"Patrimony" in Stalin's Russia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Dec 14 10:43:18 MST 2000


H-NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by H-Russia at h-net.msu.edu (November, 2000)

Gerald M. Easter. _Reconstructing the State: Personal Networks and Elite
Identity in Soviet Russia_. Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics. New
York and Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiii + 221
pp. Tables, notes, bibliography and index. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-66085-8.

Reviewed for H-Russia by Nellie H. Ohr <neohr at aol.com>, McLean, Virginia

Old Boys, Bureaucrats and the Rise and Fall of the Soviet State

"The Soviet Russian state. . . was a far cry from a rational-legal
bureaucratic state. Beneath the formal facade of the monolithic party and
the planned economy existed an informal world of cliques, factions,
networks and druzhina [fighting brotherhood]. Power and status within the
state elite derived as much from the workings of these informal groupings
as they did from the formal lines of command" (p. 173)

Gerald Easter, a political scientist at Boston College, explores the
relationship between formal organizations and informal network ties in the
Soviet state. His detailed case study from the 1920s and 1930s should
interest anyone who studies Soviet politics of that era. Others will want
to read his lucid and engaging conclusions on the causes of the rise and
fall of the Soviet state and on state-building in general.

As a case study, he analyzes a group of people who played a vital role in
the Soviet state in the 1920s and 1930s. These were, in Easter's term, the
"Provincial komitetchiki": a cohort of Communist Party leaders who led
committees of the revolutionary underground before 1917, who served
together in the Civil War, and who worked as regional Party heads in the
first decades of Soviet rule. They were linked by old ties of comradeship
from the Civil War, and by a proud corporate identity, initially as
fighters for the proletarian cause and later as economic managers.

These networks literally built the new Soviet state infrastructure.
Personal contacts among these Party officials in regional capitals and with
their comrades in Moscow enabled these Provincial Komitetchiki to extend
the state's reach throughout the country's vast territory. At the same
time, they enabled the men to avoid control by central authorities. Easter
demonstrates this through a case study of the Transcaucasian regional
network, which included Sergei Kirov and Sergo Ordzhonikidze (pp. 82-88).

By the 1930s, however, conflicts over Stalin's forced industrialization
program showed that this cohort was developing a corporate consciousness
and a sense of its own interests as distinct from those of Moscow. A high
point in this trend, Easter argues, was the attempted "palace coup" of
1934, when several Provincial Komitetchiki participated in an attempt to
replace Stalin with Kirov at the head of the Party (pp. 142, 165). In
response, central leaders "concocted their own plan to redefine the
constraints of power to their own advantage" (p. 143). In the mid-1930s
"central leaders systematically worked to decouple informal network ties
from formal positions of power and to undermine the status image of the
Provincial Komitetchiki...thus setting the stage for a direct confrontation
that ultimately led not just to the political removal, but to the physical
destruction of the Provincial Komitetchiki" in 1937-38 (p. 141). As a
result, Easter argues, "a regime type emerged that more closely resembled
Stalin's vision of a bureaucratic absolutist state than the regional
elite's protocorporatist state" (p. 17, 165).

In his cogent conclusion -- the most tightly written part of the book --
Easter summarizes the historical case study and applies his model to the
Soviet experience as a whole and to other examples of state-building.
Despite Stalin's despotism, a personalistic "'patrimonial' system of
infrastructural power" existed throughout the Soviet era (p. 166). While
the particular balance of forces between Moscow and the regional elites
varied, constraints on state power did exist and were "rooted in the
informal 'forces from within'" (p. 168) By the 1980s the network-based
infrastructure was fundamentally different from that of the 1920s, however,
and in fact contributed to the downfall of the Soviet system. This was
because the networks of local officials under Brezhnev and Gorbachev were
focused "inward," remaining geographically and psychologically isolated
from other networks. When Gorbachev tried to uproot this "patrimonial"
system and was unable to build a "bureaucratic" system to replace it, "The
state was left without its underlying, informal administrative support
structure" and could not enforce Gorbachev's reforms in the regions. "In
this way the diffusion of power along informal lines was a precondition of
state collapse. >From this perspective it can be argued that the Soviet
state eventually fell apart along the same lines upon which it had been
built six decades earlier" (p. 170).

Generalizing from the Soviet case, Easter argues that "when this
intersection [between formal organizations and informal network ties]
exhibited an 'outward' structure the state's administrative capacity was
strengthened, but when it exhibited an 'inward' structure it was weakened"
(p. 172).

Putting his case study in a larger perspective of post-colonial
statebuilding, Easter argues against the received wisdom that
state-building requires building up rational bureaucratic states at the
expense of "patrimonial" personalistic power. Indeed, he cites research
showing that in both Israel and China, for example, "outwardly structured
network ties were a necessary element of successful state building" (p. 172).

