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Russian state-building and the problems of geopolitics

  • Graeme Gill


A basic task of the state is to ensure the continuation and security of the community within which it is found. In an attempt to achieve this, state elites pursue long-term strategies. Such strategies involve not just questions of external security, but also the structuring of domestic society with an eye to faciliting the extraction and mobilisation of resources. The tsarist state sought to achieve this through a cooptive strategy which left some room for independent economic initiative. The soviet elite sought to encapsulate all actors into a single command stucture, thereby removing all scope for independent activity. Ultimately both strategies failed, and the post-Soviet leaders are faced with the problem of devising a more successful alternative.

La tche essentielle de l'tat est d'assurer la continuation et la scurit de la communaut. Pour atteindre ce but, les lites poursuivent des stratgies long terme, qui englobent non seulement des questions de scurit extricure, mais galement la structuration interne de la socit, en veillant faciliter l'expression et la mobilisation des ressources. L'tat tsariste prtendait y arriver travers une stratgie de cooptation qui laissait une certaine place l'initiative conomique individuelle. L'lite sovitique voulait enfermer tous les acteurs en une structure commande unique, enlevant ainsi toute place l'activit individuelle. Les deux stratgies ont chou et les leaders post-sovitiques se trouvent confrons au problme d'imaginer une alternative plus russie.

Die Hauptaufgabe eines Staates ist es, die Weiterentwicklung und die Sicherheit jenor Gemeinschaft zu garantieren, die ihn gegrndet hat. Um dies zu erreichen, verfolgen die Fhrungseliten langfristige Ziele. Ziele dieser Art beinhalten nicht nur Fragen der ueren Sicherheit, sondern auch die innere Gesellschafts-struktur, wobei der Herausbildung und Frderung neuer Krfte besondere Aufmerksamkeit geschenkt wird. Der zaristische Staat versuchte dies durch Kooptation zu erreichen, die eine gewisse wirtschaftliche Eigeninitiative zulie. Die sowjetische Fhrung beabsichtigte alle Handelnden in eine einzige Befehlsstruktur einzubinden und verhinderte dadurch jegliche Eigeninitiative. Beide Methoden haben versagt. Heute suchen die Fhrungskreise der ehemaligen Sowjetunion nach einer besseren Alternative.



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(1) For example, White, Stephen, Gorbachev and After (Cambridge, CUP, 1991) and Sakwa, Richard, Gorbachev and His Reforms, 1985–1990 (New York, Philip Allan, 1990).

(2) For example, Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History?, The National Interest Summer 1989, 317; Brzezinski, Zbigniew, The Grand Failure. The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century (New York, Collier Books, 1990).

(3) Moore, Barrington Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966).

(4) Anderson, Perry, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London, New Left Books, 1974).

(5) Wallerstein, Immanuel, The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York, Academic Press, 1974); The Modern World System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World Economy, 1600–1750 (New York, Academic Press, 1980), and The Modern World System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World Economy (San Diego, Academic Press, 1989).

(6) Skocpol, Theda, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (Cambridge, CUP, 1979).

(7) Mann, Michael, The Sources of Social Power. Vol.1 A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 and Vol.2 The Rise of Classes and Nation-States, 1760–1914 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986 and 1993).

(8) For example, an initial and unsatisfactory step in this direction has been made in Deudney, Daniel & Ikenberry, G. John, Soviet reform and the end of the Cold War: explaining large-scale historical change, Review of International Studies 17, 1991, 225250.

(9) For example, Kliuchevsky's famous comment: The state swelled up; the people grew lean; Kliuchevsky, V.O., Kurs russkoi istorii (Moscow, 1937, first published 1911), p.11.

(10) For example, Skocpol and at times also Mann.

(11) There is an immense literature on this question. In particular see the discussions in Mann, Michael, The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results, Hall, John A. (ed.), States in History (Oxford, Blackwell, 1986) and Skocpol.

(12) This is defined broadly as those in the leading command and administrative posts of the state.

(13) This will be supplemented by a foreign policy designed to deal with external danger, but this will not be analyzed in this paper.

(14) In this important sense this analysis differs from the classic argument about geopolitics found in Mackinder, H.J., Democratic Ideals and Reality. A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (London, Constable & Co Ltd, 1919), esp. ch. iv.

