top of page
ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2014
Orysia Kulick
Stanford U, US,





























A Regional Perspective



Regionalism’s Long Soviet Shadow: Local Elites, Emergent Polities, and Infrastructural Impediments to Change in Dnipropetrovsk



A popular Brezhnev-era anecdote offers succinct evidence of the Dnipropetrovsk elite’s influence in the late Soviet period. As General Secretary, Leonid Brezhnev consolidated power by surrounding himself with loyal, aging functionaries, who had become firmly entrenched by the 1970s. This lack of dynamism in leadership, and the preponderance Dnipropetrovtsi at the pinnacle of power in both Kyiv and Moscow, prompted Soviet citizens to lament that “[their] nation’s history [was] divided into three epochs: do-petrovskii, petrovskii, and dnipropetrovskii. Rather than inviting serious comparison with the pre-Petrine and Petrine periods, this anecdote underscores the extent to which the Dnipropetrovsk elite had permeated Soviet corridors of power.


Popular perceptions coincide with scholarly analyses of patron-client relationships in the Soviet Union, more recent scholarship showing that Ukraine had played a central role in governing the union. Serhii Plokhy argues that Ukrainians were “junior partners” under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, their push for independence playing a pivotal role in toppling the empire. Ukrainian elites had brokered a deal with Moscow, which traded “loyalty in exchange for unlimited rule at home and power sharing in the center.” The KGB abrogated this arrangement upon taking control of the Kremlin after Brezhnev’s death. One of the first things Mikhail Gorbachev did was “block the pipeline that was bringing Ukrainian functionaries to Moscow.”


Understanding how “provincial” elites from Dnipropetrovsk came to rule the roost requires taking a much closer look at the region’s evolution in the postwar period. That the center—guided by KGB chief Yuri Andropov—felt it necessary to shut out Ukrainian elites in order to reassert central control seems especially telling, as it provides some insight into why Ukraine’s turn westward this year proved to have such violent consequences. The institutions that bound Ukraine most tightly to the Soviet Union have been slow to reconfigure after independence, chief among them the military-industrial complex, as well as intelligence and security services. Dnipropetrovsk’s long-term association with Soviet defense makes the decision of its regional elites to firmly defend Ukrainian sovereignty all the more remarkable.


Dnipropetrovsk’s position within in the Soviet system is complicated, opening a host of questions of how power was distributed within the Soviet system. To frame my discussion, I refer to Mayhill Fowler’s work, which shows how twin processes of ‘officialization’ and ‘provincialization’ fundamentally transformed the relationship between the state and the arts in the Soviet Union. She underscores the importance of the center-periphery dynamic in shaping Soviet culture—the steady flow of artists from the borderlands to Moscow allowing culture in the center to flourish, as it struggled in the periphery. This understanding of the relationship between ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ as constitutive of one another is essential for any discussion of officialdom. Many of the same processes acted on party and state officials, and were also reproduced within party-state structures.  


The predominance of Ukrainian functionaries in Moscow was thus not just the result of patronage networks that transcended national and institutional boundaries, but they certainly played a crucial role. Merle Fainsod’s How Russia is Ruled is a classic work underscoring the power of patrons. Below the placid exterior of the party, he argued that there was a “constellation of power centers…each with its entourage of satellites, with fields of influence extending through the Party, police, and the administrative and military hierarchies.” Careers were made by “clinging to the coat tails of the Great Lords of Communism...cliques ris[ing] and fall[ing] in the Soviet hierarchy depending on the fortunes of their patrons.”


In Ukraine, Stalin counteracted these oligarchic tendencies by pitting regional elites against one another to prevent one leader from consolidating the powerful Ukrainian apparat and challenging his authority. Particularly significant to the Ukrainian story is that its leadership was annihilated by the Stalinist purges of 1937-38. More than 160,000 people were arrested in 1938; the majority was executed, and only three of 200 Central Committee members survived. This devastation did not eradicate the problem of ‘oligarchization’ in the Soviet system. The resurgence of Ukrainians into high-ranking positions in the post-Stalin period was, in John Armstrong’s view, an indicator of “an overall strengthening of oligarchic control of the USSR.” Oligarchy—before the oligarchs were even a glimmer in the historical imagination—points to a fundamental problem of the Soviet system. The demands of an increasingly complex economy required regional solutions. By the mid-1950s, the industrial Donbas coal region forecasted the new contours of an old problem: cross-institutional alignments between Party, state and industrial manager groups created a level of insularity that undermined central control.


My research this summer explored these regional configurations by focusing on two key issues that shaped politics in Dnipropetrovsk—housing construction and defense. Partly, this was made possible due to a new cache of files found at the party archives that dealt expressly with military-industrial production in Ukraine, and highlighted the centrality of many Ukrainian regions to Soviet defense. Housing was one of the most enduring problems faced by Soviet elites, and thus provided a particularly sharp lens for viewing elite behavior. Taken together, materials on military-industrial production, hitherto inaccessible protocols and stenograms of the Dnipropetrovsk obkom from the 1960s and 1970s, and documents from the state archives in Dnipropetrovsk on housing construction, gave shape to the institutional milieu in which regional elites operated.


The Dnipropetrovsk obkom (regional party committee) protocols and stenograms covered a range of subjects vital to politics and management at the regional level, including intraparty democracy, violations of collective leadership and clear cases of abuse of office, education and recruitment of cadres, problems with discipline and production in key economic sectors, and new civilian defense protocols. The documents revealed not only the complexities of regional governance, but also showed that many institutions—sovnarkhozes, oblispolkoms, gorkoms, factories, design bureaus, the military—tugged at party supremacy at a local level. The osobaia papka—Politburo materials assigned “special-folder” status due to their especially sensitive content—confirmed that, in the Khrushchev period, even the defense industry was not immune to coordination with local institutions, as well as relevant ministries in the RSFSR and Ukraine, and Gosplan. Four large spravy were needed to outline the production plan for 1959. Ukrainian involvement in Soviet military production was staggering—turbines in Kharkiv, rockets in Dnipropetrovsk, ships and submarines in Kherson (and later Mykolaiv), aviation in Kyiv, with affiliates in Lviv, Zaporizhia and other cities.


