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  • The Art of the Bribe: Corruption Under Stalin, 1943–1953 by James Heinzen
  • Alena Ledeneva
The Art of the Bribe: Corruption Under Stalin, 1943–1953. By James Heinzen (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2016. 406 pp.).

James Heinzen's book on bribery in Stalin's times came out to an impressive acclaim from the scholars. It is a welcome addition to the catalogue of everyday practices in totalitarian regimes, such as denunciation, blat, patronage and others documented in the works of Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stephen Kotkin, Gábor T. Rittersporn, Yoram Gorlizki, Oleg Khlevnyuk, Golfo Alexopoulos and many others. The archival evidence of the "bribery practices" at the core of the Stalinist dictatorship highlights the defects of treating it as "totalitarian" and places this work in the vein of social revisionism in history. The book has three parts and eight chapters, but the chapters are fairly independent and can be read in any order. The first part focuses on bribery as a criminal offence. The second part explores euphemisms for bribery in daily discourse and the ways in which acceptance of bribery became accommodated amidst the ideological pressure of the regime -the importance and the workings of brokerage are of particular interest here. The third part looks into political implications of bribery and related practices. The book concludes with a set of wider, cross-disciplinary, perspectives on bribery as practice.

Of particular interest to readers will be the court cases, criminal sentences, and also the material documenting the variety of avenues for getting around the oppressive system in a "bottom up" way. Considering contexts and circumstances, provided by Heinzen, practices of bribe-taking can be viewed, somewhat paradoxically, as an expression of humanity, functioning to soften the rigidity of the inhumane regime. Heinzen provides multiple examples of informal payments given and taken for the purpose of restoring justice, particularly where formal sentences were too harsh for such offences as, say, under-performance at a workplace (eight years). Importantly, the book highlights the distinction between zakonnost' and spravedlivost', lawfulness and justice, by showing that many Soviet legal constraints were set up so harshly that it would be impossible not to violate them. Such rigid constraints have forced people to cross the line for getting life essentials, thus sustaining the gap between facades and reality, best described in the idiomatic formulae: "the harshness of the laws is compensated by their non-observance." [End Page 987]

This does not mean that all people participated in bribery, but creating the guilt of transgression and the sense of inevitability of punishment (even if temporarily suspended) have become important tools of the Soviet regime. In a sense, the Soviet ideology has replaced religion, whereby the love and fear of God gave way to the love and fear of Stalin. The idea of suspended punishment—always possible as it was not feasible to survive without the "sin" of violating the rules of the system—was central to the workings of the Stalinist system, together with practices of alleviating the punishment or "adjusting" rigid sentences through informal payments (just as practices of absolution and charity donations to the church). To continue this parallel, no defects could ever be attributed to the leadership or the principles of socialist doctrine—all the blame was to be taken by petty sinners, small individuals in dire need of "elevation" to the socialist mind-set.

The longevity of the system was served by the informal practices and enhanced by them. The relationship between the over-controlling centre and its so-called "parasitic practices" was in fact symbiotic. In this sense, payments for leniency, gifts of gratitude and other context-rich practices are not only the case of self-interested giving, but also picking up the bill on behalf of the state doctrine and sharing the burden (or transaction costs, as economists would say) of the overregulation. It was convenient for the new system to claim that bribery is a birthmark of capitalism. Somewhat ironically, for the last three decades corruption was mostly associated with transitions from authoritarian regimes or communist economies. What is better understood now from the failures of multiple well-conceived and well-funded anti-corruption policies...


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pp. 987-989
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