Elite political practice trumps economic and social change in Russia
UCLA historians Ivan Berend (left) and Arch Getty. (Photo: Catherine Schuknecht/ UCLA.)

Elite political practice trumps economic and social change in Russia

UCLA historian Arch Getty contends that an archaic system of personal, patrimonial power has continued uninterrupted in Russia since at least the 17th century.

The continuity of Russian political practices over several centuries, observed Getty, renders the traditional watersheds of 20th-century Russian history far less significant.

by Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

International Institute, June 11, 2014 — At a talk organized by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies in spring 2014, UCLA historian Arch Getty argued that an archaic system of personal, patrimonial power has continued uninterrupted in Russia since at least the 17th century.

In fact, he said, the political traditions of vesting the power of the state in a person, and of judging one’s place in the political system by one’s relationship to a person of power, appear to have their own historical trajectory.

The continuity of these political practices, he observed, renders the traditional watersheds of 20th-century Russian history — the Russian Revolution (1917), the rise of Stalin (1929), the Great Terror (1937), World War II (1941–45) — far less significant.

Although he conceded that Russian political practices have changed over time, Getty said the pace of this change was glacial. For example, being a blood relation of a boyar family was once the prerequisite for entering the ruling elite (the mestnichestvo, or nobility rankings).

Yet the subsequent Table of Ranks of Peter the Great and the Communist Party nomenklatura made it possible for valued subjects or clients of powerful leaders to access power and privilege. In all cases, however, power was not derived from an office, but by relationship to someone with greater power.

Many influences on recent book

CEES Director Gail Kligman (left) and UCLA Professor of History Arch Getty. (Photo: Catherine Schuknecht/ UCLA.) Getty spoke about his most recent book, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars and the Persistence of Tradition (Yale, 2013). In a telling vignette, Getty recounted one of the reasons he wrote the book. He noted that since the early 1990s, he has spent long years doing research in the archives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Those archives present a picture of the Party as a structured, rational institution. Yet his friends gave him an entirely different picture of Russia.

“None of my friends believed institutions even existed,” he said, “If you wanted to get something done, if you needed something, you didn’t go to some bureaucracy, you went to a friend, a connection. . . Behind the scenes was. . . a network of personal connections and this network was completely oblivious, agnostic even, about the existence of institutions — they were a joke.”

The author acknowledged the book’s intellectual debt to several fellow Russian experts. Ken Jowitt (Maurine Hotchkis Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Robson Professor of Political Science, UC Berkeley), articulated the idea that archaic and modern elements were “all mixed up” in the Soviet system. Edward Keenan (Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of History, Harvard University), defined the “informal understandings” that held medieval Russia together, according to which the tsar was the moderator among competing boyar families, who they believed were the real rulers of the country.

And French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) conjectured that the Bolsheviks unconsciously adopted a boyar oligarchy in the 20th century. Getty quoted Bourdieu directly on this point: “What is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying. The tradition is silent, not least about itself as tradition. Decisions go without saying because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they’re doing, that what they do has more meaning than they know.”

Personal patrimony and clans render institutions irrelevant

Getty focused on the publication’s two major themes: that the Stalinist system was a personal patrimonial, not institutional, system; and that the Old Bolsheviks unconsciously transformed into a boyar class whose behaviors emulated those of the very nobility they were slaughtering.

The speaker traced several continuities in Russian political practice over the centuries, including the fusion of the state and its leader; the leader’s connection to a sacred, even mystical, predecessor; the widespread use of pictures to convey the hierarchy of power (or “apostolic succession,” in his phrase) to a peasant population; and the tradition of “letters to power,” in which common people write the leader for his help in resolving a problem — appealing to his charity rather than to his sense of justice.

The decision to embalm Lenin, for instance, was taken by default from above as well as from below, said Getty. On one hand, the Bolshevik commission on the matter met for three years without making a clear decision. “They made a decision without making one as the result of a kind of evolutionary conversation. They created a cult while being against cults,” he remarked.

On the other hand, Getty noted that the public continued to show up to view Lenin’s body lying in state and received the Lenin cult without question, observing that in Orthodox Christianity, the body of a saint does not decompose.

“The real kicker,” said Getty, “is that for 70 years, the leaders of the country literally stood on the body when they reviewed the parades going by on Red Square . . . they [were] literally standing on the burial mound of the ancient chieftain.”

In addition to tracing their authority to a mythical ancestor, Getty claimed patrimonial Russian leaders have projected the images of a strong military defender and a father who takes care of his subjects. Such images were apparent in the military power created by Stalin, the Soviet ruler’s image as “father of the people,” and even Brezhnev’s slew of military medals.

The Old Bolsheviks — a closed group by definition — became a ruling elite based on a special right to rule, said Getty. In their case, this alleged right was their knowledge of Marxism-Leninism. Qualification for upper-level offices in the Party soon came to be defined by the number of years a person had been a Bolshevik, amounting to a new iteration of the medieval mestnichestvo.

Each Old Bolshevik, moreover, headed a political clan or family, a network of patronage, and struggled with his peers for precedence, defying the Party bureaucrats who sought to put the best person in open positions. These “nobles” saw Stalin much the same way as the boyars saw the tsar: as a kind of referee, said Getty. (“Although, as we know,” he noted in an aside, “he had different ideas about what he ought to be.”)

Getty depicted the purges of the Old Bolsheviks during the Great Terror as one clan (that of Stalin) destroying all other clans. The interrogations of senior Bolsheviks were not about their purported crimes, he continued, but about whom they knew and with whom they spent time. The goal was to identify members of their clans so that these networks could be “uprooted tree and branch.”

Distinguished UCLA Professor of History Ivan Berend, who served as discussant for the session, noted that the legion of stories used to illustrate the book’s arguments all convey its central message: “Mother Russia has equally deformed everything: 19th-century capitalism, 20th-century communism and 21st-century transformation.”

Refuting critics who continue to attribute the Stalinist regime and its excesses to Stalin’s individual evil, Berend remarked, “You don’t acquit Stalin and Soviet ideology of their crimes by admitting that other historical factors also played an important role.” The book, he insisted, shows that the conflicting forces of modernization and traditionalism are a permanent feature of Russian history, characterizing not only the rule of Ivan the Terrible and of Stalin, but also of Putin today.

The unanswered rhetorical question remains, said Berend: “Does Russian history exhibit an unbroken continuity? Does the past always penetrate the present?” Great changes in values, behavioral patterns and social-political relations resulted from Stalin’s radical modernization as well as from Russia’s recent, nearly 25 years of post-communist transformation, he continued. “But what,” he asked, “remains from the past and what are the new characteristics? What is the new mix?”


Click here for the podcast of the lecture.

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