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Pete Glatter

Stalinism & Centralisation

(December 2003)

Paper presented to the New Socialist Approaches to History Seminar, 6 December 2003.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF from the London Socialist Historians Group Website.
Trnscribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


The decade which followed the revolutions of 1917 witnessed the first serious attempt to decentralise power in Russian history. Stalinism scotched this initiative, both in terms of economic regionalisation and in terms of korenizatsiya (“indigenisation”). In their place, giant economic and security ministries sprang up and bestrode the land, forcing through industrialisation and the “collectivisation” of the peasantry. Regions were increased in number and reduced in size to facilitate control by the Moscow leadership which boosted what we would now call institutional racism to the point of apartheid. This paper is based on research which focused on western Siberia, hence the tendency in what follows to refer to the Russia, rather than to the Soviet Union as a whole, and to the Northern Minorities rather than to other non-Russian nationalities.


As a member of the government of the Soviet Republic, I could not but become convinced, day by day, week by week, month by month, that to govern a country with over 130 million inhabitants, to govern a country which encompasses one-sixth of all dry land, to govern it from Moscow on the basis of bureaucratic centralism is impossible.
– A.I. Rykov, from a speech at the 12th congress of the VKP(b) [1]

This quotation appeared at the head of an article defending decentralisation in an official Soviet journal in April 1927. A note from the editors warned readers: “In including comrade Murugov’s article, we emphasise its character as a discussion item”. Eight months later, the 15th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) marked the definitive defeat of the United Opposition by the Stalin-Bukharin alliance. Clearly, this was a time in which openly advocating established state policy was not a straightforward matter.

Regionalisation or rayonirovaniye was an attempt to provide the new state with a rationally and systemically decentralised structure. GOELRO, the State Commission for the Electrification of Russia, was a crucial pacemaker. The GOELRO plan for the electrification of Russia, which was adopted by the Communist Party at its 9th Congress in 1920, saw the provision of energy as being bound up with economic development on a decentralised, regional basis. It involved the organisation of a small number of large economic regions, each of which would have centrally-situated sources of electric power. This idea was taken up, criticised, elaborated and modified by various interested parties, including the non-Russian republics and a number of commissariats and state committees, one of them being Gosplan (the State Planning Committee). [2]

The upshot was fourfold. Firstly, the new regions were to be both economic and administrative. This meant that they had to be based on political and cultural indicators not just on economic and administrative considerations. [3] They had to allow, among other things, for the rights and interests of non-Russian peoples. Secondly, the rayonirovaniye scheme emphasised regional specialisation in the broad sense, classifying regions as industrial (actually or potentially), agricultural, mixed or concerned mainly with forestry. Thirdly, Lenin in particular saw regionalisation as an opportunity to counteract the bureaucratisation of the state from below. [4] Fourthly, the shattered state of the country, resistance by regional leaders especially in Siberia [5], the intensifying struggle for power inside the CPSU and the crippling shortage of resources meant that progress was slow. When the old Bolshevik engineer Krzhizhanovsky first showed off the GOELRO plan in 1920 on a vast map of Russia with electric light bulbs, almost the whole of Moscow had to be cut off in order to avoid overstrain at the power station. [6] By 1927, only five new regions were up off the drawing board. Nevertheless, this was a considerable achievement in the circumstances, and the new regions incorporated vast territories – the Urals (including part of western Siberia), the north Caucasus, Siberia proper, the Far East and a new Leningrad region which stretched as far north as Murmansk. [7]

