A profusion of recent research has focused on historical legacies as key to understanding contemporary outcomes. We review this body of research, analyzing both the comparative-historical analysis (CHA) and modern political economy (MPE) research traditions as applied to the study of communism, imperialism, and authoritarianism. We restrict our focus to the sizeable subset of arguments that meets a relatively strict definition of legacies, i.e., arguments that locate the roots of present-day outcomes in causal factors operative during an extinct political order. For all their differences, the CHA and MPE approaches both face the challenges of convincingly identifying the sources of historical persistence and of reckoning with alternative channels of causation. We find that mechanisms of persistence in legacy research generally belong to one of three main categories. While both traditions acknowledge the role of institutions in historical persistence, CHA research tends to emphasize the lasting power of coalitions, whereas work in MPE often argues for the persistence of cognitions. We argue that, at their best, CHA and MPE approaches yield complementary insights. Further progress in legacy research will benefit from greater cross-fertilization across research traditions and deeper recognition of commonalities across communist, imperialist, and authoritarian regimes.


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