(15) This builds on the arguments of Anderson and Wallerstein, avoiding the circularity of the latter by eschewing the use of his organizational categories: core, periphery and semi-periphery. For an argument using Wallerstein's framework that Russia/the Soviet Union tapped this source of economic activity only through the import of foreign technology and innovation which in turn did not stimulate independent economic dynamism, see Luke, Timothy W., Technology and Soviet Foreign Trade: On the Political Economy of an Underdeveloped Superpower, International Studies Quarterly 29, 3, September 1985, 327353.

(16) Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York, Random House, 1987).

(17) This was not accompanied by a similar drain from expenditure on general consumption or social welfare; these were always very low priorities for the Russian government.

(18) For a good discussion of the climatic constraints upon agriculture in Russia, see Pipes, Richard, Russia Under the Old Regime (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974), ch.1.

(19) See the discussion of how this came about in Pipes, 87–98. The decimation of the hereditary aristocracy by Ivan IV was also important in this.

(20) Also important were the networks of clan and familial relations among the nobility, a form of association which underlay much of the court and nobility politics of pre-Petrine Russia.

(21) Blum, Jerome, Lord and Peasant in Russia. From the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1961), 346347.

(22) This shift was formalized with the Manifesto on the Freedom of the Nobility introduced in 1762 which liberated them from their service obligations.

(23) Peter I did introduce a measure in 1714 whereby land-owners had to pass their immovable property intact to a single heir, but this was rescinded in 1730. Pipes, p. 176.

(24) Blum, 368–369. Also see Pipes 175–179 who cites a figure of 22% for 1858.

(25) Indeed, the landowner's title to the serfs was very vague. In principle, the dvorianstvo did not own the serfs but managed them for the state, although in practice this seems to have been little more than a legal fiction. Nevertheless it was a fiction that bound state and class together. Pipes, p. 180.

(26) One effect of this was to break the direct link between serfdom and state-fostered economic development, thereby turning it into a fetter on economic development. Gerschenkron, Alexander, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. A Book of Essays (Cambridge [Mass], Harvard UP, 1966), p. 18.

(27) In 1649 when what Anderson calls the ‘comprehensive legal code that was to be the social charter of Russian Absolutism’, the Sobranie Ulozhenie, was introduced, dvorianstvo land was declared hereditary, although it remained subject to service and could neither be bought nor sold. It was thus far less than the full title gained in 1785. Anderson, p. 337.

(28) Shestakov, A.V., Ocherki po sel'skomu khoziaistvu i krest'ianskomu dvizheniiu v gody voiny i pered oktiabrem 1917g (Leningrad, 1927) p. 79. Also Shanin, T., The Awkward Class. Political Sociology of Peasantry in a Developing Society: Russia 1910–1925 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 20.

(29) See the discussion in Pintner, Walter M., The Social Characteristics of the Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Bureau cracy, Slavic Review 29, 3, September 1970, 429444. For an argument about an earlier edging out of this group, see Anderson, 338–339.

(30) See the papers in Haimson, Leopold H. (ed.), The Politics of Rural Russia 1905–1914 (Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1979). The zemstva became significant foci for this resentment.

(31) For an argument about a contract between nobility and monarchy in which the former agreed to the measures which constituted the foundation of Russian absolutism in exchange for the formal institution of serfdom, see Anderson, 203–204 and Part II ch. 6.

(32) This was less the case in the West and South West (mainly New Russia and West Ukraine) where the repartitional commune was less dominant. On the conditions of peasant agriculture see the classic Robinson, G.T., Rural Russia Under the Old Regime (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1972, first published 1932), Shanin, , and Shanin, Teodor, Russia as a Developing Society. The Roots of Otherness: Russia's Turn of Century (London, Macmillan, 1985) vol. 1.

(33) Nor did this demand improve after emancipation because of the weight of redemption payments and taxation obligations. Alexander Gerschenkron, Russia; Patterns of Economic Development 1861–1958, Gerschenkron, 122–123.

(34) Pipes, 210–215.

(35) Although between 1721 and 1762 merchants were empowered to purchase villages with a view to acquiring serfs for industrial and mining ventures.

(36) Falkus, M.E., The Industrialization of Russia 1700–1914 (London, Macmillan, 1972) ch. 2; Leon Trotsky, 1905 (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971) chs. 1 & 2; Trotsky, Leon, Results and Prospects, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New York, Pathfinder Press, 1970) ch. 1; and Trotsky, Leon, The History of the Russian Revolution (London, Sphere Books, 1967) vol. 1, ch. 1.

