Flying with the Stars: Performance, Loyalty, and Awards in the Soviet Air Force during WWII
42 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2021
Date Written: November 10, 2020
One of the main debates in the study of authoritarianism concerns whether autocrats promote and reward agents based on performance or ideological loyalty to stave off the threat of elite coups. Yet autocrats often face existential crisis situations, particularly military conflict, where their survival depends on the performance of lower-level cadres defending the regime. In this paper, we develop a new theoretical framework for understanding how autocrats manage bureaucratic selection under crisis. Introducing the concept of ‘bounded meritocracy’, we theorize that although merit dominates decisions over rewards and promotions, autocrats also strategically prioritize other non-merit considerations in order to prevent shirking and defection by out-group members. To test our hypotheses, we combine qualitative archival work with analysis of a new dataset of 2,898 top Soviet fighter pilots during WWII that includes unique measures of individual performance –a number of downed Axis planes– as well as markers of regime loyalty and out-group status. The results show that wartime imperatives led Soviet officials to prioritize merit over party loyalty, while also trumpeting the achievements of non-Slavic aces as part of a propaganda campaign to increase support for the war effort among potentially disloyal minority groups.
Keywords: autocracy, crisis, military performance, war, political selection, meritocracy
JEL Classification: N44, H12, H56, P30
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation