Parallels with the USSR. The Failure of the Technocrats

What is the unifying element of the two political crises — that in Kazakhstan at the start of the 2000s and in the Soviet Union at the start of the 1950s? We will try to answer this question by analyzing the history and the political processes of the time.

Let us recall that, in our research article Parallels with the USSR. The Clan Vertical, we have told the reader about how the system of the territorial and clan-based state power was built during Josef Stalin’s times. In particular, we analyzed the forming of the so called «Leningrad clan».

We are continuing the series of these publications in the present article.



It looks like Kazakhstan should expect the reoccurrence of the internal political processes that had taken place in the USSR during the last years of Josef Stalin’s and Leonid Brezhnev’s reign. Stalin’s reign peaked during the repressions of the beginning of the 1950s that included the «Leningrad case» and the repressions against the military. The peak of Brezhnev’s reign included the resonant criminal cases of Schelokov, Medunov, the «Cotton case», etc. Regardless of who initiated the investigations and how well-founded the accusations were, they had helped those who, eventually, managed to seize the power, destroy the opponents, and muscle out the competitors.

In this series, we will not draw parallels between the events of the end of the 1940s — the beginning of the 1950s in the USSR and what has been happening in Kazakhstan in the recent years. We simply want to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the human nature doesn’t change and, therefore, by understanding the past, we may have more success in predicting the future.

The Military-Industrial Complex. The Soviet Model

Political clans are typically formed on the territorial basis. This way, it is easier to build a system of independent communications, to award the people for their loyalty and to punish them for betrayal. These rules are tried and true for both the democratic and the authoritarian political systems. The only difference is that a democratic system possesses a transparent mechanism of the power transfer while the clans that exist in an authoritarian system have to fit into the already built pyramid while muscling out the competitors and counting on the death of the leader.

But the territory is not the only base for forming a clan. In the centralized administrative systems, clans can be formed on the professional/industrial basis provided that the career promotion and demotion is guaranteed for the clan’s own.

It is easiest to introduce such a model in the business that is not highly dependent on the market performance indicators. Therefore, the ideal venue for this model’s implementation is the defense industry where they can ignore the expenditures while the industry’s performance indicator can only be tested at the time of a war (with the use of the weapons of mass destruction).

The USA is considered to be the birthplace of the military-industrial as an economic and political influencer. After the end of the WWII, the US created a strong research and industry complex that managed to preserve its power thanks to the growth of the state military expenditures at the time of the Cold War. Its lack of transparency and the power of influence seemed so striking to President Eisenhower that, in his farewell Address to the Nation of January 17, 1961, he warned — «In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist».

It was this address that introduced the term «military-industrial complex» to the English-language political vocabulary.

The State Defense Committee — The State Committee of the State Emergency (GKChP)

In the Soviet times, this term was used exclusively to characterize «their way of life». However, it turns out that the USSR did not just have the industrial-military complex. It was an entire military-industrial clan formed as a political force at the beginning of the 1950s.

Just like in the US, the WWII became the basic premise for the forming of this group of political interests. Having found himself in disarray at the beginning of the war, Josef Stalin, for several days, had been completely devoid of his power. It was enough for two people from his closest circle to seize the political power in the country. These two people were Georgy Malenkov and Lavrentiy Beria. They created the State Defense Committee (SDC) that became the decision-making center.

The SDC was founded in the morning of June 30, 1941, at the moment when the country was on the verge of a total collapse, both military and political one. Despite the emergency circumstances, it was the hour of triumph for Malenkov and Beria. They joined the SDC and assumed the lion share of the responsibility.

1945-1952. From left to right: Anastas Mikoyan, Nikita Khrushchev, Josef Stalin, Georgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov

By that time, Lavrentiy Beria served as the Deputy Chief of the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) and was in charge of monitoring not only the law-enforcement agencies (NKVD, KGB) but also their affiliated commissariats (of the timber and oil industries, non-ferrous metals, inland navigation fleet).

As for Georgy Malenkov, already before the war, he had been personally monitoring the aviation and the development of the jet power engines as well as recruited the military personnel to serve as the key officials.

