By John Helmer, Moscow
Rarely is it possible to find a history professor’s work on Russia to be self-evidently what it isn’t – and yet to find its premise locked by high-ranking US Government officials into a state policy of Kremlin attack and Russian regime change.
J. Arch Getty III is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. His new book , published by Yale University Press, is called Practicing Stalinism, Bolsheviks, Boyars and the Persistence of Tradition. This is a misnomer because most of the book is taken up with attempts to demonstrate that Russian political culture predates Stalin and the Bolsheviks by a thousand years, and postdates Stalin by another fifty. Getty skips Boris Yeltsin in order to concentrate on Vladimir Putin and make him appear to be “practicing Stalinism” – what Getty really means is something that isn’t Stalinism at all. His word for it is clientelism; cronyism is another.
Getty’s premise is that “for ten centuries in Russia, princes, tsars, general secretaries, and presidents have each surrounded themselves with an inner circle, a clan, a druzhina to help them govern. In the case of the Kievan princes, they were the prince’s liudi, his fellow fighting men. In Muscovite times, they were the prince’s relatives…In Soviet and post-Soviet times, they were the leader’s comrades with whom he had worked in previous positions. The similarities jump across eras. Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev had their wartime comrades, Putin his former service mates in the KGB and Leningrad. But in all these cases, a royal or leading clan presided over a network of subordinate clans that together ruled a country based on personal connections and loyalty rather than law.”
In Getty’s version of Russian history, history doesn’t matter very much, because in a sentence he repeats many times over, Russia has always been ruled this way. There isn’t much recognizable evidence on Getty’s way to this conclusion. One chapter is based on a reading of letters and petitions from ordinary Russians addressed to Stalin and other Bolshevik leaders. Another chapter selects from the archive records of meeting schedules, agendas, and decision minutes for the Central Committee’s Political Bureau (Politburo), its Organizational Bureau (Orgburo), and Secretariat. The time period covered is roughly twenty years from 1920 to 1940
Nothing that was actually happening in this period is as important to Getty, or visible to the reader, as his interpretation of the interactions Getty claims to have uncovered between officials, bureaucrats, political leaders, nobles, grandees, boyars, princes, oligarchs, clans, clients – terms he admits to using interchangeably. And that’s Getty’s point: “because we find this understanding of politics and government from Riurik (right) to Putin, at all levels of the hierarchies at all times and places, it was inescapable. This was the deep structure by which Russia had always been governed. There were no alternative models.”
For his evidence before 1920, Getty presents second, third and fourth hand what his fellow US academics have already published. For his evidence after 2000, Getty relies entirely on what he’s read in a selection of Moscow newspapers; and what he says what he’s been told around the kitchen tables of his Moscow friends. This is reasoning by faint analogy between fainter facts. Without reference to the indictment materials, let alone the Yukos corporate records, Getty concludes: “Putin’s struggle with Mikhail Khodorkovskii…has a striking similarity to Stalin’s struggle with Trotsky and any number of struggles between muscovite princes.”
Getty recommends the way to understand the past fourteen years of Putin’s rule is by quoting an English professor at Harvard, who wrote thirty years ago: “government was conspiratorial: clans conspired against one another to expand their power. One does not reveal to non-participants authentic information concerning politics, political groupings, or points of discord.” That was a claim about medieval Russia by Edward Keenan, a historian whose research is best known among his peers for exposing the inauthenticity of much of the textual evidence on which histories of the period have been based.
For the history of Putin’s days there’s an obvious contradiction in Getty’s method. Either the medieval analogy is true today, and as an outsider he can’t be sure what is going on. Or else so much is reliably (publicly) known about what is happening in the Kremlin and oligarch circles today, the medieval analogy can’t possibly be true – and Getty is barking up the wrong metaphorical tree.
That might be pedagogically useful for graduate students to spend a semester investigating. That Getty’s premise is more serious, not for its veracity but for its gullibility, is evident from the way in which senior Obama Administration officials appear to believe that if they can strike at the clan and client relationships which keep Putin in command at the Kremlin, they will be able to trigger something like a Time of Troubles; a Stenka Razin rebellion in the name of the rightful Tsar; even a false Dmitry or Two.
The last time American policymakers relied on an academic work to guide them on how to think like a Russian ruler, in order to anticipate or outsmart him, was in 1951. Nathan Leites, a native of St. Petersburg, was the author of what was called  at the time The Operational Code of the Politbureau. Paid for with Pentagon funds through the RAND Corporation, Leites expanded  his work in 1954 into A Study of Bolshevism.
The premise was that the Russians who came to power in 1917 and were ruling when Leites started work were consciously trying to change the ways in which Russians had thought of themselves and the country’s options. The method was the examination of all the texts composed by the Bolsheviks as speeches, pamphlets, party circulars, organizational memoranda, books, and memoirs. In short, Leites found discontinuity a better guide than historical analogy. One of his findings from his sample of Russians and Russian texts was the conviction that conflict – between Communists and their class enemies, Russians and foreigners – was fundamental and irreconcilable. The threat of being annihilated was, to this Russian way of thinking, an ever-present danger. For a later elaboration, read this .
Getty doesn’t mention the Leites evidence in his running story, nor in his footnotes. He appears not to have heard of the “operational code”.
Neither, it seems, do the Getty acolytes in Washington who composed this list of targets for the second round of US Government sanctions, announced on March 20. For that story, click . The text of this sanctions notice is unusual for what it alleges against the Russian targets – not for war crimes, nor administrative orders, nor corruption, nor even for political acts. Rather, this lot of Russians are the targets of US attack because they belong to what the US Treasury has cribbed from Getty’s book – a family, a clan, a client-patron circle, an oligarchy, a tsarist court.
“Those being designated,” declared  the the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) are “members of the Russian leadership’s inner circle”. That’s a euphemism for Putin. Those sanctioned include Putin-appointed officials of government, including the director of the Kremlin office for personnel, buildings and chauffeur-driven vehicles; the head of the state owned Russian Railways, and four other, non-official “members of the inner circle”. “In addition to being designated for providing material support to Russian government officials, Bank Rossiya is also being designated for being controlled by designated inner circle member [Yury] Kovalchuk.” Kovalchuk, claimed the Treasury, “has been referred to as one of his ‘cashiers’.” It’s not clear who did the telltale referring, but Getty’s selection of newspaper clippings is the likely evidence.
The geometry of the inner circle is also geodesical, according to the US Treasury. That’s because Vladimir Yakunin, the newly sanctioned chief executive of Russian Railways, “and Putin were… neighbors in the elite dacha community on the shore of Lake Komsomolsk and they served as cofounders of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative in November 1996.”
For Getty “the clan structure of the Russian government today bears a remarkable resemblance to those of the past… power in Russia from time immemorial has been about proximity to a powerful person and had little to do with one’s official title.” So the US sanctions must be aiming to break the chain of proximity – unhappy clients, failing clientelism — and thereby trump Putin’s power at the centre.
That is an operational code of its own. And if there were a Russian RAND to identify who in Washington is following it, their names can be drawn from the public record of US policymaking on the Ukraine. Look carefully at the lineup for clan signs (from left to right): Jen Psaki, White House and State Department spokesman; Janine Davidson, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans; Christine Fox, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Avril Haines, chief counsel, Central Intelligence Agency; Melanne Verveer, advisor to Hillary Clinton on Ukraine; Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, presidential candidate; Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs; Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations; Sarah Mendelson, Deputy Assistant Administrator of US Agency for International Development for Democracy; Gayle Smith, senior director, National Security Council.