In his new book, UCLA historian J. Arch Getty shows how political practices and traditions from old Muscovy persisted throughout Stalin’s Soviet Union and continue to influence present day Russian politics.

A women holds a portrait of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin, during a communists rally in Moscow. Photo: AP

What is striking about J. Arch Getty’s excellent new book, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition, is how little Stalin is in it. Sure, he’s there, but he mostly stands above the fray acting as an arbiter over rival Bolshevik clans that all curry his favor. Indeed, Stalin’s personal presence isn’t felt until the last third of the book, when Getty investigates how the dictator sought to wrangle the competing clans the Stalinist system begat.

In many ways, however, Practicing Stalinism is a misnomer. While Getty’s focus is on the 1920s and 1930s, the text isn’t about Stalinism as much it is about the tenacity of what the preeminent historian Edward Keenan has called “Muscovite political folkways.”

Despite their efforts to create a modern rule-bound depersonalized state, the Bolsheviks were victims of the deep structures of Russian culture as much as they were its destroyers. Using the early Soviet period as a case study, Getty argues that from the first tsars to the commissars to Putin, Russian politics has always been patrimonial.

As Getty’s former graduate student (full disclosure), I’ve been hearing about Stalinism as patrimonial politics for a while now. Though he isn’t the first to suggest this, he is the only one to date to devote a sustained study of clans in the early Soviet period. I’ve always remained skeptical, though. I view the approach of extending Muscovy’s politics into the modern period and treating the state as merely a shell containing a network of personal relations as reductionist.

As Getty states in his introduction, we are all followers of Max Weber in that we buy into the idea of a reified state.  I suffer from the same affliction and find the Weberian syndrome difficult to shake. Ultimately, Getty’s text alleviates my fears of reductionism as he inserts a sufficient number of caveats. In the end, his references to Muscovy are illustrative rather than attempts at similitude.           

As heirs of the imperial state, the Bolsheviks were confronted with an old problem: how to make Russia a rechtsstaat, or state bound by the rule of law and procedure, in which political grandees eschew their personal power and interests for the good of a well-ordered state.

Many tsars tried in vain to build such a state - Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II - and each failed. They failed not simply because of the intransigence of their underlings, but because the tsar and his nobles were quick to rely, by temperament or necessity, on their own personal arbitrary power over their subjects.

The Bolsheviks were no different. History, culture, and circumstances rendered personal fiat both natural and expedient. Contrary to common portrayals of the Bolshevik party as a tight-knit “power vertical,” the Bolsheviks, Getty shows, reproduced many tsarist practices and structures: supplicants that put their faith in appealing to esteemed persons, self-congratulatory awards, cults, and hagiographies, the notion of collective responsibility, a new noble class, and the spinoff of mesnichestvo in the form of the nomenklatura.

The last two — nobility and mesnichestvo — are of grave importance because they provided Bolsheviks with their place in the personalized hierarchy. Old Bolsheviks, in Getty’s words, were prima donnas. The nomenklatura ascribed them their importance and authority which they used to rule their bailiwicks as virtually autonomous aristocrats.

All the center could do (until Stalin decided to shoot them) was to appeal to their Party discipline and duty. At the same time, the Old Bolsheviks possessed a corporate identity with all its rituals and informal rules which socially isolated them from the masses.

As Getty shows, the Bolshevik boyars were quick to cannibalize each other over mere trifles, but would circle the wagons at the first sign of revolt from below. This corporate identity also reinforced patrimonial power. Personal connections, not office, were the sources of real power, and as a result, Party grandees trusted informal relations over institutions.

Thus, like the tsarist nobility, every attempt to create a rule bound, de-personalized system was rebuffed in favor of personal fiat. As a result, the institutional power vertical as a state structure, Getty repeatedly insists, was and continues to be a Weberian-inspired myth.

Patrimonialism was the source of oligarchic power as it was its gravedigger. Stalin cultivated his secretaries’ personal authority as the most efficient means to carry out his tripartite revolution of collectivization, industrialization, and cultural transformation.

