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Stalinist Patrimonialism

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practicing stalinismMy review, “Russian politics has always been patrimonial,” for Russia Direct of J. Arch Getty’s new book Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition:

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.

Read on . . .