(37) Most of these monopolies were dropped by Peter I but were then reinstated soon after his death. For a discussion of this whole question, see Pipes ch.8.

(38) For example, the administrative and judicial reforms of the early 1860s helped to create a suitable framework for industrial development.

(39) Gerschenkron, Backwardness, Gerschenkron, 19–20.

(40) See the figures cited in Falkus, p. 72. The sphere of largest foreign ownership was mining and metallurgy in which in 1915 some 63% of capital in joint stock companies was foreign. Foreign investment increased from 215 million roubles in 1890 to 911 million in 1900 to over two billion by 1914. Sontag, John P., Tsarist Debts and Tsarist Foreign Policy, Slavic Review 27, 4, December 1968, 530531.

(41) The heavy reliance on loans also had the effect of increasing taxation levels in an attempt to meet repayments, a development which further hampered entrepreneurial activity.

(42) See the discussion in Falkus, 55–59.

(43) Siegelbaum, Lewis H., The Politics of Industrial Mobilization in Russia, 1914–17. A Study of the War-Industries Committees (London, Macmillan, 1983), ch. 1.

(44) This general point is well reflected in the segregation of the military officer corps. According to one scholar, by 1903, 91% of those of major-general and above possessed no land, property or urban dwelling. Wildman, Allan, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers' Revolt (March-April 1917) (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1980), 2324.

(45) This was changing in the last two decades of the regime's life, with some involvement by industrialists and bureaucrats in the affairs of the other, but this tended to be on an individual basis rather than through a systematic relationship between state administration and industry. Siegelbaum, p. 3.

(46) For one discussion of the major attempt at cooptation, the Zubatov experiment at the turn of the century, see McDaniel, Tim, Autocracy, Capitalism and Revolution in Russia (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988), 6489.

(47) Particularly important in this was the effect of bloody Sunday in January 1905.

(48) Starr, S. Frederick, Decentralization and Self-Government in Russia, 1830–1870 (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 48.

(49) Kennedy, 149.

(50) Kennedy, 171.

(51) For a discussion of the nature of technological borrowing and its failure to stimulate sustained development, see Luke, 333–337.

(52) This is the essence of Skocpol's explanation.

(53) In the 1920s and 1930s these came together through the widespread fear within the political elite that the external enemy might combine with the internal class enemy and pose a challenge that could only be overcome through destroying the latter. This was a rationale for both agricultural collectivization and the Terror.

(54) Stalin, J.V., The Tasks of Building Executives, J.V. Stalin, Works (Moscow, 1955). vol. 13, 40.

(55) At least this was the view of the victorious group around Stalin which pushed through agricultural collectivization at the end of the 1920s. Not all members of the Soviet elite accepted this view. For example, see Cohen, Stephen F., Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution. A Political Biography 1888–1938 (London, Wildwood House, 1974).

(56) Among other treatments of this see Rigby, T.H., Stalinism and the Mono-Organizational Society, Tucker, Robert C. (ed.), Stalinism. Essays in Historical Interpretation (New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1977).

(57) In practice, of course, the level of such integration fell well short of that desired by bolshevik state-makers.

(58) See the discussion in Gill, Graeme, The Origins of the Stalinist Political System (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990).

(59) See the discussion in Graeme Gill, Changing Patterns of Systemic Legitimation in the USSR, Coexistence 23, 1986.

(60) There were some attempts at partial reform at this time, but they were limited in conception and marginal in effect. For one discussion of the context of the Soviet reform debate, see Lewin, Moshe, Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates (London, Pluto Press, 1975).

(61) For a discussion of this decision making style, see Erik P. Hoffmann, Changing Soviet Perspectives on Leadership and Administration, Cohen, Stephen F., Rabinowitch, Alexander & Sharlet, Robert (eds), The Soviet Union Since Stalin (London, Macmillan, 1980), 7192.

(62) The erosion of ideology is connected with the socio-economic changes occurring in Soviet society in the post-war period. For an interesting discussion of this, see Miller, John, Mikhail Gorbachev and the End of Soviet Power (London, Macmillan, 1993). On the collapse of elite commitment to the ideology in the late 1980s, see Gill, Graeme, The Collapse of a Single-Party System. The Disintegration of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994).


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