Some older communists still revere Stalin and use his image at their protests. Photo: AFP / East News

Stalin needed provincial clans because a fragmented state system made bureaucratic command chains too cumbersome. It was easier to whip a party secretary who in turn whipped his subordinates than it was to rely on their duty as state administrators.

But by the mid-1930s, these clans became a burden on the system, which was breaking under the strains of industrialization and post-collectivization failures in agriculture. Graft and corruption were widespread. The periphery thumbed its nose at Moscow’s orders, bought off its inspectors, or falsified results. Moreover, war with Nazi Germany was imminent. Stalin had to break the regional clans. But how?

Finally, Stalin makes his appearance in the book. Getty outlines three methods the dictator used to break his provincial secretaries and their families: root out the corrupted using his “king’s men”; unseat them from below; and finally, annihilate them through repression. Getty argues that Stalin seriously considered allowing multicandidate democratic elections in following the 1936 Constitution which restored the rights of class enemies.

The archival record confirms this. Multicandidate elections, according to Stalin’s plan, would uproot the clans in the provinces and elect leaders accountable to the masses. But Stalin ultimately balked at the last minute. We don’t know Stalin’s reasoning, but as Getty shows, the leader was inundated with local reports that class enemies were still active and elections would bring them to power.

Stalin went with them. The regional clans were successful in convincing Stalin that ubiquitous class enemies, not they, were the real danger.

Getty provides an interesting revision to the origins of the terror. Rather than an excess of policing practices, or the result of Stalin’s bloodlust, mass operations directly resulted from the Stalinist Constitution. In Bukharin’s words, cleansing the country of class enemies, priests, and criminals was necessary for the “transition to democracy.” Provincial secretaries, however, lobbied for mass terror. They, not Stalin, were calling for blood.

In the months prior, Stalin and Yezhov repeatedly denounced the effectiveness of mass arrests, trial by troika, and executions. Eventually Stalin buckled to provincial bloodlust and issued Operational Order 447 establishing terror by quota. Throughout the operation, regional secretaries requested upping the quotas, all of which Stalin approved. The leader remained skeptical but acquiescent.

Molotov remembered a telling scene. Khrushchev as Moscow party boss brought Stalin his list of enemies, which Stalin doubted. “They can’t be so many!” the dictator exclaimed. “There are, in fact, many more, Comrade Stalin. You can’t imagine how many they are!” The great de-Stalinizer was more Stalinist than Stalin.

Stalin was left with nothing but violence to tame the regional bosses, who had beaten back his “king’s men,” and deflected their culpability. The terror was really three connected processes of mass violence: the mass operations, the elimination of rivals to Stalin’s clan at the top, and the annihilation of the provincial clans.

The last is the subject of Getty’s last chapter. Localities were often riddled with clan rivalries, wherein one clan tried to squash another. Sometimes they did this by mustering enough local power, co-opting a few rival potentates, or appealing to Moscow to decide a dispute. In the summer of 1937, Stalin decided to use these fissures and pent up hatreds in his favor by urging the party rank and file to openly attack their leaders.

The old Muscovite notion of collective responsibility was the ruin of the provincial grandees. When one member of a clan was denounced as an “enemy of the people,” their entire family circle was arrested and purged. The result was that seventy-one regional party secretaries were arrested and shot. 

Only two survived: Khrushchev and Beria, who were fortunate to be in Stalin’s clan. The ruling clans were cleaned out. Stalin’s victory was momentary, though, as new batches of weeds sprouted out of the uprooted plots. These new clans were a necessary evil because as Russian history has shown, no tsar, even Stalin, could rule without them.

As the book’s title suggests, all the Bolshevik boyars, their rituals and practices, and Stalin’s attempts to tame them amount to Practicing Stalinism. Exactly how is unclear. Getty never provides a pointed discussion of Stalinism as such, or how we should understand Stalinism in light of his book.

Overall, Practicing Stalinism comes across more as practicing Russian politics. Stalinism is only a particularity in the great universalism of Russian patrimonialism. Unfortunately, despite Practicing Stalinism rich material and compelling story, Slavoj Zizek’s claim that “we still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism” persists.