Большой террор … Stalin’s Great Terror

You were taken away at dawn. I followed you
As one does when a corpse is being removed.
Children were crying in the darkened house.
A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God…
The cold of an icon was on your lips
A death-cold sweat on your brow –
I will never forget this; I will gather
To wail with the wives of the murdered streltsy
Inconsolably, beneath the Kremlin towers.
Anna Akhmatova, Moscow 1935

I have written often in In That Howling Infinite on Russian and Ukrainian history. Although I am no expert, and profess an amateur interest only, I do possess a short and humble pedigree. Once in another lifetime, I read politics at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.  My tutor in Soviet Studies was exiled Hungarian academic and historian Tibor SzamuelyLike many refugees from Communism, he was descended from both perpetrators and victims. An uncle of the same name served in the Hungarian Soviet Republic that took power for six months under Béla Kun in 1919, and died violently that year when the revolution failed. He was among that government’s most bloodthirsty ministers, and was called “Butcher Szamuely”. Szamuely’s family wound up in Moscow, where Tibor was born, and where his father was executed in Stalin’s purges. Young Tibor served in the Red Army, and he too was arrested and sent to a Labour camp. Rehabilitated, he served as Chancellor of Budapest University. In 1964, then nearing 40, he was teaching in the “ideological institute” of Ghana’s Marxist president Kwame Nkrumah when he defected to England.

Back then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist sympathiser and fellow-traveler, although my evolving perspectives were transforming and expanding. As my tutor, he advised me to study with an open mind and to put off juvenile thinking. He hadn’t been well when I knew him and he died a year after I graduated. Under his tuition, I’d resolved to specialize in Soviet Studies – but events intervened and I ended up in the Middle East (and that is another story. see: Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life). I nevertheless retired an active interest in the history and politics of Eastern Europe. 

He would always impress upon me the historical and political continuity of what he called The Russian Tradition – the title of his one and only book, The Russian Tradition, published shortly before his death, and now, regrettably, out of print. I purchased a first edition when it was published and it is on my bookshelf still.

Szamuely believed that the bloodstained drama of the revolutions of 1917 – there were two, the social democratic one in the February, the Bolshevik one in November – and the years that followed, including civil war, the establishment of the USSR and Stalinism largely obscured the underlying consistency of Russian history. He did not live to see the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, and the advent of Putin and Russia Redux, but the basic pattern persists, circular and repetitive. The frequent turmoils that have overtaken this vast continent have in their various ways made changes that were essentially superficial, leading in the end to the intensification, under new forms, of the old authoritarian structure.

A few years back, I retrieved from my archive a dissertation I wrote under Szamuely’s supervision in 1970, entitled How Rational Was The Great Purge? Reading it fifty years later, I was surprised to observe that my writing style, the content and the conclusions I drew have changed little over the years. In retrospect the tenor is somewhat naïf but it foreshadows a perspective that I’ve developed over the years of “walking in the shoes of others – contemplating what might be going through the heads of the protagonists, be they the Old Bolsheviks who became the sacrificial victims or Stalin himself. Fathoming the mind of “Uncle Joe”, as the Allied PR departments dubbed him during WWII when he was deemed a friend and indeed a bulwark against Nazi aggression, was a bit of a pretentious stretch for a twenty one year old, even though I did only have an audience of one – and did earn a “first” in Soviet Studies.

A couple of days ago, I pulled it out again to show Adèle, and discovered to my horror that the handwritten foolscap roneo had faded almost to the point of vanishing. In a bright light, I managed to recite it into iPad notes and transcribe it into a fresh document and have now the privilege to publish it in  Into That Howling Infinite.

Privilege not pleasure, I must note. It does not make for easy reading.

When it was conceived, my dissertation was written with academic grades in mind, and particularly for Szamuely’s assessment alone. There is little explanation of context and of the events and personalities referred to therein (ironically, in the light of contemporary events, many of whom were Ukrainian and many, Jewish), and chronology was less important than argument. There was a word limit and also no need for explanation as my tutor knew, from his own academic and personal history, what had happened, who was what and who was who – and what became of them.

Most, sadly, did not die comfortable in their beds surrounded by family and friends, and more often than not in dark execution cells or in fields and forests beside their own graves. He was was also very much aware of the victims of the Great Purge and it’s many siblings, so many of them nameless, who perished during the Soviet Union’s two decades of terror, and for the millions – from the Baltic to the Crimea – who were deported en masse from ancestral lands to the Siberian or transported to the labour camps of the distant Gulags, to work, to starve, and to die.

The ordinary reader, of this blog and of world affairs generally is not very acquainted with the  history and politics of Russia and the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Much of what casual observers know is learned from wide reading and often filtered through the distorted lenses of unreliable and potentially misleading and false analogies and partisan preconceptions, or worse, uninformed and prejudiced certainties. We see these in full flight in mainstream media commentary and particularly in social media with respect to the current conflict between Ukraine and its powerful neighbour. This article does not discus that conflict, although the reader will certainly see patterns, hear echoes and feel reverberations, for the consequences of events which occurred down the foggy ruins of time do indeed ricochet through history to strike us today.

