Review: J. Arch Getty, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars and the Persistence of Tradition (Yale, 2013)

J. Arch Getty is the author of a number of books on the Stalinist era in the former Soviet Union, primarily of the 1930s. In this book he seriously enlarges his scope, and attempts to situate Stalinism in a “long view” of Russian and Soviet history. The key concept for this enlargement is what he calls “patrimonialism,” a term most associated with the German sociologist Max Weber; indeed, Getty asserts that “we are all Weberians” now. Patrimonialism refers to informal “old boy networks” existing behind and around any more formal organizational schema, which are the “real story” behind any such formalities. Getty wishes to demonstrate a continuity of patrimonial networks at the highest levels of Russian and then Soviet society, starting with the early modern boyars (a group resembling but not identical with a western European nobility). These networks and their practices, for Getty, even with a total change of personnel and of explicit policy, survived through the arc of 500 years of Tsarist autocracy from the Muscovite period (the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries), the Romanovs (the seventeenth century to 1917) and were then reconstituted by the “Bolshevik elite” after 1917. Getty musters powerful elements for his argument, one which certainly initially appeals to any anti-Stalinist view of the Russian Revolution. “Powerful pre-modern elements” were present in Stalinist practice; Getty invokes Boris Souvarine’s 1935 biography of Stalin, in which Souvarine writes of Stalin as the “historical atavism of ancient Muscovy.” The key to the old “aristocracy,” especially of the early modern Muscovite period after 1480, was brought to its paroxysm by Ivan IV (the Terrible), who in 1569–70 staged collective public confessions and gruesome collective public executions of elements of the boyar elite and of his closest courtier intimates that anticipate nothing so much as Stalin’s terror and the Moscow Trials of 1937–38. What characterized the “nobility” in the Riurikid dynasty of Ivan’s era was its character as a “service class” which “owned” their landed property only on the whim of the Tsar, in exchange for sometimes very considerable and lengthy military and bureaucratic service, while property, wealth and position could be taken away as whimsically as they were given. At bottom, in contrast to western European absolutisms, in which monarchies had to wage decades, sometimes centuries of warfare to bring the landed nobility to heel, in the Russian autocracy the Tsar was the owner of all land. An oligarchy already existed behind the scenes of the patchwork of power in the early Kievan period (the tenth through thirteenth centuries) when the Mongols occupied Russia in 1237–40, and after the Mongols’ tributary rule crumbled 250 years later, a figure such as Ivan IV imposed himself by reminding the boyars “what chaos and lawlessness was like without a strong monarch.” The Bolsheviks as well, for Getty, thought of themselves as “the elite, as a corporate group and privileged breed apart” which was uniquely able to “ward off chaos” after they seized state power in October 1917. Bureaucracy, for Getty (again following Weber) is a rational, rule-bound practice quite distinct from patrimonial power, where personal connections predominate. A “set of practices becomes part of the social structure when its original purpose is no longer recalled.” The Bolsheviks, Getty argues, could have opted for “modern, bureaucratic tools of rule,” but they did not. They ceded, instead, to what Getty calls the “deep structures” of centuries of earlier Russian practice. (An extreme case of such “deep structures” would be North Korea, a (“communist”) “hereditary monarchy,” in which senior officials are patriarchically designated as “father,” “brother,” “uncle” and so on). Letters of appeal to Stalin for correction of injustices were almost identical to similar appeals to seventeenth-century tsars and earlier. Ancient forms were filled with new content and the ancient Russian hero fighting the Mongols became a story of the Civil War hero Chepaev. Stalinism replicated Peter the Great’s famous Table of Ranks (1714), which spelled out in detail sixteen ranks of the elite, connected, again to service, which the Stalinist regime supplemented by medals, titles and status orders. Centuries before Stalinism, Russian Orthodox Christianity had developed the concept of “sins of thought.” Eleventh-century law already held communities collectively responsible for crimes, and the responsibility to inform also had deep roots in Russian history. In the seventeenth century, intending to commit a crime was the same as committing it. “Faces, discourse and ideology changed,” writes Getty, but “positions and rules did not.” The Bolshevik “mestnichestvo,” (a term designating an early modern form of ranking aristocrats by blood ancestry) was based rather on years of membership in the party. In party culture, ultimately, “everything was personal.” Getty quotes French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, clearly a major influence on his work, to the effect that “What is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying: the tradition is silent, not least about itself as tradition.” In the Lenin mausoleum, the display of Lenin’s embalmed body was in continuity with archaic Orthodox practices of saints, based on the “undamaged body as a magical aura of holiness.” Getty has a remarkable chapter on the embalmed bodies of the likes of Lenin and later Stalin. In the West, above all in the paradigmatic monarchy of France, the king had “two bodies,” his personal body and his body as the head of state. In Russia, this separation did not exist; “the state and (the tsar’s) body were inseparable…there was no state until a new tsar ruled…These sacred images are the tangible symbols of the person-state in Russia.” Such a ruler, “sacralized by God made no sense without land and people,” understood as the tsar’s property. The Muscovite service nobility designated Muscovy itself in their wills as their votchina, their inheritable patrimonial estate, since the state was identified with the person of the tsar, as in Russian law “the owner of the house is identified with the house.” The later Enlightened despot, Peter the Great (tsar from 1696 to 1725), also ultimately saw the state as his personal patrimony, and the throne as his votchina to pass down. Much later, in the 1897 census, Tsar Nicholas II (ruled from 1894 to 1917) listed his occupation as khoziain (owner, proprietor, landlord) of the Russian lands, a term which Stalin’s lieutenants in the 1930s used to refer to the dictator. In imperial as in Stalinist times, “monarchical proximity” to the ruler was more important than any formal position. Getty applies his framework to the history of the Bolshevik Party, claiming that prior to 1917 party organization “was more a wish than a reality”; there was, in his view, no party apparatus at all. After the October Revolution, the party, which had 27,000 members at the beginning of 1917, was flooded with hundreds of thousands of new recruits, necessarily including time-serving opportunist elements with little relationship to party ideology and history. In this situation, for Getty, “the personal, non-institutional Old Bolshevik noble system predated Stalin’s rise to power by several years… and the patrimonial understanding it reflected predated him and his cronies by centuries.”