Both became members of the SDC. The meeting on this issue was held in the Kremlin without Stalin (the leader of the nation was hiding in his country retreat). Molotov was in charge of the meeting and was appointed the Deputy Chief of the SDC. The agency was also joined by Kliment Voroshilov. But it was Malenkov and Beria who were its true forefathers.

In the second half of the day, the meeting participants went to Blizhnyaya Dacha where they confronted Josef Stalin with the accomplished fact of the creation of the new state body in possession of the extraordinary powers.

Half a century later, the creators of the GKChP would try to execute the same scenario and travel to Gorbachev’s dacha in Crimea demanding to support their initiative and become the leader of the new state body with the extraodinary powers. Gorbachev refused the initiative while Stalin agreed to it. He became the Chief of the SDC (preserving his post as the Head of the Sovnarkom, in other words, the Government) and created the WWII history. However, it could have turned out quite differently. In 1953, already under arrest, Beria wrote a letter where he hinted at the circumstances of the SDC creation after which he was promptly executed by a firing squad.

Essentially, it was a coup d’etat that concentrated the extraordinary powers in the hands of Lavrentiy Beria (on the right) and Georgy Malenkov (on the left).

The extent of Beria’s powers is evident from the fact that he requested Pavel Sudoplatov to examine a possibility of concluding a separate peace treaty with Germany. This happened at the end of June, the moment when the SDC was created. Starting from 1942, Beria’s responsibilities inside the SDC included the monitoring of the plane, motor, weapon, mortar launcher production as well as the entire Air Force operations.

Malenkov’s responsibilities during the war are hidden under a shroud of a state mystery. We do know that he was in charge of the expert groups consisting of the top generals. Together, they would visit the critical spots of the operations theater. For this, they were nicknamed «Malenkov’s SDC commissions».

Out of all the reports prepared by these commissions, only the last one dated the year 1944 had been declassified. Its content helps to understand the reasons for the secrecy. Even at the end of the war, the report registers a great number of the mistakes made by the military commanders in regard to the planning and executing of the operations. One can only assume how many mistakes were registered during the first years of the war. At the same time, the documents help to assess the personal power of Malenkov who was in charge of such a team.

In 1943, Malenkov was appointed the Chief of the Radar Detection Council affiliated with the SDC. It was one of the three special committees that determined the new profile of the military forces. The other two (that dealt with the nuclear issues and the guided missiles) were led by Beria and, once again, Malenkov (albeit after the end of the war).

In other words, these two people were in charge of creating the modern military-industrial complex whose name perhaps should be the «research-industrial-military complex» since the science and research & development were becoming an integral part of the military industry.

Malenkov’s «Nomenklatura»  

The core management staff of the Soviet military-industrial complex came from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University (colloquially known as «Baumanka»), former Moscow Imperial Technical College that, even prior to the 1917 revolution, had laid the groundwork for the fundamental science education in Russia. It was in this college that, as early as at the time of WWI, the principles of the strategic economic planning had been formulated. These principles were later borrowed, «creatively reinterpreted» and presented as their own invention by the Bolsheviks.

The College was also the birthplace of the GOELRO, the plan of the post-WWI reconstruction of the Russian economy developed by the College Chancellor Prof. Grinevitskiy. This plan, too, was shamelessly appropriated by the Bolsheviks and passed off as the «communist idea».

Malenkov attended the MSTU Technical Engineering Department at the beginning of the 1920s combining the schooling with the Party career. Essentially, he was the only Bolshevik with a full-scale technical education. And it was Baumanka that became the talent foundry for the Malenkov clan.

This college’s alumni included the leaders of the Soviet defense complex (aka «Stalin’s narkoms») such as Boris Vannikov, Vyacheslav Malyshev, Dmitry Ustinov, and Maxim Saburov. They were the first «technocrats», the officials appointed to their posts on the basis of the education level and the professional skills. And Malenkov, the person that had promoted them, achieved prominence as the architect of the employment system known as the «nomenclature».

