Practising Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars and the Persistence of Tradition 
by J. Arch Getty.
Yale, 359 pp., £30, September 2013, 978 0 300 16929 4
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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.’

The idea that traditional (Muscovite) practices resurfaced in the Soviet period has a long genealogy in Russian studies. In his 1986 article, ‘Moscow Folkways’, which Getty frequently cites, the Muscovite historian Edward Keenan drew attention to the persistence of ‘deep structures’ of Muscovite origin in Soviet political behaviour, irrespective of changing ideology and institutions. Stalin’s biographer Robert Tucker was keen on the resemblance between Stalin and the most bloodthirsty of the 16th-century tsars, Ivan the Terrible, noting in Stalin in Power that Stalin, too, saw a resemblance, as witness his emotional response to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible with its vivid portrayal of the life-and-death struggle between Ivan and his boyars. The ‘struggle with the boyars’ motif is important in Getty’s argument, though in a different way from Tucker’s. He portrays the ‘Old Bolsheviks’, by which he seems to mean the prewar party elite (roughly corresponding with the 4000-odd central and regional office-holders whose appointment was a prerogative of the Central Committee) as an equivalent to the Muscovite boyar class. Old Bolsheviks ‘knew and socialised with each other. They lived together in fortified places, the Kremlin being only one of their guarded castles. They had their own revolutionary veterans’ societies and publications. Their sons and daughters attended the same schools, and married the daughters and sons of other Old Bolsheviks with whom they grew up.’ Touchy about personal honour – Getty has some nice examples of this – they

were prima donnas, quick to take offence and quick to defend their honour in ways that appear anachronistic among people who considered themselves the most modern and democratic. They postured, posed, and wrote florid letters about why their accomplishments and opinions were important, why they should not be subordinated to various persons or committees, or how they had been subjected to insupportable slights and unbearable insults from other comrades. This was party culture; everything was personal.

When told to take up new appointments, they declined so indignantly that Getty wonders whether they had a conventional ‘right of refusal’. (So much for party discipline.) Of course, the Old Bolsheviks ‘did not choose to become heirs to Russian nobility and would hotly deny that they had done so’. With many of them no more than ‘one generation away from the Russian village, with its traditional practices’, it was the ‘deep structures’ that sucked them in.

I’m sympathetic to this argument and to the dismissive attitude to formal ideology it implies, but Getty overdoes it. The Bolsheviks (under which rubric I include the Stalinists) were deeply committed to what they saw as progress and modern science, which included a modern (Marxist-Leninist) approach to government; they were also actively hostile to many forms of tradition, from Orthodox religion to the ‘bourgeois’ family. It wasn’t Muscovite traditions embedded in their unconscious that made them hell-bent on industrialising, on collectivising agriculture, on combating the church and religious ‘superstition’, educating the population and promoting science and technology. Nor can these be dismissed as ideological commitments that had no relevance to real-life policy. It was in support of the first three that the Stalinist regime embarked at the end of the 1920s on the path of state violence and repression. ‘The sources clearly show that the day-to-day practical decisions they took … were dictated by the need to help friends, destroy enemies, industrialise the country, and simply stay in power,’ Getty states. Yes, indeed, but destroying the class enemy, advancing the proletariat and industrialising were key Marxist-Leninist objectives, not ad hoc policies that had to be ‘ideologically justified after the fact’.

Another problem with the ‘Muscovite tradition’ argument is that it requires a leap back from the 20th century to the 17th, as if the modernising 18th and 19th centuries had never happened. It’s possible to imagine ways of explaining a leap of that sort, but Getty just brushes off the difficulty. One possible explanation would be that reversion to traditional practices is characteristic of periods of governmental and institutional collapse, as in the first Soviet (and the first post-Soviet) decades. Another might be that in denouncing and repudiating Western capitalism and bourgeois liberalism and legality, the Bolsheviks were hoist with their own petard. If you think of the law as a cover for the interests of the dominant classes, you undermine its effectiveness as a way of resolving disputes, with the result that people write petitions and denunciations as well as going to court. If you despise parliamentary democracy and set up something called a dictatorship (even if it’s the dictatorship of a class), it may not be surprising that personal dictatorship and a leader cult are what you get.