“Russia has always been ruled this way,” writes Getty. The pre-1917 elite, veterans of the underground and Lenin’s comrades in arms, “felt themselves awash in the sea of new party recruits and as a generational cohort” and “must have felt things slipping from their control.” This, for Getty, has great implications for the famous factional struggles of the 1920s, involving Trotsky, Stalin, Bukharin and Zinoviev, in questions of industrialization and policy in the Third International. Getty asks how all this was perceived in the provinces and in the party as a whole. “Party members out in the wild…could not worry too much about policy.” To them, these battles looked like personal struggles, colored by ideology. Getty quotes the memoirs of Dimitrov,[1] who recounts a conversation in which Stalin told him: “Why did we prevail over Trotsky and the rest? Trotsky, as we know, was the most popular man in our country after Lenin…We were little known. But the middle cadres supported us, explained our positions to the masses…the middle cadres decided the outcome of our cause.”Such, along with detailed chapters on the functioning of specific party offices based on original research, is Getty’s portrait of post-1917 Russia and its continuities with a distant past.Confronted with such a mass of material and a convincing argument for continuity, one hardly knows where to begin with a critique. Where, for Getty, are the fifteen years of faction fights between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, of such a complex nature that the grey eminences of the Second International were baffled by them?Where in all this are the soviets and workers’ councils, first created in 1905 and then reappearing as the forms of working class power from 1917 to 1921? Where, in fact, is any relationship of the “Bolshevik Old Guard” to the Russian working class, which, we should remind ourselves, it successfully won over from all other parties between the spring and fall of 1917? Where are Lenin’s “April Theses,” derided as Bakuninist madness by the overwhelming majority of the party, including the elite, when Lenin returned to Russia from fifteen years of exile? Where is the failure of the world revolution, which the Bolsheviks said a thousand times was fundamental to their survival? Such “policy” questions seem to interest Getty as little as they interested the provincial party functionaries during the debates at the top in the 1920s. The struggle by which the soviets and workers’ councils were eviscerated between 1917 and 1921, as told in many sources (most recently in Simon Pirani’s The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920–1924), going back to those years, is nowhere for Getty. True, he is not writing a history of the Russian Revolution, but the aplomb with which he asserts, without argument, the continuity of elite practices pre-and post-1917, while neglecting these questions, is somewhat breathtaking. Getty seems to have the problem of the Bourdieu school generally, where everyone is so busy reproducing themselves that in the end nothing ever seems to change, or in which change, when admitted, seems almost inexplicable. It is hardly the case that the practices of elite rule do not exist or are not important, and surely they have been neglected or downplayed in much of the post-1917 decades of debate over exactly when the Russian Revolution was defeated (a question that seems outside Getty’s universe; defeat? what defeat? who was defeated?), or whether the emerging new regime was “state capitalist,” “bureaucratic collectivist” or Trotsky’s “degenerated workers’ state,” viewpoints which have animated hundreds of books over the decades. Yet it is only in some periodization of the intense events between 1917 and Stalin’s final victory ca. 1927 that the content (a non-category in Getty’s universe) of the practices described becomes comprehensible. For Getty, there are no modes of production or true factional antagonisms or class interests. The “deep structures” and long historical view of centuries of Russian history might well supplement some of the earlier, “classical” analyses produced over the decades by anarchists, council communists, Bordigists, Trotskyists, Bukharinites, Mensheviks, Social Democrats and nostalgic liberals, but, standing by themselves, they fall far short.

