Researching Informal Politics in the Early Soviet Periphery
Updated: Oct 27
In this post, Timothy K. Blauvelt reflects on writing his new book, Clientelism and Nationality in an Early Soviet Fiefdom: The Trials of Nestor Lakoba (Routledge, 2021).
Living and working in the Caucasus since the late 1990s, I couldn’t help but be struck by the importance of personal ties and networks in daily life and in politics here. In the mid-2000s, as part of my work with exchange programs, I regularly visited Abkhazia, a contested territory and the site of one of the separatist conflicts that erupted in the region as the USSR came apart. The unusual position that this small region appeared to occupy in the Soviet Union seemed fascinating: a lush, subtropical corner of a northern empire, where everybody wanted to vacation and where Politburo members built elaborate estates. Apart from its agricultural abundance – starting with tobacco, and later tea and citrus fruits – from the 1920s Abkhazia became a prized seaside resort zone, first for the elites and later for the better-connected strata of the popular masses. These amenities would inevitably come to confer political capital, and this encouraged me to think more about the role that personalistic networks might have played in the later conflicts.
Few would dispute the crucial role of informality in Soviet politics. Yet by their very nature, informal aspects of politics, reflected in practices such as clientelism and patronage, are difficult to investigate, especially for the early decades of Soviet power. There are some published memoirs about early Soviet Abkhazia, but the period is largely beyond the reach of oral history. How such relationships formed, how networks functioned, how their role varied and changed in different regions and in different periods can only be indirectly gleaned from official archival sources. Things are further complicated in the case of Abkhazia because of the destruction of the archives there during the conflict in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, several collections of archival documents from Abkhazia had been published previously, and given the Soviet federal organizational structure in the region, vast amounts of the archival record were preserved in duplicate and triplicate in Tbilisi.
In 2007, based primarily on documents from the Georgian party archives, I published an article about the particular weight that control of Soviet Abkhazia conveyed during the Stalin era, as Stalin and his lieutenants spent extended vacations there, bestowing the incalculable political capital of “face time” for whoever could serve as gatekeeper to that access. Delving deeper into these materials, I published more about the negotiations behind the incorporation of Abkhazia into the early Soviet structures, about the unusual implementation there of linguistic and personnel indigenization (korenizatsiia) policies in the 1920s-30s (and about how the tiny Abkhazian republic, even in the 1920s, served as a model for developing nations of “the East”), about the Abkhaz peasants’ resistance to collectivization in 1931, and about the assimilatory policies towards the Abkhaz in language education and the ensuing backlash in the later Stalin era and afterwards.
While digging around in the Georgian party archives I came across several thick files from the 1920s and early 1930s devoted to political squabbles, critical reports, investigations and decrees about Abkhazia and the Abkhazian leadership group under the Abkhaz Bolshevik revolutionary Nestor Apollonovich Lakoba, the Chairman of the Abkhazian Council of Commissars (Sovnarkom) and Abkhazia's colourful, hyper-connected and Zelig-like local power broker. Small in stature and hard of hearing, Lakoba earned an outsized reputation as a gracious Caucasian host with an easy-going spirit, known for his pithy Abkhazian folk sayings and his connections to absolutely everybody who mattered, reputedly having the ear of Stalin himself. Lakoba seemed at odds with the prototypical loud and gruff Stalinist party boss, yet as I argue in the book, he was in his own way no less ruthless, despotic and cunning in his deployment of patronage and the political capital that this subtropical region had to offer.
Aside from the party archives, another remarkable source for understanding the story of Abkhazia in this period is the N.A. Lakoba papers collection, currently held in the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Concealed under the floorboards by Lakoba’s wife Saria (who apparently first burned some of the documents she considered most dangerous) in early 1937 after Lakoba’s suspicious death the previous December (following a meal with his client-turned-patron-turned rival, Lavrentii Beria), the collection was retrieved by a relative returning from the Gulag in the 1950s, making its way eventually to California. Although incomplete, the Lakoba papers seem to be a much more organic collection of documents than most of the “personal files” of other Bolshevik leaders, selectively assembled by later archivists. Much of this material has already been put to good use, not least by the Abkhaz historian Stanislav Lakoba and by Stephen Kotkin in the most recent volume of his Stalin biography. As these scholars and others have pointed out, Lakoba’s correspondence with Sergo Orjonikidze and with Lavrentii Beria in particular shed light on the mutual support (krugovaya poruka) and horse trading that went into curating patronage relationships in practice.
