Shakeup in the Republics

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

One of the chief features of the Soviet Union’s political history in the post-Stalin era was the longevity in office of the republics’ party leadership. Under both Khrushchev and Brezhnev, republic party elites enjoyed broad, discretionary power, limited only by the necessity of maintaining (or at least appearing to maintain) economic growth and avoiding an excess of ethnic-based nationalism. This power was exercised via the establishment of complex patron-client relations that often resembled national “mafias” replete with bribe-taking and payoffs.

Power was distributed in republics along ethnic lines. The First Secretary of Republic Party was typically a member of the majority nationality, and master of the semi-legal economic network. His deputy, usually a Russian or Ukrainian, controlled nomenklatura appointment and ensured that the proper subordination to Moscow was maintained. In Uzbekistan, Sharaf Rashidov presided over the party and the republic’s vast holdings of raw cotton from 1959 until his death in 1983; in Kazakhstan, Dinamukhammed Kunaev headed the party from 1964 until 1986, and in Kyrgyzstan, Turdakun Uzubaliev ruled for 24 years, from 1961 to 1985. The Central Asian republics were not unusual in this respect. In the Soviet west, Moldavia had the same party leader from 1961 to 1980, Estonia from 1950 to 1978, and Belorussia from 1965 to 1983. In each case, as well as others, party bosses manipulated national symbols, promoted their “own” people, and permitted a vast amount of economic activity “on the side.”

At least until the late 1960s, the situation in the Transcaucasian republics was much the same. But, determined to break through the web of corruption and mutual protection in the region, the Brezhnev administration brought in new personnel to clean house. In July 1969, Geidar Aliev, a career KGB officer, replaced Veli Akhundov as first secretary of the Azerbaijani party. Three years later, Eduard Shevardnadze, head of the Georgian security forces, replaced Vasilii Mzhavanadze who had “served” as first secretary of the republic’s party organization since 1953. Mzhavanadze’s entire retinue of party and state officials was also removed and details of their corrupt practices were published in the February 28, 1973 issue of the newspaper Zaria Vostoka (Dawn of the East). In Armenia, Russians were assigned to the positions of second party secretary and head of the republic’s KGB in 1972, laying the groundwork for the appointment in November 1974 of Karen Demirchian, an Armenian engineer educated outside of Armenia, as party chief. Coinciding with these changes of leading personnel, P. I. Shelest, first secretary of the Ukrainian party since 1963, was dismissed in 1972 not for engaging in corruption, but for permitting what central authorities considered an excess of Ukrainianization in party appointments and the educational system.

Despite these shake-ups, the informal, ethnically-based networks that were deeply involved in the underground economy persisted. They constituted an effective form of national resistance to centrally mandated rules of doing business in the Soviet Union.

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