I’ve finally gotten far enough into Grossman’s Life and Fate (see this post) to get hooked (with books that long, I find it usually takes a hundred or so pages); the Russian is quite readable for me, but every once in a while I hit a mystery that can only be resolved by an appeal to Sashura, who (I keep telling him) is as good as a university education—he gives explanations that leave me feeling as if I’ve learned a whole new aspect of Russian or Soviet life. The most recent example is when I got to the middle of Chapter 21 and Mashchuk said of Neudobnov: “Одно время думали, что он членом коллегии будет” ['At one time it was thought he'd become a member of the collegium']. I asked Sashura “What коллегия is he talking about?” I had gone to the Russian Wikipedia disambiguation page and found a whole bunch of different senses, but the only one relevant to the USSR was Военная коллегия Верховного суда СССР (Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR), which didn’t seem relevant. Sashura wrote back:
Figuratively, it means ‘he was thought he’d make it to the top’. [In the context of the chapter] it’s Коллегия НКВД [the Collegium of the NKVD]. It refers to the structure of Soviet – and Russian – ministries. Ministries and other government agencies have colleges or collegiums normally comprised of the minister, deputies and heads of the most important departments. I’ve looked up the Foreign Ministry, its коллегия now has 23 members. The collegium is where important decisions are discussed and approved (it’s called пройти коллегию), then, depending on the subject matter, executive decisions are made by the minister or relevant deputies and heads of departments. Moving and appointing cadres (кадры – workers in position of special responsibility or sensitivity) was also decided by коллегии. Sometimes the party would appoint a person to sit on the collegium for political control and liaison, but without any direct functions within the ministry. Коллегия is a way of diffusing personal responsibility and also of political control. In practical individual terms making it to the коллегия meant having all the perks of the ruling class, good food from special distribution centres, better doctors, better clothes, a better apartment, a dacha, access to better курорты [health resorts] and a personal car with chauffeur. But it also limited personal freedom. … The word is obviously of Latin origin, but was borrowed into Russian from Swedish when Peter I radically reformed the State replacing numerous приказы [offices, departments] with a few коллегии (ministries) that existed until Alexander I replaced them with министерства based on the French ministère. But коллегия as a substructure survived.
I had known about Peter’s “colleges,” but I thought they were purely of historical significance—I had no idea they’d survived as a substructure into modern times. It’s actually somewhat shocking to me that I was a Russian major in college and have been reading up on Russian and Soviet history and culture for years, and yet I knew nothing about this. As I wrote Sashura, “My God, the Soviet Union was a complicated place. No wonder Kremlinologists were a little nutty.”
Since then, I’ve found a decent brief definition in the American Heritage Dictionary: “An executive council or committee of equally empowered members, especially one supervising an industry, commissariat, or other organization in the Soviet Union.” But it needs Sashura’s fleshing out to be truly comprehensible, and I’d really like to read more on the system; anybody know of a good source?
Addendum. I’ve found an interesting discussion on page 59 of Paul R. Gregory’s Restructuring the Soviet Economic Bureaucracy (Cambridge University Press, 1990):
Each industrial ministry, for example, has a well-organized collegium (kollegiia) whose structure is specified by ministry law and whose members are appointed by higher authorities. … The ministry collegium has the right to inform higher authorities of differences of opinion with the minister, but the decisions are still made by the minister and by no one else. The existence of a consultative body apparently prevents the edinonachalnik from shifting blame to the consultative body.
The Soviet press is full of complaints about the boring and useless meetings of ministry collegiums, but respondents assess the meetings differently. In some ministries, collegium meetings were forums for resolving major policy issues, reprimanding ministry officials, and discussing key personnel matters. A number of respondents attended ministry collegium meetings, in either management or technical capacities. They presented different versions of the importance of such meetings. One regular participant referred to them as “gab sessions” in which collegium members sat around and complained about supply problems. Another described them as often heated discussions of basic ministry policy and felt that important matters were resolved. Several respondents noted that an invitation to a nonmember to appear before the collegium evoked foreboding. Collegium meetings were an occasion for publicly reprimanding ministry officials whose work was deemed poor. Personnel matters were also discussed in the collegium. It is therefore understandable that an invitation to appear was not greeted with enthusiasm.