Communist Party in Soviet society: communist rank-and-file activism in Leningrad, 1926-1941
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This thesis examines a little studied aspect of the Soviet Union’s history, namely the activities of the mass membership of the Communist Party during the interwar period, specifically 1926-1941. Based on extensive research in central and regional party archives, it revisits a number of specialised scholarly debates by offering an account of key processes and events of the period, including rapid industrialisation and mass repression, from the viewpoint of rank-and-file communists, the group of people who had chosen to profess active support for the regime without however acquiring positions of political power. The account provided is in the form of an in-depth case study of the party organisation of the Red Putilov – later Kirov – machine-building plant in the city of Leningrad, followed by a shorter study of communist activism in another major Leningrad institution, the Red-Banner Baltic Fleet. It is shown that all major political initiatives of the leadership generated intense political activity at the bottom levels of the party hierarchy, as the thousands of rank-and-file members interpreted and acted on central directives in ways that were consistently in line with their and their colleagues’ interests. As these interests were hardly ever in harmony with those of the corresponding level of the administrative state apparatus, the result was a nearly permanent state of tension between the executive and political branches of the Soviet party-state at the grassroots level. The main argument offered is that ultimately, the rank-and-file organisations of the communist party were an extremely important but contradictory element of the Soviet Union’s political system, being a reliable constituency of grassroots support for the regime while at the same time placing significant limits on the ability of state organs to actually implement policy. This thesis therefore challenges interpretations of Soviet state-society relations based on binary narratives of repression from above and resistance from below. It identifies instead an element of the Soviet system where the line between society and the state became blurred, and grassroots agency became possible on the basis of a minimum level of active support for the regime. It is further argued that the ability of the mass membership to influence the outcome of leadership initiatives was predicated on the Marxist-Leninist ideological underpinnings of most major policies. In this way, this thesis also contributes to the recent literature on the role of ideology in the Soviet system. The concluding chapter considers the value of the overall findings of this thesis for the comparative study of 20th century socialist states.