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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .


Reconstructing the State: Personal Networks and Elite Identity in Soviet Russia
Gerald M. Easter

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000
221pp. Index. Biblio. Hb.: 35.00; ISBN 0-521-66085-8.



The author of this work belongs to that unfortunate generation of graduate students who completed their doctoral theses just as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russian archives opened to foreign researchers. The demise of Soviet political power and the fragmentation of its territorial system demanded a profound reinterpretation of the country's history, and especially of the sources, processes and consequences of its early state-building strategies, which form the subject of this book. Access to the Russian archives offered historians an unprecedented opportunity to confirm or refute earlier conclusions. In the decade since these changes, the author has made some effort to integrate both new information and new ideas into his work, but the published result is only partially satisfactory.

This book is concerned to elucidate the role of personal networks in the development of Soviet state power. According to the author, these networks, forged in the pre-revolutionary underground and consolidated during the Civil War, lodged their participants in top regional administrative positions in the nascent Soviet state. Thanks to their support for Stalin through the 1920's, key network members were promoted to Moscow, and through their central patrons the regional elites could summon resources to promote economic development in the periphery. At the turn of the 1930's, however, the drive for agricultural collectivisation catalysed an increasingly acute conflict between the regional actors, who sought to consolidate a 'patrimonial' system, and Stalin, who mobilised all the political and coercive resources of the centre to eliminate resistance to the extension of his despotic power. The author argues that although Stalin prevailed in this struggle in the short-term, in the 1960's the regional leaders succeeded in establishing a 'protocorporatist' regime, and he concludes that it was in Gorbachev's attempt again to uproot their vested interests that we should seek the causes of Soviet collapse.

This interpretation of Soviet state-building is unconvincing. It does indeed enlighten us about how one set of "intra-state forces" (leaders of agricultural regions) influenced early Soviet development, but how much does this tell us about early Soviet development? This work boasts an extensive reading of secondary literature in both English and Russian, but the author relegates many important controversies to footnotes where they cannot complicate his pre-formulated and exhaustively reiterated argument, and his archival research and selection of evidence also seem to have been excessively ruled by the theoretical assumptions and preoccupations of the initial thesis. The author pays little attention to other aspects of early Soviet state-building, which in the opinion of this reviewer, are more significant and which form the necessary context for any profound study of informal networks and centre-periphery relations, in particular the role of social, ethnic, national and international forces, pre-revolutionary structures and cultures, the sources and processes of central decision-making, the function of ideology and the regime's industrial and strategic policy priorities. As a result, this work falls well short of its claim to offer a comprehensive rethinking of Soviet history. It should be praised, still, as lending us some fascinating insights into some particular facets of the infinitely complex, often contradictory dynamics of the system.


Nick Baron, University of Manchester.



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