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Book review: Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition

By Blog Admin, on 9 May 2014

GettyAndy Willimott is fascinated by a lively study of Russia’s patrimonial practices and personalization of power: J. Arch Getty’s Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Recent developments in Ukraine and Crimea have raised a number of questions about Russia and her political machinations. Some of the most perceptive reports have noted that Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, his decision-making core, appears to have shrunk or concentrated over recent months; now centring around a loyal contingent of hardliners, including friends and former classmates of Russia’s über male leader dating back to his years at the KGB Higher School in Leningrad. The implication being that where Putin once acted as a mediator between the different factions of his power network, those that owed their position and/or wealth to his patronage, he is currently aligning himself with the siloviki (‘strong ones’) – formed predominantly from his connections with former Soviet security personnel, many of whom tend to consider the fall of the USSR as a national disaster for Russia and continue to maintain genuine suspicion of the West.

These unspoken connections and informal networks of power are key to understanding the various twists and turns of Russian policy. Russia is a country where institutions often seem to matter less than clientism. The functioning and historic links of network-based governance forms the focus of J. Arch Getty’s latest book, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition.Here he argues that while we must acknowledge distinct periods and breaks in history, we should not ignore the persistence of certain political practices. It is striking, suggests Getty, that despite various efforts to introduce rule-bound bureaucracy and formal systems of authority, personalised structures remain integral to Russia’s political operations. ‘The clientism of rulers Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Putin’, notes Getty, recall ‘patterns not only under Stalin but from the nineteenth century and earlier’ (p. 4). Where the history of ‘Great Men’ once dominated, Getty seems to be saying, we now attribute too much to the power of ideas over habitus and practice. This book challenges reductive readings of Weber that emphasise the distinction between premodern and modern. ‘Modern ideology’, stresses Getty, ‘does not guarantee modernity’ (p. 21). Instead, the Russian example seems to support the notion that old and new – the residual and the emergent – will often intersect, together forming the world around us. Stalinism – no exception – is thus presented as a product of modern socialism and traditional patrimonial structures.

Getty’s opening two chapters provide a thematic overview of Russian political conventions. He uses the examples of petitioning, patron-anointed awards, kinship, and personality cults to highlight the ‘deep structures’ and ‘personalisation’ of Russian politics (p. 25). Not without provocative intent, some of these practices are traced back to 16th-century Muscovy. Be it a letter sent to a Grand Prince or the voice of a citizen partaking in one of Putin’s televised call-in sessions, Getty notes the same patrimonial language and understanding of power. Typical rhetorical features and the formula for redress include fulsome salutations, emphasis of the subject’s lowly position, the faceless nature of their injustice (the improper workings of noble or bureaucratic systems), and the notion that justice is ‘a gift based on mercy and power’ (p. 33). This speaks to the Russian tradition of viewing the tsar as Batiushka (‘little father’), an omnipotent yet just figure not associated with daily travails and the failings of government; a caring father that would solve all problems, if only he were made aware of them! Getty demonstrates that the form and content of Soviet-era letters, with their appeals to ‘Kindred Father Iosif Vissarionovich [Stalin]!’ (p. 28), often exhibited the same characteristics as their pre-revolutionary counterparts.

Likewise, we are shown that the Bolsheviks were not able to escape traditional Russian assumptions about governance. From their roots in the political underground of late imperial Russia, the Bolsheviks operated through loyal connections and local associations. Despite Lenin’s attempts to establish a new rational mechanism of government in 1917 (he even suggested the German Post Office as an example of a modern bureaucratic structure), the Old Bolsheviks, those with experience of clandestine politics and pre-revolutionary habits, continued to exercise power through established patronages. Again, Getty cites comparisons with Muscovy, suggesting that the Old Bolsheviks resembled early Russian boyars (barons or nobles), who, like little tsars, stood atop a patrician network of clients, relatives, and supporters. This was a system of who you know, which revolved around loyalty, protection, and the physical embodiment of power within individuals. To get things done in medieval Russia one had to mobilise these networks, invoking the implicit promise of reciprocal favour and greater proximity to power. The Bolsheviks were not unaware of these parallels. As Nadezhda Mandelshtam recalled, ‘the [Soviet] state encouraged people to behave like boyars in medieval Russia who fought each other over their place at the Tsar’s table’ (p. 53). (more…)

Putin’s Russia: The view from unglamorous places

By Blog Admin, on 23 July 2013

Church View

Photo: Igor Mironovsky via Flikr  CC-BY-2.0

Ben Judah’s new book  seeks out the view of ordinary Russians  to offer an insightful and readable account of Putin and the Putin regime. It nevertheless over-estimates the potential of civil society as an engine of change, finds Imogen Wage .

For journalists, commentators, academics and the general public Vladimir Putin never fails to intrigue. There has been a proliferation of recent books looking at Putin’s life, rise to power and the system he has created. Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin presents a new angle.

It examines not only Putin’s popularity and rise but also his relative decline, marked by the popular protests that started in the winter of 2011-12. The book tries to explain how and why Putin became so popular and powerful, and how and why his system started to decay from 2011. Judah finds that Putin rose to power because of the poverty and chaos of the 1990s and managed to create a sophisticated regime that is at the same time deeply backward.

Putin’s regime was sophisticated because it was a ‘videocracy’ which gave censored TV to the masses but allowed free newspapers and blogs for the intelligentsia’ (p.325). The regime was, however, simultaneously deeply backward because it built inefficient institutions and an obsolete structure of power, and because Putin is a bad bureaucrat: much money was put into a poorly performing system, but because of corruption few results were produced.

