This book is not an easy read, but it is a must-read nonetheless. Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk aim for nothing less than to explain how dictatorships work and how they change over time. Drawing on “substate leaders” as the institutional pillars of dictatorial rule in the Soviet Union, the authors examine the challenges of regional (substate) leadership in an authoritarian system. How did regional party leaders manage to control their own ruling circles while adapting to pressure from above and below? How did the political centre adapt its policies in turn? This issue of “authoritarian power sharing” is the red thread which guides the reader through an unprecedented take on thirty years of Soviet party rule.
It has been an established assumption that the Communist Party apparatus was everything but a monolith; that both formal and informal networks provided fuel for conflicts and thus created an impediment to effective governance. Gorlizki and Khlevniuk question and (to a certain extent) quantify these observations. They pick up the herculean task to provide us with a cross-section view of regional party rule in the Soviet Union, selecting a sample of thirty territorial units and covering a time span from late Stalin to late Brezhnev. A voluminous appendix provides additional theorical background and empirical data for scholars to explore. Based on a wide-ranging selection of unexplored party records, the book creates a typology of authoritarian control that unveils institutional continuities and the evolution of regional party rule, but also sheds light on the difference in leadership between Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
Looking at the regions, the book identifies three essential mechanisms of authoritarian control that party leaders had at their disposal: gathering and utilizing incriminating knowledge about other members (kompromat), over-promoting inexperienced and dependent cadres to crucial positions, and excluding them entirely from the nomenklatura and thus stripping them from privileges and protection. Distinct types of leaders made ample use of these techniques. The differences in their respective leadership was due to individual preference and external conditions that changed over time. From the 1940s onwards, “substate dictators” secured loyalty from their network mainly through coercion by (the threat of) expulsion and the use of kompromat, while maintaining a stable and narrow ruling coalition that extended through key figures in the party, the police, and the industry. “Contested autocrats” were rather reluctant to engage in open conflict, what made them vulnerable to rebellions from the party base (the aktiv) and even from inside their own networks. While their individual leadership styles differed as much as their preference for confrontation, both types had to engage with other institutions (factory directors, police, state officials), but also had to modify their behaviour towards the aktiv. All these factors were crucial for the stability of the network, and thus the region’s reputation.
Stalin counted on the regional leaders’ capacities to control networks of their own. He recognized their significance and granted them institutional leeway, delegating campaign tasks to the substate level. This in turn would allow Moscow to secure information and enforce economic targets. While there were ways to purge out regional cadres, the central leadership had no interest in crippling their networks. From the late 1940s onwards, this policy allowed regional party structures to grow into a “bureaucratic caste” that tied privileges, status, and party rank. Stalin’s decision to utilize these networks laid the institutional foundation for the evolution of regional governance. His death thus is the starting point for the book’s three trajectories.
At the regional level, the reader learns how “substate leaders” adjusted their techniques of ruling while the social profile of the networks evolved with them. The use of kompromat and political exclusion became more subtle, the networks grew larger and questions of rank and seniority became crucial to the understanding of being part of the nomenklatura. Regional leaders fostered and utilized this consciousness, “mollifying” local networks, in order to mobilize the apparatus effectively. The end of this trajectory is the emergence of a new type of leader under Brezhnev, the “Party Governor”, who merged institutional and personal pressure and used formal and informal ways to organize a broad horizontal power basis.
At the central level the book shows, how Stalin’s successors did not alter the pattern of authoritarian control but rather adjusted form and style of leadership. Under Khrushchev, open repression gave way to bloodless purges. Regional secretaries did not have to fear for their life but rather for their careers. Khrushchev loosened the grip on them and transferred more authority to the regions. In return, production targets had to be met. However, Khrushchev’s indulgence with regional leadership ultimately led to disappointment. Many leaders in those regions used their networks to deceive Moscow and distort economic statistics. Brezhnev in turn made direct use of these networks. Although he reinstated tools of centralist control, he also promoted local functionaries in the regions and thus formed his own power base with “home-grown” cadres.
A third trajectory follows the question of how the strategies of authoritarian control played out in the multi-ethnic context of the Soviet Union. Again, we learn how the leeway for a weak regional leadership could run counter to Moscow’s interest. Party networks in Azerbaijan or in Latvia had little reach into the local population. Khrushchev’s “indigenization” course prompted republican leaders to bolster their authority through nationalist mobilisation and even anti-Russian discrimination, which ignited nationalist protests and deepened the rift between the central leadership and the titular nations. Khrushchev backpedalled and overturned many concessions in terms of language and residence policy. Brezhnev then resumed the course of indigenization and systematically encouraged the admission and promotion of non-Russians in the party apparatus. The regional networks that were needed in the 1950s, now fully developed and were ready to implement and translate central policies.
All three trajectories provide incredibly dense layers of political, social, and economic insights that are difficult to prioritize. For instance, while the economic output was essential for Stalin and Khrushchev to keep their regions in check, this aspect receives little attention in the Brezhnev chapter. Still, the book makes strong observations and important arguments. The strongest one is that Stalin laid the foundations for the development of an increasingly stronger and flexibly operating regional nomenklatura. While all the Moscow leaders had distinct approaches to the agency problem, it was the shift from “substate dictator” to “party governor” that guaranteed this dictatorship its institutional resilience. This leads to another point Gorlizki and Khlevniuk make on the nature of dictatorships in general: The threat of social and/or political expulsion from the nomenklatura was the essential means to secure loyalty and thus control over every political network. In order to explain the sustainability of the Soviet regime, scholars often point to the police and an institutional framework of repression. This book reroutes our view to the party apparatus and its cohesive power to provide belonging and privilege. It is a call for further exploration of the late Soviet region and a milestone for those who want to comprehend the essence of “party rule”.
 Jerry Hough, The Party Apparatchiki, in: Harold Gordon Skilling / Franklyn Griffiths (eds.), Interest Groups in Soviet Politics, Princeton 1971, pp. 47–92; Cynthia Kaplan, The Party and Agricultural Crisis Management in the USSR, Ithaca 1987.