1929 May Be More Important Than 1937 For Understanding Putin – OpEd


The day doesn’t go by in which one or another Russian commentator suggests that Russia is on the brink of a new 1937, the year of Stalin’s Great Terror that some fear Vladimir Putin may seek to replicate to remain in power. But a discussion by Russian historians suggests that the Kremlin leader may be more informed by 1929 than by 1937.

In the latter year, Urals Federal University historians Lyudmila Mazur and Oleg Gorbachev say, a hungry and tired Soviet population who valued stability above all else were prepared to accept that repressions might be needed to produce it (znak.com/2019-07-31/kak_90_let_nazad_byurokraty_prigovorili_stranu_k_stalinizmu_intervyu_s_istorikami).

Although the two do not discuss the possible analogy between the rise of Stalin and the rise of Putin, it appears on the basis of their discussion that the current Kremlin leader was more than a little informed by the actions of his Soviet predecessor in terms of building his own power vertical while gaining the support of a population upset by earlier turbulence.

Ninety years ago in 1929, even more than 102 years in 1917, Gorbachev argues, the Soviet system was established as bureaucratic socialism that was modified but remained in place until its end in 1991. It was “the year of ‘the great change,’” with Stalin having vanquished his opponents, launched the first five-year plan, and accelerated collectivization.

From the mid-1920s, Mazur continues, “Soviet ‘administered democracy’ was put in place: the organs of power began to be formed by the VKP(b) and controlled by it, not via official structures like a parliament but by the use of another mechanism, the party nomenklatura installed at all levels of administration.”

“In the 1930s,” she says, “’administered democracy’ acquired a perfected character: the people unanimously voted for ‘the inviolable bloc of communists and non-party people.’ Candidates formally were advanced by meetings of voters but in fact were agreed to and confirmed in party offices.”

“Formally, there was a democratic system of secret elections; in reality, there was a dictatorship of the party bureaucracy,” Mazur says, arguing that what occurred can be described as “’a bureaucratic revolution.’” 

As far as economic change is concerned, she continues, “however semi-feudal was the economy of imperial Russia, it was already a market economy. The Bolsheviks when they came to power without delay liquidated private property … and the means of production became government owned.

In Stalin’s Russia, like all authoritarian regimes, Gorbachev says, the new order came into existence “on a wave of psychological exhaustion of the mass of the population,” which from 1914 on had suffered much turbulence, violence and uncertainty. People wanted something they could count on even if it involved repression.

With regard to foreign affairs, Mazur says, undoubtedly it was the case that the possible threat of a big war played a role in what happened in 1929. “But the country didn’t limit itself to defense. Willingly or not, it began to conduct itself as an aggressor: recall the Soviet-Finnish war, the annexation of the Baltic states, and Western Ukraine and Belaruss.”

But it is the final observation by Mazur that may be the best reason for thinking 1929 has played a fundamental role in Putin’s calculations. Should anyone really speak “about the end of the Soviet project?  Perhaps it would be better to say that it still is continuing in a somewhat modified form?”

“There are no soviets, but there is a decorative State Duma and municipal organs which have been deprived of leverage on the authorities. We see as well that a return to the Soviet matric in economics, politics, and psychology is taking place,” and not just the Soviet past as a whole but to the year of the great change that shaped most of Soviet history, 1929.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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