Judah’s argument echoes that two recent books on Russia. In Can Russia Modernise? , Alena Ledeneva argues that informal power arrangements in the form of the ‘sistema’ explain the failure of well-intended modernisation programmes in Russia. Like Judah, her focus is on modernisation and Putin as a person, rather than on institutions. Similarly, in Russian Politics: the Paradox of a Weak State Marie Mendras takes a statist approach to explain what kind of a state Russia is and how social freedoms (widespread Internet usage, cooperation with the West, high consumption) can coexist with political repression. She, like Judah, highlights the different between a civil society and political society and emphasises Putin’s role, but unlike Judah devotes more time to analysing the question of whether Russia is a strong or weak state. (more…)

Violence prevention: Is there a digital dimension?

By Blog Admin, on 4 April 2013

Legacy of rage - Flickr - Al Jazeera English (1)

Photo: Al-Jazeera English via WikiCommons

Protesters famously used social media to mobilise against authoritarian regimes during the Coloured Revolutions and the Arab Spring. But attempts to use technology to prevent deadly outbreaks of violence are less well known. A new book sheds important lights on these efforts, finds Kristen Perrin.

 Current discussions of the uses of social media are magnifying the implications of near-instantaneous human interaction. These discussions are often layered – we use social media to discuss both the issues and potential of social media. Therein lies a fascinating marker for our time. Where we recently marvelled at the speed at which information could reach us, we are now examining a more sophisticated set of problems.  What impact, for example, does the timing and spread of information have on communities teetering on the brink of violence?

In The Technology of Nonviolence: Social Media and Violence Prevention (MIT Press, 2012) Joseph G. Bock sets out to answer this question, drawing on his extensive experience in humanitarian aid, adding a digital dimension to some of the issues he has tackled in previous publications. I was initially interested but sceptical about how this topic would be addressed, but Bock sets about his analysis in a very organised and functional way.  His first two chapters give a straightforward investigation of the theory and application of violence prevention and early warning systems.

He also keeps to the heart of the matter throughout the book: in analysing the technological elements of tracking and preventing violence, we are, he says, really analysing people, leadership, politics and communication. Digital innovations are merely symptoms of larger processes and, Bock emphasises, it is ultimately these processes he is seeking to understand. Bock uses several case studies to examine the ways in which technology has brought change to early-warning systems to prevent violence. (more…)

Human rights should be more than a buzzword

By Blog Admin, on 28 October 2012

Four freedoms human rights

Photo: dbking via Wikimedia Commons

Kristen Perrin reviews an enlightening new collection that argues that it is imperative that we cultivate a rich awareness of both human rights and peace

Challenges facing human rights are talked about so often in our current global climate that ‘human rights’ as a buzz-word manages to be both constant and elusive. The concept is constant in that conflict, poverty, upheaval and justice are rarely mentioned without human rights in tandem, and elusive in that the reality of human rights within these very discussions is never fully explored outside of terminologies that are both vague and obtuse in scope. The common trap of human rights literature is that it is almost impossible not to lean on these vague definitions, leaving the scholar lost in a sea of phrases depicting ‘the essence of being human’ and ‘fundamental moral codes’.

Fortunately, the vastness of the human rights literature has forced its own evolution  and overly optimistic language has been met with sharp analysis, the evidence of experience and current applications. Activating Human Rights and Peace: Theories, Practices and Contexts edited by Goh Bee Chen, Baden Offord and Rob Garbutt (Ashgate. 2012) is a new collection of essays, which balances itself well in the existing literature, linking human rights with concepts that have been widely discussed – such as law, immigration, and conflict – as well as adding innovative perspectives from education, tourism and storytelling. The brevity of the essays included allows for creative ideas to be introduced but not overdone, leaving the collection as less of an in-depth study and more of a jumping-off point to further inquiry. (more…)

The Baltics have found their Nordic niche – should the UK follow suit?

By Blog Admin, on 23 May 2012

1 May 2004 enlargement celebration in Parc du Cinquantenaire

Photo: RockCohen via WikiMedia Commons

 Allan Sikk finds that a new book on the Baltic-EU relationship has excellent insights into micro-processes of accession relevant to anyone interested in how states respond to EU pressures and adapt to EU membership.

Could the experience of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joining the European Union be relevant for the UK? Differences seem to abound – the Baltic states are small, rather remote and their recent historical experiences are obviously very different. However, at a closer look one discovers that the UK and the Baltic states share certain perspectives of the world and even the EU (despite the British elites remaining far more Eurosceptic than their Baltic counterparts). More crucially, both the UK and the Baltic states have a shared affinity to the Nordic countries – an obvious source of inspiration for the Baltic states, but increasingly also for Britain.

Recently, the Prime Ministers of the UK, the Nordic and the Baltic states have twice met for UK-Nordic Baltic summits, initiated by David Cameron in 2011. For someone with an academic interest in Baltic and Nordic affairs, the links are obvious; together with three colleagues at University College London we started an ESRC seminar series on Nordic and Baltic countries a year prior to Cameron’s initiative.

Bengt Jacobsson’s new edited collection The European Union and the Baltic States: Changing forms of governance. (Routledge. 2010) addresses the issue of how domestic politics, more specifically central state administration, has been shaped by the EU accession. Its aim is to go beyond a crude notion of conditionality: that the rewards of membership force states to undertake specific reforms.

Some of the critique of conditionality literature in the opening chapters may be on the harsh side, but the book does provide original insights. It focusses on micro-processes and soft forms of influence – where aspiring member states adapted to formal requirements and, perhaps more importantly, to the Western ways of doing things according to the logic of appropriateness, termed (somewhat cryptically) ‘scripts’. (more…)