are interconnected, how they sell and buy from each other.