- Late Soviet Politics as Patron–Client Relations
It is hardly a secret that in the last ten years historians have increasingly turned their attention from Stalinism toward the post-1953 era. Now they are concentrating more and more on the Brezhnev period (1964–82), and in the present issue of Kritika we offer a snapshot of one part of this field. It is one that is still in the process of definition. Whereas the Stalin years have their well-established research questions and explanatory paradigms—for example, Stalin’s personality and power politics, the mechanisms of terror, the nature of Soviet nationality politics, the making of the “new man”—the guiding questions for the post-Stalin period are in a stage of formation and testing. Even basic periodization is still in flux. On the one hand, when we survey long-term developments like cadre politics, de-Stalinization and ideology, the provision of housing and consumer goods, the continued deployment and reinvention of party practices and rituals, there seems to be good reason to study this period as a whole without a caesura in 1964. On the other hand, 1964 can be seen as a decisive break dividing the 20th century into an era of extremism and insecurity under Stalin and Khrushchev and one of normalization and trust thereafter.1 Moreover, historians remain uncertain about what is distinct to this period. How should it be narrated? As a period of stability or stagnation, as the “golden age” claimed by post-Soviet nostalgics, [End Page 237] or as an inevitable and permanent decline?2 As a time of flourishing corruption or as a period of mature, well-functioning patron–client networks?3 How can we reconcile the general slogan of “trust in cadres” with the enormous turnover of party personnel in 1964–65 or with the prominent victims of Brezhnev’s cadre politics?4 Finally, how can we overcome these various dichotomies and produce a satisfying general account of the late Soviet period?
The questions we ask depend not only on the theoretical models we apply but also on the sources we possess. The situation with archival materials is still much worse than for the Stalin period, and there is almost no hope that it will improve in the near future. Party documents from approximately 1950 onward are stored in the Russian State Archive for Contemporary History (RGANI), the former Central Committee archive, which is run according to a restrictive regime by Natal′ia Georgievna Tomilina and still located in the buildings of the presidential administration. Readers can access the reading room only three days a week and without laptops. Instead of a full guide to its holdings, the archive offers only a list of accessible files containing more [End Page 238] gaps than entries. Fond numbers 3 and 4—the Politburo and the Secretariat—are missing. There is almost nothing listed between fond 13 and fond 89—the collection of all declassified documents. The holdings in between are probably personal files; we know, for example, that Brezhnev’s collection is in fond 80. While it is said that the Brezhnev documents will become accessible soon, there is great concern that the decision to move the archive out of the presidential complex will result in temporary closure of the institution. Historians who work on the post-Stalin period therefore have to rely on the rich memoir literature, switch to regional archives or those of the former republics, or hope for more edited sources from RGANI.5
The relative shortage of sources has not, however, prevented historians from advancing paradigms for studying late Soviet politics. Whereas for Stalinism we have the trilogy of totalitarianism, revisionism, and the new cultural history, political historians of the later period draw heavily on sociological concepts that gained currency in the West in the same era that Brezhnev ruled the USSR.6 Thus, in his contribution to our forum on late Soviet politics, Saulius Grybkauskas proposes the triad of totalitarianism, corporatism, and patron–client relations to explain the functioning of politics in the Lithuanian SSR. Grybkauskas and his cohort are interested less than their colleagues working on earlier Soviet history in systems of values, varieties of “speaking Bolshevik...