Flying with the Stars: Performance, Loyalty, and Awards in the Soviet Air Force during WWII

42 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2021

See all articles by Evgeny Finkel

Evgeny Finkel

Johns Hopkins SAIS

David Szakonyi

George Washington University

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

Finkel, Evgeny and Szakonyi, David, Flying with the Stars: Performance, Loyalty, and Awards in the Soviet Air Force during WWII (November 10, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Evgeny Finkel

Johns Hopkins SAIS ( email )

1740 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036-1984
United States

David Szakonyi (Contact Author)

George Washington University ( email )

2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

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