Timothy K. BlauveltFeb 18, 2022
Clientalism and Nationality in an Early Soviet Fiefdom
The Trials of Nestor Lakoba
Timothy Blauvelt’s book Clientelism and Nationality in an Early Soviet Fiefdom: The Trials of Nestor Lakoba (Routledge, 2021), explores the complexity of Soviet Nationality Policy and patronage relationships among the Soviet elite by focusing on 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, but 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.
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. Listen in to learn more about this fascinating history of power and politics!
Samantha Lomb is a lecturer at Vyatka State University in Kirov, Russia.