  1. [1]Gyorgi Dimitrov (1882–1949), Bulgarian Communist and prominent Stalinist of the 1930s and 1940s.


6 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. So are we trying to argue that Stalinism was a continuation of a “deep” Russian, and why not?, “asiatic” practice without parallel or analogues in Western Europe?

    Like Spain maybe?

    And this: “Getty applies his framework to the history of the Bolshevik Party, claiming that prior to 1917 party organization “was more a wish than a reality”; there was, in his view, no party apparatus at all”– is nonsense. There was indeed a party apparatus.

    These are the limitations of rendering history as analogy. To do so ignores exactly what transformations were, and were not accomplished, and winds up arguing for some sort of “cultural unconscious”– some embedded mechanisms of ruling and ruled that persist beyond the economic, and social organization that first spawns the mechanisms, and are, not chronic, but congenital to the specific body politic of the class struggle.

    We might ask, if Getty’s thesis holds any water, what forces then drove the Bolsheviks sans apparatus into power, into a leadership of the soviets, the factory committees, the raions?

    Bunch of baloney, but that’s just my opinion.

  2. M. Protenic,

    I must agree with Artesian’s criticism – while Mssr. Goldner’s theme could be equated with “the dead weight of the dead preying upon the living”, he shows no analysis of specific cultures and political economies to PROVE any “deep” structures that unconsciously determine our behavior – mainly because Goldner’s theme is psychological anthropology as practiced by Ruth Benedict, which has been shown to be totally in error due to its overbearing generality. It is when such examination occurs that we see how a materialist would not engage in such writing…

  3. M. Protenic,

    My apologies to Loren Goldner for my 1st posting – I meant to criticize Mr. Getty’s book, not Mr. Goldner.

  4. Gopal Balakrishnan,

    I think Trotsky’s own formulations on the relationship of Stalinism to Tsarism- should be considered here. Russian autocracy took on its distinctive characteristics under the compulsions of the European inter-state system, and the failure of the European revolution to break the inter-state chain led to a reconfiguration of these compulsions under conditions of economic collapse and encirclement: break-kneck heavy industrialization through “primitive socialist accumulation” etc. In my opinion Trotsky had difficulties theorizing the relationship between the recrudescence of patrimonial forms of domination and terror which these compulsions of combined and uneven development and had reconstituted, and his ‘degenerated worker-state’ thesis.

  5. Hyung Rog Choi,

    I appreciate you of the pointed critique on Getty’s book. The dialectical view of history is to identify the epochal change in the course of the historical continuity. As Loren returned the ripostedly question to Getty, Getty’s underlying premise might be that the Russian Revolution was of no use and regrettable. As you know Edward Hallet Carr defined the history was the dialogue between the past and the present. The gist is what kind of the present which is the constant becoming of the future and whose protagonist is who?

  6. John e chiaradia,


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