In essence, it was an on-paper database that contained the personal files of the state managers of different levels. It was located at the Communist Party Central Committee and even outlived Malenkov himself. Later, it was adopted by the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation. Only now, instead of the paper mediums they use the digital ones and the place of the Party schooling has been taken by the corporate trainings.

The Failure of the Technocrats

The rapid growth of the military-industrial elite could not but raise concerns on the part of Andrey Zhdanov. The Party’s «second-in-command» saw a threat to his «Leningrad clan» that he wanted to bring to power after the Party Congress of 1947. On the other hand, he did not see much of an issue in dealing with the technocrats. In his view, to do so, it was enough to place Malenkov and his database a little farther away from Stalin.

For this purpose, he initiated a plot that came to be known as the «Aviation Case». The aviation industry management was accused of the systemic defective aircrafts deliveries to the front. Since Malenkov was responsible for the aviation, he had to retire from his positions as the Secretary of the Central Committee and the Chief of the Central Committee Personnel Department.

However, contrary to the end of the 1930s, now it was impossible to take repressive actions against Malenkov and his circle since they were in charge of some really important projects. The USSR’s safety was at stake. Apart from that, Malenkov had a serious strong-arm cover in Lavrentiy Beria, the omnipotent supervisor of the secret service and the nuclear project, the person around whom the entire foreign intelligence system was centered.

Supposedly, the first blow to Zhdanov’s (on the photo below) reputation was struck at this external front. In June 1948, the West Berlin blockade began. It resulted in the start of the Cold War — the nuclear and missile arm race. For Zhdanov, it was a crack-down on his plans for the post-war fix-up in Europe. At the same time, the conflict with the Yugoslavian authorities was full underway. And Zhdanov was responsible for this line of work as well. There is every reason to believe that the intelligence under Beria’s leadership was playing against the Zhdanov line.

Of course, the story looks a bit fantastical. It follows that the Cold War started because of the political war between the Soviet clans fighting for the power. However, it does indeed follow the logic of a conflict within the framework of the rigid administrative system. There is no chance for a political victory, therefore, all is fair in love and the state apparatus war.

This story also follows the logic of Eisenhower’s warning. It does not mean that there was a «world military-industrial complex conspiracy». Simply, the processes of forming such complexes were similar in both countries. To the representatives of these complexes, the aggravation of the international political situation was very advantageous for the purpose of solidifying their own power.

The presence of the strong-arm support had probably played the decisive role in the conflict of the two clans. Zhdanov died under unclear circumstances. Malenkov came back to power and did not go easy on Zhdanov clientele. But then, he made a fatal mistake. He took part in the removal of Lavrentiy Beria and… lost his strong-arm support. After this, he was unable to hold on to power. In 1955, he was exiled to Kazakhstan. At first, the former supervisor of the military-industrial complex of the entire USSR was appointed the Director of the Ust-Kamenogorskaya Hydroelectric Power Station and, in a few years, was put in charge of the Ekibastuzskaya CHPP where he worked for 10 years under the KGB supervision.

Thus, at the end of the 1940s, the technocrats from the Malenkov clan were able to hold on to power thanks to the strong-arm support of the siloviks from the Beria clan. But as soon as the support was gone in the 1950s, the groups was dissolved in the general political system or pushed out on the sideways. And a new territorial clan emerged and rose to power — the Dnepropetrovsk clan.

The Kazakhstan Story

Half a century later, a group of young technocrats who wished to ascend to power was formed in the already independent Kazakhstan. The leaders of this group came from that same old Baumanka (Galymzhan Zhakiyanov — in the center) and the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute (Mukhtar Ablyazov — on the left). This time, however, they did not even try to gain the support of the siloviks. Moreover, from the very beginning, they were a part of the power balance system created by Akorda against the rebellious strongmen. As a result, they were pushed out on the sideways of the political (and not only political) life.

In Russia, we are now observing a new wave of the enchantment with technocracy. It is focused on the educated and highly-skilled officials who, even within the framework of the rigid power vertical, are able to show the wonders of efficiency. However, experience has proven that any attempt to take away the state support from such groups inevitably leads to failure. And the «under-the-rug fight» is easily won by the local elites unified on the territorial and (or) tribal basis.


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