Whose person is he?

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Practising 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.

Bourdieu’s sudden appearance raises an obvious question: is it modern states in general that have this deceptive, phantasmal character (as Bourdieu suggested) or the Soviet state in particular (as Getty implies)? Like everyone who worked in the old Soviet Union, Getty was struck by the dissonance between the array of formal rules and structures, on the one hand, and the disorderly, self-organised practices of everyday Russia, on the other. Where did these practices, so alien to Marxist-Leninist and Bolshevik scientific rationality, come from? His answer is ‘tradition’: that is, something quintessentially Russian that had nothing to do with Bolshevism – and specifically, traditional practices characteristic of the 17th-century Muscovite state of tsars and their not always dutiful noble servitors, the boyars. In Muscovy, politics was ‘personal and patrimonial rather than institutional or legal’. Power was personified, both at the centre in the person of the tsar, where it had a charismatic dimension, and in the boyar ‘clans’, with what were originally their independent regional power bases, which the early modern tsars were trying to turn into a reliable service class. An elaborate ‘place’ system (mestnichestvo) determined a boyar’s exact rank for honorific and ceremonial purposes. Patron-client relationships were crucial in politics and every other aspect of life. Collective responsibility – on the part of a clan, family or peasant community – for the criminal actions of their individual members was an organising principle. Writing a petition to the tsar was a conventional recourse for anyone with a grievance or a cause to advance; similarly, writing denunciations of wrongdoing to the tsar was considered a subject’s duty.

A prime example of archaic throwback is the Bolsheviks’ remarkable decision to preserve Lenin’s body after his death in 1924 and put it on public display – remarkable because treating Lenin as if he were an Orthodox saint clashed so sharply with the Bolsheviks’ scientific rationalism. The decision is often, but wrongly, attributed to Stalin, presumably because of his seminary education, on the one hand, and the later flourishing of a Stalin cult, on the other. In fact, he took no part in the rather anguished discussion among the leaders about what to do with Lenin’s body, and his close associate Klim Voroshilov, who did, took a hard line against preservation and display: ‘We must not resort to canonisation … We would stop being Marxist-Leninists.’ There were others in the leadership who felt differently, presumably illustrating Getty’s point about the ‘deep structures’ of tradition bubbling up from the collective unconscious. In Getty’s account, it was something the leaders backed into, influenced by the huge crowds that gathered to view the body in the Kremlin’s Hall of Columns and kept coming after the customary three days’ viewing, as well as by Professors Zbarsky and Vorobev’s eagerness to try out their new chemical procedures for long-term preservation. At first the mausoleum on Red Square to which Lenin’s body was moved was temporary and the decision to keep him on view provisional; the decision to build a permanent mausoleum came only after five years or so. In opting for ‘canonisation’, the Bolsheviks were just doing what came naturally without too much self-examination, Getty argues, but, as he himself shows, there was a lot of unease in the leadership. Still, conscious of its minority status and uncertain standing with the mass of the population, it could scarcely help noticing that in terms of popular legitimacy it had been unexpectedly dealt a trump card. Perhaps to counterbalance the archaic overtones of the whole venture, the permanent mausoleum was built by the modernist architect A.V. Shchusev in constructivist style. Among other things, this entailed the flat roof which for decades afterwards served as the Politburo’s reviewing stand for May Day and Revolution Day parades in Red Square. On such occasions, Getty writes, ‘the Politburo stood on Lenin’s tomb – literally on his body.’

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