Paradoxically, the same 1927 congress which marked the triumph of Stalin and Bukharin resolved to speed up the pace of regional change. Over the following two years, another eight economic-administrative regions were formed, making the process of rayonirovaniye officially complete. [8] The key to this puzzle may lie in the purge of the Opposition which followed the congress. In Siberia, for example, “The scale of the purge carried out in Irkutsk suggests that support for the Opposition in this area was considerable: 79 party officials were sacked, 50 of them were expelled from the party (13 were subsequently reinstated after suitably renouncing their former opinions).” There were similar purges in Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk and other areas. This was some kind of testimony to the strength of the Opposition. But it also “testified to the complete domination of local party organisations by the Kraikom [the Siberian regional party committee – PG] and, above it, by the Central Committee in Moscow”. Given that “the social composition of the membership of the Siberian party organisation made it generally unreceptive to the policies of the Left Opposition” [9], being composed primarily of peasants and white-collar employees, this suggests that, in other parts of the Soviet Union, more radical purges were necessary in order to secure the position of the dominant factions. Given also that Stalin, as the leader of one of those factions, lost no time in intriguing against the leaders of the other faction, and that, by late 1929, he had gained their removal from most of their official positions, then the acceleration of rayonirovaniye over the same period looks practically identical with the consolidation of his own regional hierarchy.

However, neither Stalin’s turn against Bukharin at the centre nor the launch of collectivisation presaged an impending break with the Bukharinite-inclined Siberian Kraikom and its leader Syrtsov. On the contrary, Stalin defended the Kraikom against criticism from the left and promoted Syrtsov to a high position in Moscow. Perhaps the most important for this is that Stalin was at this stage more concerned with the cohesion of his patronage network than he was with the policy orientation, inconvenient though it might be, of his major client in the affair. This throws doubt on the argument that Stalin had to concentrate as much on building a political consensus as on developing his control of the apparat. It took some time before Stalin was in a strong enough position to dispense with his protegé. Only when the officer corps, as it were, could be relied upon to run the ship according to the dictates of the captain, could Syrtsov be safely tossed overboard. The importance to Stalin of even an embryonic chain of command which reached down into crucial regions like Siberia overrode all other considerations. [10]

Although the Stalinist regime went on using the rhetoric of decentralisation, its practice went in exactly the opposite direction. In 1930, the okrug, the first sub-regional division, was abolished in order to provide a more direct link during collectivisation between the central authorities as represented by the regional leaderships and the rayon, the basic area unit in rural areas. The rayon was then subdivided. This, in turn, meant that each region had too many rayons, so the regions were increased in number and reduced in size. [11] The process of fragmentation went on throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1930, the Siberian region was divided into two. [12] Siberia was eventually dismembered into more than twenty territorial units. [13] In 1934, 13 new regions were created, among them the new Omsk oblast. In 1937, that figure more than doubled. Between 1941, when the Soviet Union entered the war, and 1945,12 new regions were formed, only four of them on the heels of the retreating Axis forces. [14] They included Tyumen, the largest region in the country, which was created from the northern part of Omsk. [15] This completed a 10-year process in which the Urals region, once a political and economic centre rivalling Moscow itself, a thing not to be tolerated under the Stalin regime, was replaced by 6 new regions [16] (I have refrained from giving overall figures here as they are extremely complicated and detailed due to the changes of external borders as well as of regional and local units; however, my research indicates that as far as this process of regional fragmentation is concerned the case of Siberia and the Urals is typical [17]).

The new, reduced regions were too small for planning purposes during industrialisation and collectivisation, let alone later on. Attempts to incorporate them into larger planning regions were unsatisfactory: the weakness of horizontal, regional planning and the dominance of vertical ministries for the various branches of the economy became a permanent feature of Soviet economic life – and a constant reminder of the over-centralisation of the Stalinist period. Nevertheless, this basic regional structure persisted to the end of the Soviet Union and survives in Russia to this day. [18]


The Soviet regime made it clear to the Northern Minorities at an early stage how different it was to the old tsarist order by abolishing police supervision of native communities and the traditional yasak (the regular fur tribute). Although furs were now a major Soviet export, no attempt was made to extort them from nomadic communities or to force the pace of change. Instead, the government raised the price of furs, lowered prices of state-imported goods and released the Northern Minorities from all taxation. This approach went even further with the setting up of the Committee for Assistance to the Peoples of the Far North (usually known as the Committee of the North) in 1924. The committee set up “cultural bases”, which provided medical and veterinary facilities, shops and schools. School timetables were adapted to the minorities’ traditional way of life. It trained teachers for – and then from – the indigenous peoples. It developed a standard alphabet, based on Latin rather than Cyrillic, and published school books and newspapers in at least seven minority languages. In 1929, the central authorities even released the Northern Minorities from compulsory military service. [19]