And so, then, to my resurrected dissertation, which I have edited to include the full names of the principal actor. But first, some historical background to put it into perspective.

‘I’ve executed better men than me with a small pistol, Yevgraf Zhivago”

The Great Terror 

By strange symmetry, when I retrieved my now faded dissertation, I’d recently reread historian Robert Conquest’s tombstone of a book, The Great Terrora relentless and harrowing narrative of arrests, trials, fabricated confessions, hostage-taking, deportations, torture and executions as Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Josef Stalin consolidated his rule, eliminated enemies real and imagined, and created his own model of a twentieth century socialist state.

It commenced with the elimination of the Old Bolsheviks, his former comrades in arms in the Russian Revolution of October 1917 (there were two revolutions that year) and the bloody civil war that followed, and then expanded to embrace all in the party and society at large who may or may not have shared his vision. Intellectuals, philosophers, writers, poets, musicians, priests, scientists, academics, teachers, civil servants, workers and peasants, and the Red Army’s Officer Corps – the latter being a contributing factor to the Soviet Union’s need to make a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 and its disastrously slow response to Hitlers invasion in June 1941.

An estimated death toll is difficult to determine. In those dark days, people simply disappeared, and the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB and present day FSI) covered its tracks well. The official number for the “Great Purge” of 1936-38, or “the Yezhovchina”, named for Victor Yezhov, head of the NKVD and Stalin’s lord high executioner, stands at 1,548,366 detained persons, of whom 681,692 were shot – an average of 1,000 executions a day. Various historians claim that the real number of victims could be twice as much.

But the the arrests, executions, and deportations commenced as early as 1930 and continued right up until Stalin’s death in 1953. Conquest, in his The Great Terror: A Reassessment does the gloomy math: 1930-36, 7 million; 1937-1938, 3 million; 1039-53, 10 million. The number of deaths in the Soviet Union that were explicitly ordered by someone – in other words, the number of executions – is actually relatively low at around 1.5 million. The majority of the deaths were caused by neglect or repressive policies – for example, those who died in the Soviet gulags, those who died while being deported, and German civilians and Prisoners of War are believed to have perished while under Soviet guard.

The numbers who were transported, exiled, displaced, and scattered to concentration camps or far-eastern towns and villages were likewise incalculable. as the Yevgraf, the brother of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago comments in the final scenes of David Lean’s beautiful but flawed movie):

“Indeed, as a policeman, I would say, get hold of a man’s brother and you’re halfway home. Nor was it admiration for a better man than me. I did admire him, but I didn’t think he was a better man. Besides, I’ve executed better men than me with a small pistol”

… and

“She (Lara) had come to Moscow to look for her child. I helped her as best I could, but I knew it was hopeless. I think I was a little in love with her. One day she went away and didn’t come back. She died or vanished somewhere, in one of the labor camps. A nameless number on a list that was afterwards mislaid. That was quite common in those days”.

There are a myriad of books and films about these events. Wikipedia is as good a place as any to start. Robert Conquest’s is the most acclaimed – and rightly so. Then there is Arthur Koestler’s chilling novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, which recounts the thoughts of an Old Bolshevik as he awaits death in the execution cells:

A shapeless figure bent over him, he smelt the fresh leather of the revolver belt: but what insignia did the figure wear on the sleeves and shoulder-straps of its uniform – and in whose name did it raised the dark pistol barrel?

Both  books are cited often in my dissertation.

As for movies, there’s always David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, which realistically albeit melodramatically portrays the choices and compromises confronting ordinary, intellectual Russians in the years of revolution and civil war. And I would highly recommend the poignant but powerful Burnt by the Sun, a 1994 film by Russian director and screenwriter Nikita Mikhailkov and Azerbaijani screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov. The film depicts the story of a senior officer (played by Mikhalkov) and his family during the purge of the Red Army.

And there was the poet Anna Akhmatova, whose words open this piece, bearing sad witness to the imprisoned, the deported, the disappeared and the dead – including in their number, two husbands and her only son – memorializing the suffering of herself, her family and millions of her compatriots in her tortured testament, RequiemUnlike so many of her contemporaries, she died of natural causes in March 1966. Russian born philosopher amd historian Isiah Berlin described the impact of her life: 

“The widespread worship of her memory in Soviet Union today, both as an artist and as an unsurrendering human being, has, so far as I know, no parallel. The legend of her life and unyielding passive resistance to what she regarded as unworthy of her country and herself, transformed her into a figure …  not merely in Russian literature, but in Russian history in (the twentieth) century”.