In contrast to those who view Soviet history as moving in response to
forces "from above" (Stalin) or "from below" (the masses), Easter allies
himself with those scholars who see forces at work "from within" the
system. While his emphasis on patron-client ties and other personal
relationships is not new, Easter distinguishes himself from those scholars
-- ranging from Merle Fainsod to J. Arch Getty -- who view these informal
networks primarily as a hindrance to efficient governance. Easter's study
builds, rather, on the work of T. H. Rigby and Graeme Gill, who view
personal networks as central to the workings of the system. He points out
that even these scholars failed to explain how personal networks could have
contributed to state-building initially and then be brutally decimated
during the Great Terror. Easter's work attempts to answer these and other
questions. He summarizes the "three innovations" of his work: "(1) elite
identity as a source of autonomy of regional leaders, (2) alternative types
of personal networks [in addition to patron-client relationships], and (3)
personal networks as a means of facilitating state capacity" (p. 29).

The intertwining of personal relationships with official structures in the
Soviet Union is central to other phenomena explored by economists,
sociologists and historians. Examplies include the "second economy,"
described by Gregory Grossman and others; the ramifications of _blat_ or
"pull," explored most recently in Alena Ledeneva's _Russia's Economy of
Favors_ (Cambridge, 1998); and the effects of "social capital," which
dozens of scholars have addressed, for example in a 1997 conference at the
Kennan Institute entitled "Civil Society, Social Capital and Development in
Eurasia." Recent studies by historians also reveal the centrality of
personal networks. Barbara B. Walker at the University of Nevado in Reno,
working on literary circles, shows the political ramifications of personal
links spanning the Revolution. Walker's magisterial review essay on
personalized political and economic ties in recent Soviet historiography
will be forthcoming in April 2001 in _Comparative Studies in Society and
History_. My own work on collective farm and rural soviet officials in the
mid-1930s argues for a concept of "local politics" in the sense of a
struggle among networks to control resources, information and power (Nellie
H. Ohr, "Clans, Brigades and Mafias: Politics and Family in Rural Western
Russia, 1933-1937," book manuscript). While my own work focuses on
competition and conflict, Easter has chosen to highlight the cohesion
within the networks of Provincial Apparatchiki, acknowledging but not
focusing on areas of conflict such as institutional and regional rivalries
and power struggles among networks.

Easter deals with many subjects that remain controversial. While he cannot
fully substantiate his version of key events in the 1930s, he bravely and
gracefully fits them into his overarching conceptual framework.

One example is the attempted "palace coup" of 1934. Basing his account on
memoirs written late in life by Nikita Khrushchev, Anastas Mikoian and
Viacheslav Molotov, Easter admits that facts on this episode are sketchy.
Interpretations will continue to vary on what actually occurred and what it
meant. Easter's attempt to fit this episode into his scenario of a rise in
corporate consciousness is thought-provoking. He argues that the
backgrounds of the alleged conspirators back up his points about
center-regional conflict and personal network ties (p. 142). Similarly, in
his analysis of the March 1937 Party Congress as a flash-point in the
center-periphery struggle (pp.150s), he argues that the statements made by
some Provincial Komitetchiki at the congress revealed their self-image and
aspirations. While appealing, this interpretation can also be disputed:
public statements made in the 1930s are more likely to have been calculated
strategies for political advantage or survival.

In speaking of the "systematic" attempts by central leaders to weaken the
Provincial Apparatchiki, Easter seems to ally himself with those scholars
who say Stalin planned a crescendo of attacks on elites, beginning in 1934
and culminating in the Great Terror of 1937-38. However, he does not enter
into debates on the personal role of Stalin, and his brief sketch of
measures taken by "central leaders," which relies on secondary sources,
does not exclude the possibility of ad hoc decision-making. [Debates on the
Terror can be sampled in J. Arch Getty and Roberta Manning, eds.,
_Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives_ (Cambridge, 1993)].

As a historian, I have some quibbles with Easter's use of sources. For
example, his analysis of the self-image of the Provincial Apparatchiki
relies heavily on a set of questionnaires filled out by many of these men
as they applied to enter the Society of Old Bolsheviks (pp. 40s-50s). He
does not specify the date and circumstances in which they filled out the
questionnaire, but these would have helped the reader identify the
political and rhetorical micro-climate in which his subjects molded their
self-presentation. In another example, some of the tables illustrating
network ties among Provincial Komitetchiki are poorly labeled and
documented. The tables on pp. 81 and 99 consist of arrays of 1's and 0's,
presumably to show personal links among particular people. However, the
meaning of these numerals, and how he derived them, are unclear. More
perspective on these sources would have helped the reader evaluate his
historical judgments.

Despite these flaws, this book is a valuable window onto the "underworld of
personalistic relations" (p.174) that formed an integral part of the fabric
of the Soviet state.

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Louis Proyect
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