The Committee of the North is sometimes treated as if it was some kind of kindly alien visitation which happened to be tolerated by the Soviet regime for a few years almost by accident. It is certainly true that leading members of the committee were not communists, but this was normal practice at the time. The real point is that the Committee of the North was created by and subordinate to the Central Executive Committee, the supreme governmental authority in the USSR. The Committee of the North and the policies it initiated had their vices and virtues, and they numbered among the vices and virtues of the regime of which they formed a part. Despite all the internal and external difficulties with which the Committee had to contend, its achievements were considerable, especially when compared with what came before and after. These achievements must also be credited to the Soviet regime of the time. A whole number of specialists who are entirely out of sympathy with revolutionary socialist ideas in general have paid tribute to these achievements. According to such accounts, life for most of the indigenous people of Siberia improved during the 1920s, and many of them in the early 1990s still saw this period as one of the greatest in their history, achieved in large part due to official Soviet support. [20]

For these small ethnic groups, often nomadic reindeer herders, hunters and trappers with mystic beliefs in shamanism, Stalinist transformation was rapid and horrific:

As small societies living in a fragile environment, they had evolved a lifestyle in keeping with their hostile surroundings. Yet, in only ten years, the way of life and balanced economy which they had developed over centuries was largely destroyed. [21]

The first wave of collectivisation, which went hand-in-hand with the return of Russifying measures, met with widespread armed resistance amounting to a rash of small civil wars all over the Siberian north-west. By 1931, only 12 per cent of natives had been inducted into collective farms and at the beginning of 1934 the proportion of deer herds were in collective ownership was no higher. However, the risings were crushed and large numbers of adult male Khants and Mansis were killed. The Khants were involved in a major revolt at Kazymskaya in 1933-1934, in which the air force bombed outlying villages. One of the causes of this revolt was the forcible removal of young children to Russifying boarding schools (internaty), where a number of them caught typhus. Shamans and “more prosperous” natives, who personified the traditional way of life, were particular targets and were accused of being kulaks, i.e., rich peasants (there is evidence that shamans were often among the poorest in the community but tended to cement opposition to collectivisation). Ironically, the primitive communist traditions of the hunting peoples (especially nimat, the equal sharing of the spoils of the hunt) and the communal ownership arrangements among deer-herding families became particular targets of the ’collectivisers’. Collectivisation was also synonymous with an attack on nomadism, which was widespread until the mid-1930s. By 1936, 50 per cent of deer herds were under collective ownership, and by 1943, the figure had risen to 89.2 per cent, though the herds were depleted as a result. [22]

Industrialisation, like collectivisation, persecuted and oppressed the indigenous minorities; unlike collectivisation, it also marginalised them. Giant state ministries, enterprises and agencies like Glavsevmorput (Central Agency for the Northern Passage) and Dal ’stray (Chief Administration for the Development of the Far North), which had whole Gulag systems under their jurisdiction, often behaved “like a victorious army in an occupied town”. They appropriated native land in defiance of the law. They exploited local sources of food with their own labour, cutting off supplies to the indigenous peoples and reducing their opportunities of alternative employment. An imported workforce settled native land, and there was no redress as the native courts had no jurisdiction over outsiders. The pressure of the in-migration associated with collectivisation and industrialisation increased this marginalisation. The growth of the immigrant population soared from 5-8 per cent a year between 1917 and 1926 to 15-20 per cent a year between 1926 and 1935. The indigenous proportion of the populations in the indigenous territories of western Siberia fell from 56 per cent in 1926 to 35 per cent in 1935. One of the results was a law of 1932 which created – or sanctioned – a virtual apartheid regime. Only migrants from elsewhere were allowed to join a privileged upper layer, which received automatic salary increases, a 50 per cent tax reduction and preferential treatment in housing, education, etc. There were two rates of pay for the same work, settlers being able to earn over three times more than indigenous workers, a situation which persisted after the fall of the Soviet Union. [23]

