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J. Arch Getty, Practicing Stalinism. Bolsheviks, Boyars and the Persistence of Tradition.

J. Arch Getty, Practicing Stalinism. Bolsheviks, Boyars and the Persistence of Tradition, Yale, New Haven, CT, 2013. Isbn 9780300169294, xviii + 360 pp., 25.00 [pounds sterling], hbk

For over three decades. Arch Getty has been one of the foremost researchers on the mass repressions of the 1930s in the USSR. He has consistently questioned the traditional 'totalitarian' model of the terror, which sees the whole process as consciously directed and controlled from the top, by Stalin and his immediate entourage. Over the years, certain themes have emerged in Getty's account of the repression. These include the importance of power struggles between central and local leaders, the persistence of clan and clientist relationships within the Communist Party and state apparatus, and the potential risks to the positions of central and local leaders posed by the reform of the Soviet electoral system after 1936.

In Practicing Stalinism, Getty brings many of these themes together in an attempt to discover how political power operated in reality, how personalised relationships interacted with bureaucratic structures, and why the system erupted into a paroxysm of violence in 1937-38. Seeking the answer in Russian history, Getty looks as far back as the sixteenth-century reign of Ivan IV ('the Terrible'). He draws on the ideas and insights of a variety of thinkers and historians, in particular the Harvard medieval historian Edward L. Keenan. Keenan's seminal 1986 article 'Muscovite Political Folkways' drew attention to long-term 'deep patterns' in Russian political culture, including oligarchic rule, the real mechanisms of which are obscured by elaborate ritual; a struggle for central control, and clan politics masked by a facade of unanimity in the ruling group. (1)

Taking up these ideas, Getty has produced an account of early Soviet political history which largely ignores the questions which have usually preoccupied historians of the period. There is little about the politics and ideologies of the different factions and groupings in the struggles of the 1920s and 1930s, or the public Bolshevik debates about industrialisation, collectivisation, foreign policy, spreading revolution or building socialism. Getty is not much concerned with paths not taken, missed opportunities, competing visions or different perspectives. One possibly unintended side-effect of this approach is the persistent implication that there were no real alternatives.

The focus here is on the Soviet administrative system, and the role of 'archaic, personalised political practices' within it. (p. 3) These have often been regarded, not least by Bolsheviks themselves, as 'birthmarks of the old society' (in Marx's phrase), vestigial left-overs from a bygone era. Getty dismisses this idea, arguing instead that 'along with certain rational bureaucratic elements, they were the system'. (p. 3) This was not a style of rule consciously chosen by the Bolshevik leaders from a range of possible alternatives. It was, on the contrary, the only one they knew. They were 'the heirs, if not the prisoners, of centuries of assumptions, among these an understanding of politics--and indeed of the state itself - as personal'. (p. 66)

These themes are developed over eight chapters, richly illustrated with the archival examples which are the hallmark of Getty's work. In chapter 1, he compares the Old Bolsheviks, the pre-revolutionary party cadre, to the upper stratum of the aristocracy in pre-Petrine Russia--the boyars. In the 1920s the Old Boa prestige and status equal to that of the old Russian princely aristocracy'. (p. 45). They constituted a caste apart from the rest of the population, formed clans, exercised patronage, and took great pains to defend their 'honour', often taking petty squabbles to the highest level to be resolved. Both in Moscow and in the localities, they were able to control access to power--and this eventually would result in conflict with the centralising state.

In the next chapter, dealing with cults and personalities, Getty examines the decision to embalm and display Lenin's corpse in 1924, which he sees as a textbook case of the operation of 'deep structures' in Russian political life. Preserving the body was first proposed by N. I. Muralov the day after Lenin's death (against the opposition of Stalin's ally Voroshilov); the majority on the funeral commission headed by Dzerzhinsky took the view 'why not?' Meanwhile, the numbers who came to view the body lying in state exceeded all expectations, the viewing time was extended, measures had to be taken to prevent the corpse decaying, a special structure needed to be erected to accommodate the crowds. In this way, via a series of pragmatic decisions which 'seemed natural', the Bolshevik leaders 'ended up creating a religious space, complete with sacred relic and monumental tomb'. According to Orthodox tradition, saints' relics do not decay. 'Somewhere in the back of their minds, Lenin was a saint.' (p. 73)

The following two chapters consider the tensions between patrimonialism and rational bureaucracy in the central party apparatus, in the operation of the nomenklatura system of political vetting for important appointments. Getty presents it as an 'upstairs, downstairs' conflict. The office staff 'downstairs', overwhelmed by the scale of their tasks, were keen to instil order and routine. In principle, Bolshevik grandees 'upstairs' were not opposed--except where this impinged on their personal prerogatives and powers of patronage. Ultimately, Getty concludes, 'patrimonialism won', (p. 146) but the price was the institutionalisation of clan politics throughout the Soviet system, as political leaders, both nationally and locally, sought to advance 'their' people.