The Bolsheviks’ contempt for due process extended to bureaucracy, a word that in their lexicon was always pejorative. This was a disadvantage when it came to governing the country, especially as it emerged that some ‘deep structures’ (but not necessarily Muscovite ones) led them to feel that the way to circumvent bureaucratic inertia was by periodic bouts of violence from the top. It’s often been thought that Stalin was the only leading Bolshevik of the 1920s who knew how to turn the new party bureaucracy to his advantage, using his control of the Central Committee Secretariat and Orgburo to appoint ‘his’ men to high provincial positions, guaranteeing their election as delegates to the periodic party congresses which in turn elected the Central Committee and confirmed Stalin’s faction in power (Robert Daniels called it a ‘circular flow of power’). Getty will have none of this. The Secretariat may have aspired to control provincial appointments, but their success was limited, at least in the early years, as Stalin’s appointments man, Lazar Kaganovich, reported in the mid-1920s. Getty concludes on the basis of the Secretariat’s and Orgburo’s archives that there are few reasons to imagine that these [provincial] leaders thought that they owed their jobs to Stalin, and quite a few reasons to think that resisting “opposition” in principle was more important to them than supporting any particular politician, including Stalin.’ Stalin, for his part, talked about the provincial leaders as if they were his problem rather than his people. As he told colleagues in 1931, ‘I have the impression that there are no real party organisations in the Transcaucasus … No, it’s a system of chieftains, not a party organisation. Whose person is he? Who will he support? Who will he drink with? Who will he visit as a guest?’ It had been the same in the Ukraine, Stalin said, but ‘we … broke up the chieftain system’ there.

In Getty's picture​ , Stalin – as well, presumably, as his opponents in the leadership struggle of the 1920s: Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin et al – was himself chieftain of a clan, though he didn’t admit it. Oddly enough, it’s a rather small clan, more like a team in fact, more or less co-terminous with the Politburo of the late 1920s and 1930s: Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Kirov and Ordzhonikidze in the first rank, Mikoyan and Kalinin in the second, and later entrants including Zhdanov, Beria and Khrushchev. Kaganovich did a stint in the Ukraine in the 1920s, presumably ‘breaking up the chieftain system’ there, while Kirov was sent to Leningrad to Stalinise the local party after Zinoviev’s defeat, but for the most part the Stalin ‘clan’ was Moscow-based. You would expect Stalin and his team members (not to mention their opponents in the factional struggle after Lenin’s death) to have done their best to cultivate patron-client relationships in the provinces, but if they did, that’s not part of Getty’s story. He writes about the regional ‘clans’ as if they really were boyars with local roots and ethnicity, but if that was more or less true of the Caucasus, and partly true of the Ukraine, it certainly wasn’t the normal model elsewhere.

If this part of Getty’s argument is muddy, his take on ‘police clans’, drawing on recent Russian scholarship, is interesting, convincing, and hard to square with the conventional picture of Stalin as the master of the security police. None of the Cheka/GPU leaders of the 1920s was specifically a Stalin man, although the factionally non-aligned Dzerzhinsky (who died in 1926) was probably more sympathetic to the Stalin faction than to its opponents. Yagoda, effectively Dzerzhinsky’s successor, had his own ‘police clan’ which, despite its privileged position in the centre, had a competitor in the ‘North Caucasus’ clan headed by E.G. Evdokimov, ‘specialists in fighting bandits in the countryside, partial to “mass operations” against recalcitrant ethnic and social groups’. ‘Before 1936,’ Getty argues, ‘Stalin rarely tried to control the police clans. The political police was considered a specialised professional service with not only its own traditions but its particular and secret methods’ and ‘technical skill’. Until the middle of the 1930s Stalin’s ‘interventions took place only when a balance had to be struck between warring clans, or when police clan conflicts threatened to tear the institution apart.’ In the mid-1930s Stalin finally got rid of Yagoda and his clan, replacing him with his own man, Nikolai Yezhov, who became the executor of Stalin’s Great Purges, for which, having no previous connections with the police, he had to rely on the North Caucasians, with their experience in and penchant for mass operations.

There’s a hint here that the form, at least, of the Great Purges owed something to the police clan that carried them out rather than to Stalin. But Getty’s main argument about the origins of the Purges hinges on Stalin’s relations with party ‘boyars’ in the provinces. In Getty’s view, there was a systemic tendency for the boyars to seek to maximise their power vis-à-vis the centre, and for the centre to resist, sometimes violently and lethally. During collectivisation, at the beginning of the 1930s, Stalin had been ‘forced to cede considerable power to these provincial barons’, notably the power to sign off on executions and regional mass operations. While this power was retracted in 1933, the tug of war between centre and periphery continued, and Stalin was intent on reining the provincial leaders in, although, unwilling to provoke a direct confrontation, he moved ‘slowly and delicately’. Getty emphasises how seriously Stalin took this threat, which, even granting his suspicious nature, isn’t entirely persuasive given the absence of any evidence that the clans’ ambitions went beyond local power. (Nobody, Getty included, has argued that in the pre-Purge period regional party clans showed any signs of linking up with remnants of the central Oppositionist clans of the 1920s, which would have been a real threat.)

How matters came to a lethal climax in the Great Purges of 1937-38 is told in two versions. One, proposed by James Harris some years ago in his book The Great Urals, focuses on central pressure on the regions to meet high production targets, leading the regions to take defensive action, enforcing a united front (which included the local police chief) under the regional first secretaries, and, where necessary, systematically misleading the centre on the economic indices. In a climate of alarm about hidden ‘enemies of the people’ this was interpreted by the centre as conspiracy, which indeed it was, though the aim was self-protection, not regime overthrow.