Government funds for the Northern Minorities dried up. So did the supplies for which the hunters had become accustomed to exchange their furs. This resulted in a fall in the fur collection, prompting the Ministry for Foreign Trade to return to the outlawed practice of offering alcohol for sale in the indigenous areas. Another widespread illegal practice among local administrations was the taxing of natives in the same way as the rest of the population, although this had been officially abolished. The Committee of the North, which opposed collectivisation, was first restricted and then abolished in 1935. In 1937, Cyrillic replaced Latin for the written languages of the north. The Russian language was given pride of place in all non-Russian schools. In the Second World War, the Northern Minorities were once more made subject to compulsory military service. They were further inundated by the evacuation of industry and workforces eastward across the Urals, and the official propagation of Russian nationalism as part of the war effort brought renewed discrimination and persecution. [24]


Darth Vader: ‘The imperial senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently ...’

General: ‘Impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?’

Darth Vader: ‘The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line.’ [25]

The first and most obvious conclusion is that here is another nail in the coffin of the argument that “Lenin led to Stalin”. Regionalisation and korenizatsiya were related policies which embraced the entire Soviet Union in all its huge economic, cultural, social and ethnic variety. They stood and fell together – stood with “Lenin”, fell under the blows of Stalin.

One of the interesting things about this opposition is that it is not about idealism versus efficiency. Stalinism in these as in so many other fields was extremely inefficient. Smaller regions made central (“vertical”) planning more difficult. Combined with the branch economic ministries, such regions made horizontal, regional coordination practically impossible on any significant scale. [26] It is well known that collectivisation, far from introducing greater efficiency, dealt agriculture a blow from which it may never have recovered. [27] Even if this were not the case in general, there was certainly no real economic argument for imposing collectivisation on non-Russian peoples like the Northern Minorities. Indeed, as James Hughes puts it, the fact that not only peasants but “reindeer-herders and hunters were also subjected to this radical social engineering shows how little collectivisation had to do with agriculture as an economic activity.” [28] It had much more to with control, with “capturing” the peasantry and the countryside for the state, as Hughes goes on to argue in a later work. [29]

The same drive for central control rather than for efficiency or even consensus is evident in the division and re-division of regions and in the patron-client relationships which Stalin considered so important. However, this is not just a question of patronage. What Stalin built was a centralised chain of command in which patronage was only one element. The collapse of the Soviet Union was synonymous with the fragmentation of this chain of command. Yet the best part of a decade later, the governor of the west Siberian region of Khanty-Mansi, who had significantly contributed to that fragmentation, was arguing for a modified form of just such a chain of command (“a vertical of power”), the essence of which was that the exact place each person occupied in the hierarchy would be absolutely clear. [30] It is in these terms, I believe, that we should understand President Vladimir Putin’s declared aim of re-creating a “strongly centralised state power” in the tradition of Peter the Great and Stalin. [31] Despite a degree of media hype, it is unwise to assume that the success of the established power in such a venture is a foregone conclusion, as Darth Vader found to his cost. But the venture itself suggests that Putin not only shares certain aspirations with his notorious predecessors but may be subject to some of the same pressures as well.

For the London Socialist Historians Group seminar on Stalin, 6 December 2003.


1. Quoted in I. Murugov, Detsentralizatsiia sovetskogo upravleniia primenitel’no k raionirovannym oblastiam, Sovetskoe stroitel’stvo, No.4 (9), April 1927, p.103; VKP(b) stands for All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), and the 12th congress was in 1923.

2. J.C. Dewdney, Patterns and Problems of Regionalisation in the USSR, Research Papers Series No.8 (1967), Department of Geography, University of Durham, pp.7, 16, 23; Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union (London: Cornell University Press, 2001), p.34; Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p.100; SSSR: Administrativno-Territorial’noe Delenie Soiuznykh Respublikna 1 iiuliia 1967goda (Moscow: Prezidium Verkhovnogo Soveta Soiuza Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, 1967), p.IX.

3. Murugov, op. cit, p.104.

4. V.I. Lenin, Polnoe sobrannie sochinenii, Volume 45 (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1970), p.115.