Clan politics, and the problems and opportunities they presented for Stalin's regime, are the subject of the second half of the book. Getty stresses the role that local party leaders played in ensuring the defeat of the various Bolshevik 'oppositions' in the 1920s. Insecure in their own positions, surrounded by a hostile population, and with personal experience of fractious elements endangering party unity, many could easily be mobilised against threats to unity in the centre. At the same time, emissaries frequently had to be sent from Moscow to adjudicate in disputes between rival local leaders and their respective retinues. Occasionally they had to try to break up particularly dysfunctional or corrupt clans, but the shortage of cadres, especially in the 1920s, meant that the regime could not get by without these 'family circles' headed by 'little Stalins' in the localities.

This form of organisation was not limited to the party: Getty provides a fascinating discussion of 'police clans'--groups of Chekists which had coalesced during the civil war. He traces the struggles between the two most significant clans--the group around Genrikh Iagoda in the central OGPU apparatus, and the North Caucasus group around Efim Evdokimov, a noted advocate of mass punitive operations, for influence with the political leadership. The appointment of an outsider, Nikolai Ezhov, following the fall of Iagoda in autumn 1936 represented in part Stalin's attempt to break up the fractious police clans.

Stalin's struggle for central control against the resistance of the local grandees is traced over three chapters. Once the chaos associated with collectivisation of agriculture had abated, the centre tried to rein in some of the local chiefs, especially where they were implicated in large-scale corruption and criminality. In the early 1930s, Moscow sent in plenipotentiaries from the Commission for Party Control to try to oversee their work, a measure Getty compares to Louis XlV's use of intendants or Ivan IV's namestniki. These people were often strongly resisted, as is shown by a detailed account of the contest between Smolensk party chief Rumiantsev and CPC representative Paparde. In the end, Getty concludes, the local 'boyars' won this first round, and their clans survived intact. (p. 205)

The 'second round' was the campaign around the new constitution of 1936, which envisaged contested elections by secret ballot on a universal franchise. Getty cites several sources which show that this was intended to put pressure on local leaders, and that their fear that this could threaten their power was genuine. In response, some local leaders started demanding the restoration of the right to use extrajudicial repression and execution against 'enemies', both criminal and political, which they had exercised during the collectivisation campaign. The initial impetus for the mass repressions of 1937-38 came not from Stalin, but from local party chiefs who in the run-up to 1937, Getty argues, 'were more inclined to lethal mass repression than Moscow'. (p. 230)

Round three of the fight to tame the local clan chiefs came in early 1937, as Moscow publicly criticised their fiefdoms and encouraged local party members to air their grievances, which Getty sees as the 'penultimate tactic' (p. 261) before resorting to violence to break their power. This campaign merged into the lethal mass repression unleashed in the second half of that year. Regional party leaders had demanded it, and it claimed 69 out of 71 of them. (p. 263) The clan leaders were broken, but the clan system endured, outliving both Stalin and the USSR itself.

In an 'epilogue', Getty considers the survival of patrimonialism in Putin's Russia. This is a sign of the times; Russia's political development since the end of the USSR has refuted the ahistorical conceit of the 1990s that all countries will tend towards Western-style liberal democracy if free to do so. 'Maybe we should avoid simple developmental models and study each country on its own', (p. 290) he suggests. That is surely good advice for anyone studying Russia.

Individually, the ideas and insights in Practicing Stalinism are mostly not very new. The patrimonial nature of both Tsarist Russia and the USSR has long been a theme of authors like Richard Pipes, and much of the argument about deep structures and tradition in politics derives from Keenan, as Getty freely acknowledges. Getty's original contribution here lies in his archival research, and the fascinating material he produces, such as the story of the rapid rise and fall of Anton Vainov, party leader in Iaroslavl' oblast in 1936-37, to illustrate his arguments.

Overall, though, how convincing is it? There are certainly some valuable insights here. Looking at the dynamics of clan politics and the desire of the centre to gain some degree of control, helps explain some of the patterns of repression, particularly among the elite, in the terror of 193738. And there is certainly food for thought in the parallels Getty draws between the Old Bolshevik elite and the Muscovite boyars. But many questions remain, not least: why this reversion to early modern forms? What became of the legacy of the Imperial period of Russian history, of the reforms of bureaucracy after 1861, and of the rapid cultural development of the early 1900s? After all, many of the people in charge in the 1920s and 1930s would have been brought up, educated and may even have started their working lives in the late Imperial period. Did that experience leave no trace?

These questions are not really addressed by Getty. Keenan, on the other hand, did suggest some answers. He pointed first to the conspiratorial culture of pre-revolutionary Bolshevism, with its emphasis on personal connections rather than formal structures. Then the revolution and civil war 'selectively eliminated from political life' most of the people who had 'in the revolutionary period become most profoundly committed to a non-traditional political culture', replacing them with a new elite from a proletarian or peasant background.* One might also note the weak institutionalisation and legal nihilism of early Bolshevik rule, with its contempt for any procedural niceties which stood in the way of securing the revolution.

Practicing Stalinism usefully draws attention to the dynamics of early Soviet politics, particularly to the way Soviet power actually operated on the ground. It is a valuable contribution--and a very good read--but it is one which deepens, rather than transforms, our understanding of Stalin's rule.

Francis King

University of East Anglia

* Edward L Keenan, 'Muscovite Political Folkways', Russian Review 45/2, 1986, pp. 168-69.
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Author:King, Francis
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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