This snapshot does not reflect the current state of military production in Ukraine, but does lend evidentiary support to claims that by the late 1980s roughly 70-80% of Ukrainian industry had worked toward Soviet defense. These files point to Ukraine’s deep involvement with one of the most crucial and conservative ministries in the Soviet Union. As Khrushchev-era documents, they also offer a window into the massive institutional experimentation undertaken during his tenure, much of which was driven by the desire to devolve power to the regions. The party under Brezhnev fought mightily for years to undo the damage Khrushchev’s policies had had on central control. Among the key players are the sovnarkhozes, regional economic councils, whose comparatively brief existence in 1957-1962 engendered tremendous confusion about spheres of responsibility and authority, by placing civilian industrial and building enterprises under their purview.


The sovnarkhoz reforms did more than blur geographies of power in the Soviet Union, they reinforce a problem at the center of my inquiry—that spatial relationships to the center of power can very different even if the players are located in the same place. The director of Yuzhmash had a direct line to the General Secretary, while the local party or state functionary charged with managing housing construction had to navigate incredible amounts of red tape, counteract theft of materials, while also adhering to construction plans shaped more by ideology than city planning.


Nowhere were shifting institutional hierarchies and proximity to power expressed more clearly than in the ability to secure and provide housing. As one of the most enduring problems faced by Soviet leadership, housing provides a unique window into the Soviet system. Housing was a mark of privilege. Party members were notorious for using their influence to secure apartments for family and friends. Scientists and engineers also often chose one design bureau over another if it would help more quickly secure an apartment. Without expressly looking for Yuzhmash in the documents on housing, the frequency with which it surfaced served as reminder of how a powerful local player can change the contours of a city. Its apartment buildings were more attractive, made of higher quality materials (bricks instead of concrete slabs), and were warmer in winter. More thought was put into the layout of neighborhoods, transportation, and the location of shared spaces and children’s playgrounds. There was more oversight and quality control as well as a larger construction budget.


In this light, ‘Soviet-style city government’ appears to be more of a political process than an administrative one. As William Taubman argued, complex modern societies require both increased autonomy for managerial specialists and increased political authority for the central leadership. “Meeting this latter need is the principal function of the Party. It is as essential to the system as the expert bureaucracy…The innovators are not the reds but the experts. The party apparatus, on the other hand, becomes a gyroscope instead of a motor.” The problem with the Soviet system was that the gyroscope had to continuously ramp up and reassert the political authority of the center.


My thinking on the methods Moscow used to recentralize was deeply influenced by two additional factors—my work in the KGB archives this summer and Ukraine’s escalating conflict with Russia, whose president is a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB. The language of Soviet-era KGB documents was reminiscent of the current propaganda emanating out of the Kremlin, especially the fixation on foreigners, bourgeois nationalists, Zionists, and “banderite fascists.” Equally disconcerting were the similarities in the documents on the Prague Spring and Russian media reports on current crisis in Ukraine. The threats to central control were uncannily familiar, the solutions equally extreme.


Regionalism is essential for understanding the relationship between Ukraine and the Russia. Dnipropetrovsk, in particular, brings into sharp focus the scale of Ukraine’s entanglement with powerful all-union ministries. Institutional matrices at the regional level show that Khrushchev-era reforms, however confusing, fostered considerable political and economic improvisation by local leaders. They also underscore that greater complexity in the Soviet economy after the war required more flexibility for industrial managers. The rise of the Dnipropetrovsk elite appears to be more than the result of Brezhnev’s patronage; their specialized technical knowledge was needed to run a more multifaceted union.


Moscow’s isolation of the Ukrainian elite under Gorbachev showed that, when faced with existential crises, the center had means to reestablish control, how effectively, remains an open question. In 1970, Vitalii Fedorchuk became the new Ukrainian KGB chief. Ukrainian apparatchiki do not recall him arrival fondly in their memoires. Yakiv Pogrebniak, in particular, noted that Fedorchuk had almost no knowledge about the particularities and traditions of the Ukrainian people, while also exhibiting an excessively heightened interest in the affairs of Central Committee secretaries, obkom leadership, and the Council of Ministers. Fedorchuk’s unequivocal warning to them—“we work for the entire Soviet Union and there is no room for any Ukraine in our work”— had an effect opposite than the one intended. His intrusive approach bolstered nationalist sentiment in the party and society more broadly.


All of this should serve as a cautionary tale not just for Vladimir Putin, but Ukrainian leaders as well. From a historical perspective, the Kremlin’s unwillingness to adjust to developments in Ukraine is risky, as intransigent late Soviet-era institutions still reach all the way into Moscow. Ukrainians must also acknowledge that Ukraine was never peripheral to the Soviet project; it was a powerful player at the core of the empire. Building a Ukraine that is truly sovereign requires more than a passionate populace, the real work must be undertaken by those with firsthand knowledge of how Ukraine’s institutional landscape evolved in the post-Soviet period.

Orysia Kulick is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at Stanford University. Her dissertation titled “Politics, Power, and Informal Networks in Soviet Ukraine" is a study of the nomenklatura in postwar Soviet Ukraine, focusing on local bureaucracies in Kyiv, Lviv and Dnipropetrovsk and personal networks that shaped Soviet Ukrainian relations with the Kremlin.

bottom of page