5. James Hughes, Stalin, Siberia and the crisis of the New Economic Policy (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), pp.28-29.

6. Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp.70-71.

7. A. Bakunin and V. Salchinsky, Nam ne zhit’ drug bez druga ...: Iz opyta territorial’no-khoziaistvennogo upravleniia Rossii, Ural’skii rabochii, n.d. (February?) 1994; V.Z. Drobizhev, I.D. Koval’chenko, A.V. Murav’ev, Istoricheskaia geografiia SSSR (Moscow: Vysshaia shkola, 1973), pp.270-271.

8. ibid.

9. Hughes, op. cit., p.38.

10. ibid., pp.31, 136-137, 179-180,184-197, 200-204.

11. SSSR: Administrativno-Territorial’noe Delenie, op. cit., pp.XTD-XIV; Dewdney, op. cit., p.16.

12. Hughes, op. cit., p.203.

13. Victor L Mote, Siberia: Worlds Apart (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998), p.90.

14. Drobizhev, op. cit., pp.274-275.

15. V.M. Kruzhinkov (ed.), Ocherld istorii Tiumenskoi oblasti (Tiumen’: Administratsiia Tiumenskoi oblasti, 1994), p.198.

16. Bakunin, op. cit.

17. See the tables in Pete Glatter, Russian Regional Elites: Continuity and Change (University of Wolverhampton: PhD Thesis, 2002), pp.83, 88.

18. John C. Dewdney, The USSR, Studies in Industrial Geography (London: Hutchinson, 1978), p.147; Dewdney, Patterns, op. cit., p.28.

19. H. Carrère d’Encausse, Le Grand Défi: Bolcheviks et Nations 1917-1930 (Flammarion, 1987), p.272; James Forsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (Cambridge: CUP 1992), pp.242, 244-245, 284, 302.; Kruzhmkov, op. cit., p.183; S.V. Utechin, Everyman’s Concise Encyclopedia of Russia (London: J. M. Dent, 1961), p.122; Nikolai Vakhtin, Native Peoples of the Russian Far North (London: Minority Rights Group, 1992), p.13.

20. Gail Fondahl, Siberia: Native Peoples and Newcomers in Collision, in Ian Bremmer and Ray Taras (eds.), Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States (London: CUP, 1993), p.484; Forsyth, op. cit., pp.245, 283; Kruzhinkov, op. cit., p.182-183; Mote, op. cit., p.99; Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question 1917-1923 (London: Macmillan, 1999), pp.113-115, 131; Utechin, op. cit., pp.68, 122, 370; Vakhtin, op. cit., p.11.

21. Vakhtin, op. cit., p.14.

22. Carrere d’Encausse, op. cit., p.273; Forsyth, pp.293-294; Kruzhinkov, op. cit., p.185; Lembit Vaba and Jiiri Viikberg, The Endangered Uralic Peoples <>, accessed 11 October 1999; Vakhtin, op. cit., p.16.

23. Vakhtin, ibid., pp.15-16.

24. Forsyth, op. cit., pp.286, 348, 351-352; Vakhtin, op. cit., pp.15-23.

25. Star Wars, video, Special Edition, 1997.

26. The failure of Krushchev’s sovnarkhoz experiment indicated both the extent of the problem and impossibility of a solution within the existing political system. See, for example, Peter Rutland, The politics of economic stagnation: The role of party organs in economic management (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.95.

27. See, for example, Robert Service, A History of Twentieth-Century Russia (London: Penguin, 1998), pp.181-182,467.

28. Hughes, op. cit., p.290 (emphasis in the original).

29. James Hughes, Stalinism in a Russian Province: A Study of Collectivization and Dekulakization in Siberia (London: Macmillan, 1996), pp.213-214.

30. Mikhail Karpov, Aleksandr Filipenko: sekret uspekha – v sobliudenii balansa interesov, Nezavisimaya gazeta, NG-regioni No.5, 14 March 2000, p.4.

31. V.V. Kistanov, Federal’nye okruga Rossii: vazhnyi shag v ukreplenii gosudarstva (Moscow: Ekonomika, 2000), p.3.

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