T he Russian archives, on which much of this book is based, do not allow us to see into Stalin's mind. They do, however, provide evidence of a pattern in Stalin's behavior and, more broadly, they present a picture of symbiosis between Stalin and the system he had created. After twenty years of cajoling and personal manipulation, the leader had learned how to steer and how to break his colleagues. He also knew better than anyone how to operate the levers of his system. Over two decades, Stalin had learned how to “work” the party, how to mobilize campaigns, and how to instigate purges. These talents would come to the fore in Stalin's final years, as the leader leaned almost instinctively on the dual apparatus of ideology and repression.
Stalin was in many respects a patrimonial leader. In his last years, much official business was transacted in private meetings between Stalin and his entourage. The leader secured the loyalty of his colleagues over and above their commitment to any office and, to underline this, he completely reshaped and renamed posts and committees, maneuvering his companions between them at will. Stalin was not, however, interested in maintaining this cozy system of governance for its own sake. He was always concerned with his own status as the leader of a great power. Although prone to fantasies and bouts of paranoia, as a leader he was pragmatic to the core. So as not to compromise the state's longer term economic and geopolitical ambitions, he accepted innovations, such as the separation of the Politburo from the Council of Ministers, which would make the administrative system more effective. It is this occasional will to delegate and to rationalize that characterizes his rule as neo-patrimonial.
Once Stalin died, the tension between a patrimonial leadership style and a well-ordered system of administration quickly dissolved and, in its stead,