Shefstvo—Revolutionary Sponsorship

One of the characteristic features of Soviet political culture was shefstvo (patronage or sponsorship). One worthy social organization would become the shef (patron) of another worthy organization. This relationship was marked by slogan-filled banners, earnest and long-winded speeches, delegations of well-scrubbed schoolchildren, and no real significance whatsoever.

Shefstvo began under very different circumstances. This institution originated with the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, and had a far more serious purpose. The Red Army, like its White opponent, had to fight the Civil War with unwilling, conscripted peasants. Draconian discipline was one way to keep those soldiers fighting; propaganda and indoctrination was another. Borrowing from a tsarist tradition of linking particular military units to members of the royal family, the Red Army’s high command created a new kind of shefstvo which connected particular Red Army formations to Soviet cities and towns. The Bolshevik leadership and the Red Army high command were quite clear on what this was intended to do. Civilians in Soviet rear areas were supposed to feel more sympathy for Red Army soldiers and the Red cause, while the peasant soldiers of the Red Army were in turn to strengthen their ideological commitment to the Bolshevik cause.

After Red victory in the Civil War, shefstvo changed in accord with the regime’s new problems, shifting from a political-ideological tool into an economic lifeline for the impoverished Red Army. Faced with a devastated economy and bloated military ranks, the Soviet government could not afford to support the five million soldiers who ended the Civil War under arms. As a result, in 1921, the Soviet government in effect outsourced support for the Red Army to Soviet society. Towns, factories, social organizations, and even foreign businesses connected themselves to military units to provide food, clothing, and even cash donations to ease the plight of cold and hungry soldiers.

The problems with this new system were clear. Cash gifts brought corruption and jealousy. Units in large cities benefitted disproportionately, while soldiers in remote postings were left without aid. The Red Army’s own commanders, despite the concrete material benefits they received, urged an end to outside material support because of its pernicious effects on solidarity and morale.

Once the New Economic Policy had produced economic recovery, the Soviet government could afford to shoulder the full burden of support the Red Army, shefstvo changed yet again in accord with new circumstances. In 1924 the Red Army’s high command banned material gifts, allowing only voluntary worker donations. Instead of a poor relation, the Red Army had instead become a pillar of the regime, and now its units served as ideological inspiration for the Soviet Union’s less revolutionary peasantry. Shefstvo likewise spread from the Red Army into Soviet society more broadly, laying the groundwork for this characteristic institution of later Soviet life.

David Stone, Kansas State University (USA)

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