Whose person is he?

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • BuyPractising Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars and the Persistence of Tradition by J. Arch Getty
    Yale, 359 pp, £30.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 16929 4

Arch Getty spent a great many hours in Soviet libraries and archives (presumably during the 1980s), trying to understand Stalinism, studying its institutions and formal procedures, reading resolutions and exegeses that explained, in the characteristic self-satisfied tone of Soviet bureaucratic documentation, that the wise decisions of the Party’s Central Committee and Council of Ministers had been duly disseminated, hailed by the public, and implemented. At the same time, he was making friends in Russia, learning from them about the informal side of Soviet life, ‘understanding for the first time what it meant to be part of a group, a “clan”, an “us”’. As he got to know how his friends organised their lives, using personal contacts to get things done, enmeshed in a network of reciprocal favours, contemptuous of state bureaucracy and skilled at evading its demands, he started to wonder whether the Soviet party-state, so dominant in the documents, was nothing more than a mirage, and ‘official institutions … just collections of people whose public façade was better than most at convincing people to obey them’. Observing his friends, he concluded that ‘few people trusted or even believed in institutions; they believed in people. Everything was personal … I began to wonder if those archival folders were, in a sense, tricking me. Was the modern state, as in Pierre Bourdieu’s suspicion, creating itself through my reading of it?’ Perhaps that state, with all its modern bureaucratic rationality, existed only on paper, masking a reality rooted in personal relationships and informal practices.

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