Getty, however argues that it was the new state constitution, drafted in 1936 with Stalin’s keen participation, that turned out to be the trigger. The constitution guaranteed ‘equal, direct and secret elections’ in Soviet (i.e. state) institutions, and early indications were that this would mean multi-candidate contests with a more or less unrestricted right to nominate at the local level, a far cry from the tightly controlled and mainly ceremonial electoral practice in place from the late 1920s. Western scholars have usually seen these democratic provisions as a façade, but Getty has long believed that Stalin seriously intended to implement them, regardless of the security dangers involved, and in his argument, these dangers were immediately obvious and alarming to the regional boyars, if not at first to Stalin. Without openly criticising the new electoral procedures due to be implemented in 1937, they dragged their feet, remaining silent at official occasions when they would have been expected to applaud. The predicted problem of popular unrest eventuated, with ‘class enemies’ coming out from the undergrowth and trying to nominate their own local candidates for the 1937 Soviet elections. Stalin’s suspicions of concealed conspiratorial opposition to his leadership were nevertheless exacerbated. In the short run, it might have seemed to work out to the advantage of the provincial leaders, since Stalin was forced by the increasingly alarming signs of unrest to agree to their urgent requests to be allowed to sign off on executions and local mass operations, as they had done before 1933. They were the ones pushing for higher execution and arrest targets, Getty argues, with Stalin trying to keep the numbers down. But their triumph was short-lived, as, parallel with the mass operations of 1937, the centre launched a lethal campaign against highly placed ‘enemies of the people’ that quickly and efficiently destroyed the majority of provincial party leaders and their clan supporters.

Getty concludes that the real origins of the Great Purges – in particular, the mass operations – lay not, as many historians have argued, in fear of war and the perceived necessity of destroying a potential fifth column, but in the dynamics of a centre-periphery power conflict that both triggered the terror of 1937 and (thanks to local officials’ tendency to exceed repression targets) caused it to snowball. It’s a provocative and useful argument, and Getty has a point about the total lack of evidence in contemporary sources for the now widely accepted notion that the origins of the Great Purges lay in the fear of war. Yet if it’s true that a centre-periphery conflict featuring over-powerful and bloodthirsty regional leaders brought on the Terror, why didn’t any of Stalin’s Politburo associates who outlived him – Molotov, Kaganovich, Mikoyan – come out and say so later, even when under Khrushchev they personally were under attack for complicity in Stalin’s crimes? None of the old regional ‘boyars’ were around any longer to defend themselves, and it might have deflected some of the criticism away from the Politburo survivors. But there’s not a whisper of that in the numerous memoirs and interviews they produced in the post-Stalin decades: in so far as Stalin team members opted for any explanation other than Stalin’s bloodymindedness, it was the good old ‘threat of war’, embraced with particular fervour by Molotov in old age (which doesn’t mean we have to believe him).

Stalin in my view was a nastier and more wily character than Getty suspects, and at least part of his ‘democratic’ ploy with the constitution and the elections was to flush out hidden or potential enemies in his administration as well as in the population so that he could get rid of them. I think he saw this as the kind of bold revolutionary stroke, on the lines of forced collectivisation but bolder, that only a great revolutionary leader would have risked; and that Molotov and the rest of his team went along with his way of seeing things, though with a certain inward quaking. No doubt Stalin wanted the regional leaders under tighter control, but as the events of 1937 show, that could have been achieved by dismissing them, with the optional extras of arrest and execution. The regional leaders’ feet had already been put to the fire at the February-March 1937 Central Committee plenum, which seems to undercut Getty’s argument that the mass operations decision, taken only in July of that year, was what set off the Purges.

Destroying clan leaders on a one-time basis didn’t destroy the Soviet Union’s ‘clan culture and system’ or the persistence of other deep structures based on Russian tradition. An entertaining conclusion to Getty’s book brings us up to the present, with a discussion of the Putin cult, the emergence of new central and provincial clans, including the siloviki (from the old Soviet security services), and the overwhelming importance of personal connections in post-Soviet Russia. If there is an implicit Stalin comparison, Putin comes out of it well, since he was quicker to take decisive action against regional boyars, and managed their transformation in 2004 from elective officials to appointed ones without bloodshed or major political crisis. Clearly Getty is not one of those who got their hopes up about Russia’s post-Soviet transition to Western-style democracy (‘He might as well have been speaking Swahili,’ he says of Gorbachev’s attempt at democratic institutional reform). Perhaps Russia can change, he concludes, though it most probably won’t. But why won’t it? Personal connections are important in a lot of places and circumstances (Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet is one example Getty cites), and, as Bourdieu observed, when it comes to the modern state and its pretensions to rationality, ‘one can never doubt too much’. Granted; but then what is so special about Russia and its persistent informal practices?

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