These documents were crucial for my project as well, yet there were also many “uncategorized” files stuffed with a chaotic assortment of sometimes random and unidentified handwritten correspondence, draft reports, speech outlines, notes and scribbles. As I set about trying to sort these out, it dawned on me that some of them began to make sense in the context of other files I had read in the Georgian party archive. Some added additional details, while others offered a different perspective on situations that I thought I had understood.
Taken together, what came to intrigue me most in these diverse sources about Lakoba and Abkhazia was the emerging picture of how clientelism and Soviet nationality policy seemed to intersect, outlining a kind of underlying political game in the ethnic periphery of the early 1920s. Local ethnic elites like Lakoba realized the advantages of representing the “titular” nationality of a territory to consolidate their position and authority and to extract resources from the centre(s) (even in territories like Abkhazia, where the titular nationality did not comprise a majority of the population). At the same time, they understood the importance of maintaining the trust and loyalty of their own “constituencies,” among both the titular masses and the other titular elites, in order prevent the emergence of a rival grouping that could position itself as a credible substitute.
The goal was to maintain the trust and loyalty of both patrons above and of clients below, while at the same time cultivating an aura of irreplaceability. The patrons in the centre (in this case, primarily the Transcaucasian and Georgian Party leadership in Tiflis) required a credibly representative titular leadership grouping on the ground in the titular territories. But once the choice had been made, those in the centre often found themselves constrained by that choice: the success of the patron depended on the success of the client. This gave the latter considerable power over the former to extract resources and to guarantee protection, so long as the client remained the “only game in town,” costlier to replace than to maintain. Yet this situation was far from static: as the emphasis in Soviet nationality policy changed from support for the many smaller ethnic groups in the 1920s to favouring the larger nationalities with union republics from the mid-1930s (and even towards “cleansing” entire populations of potentially disloyal ethnicities), the imperative to maintain titular leadership groups in the autonomous units fell away. The rules of the game changed fundamentally.
I organized my project around a series of trials, metaphorically and literally (hence the subtitle, The Trials of Nestor Lakoba), that the Abkhazian leadership network faced from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s: power struggles against rival elites and groupings, revolts by disgruntled local clients, highly critical investigations, reports, and hearings. In each case, Lakoba and his group were able to maintain unity and to demonstrate their key irreplaceability, while their patrons in the centre reliably came to their aid – culminating with intervention on Lakoba’s behalf at a crucial moment by Stalin. But by early 1937, after Lakoba’s death and with the “Great Terror” accelerating, the final tribulation was an actual public show trial in which key members of the Lakoba group were condemned as “enemies of the people,” a façade for the complete destruction of the former titular Abkhaz leadership group that was already underway and its replacement by the predominately Georgian network led by Beria. This was accompanied by a cultural and demographic campaign of “Georgification” of Abkhazia. Although the struggle that evolved between Lakoba and Beria had been primarily political (the ascent of Beria’s secret police-based network also led to the almost complete destruction of the previous generation of the Georgian Bolshevik leadership), the fact that nationality was such a central component around which client networks formed in the Soviet periphery meant that the destruction of one group by another came to be viewed in historical memory in purely ethnic terms, as the “Berievshchina” committed against the Abkhaz by Georgians. The Abkhazia of Lakoba’s time came to be viewed by the Abkhaz as a golden Soviet Arcadia that was taken from them, with Lakoba himself mythologized as a kind-hearted and honest George Washington-type figure. Georgians, meanwhile, came to resent Lakoba’s Abkhazian fiefdom as a reflection of aspirations to Abkhaz privilege despite the fact that Georgians comprised a larger percentage of the territory’s population (a misbalance that dramatically increased in their favour after Lakoba’s death). These things became components of later narratives of ethnic resentment that, combined with the “zero-sum” essence of national identity and of territorial ownership inherent in Soviet ethno-federalism, would trigger calamity when Soviet central authority began to collapse in the early 1990s.
In the case of early Soviet Abkhazia, the combination of official archival sources and memoirs together with the unusual types of documents preserved among the Lakoba personal papers collection provides a rare opportunity to view the events of the period from multiple vantage points, to put to use a kind of “triangulation” to try to fathom the unstated rules of the informal political competition that was going on behind the scenes.
If you are interested in learning more about Clientelism and Nationality in an Early Soviet Fiefdom, you can read excerpts from the book's introduction on the NYU Jordan Centre Blog.
All photographs reproduced in this piece are courtesy of Lakobamuseum.org
Timothy K. Blauvelt is Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and is also Regional Director for the South Caucasus for American Councils for International Education.