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Autocracy at War: Merit vs. Loyalty in the Red Army during WWII

October 4, 2021

Speakers: Eugene Finkel, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe
Chair: Michael G. Plummer, Director and ENI Professor of International Economics, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe, Bologna, Italy

For autocratic leaders fighting to stay in power, the struggle of how to promote subordinates while achieving the regime's policy goals looms large. Leaders, unable to carry out all policy measures themselves, promote agents within their regime. However, this is a daunting task when entrusting the wrong person, who could lead to regime overthrow. Coming from the intersection of history and political science, Prof. Eugene Finkel spoke to SAIS on October 4th about his joint research with Prof. David Szakonyi (George Washington University) on how the Red Army tackled this challenge during World War II.

For this case, Finkel and Szakonyi take a different approach by focusing on the under-researched topic of how regimes promote actors in the lower levels of the state apparatus. Filling this gap in scholarship, Finkel and Szakonyi study how the Red Army during World War II approached the task of promotions by focusing on the most elite category of soldiers, fighter pilots. These were highly visible and prestigious members of the Red Army with clear performance indicators, i.e., the number of planes a pilot has downed. Using Russian Ministry of Defense documents and an encyclopedia on the Red Army's most successful fighter pilots, Finkel and Szakonyi analyzed how these pilots were evaluated and promoted.

Within their research, Finkel and Szakonyi defines promotions as discretionary awards for which pilots had to be nominated by their commanders. As these awards were cheap, widely available, and often had huge positive effects for individual and organizational performance, they were frequently used by the regime, giving Finkel and Szakonyi a dataset of 10,000 awards for almost 3,000 pilots. The awards were assessed at the nomination level and the second approval where higher-ups could either upgrade, downgrade, or approve submitted nominations. Additionally, the prestige of the awards was assessed at both levels along with any changes a higher-up made to the award's prestige. Finkel and Szakonyi also coded for pilot characteristics such as party membership, ethnicity, experience, leadership, and bravery (if the pilot had been wounded) and for the pilot's combat situation to see how these factors affected the likelihood of promotion.

Finkel and Szakonyi find that the Red Army's promotional system was a bounded meritocracy, with performance being the key factor of promotion. While party membership played no role, the role of ethnicity was significant at each level. At the nomination level, preference was given to in-groups (ethnic Slavs). Finkel argues this is a result of both prejudice against minority pilots and commanders' increased abilities to understand Russian pilots and feel secure about assuming the risks of nominating them. Conversely, at the second level, higher-ups were more likely to upgrade the awards of minority pilots as they could use these new heroes to inspire higher levels of military consignment among other minorities.

Overall, Prof. Finkel contends that non-democratic leaders are well aware of their main power constraints at all levels of the apparatus and that they are creative about overcoming these problems. He explains that identifying these mechanisms and the reasoning behind promotions helps us understand where future leaders originate from in autocratic regimes.