- Scandal in RiazanNetworks of Trust and the Social Dynamics of Deception
In the final months of 1960, the Soviet political establishment was rocked by one of the most notorious data-fixing scandals in the country’s history. The scandal erupted around a huge fraud in Riazan, an agricultural region to the immediate southeast of Moscow. While statistical deception was a relatively common feature of Soviet bureaucratic life, the debacle in Riazan was not easily brushed aside. For much of the previous two years, under its charismatic first secretary, Aleksei Larionov, Riazan had been at the center of a national campaign to drive up meat production. The announcement, a year earlier, on 16 December 1959, that Riazan had tripled its annual yield of meat to a remarkable “three annual plans” of 150,000 tons, had been greeted with a Soviet-style media frenzy. National newspapers had led with front-page articles celebrating “Riazan’s Victory” and the “Achievement of the Third Plan,” while brochures on the Riazan story were printed in large runs and translated into the languages of the USSR’s fellow socialist states. Riazan’s glory, however, was to be short-lived. Investigations in the autumn of 1960 revealed that the state’s statistical reporting in 1959 had consisted of a tissue [End Page 243] of lies: the true volume of meat production in Riazan that year had been a meager 60,000 tons, barely a third of the figure trumpeted in the press. Inquiries also showed that the make-believe figures circulated in 1959 had been concocted by Larionov himself, along with a team of leading officials from the regional party committee. It would prove particularly damaging to the authorities that the fraud could not be written off as the work of “criminal” miscreants. In fact, no criminal charges were pressed in Riazan. Far from being the illegal actions of wayward individuals, the fraud drew in the ordinary party apparatus and was carried out by loyal party functionaries, most of whose prior careers had been beyond reproach.
The fallout from the Riazan scandal was far-reaching. On 22 September 1960, on the eve of his dismissal as regional first secretary, Larionov committed suicide. A month later, Khrushchev sent a “note” to the Presidium that drew broader lessons from the affair.1 Khrushchev also gave the green light to a string of investigations in other regions, which in the months leading up to the 22nd Party Congress, triggered the largest purge of regional first secretaries in the whole post-Stalin era. The scale and systemic nature of the fraud in Riazan also turned attention to the culpability of leading figures in Moscow. Among the most celebrated victims of the scandal were the former Central Committee secretary Averkii Aristov and his colleague, the veteran secretary and co-author of the Secret Speech Petr Pospelov, both of whom were sacked. Nor was Khrushchev’s own reputation left unscathed. The Soviet leader had lent his credibility to the Riazan campaign, making a much-publicized visit to the province in February 1959 as the bid for the 150,000 tons got underway, then hosting a glitzy reception for Riazan officials at the Kremlin in November. When he was himself deposed in October 1964, the arch-organizers of the coup, Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Suslov, cited the Riazan Affair as testimony to Khrushchev’s recklessness. “[The] Riazan Affair—[that was] your fault,” Brezhnev charged. “We all well remember,” Suslov joined in, “how [Khrushchev] sang the praises of that window-dresser [ochkovtiratel´] and adventurer Larionov, who proposed to fulfill the three-year plan for meat in one.”2
The Riazan scandal raises larger questions about the Soviet political system. Falsification was a fact of life for Soviet officialdom. In periods when the country was headed by a “voluntarist” leader, such as Khrushchev, intent [End Page 244] on meeting extraordinary targets in record time, pressures on officials to over-report were stepped up.3 Yet even by the standards of the Khrushchev era, the scale of fraud in Riazan was unusual. Not only did the region produce barely a third of its meat target, but the scam lumbered the province’s collective...