In Nadezhas Mandelstams memoir of life under Stalin's totalitarian regime, she wrote:

Procedure meant a great deal to our rulers, and the whole farrago of nonsense was meticulously committed to paper. Did they really think that posterity, going through these records, would believe them just as blindly as their crazed contemporaries? Or perhaps it was just the bureaucratic mind at work, the demon from the ink pot, feeding on legal formalities and consuming a tonne of paper in the process? If the formalities could be called legal ...

Why was it to so important to Stalin's regime to maintain a procedure of normality under what is generally acknowledged as one of the most monstrous regimes ever devised and lived under by man?

  • Opinion-based. It is just speculative, to talk about "farrago of nonsense". Don't you remember, than during WW2, Soviet Union states still, while democratic, of course, not-nonsense, France, for example, surrendered and joined Germans. Don't you? Nov 9, 2018 at 6:04
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    Non-sequitur. Why a monstruous regime should not use lots of red tape? The third Reich was also very fond of paperwork. And banana republics of all ideologies. And probably the only thing you're are going to make a Trump supporter and a, say, a Bernie Sanders supporter is that Washington has "tons of farrago of nonsense committed to paper" to every single proceeding. This is not a serious opinion, is the kind of rant you sprout to your drinking comrades while having a beer.
    – Rekesoft
    Nov 9, 2018 at 12:56

2 Answers 2


All modern states engage bureaucratic apparatus. As Mandelstam was not nomenklatura but intelligentsia she is unlikely to be competent to speak to the necessity of specific bureaucracy to maintaining Soviet (ie nomenklatura) power. Additionally given her background, and her political position against the nomenklatura, her capacity to speak to the necessity of specific bureaucracy for the function of the nomenklatura’s system is limited to political pronunciamentos. And we already know the content of her politics: her statements aren’t useful on the systemic function of bureaucracy, and only useful on the desirability of that function should we agree with her.

Soviet bureaucracy sought to document reality and thereby command it. With the obvious problem of attempting to command reality by redocumenting it. The solution to poor documentation was documentary checks on documentation. Leading to an entire hermeneutics of suspicious statistics. The solution to suspicion was investigation and purge which lead to further documentation.

The documentation was not only the function of state repression in general, but economic coordination separate to prices of account, but also the state repression in specific of individuals and groups for failed economic and social policies, but also the justification of the “intelligentsia” as a class alongside the “peasantry” and “working class,” but also the very name and power of the ruling class itself: nomenklatura: approved names list.

This was the function of Soviet bureaucracy. It was the generalised system of ruling class social control over itself and other classes.

Whether this is desirable or not is more a question of normative values. Should one imagine that a red bourgeoisie addicted to list making is desirable, why then it is no farrago at all. Should one believe otherwise it is not the list making behaviour that one is criticising, but the existence of a red bourgeoisie (the farrago is soviet not bureaucratic, the memorialist has no capacity for determining essential from inessential bureaucracy). The list making is merely how it keeps power and entirely rational to that end. Including the inefficiencies of the list of lists which require purges to the lists of names.

a requested digression on methods of subordination and ruling classes: The Yugoslavian nomenklatura relied more on internal markets and contracts. The “Leninist” RSFSR in war communism relied on managed democracy before one man management, in direct negotiation with autonomous workers councils in factories. The Yen’nan Soviet similarly relied on managed democracy, in negotiation with peasant/rural worker communes. Western firms similarly have weak internal markets, few internal contracts, and rely on policy and lists. Management / elite anarchy is also possible, consider the German state’s splintered governance 1933-1945

  • Please clarify as to whether a red bourgeoisie could exist without list making.
    – agc
    Nov 8, 2018 at 19:35
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    @agc - arguably, bourgeoisie requires lists, in some philosophical form. You can't do business without lists and organization, and one of the reasons for Italian cities early success during Reinessance was the invention of better processes (including accounting)
    – user4012
    Nov 8, 2018 at 19:54
  • Yugoslavia was more contract based in inter institutional relations with the nomenklatura overseeing those contracts achieving goals. “Contract” is the equivalent relation to the lists. Contracts, and markets, existed throughout the Soviet Union but the list was the day to day central relationship. Administrative chaos is another alternative indulged by 20th century industrial value form societies. Western firms often internally operate on list policy and meeting instead of internal profit centres contractually interlinked through markets. Nov 8, 2018 at 23:23
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    Also there’s the curious concepts of Leninist coordinated Soviet democracy and Maoist to-from-to type coordinates popular “Yan’nan period” democracy. Both are alternative options for nomenklatura management of labouring classes, through democratic consensus. Nov 9, 2018 at 1:59
  1. Stalin rose to power as a bureaucrat. If you look at history of Soviet politics, Lenin was the head of government. But, Stalin was a Comunist Party secretary - and even when he took power, his post was "General Secretary"

  2. All regimes require legitimacy, to maintain control over populace. You will note that most, if not all, of tyrannical rulers had procedures, and arguably, the more tyrannical the rule the more procedures - especially with the establishment of bureaucratic state after Middle Ages. Stalin, Hitler, Roman Emperors, french absolute monarchs.

    A recent "Tides of History" podcast series covered this angle in detail in very good presentation; both for post-100-Year-War France and Catholic Church. I don't have a good source for China, but that is another example.

  3. More specifically, to have a vast apparatus of State enforcement, it's not enough to be an Evul for the sake of Evulz. You need to get "normal" non-psychopath people to do your work for you; which means they should think they are the good guys, following the rules. Thus, The Procedure. It legitimizes the evil for the people doing it.

  4. Not sure if that played a role, but Stalin wanted to lead the world revolution, which means propaganda to both fellow communists abroad and the foreign people in general. This means putting the patina of law and legitimacy on everything, as well.

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    This doesn't really answer the question. Bureaucracies are a neccessity for the running of large organisations - whether they are empires, nations or corporations. The point you missed (and you should tackle) is 'this whole farrago of nonsense'. Nov 8, 2018 at 14:15

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