Anna Akhmatova, by Amedeo Modigliani

Russia’s Stations of the Cross did not cease with the end of the Terror. Three years later came Operation Barbarossa and the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the rapid blitzkreig that took the Wehrmacht to the gates of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad, and the bloody clawback that brought the Red Army to Berlin and to take captive the peoples of Eastern Europe.

Over twenty five million Soviet citizens died during the Great Patriotic War, of which just under ten million were military. Most died as a direct result of the military conflict that ranged from the Baltic to the Caucasus. But miilions also perished at the hands of the NKVD and in the forced mass deportations of “suspect” peoples, including the Volga Germans and the Crimean Tartars.

At wars’ end, the Terror rolled on, albeit at a lower setting. Josef Stalin remained suspicious, vengeful and paranoid, and the purges continued right up until the moment he departed this mortal coil (as depicted in dubious slapstick in Armando Iannucci‘s recent The Death of Stalin).

Many, many Red Army soldiers who had been taken captive by the Nazis were arrested on their return from captivity. Many were shot for ‘desertion’, and thousands sent to the Gulags. Whether they had surrendered or had been subdued and taken captive, often as fast-moving battle fronts left them stranded, abandoned and entrapped behind enemy lines, they were deemed cowards, traitors and enemies of the Soviet Union and its people. They were moreover doubly damned. Whether from behind the wire of concentration camps or as slave labourers in German mines, fields and factories, they had witnessed, come into contact with, and had been contaminated by the world outside.

In one of his most cited poems, The Caucasus, written in 1845, Ukraine’s national poet, the 19th-century bard Taras Shevchenko, who’d helped build national identity through his verse, which he composed in both Russian and Ukrainian, ridicules Russian expansionism and mourns the immense loss of life it had already wrought. He could have been writing about tyranny, repression and violence all around the world and through the ages:

“We groan beneath the yoke of hangmen while drunken justice sodden sleeps”.

© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved, adapted from Ghosts of the Gulag,© Paul Hemphill 2018 

See also. The Death of Stalin is no laughing matter; Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism ;  TheRussian Tradition – Russia, Ukraine and Tibor Szamuely; and The Roots and Fruits of Putin’s Irridentism

How rational was the Great Purge? 

Paul Hemphill, Reading, 17 June 1970

When veteran Bolshevik leaders Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev had demanded reprisals against their comrade Leon Trotsky, party secretary Josef Vissarionovich Stalin replied: “a policy a lopping off heads is fraught with danger … you chop off one head today, another one tomorrow, still another one the day after – what in the end will be left of our party?” (Deutsche, Stalin, 344). Lenin himself and warned “let not blood flow between you” (Ibid 377). Yet in 1932, Stalin was forced to back down when having advocated the death sentence for oppositional activities, he met the opposition of Sergei Kirov and the party. And in 1938, Trotsky was to proclaim that “Stalin is like a man who wants to quench his thirst with salted water” (Fainsod 356j). But not, in Stalin’s view, without reason.

Old Comrades Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev

“We are a country surrounded by capitalist states … The internal enemies of our revolution are the agents of capitalism of all countries. In fighting against enemies at home….fight the counterrevolutionary elements of all countries”. Thus, Stalin attempts to rationalize terror. In his grim novel Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler described “how there were two elements in our party. One consisted of adventurers who wanted to risk all we had won to promote the revolution abroad. We recognized this current to be dangerous and have liquidated it … We stand alone … We have only one duty: not to perish”. The survival of the week and embryonic socialist state in a hostile world depended upon the strictest unity within that state, and no oppositional tendencies could be tolerated. “We have only one duty: not to perish”.

Victor Hugo once wrote: “ Mr Bonaparte’s crime is not a crime it is called a necessity. Mr Bonaparte’s robberies are not robberies, they are called measures of state. Mr Bonaparte’s murders are not murders, they are called public safety”. Here then was Machiavellian rationalism in action. “As long as the capitalist encirclement costs, there will be be wreckers, deviationists, spies, terrorists” (Stalin in Fainsod ibid 356 … and an endless host of counterrevolutionaries, bourgeois nationalists, kulaks or German and Japanese agents plotting the demise of socialist Russia.

Before 1917, the purge been excepted within the party. “Unity of Will” and submission to central authority being vital in the face of Czarist repression. Compromise was comparable to treason, obedience, the highest virtue. After 1917 the need remained in order to overcome inertia, suspicion and ignorance, hostility, subversion and sabotage. Lenin had stressed “better fewer and better”, and the consolidation of the party by the constant self purging of fellow travellers. The class struggle did not cease with Red October.

Indeed, as Lenin had prognosticated in “State and Revolution”, it intensified, as external enemies would find allies in the party. Every step towards socialism met with fierce resistance from within: the trade union dispute, the polemics of Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. When “enemies” infiltrate into the ranks of the vanguard itself, their suppression is not so easy as envisaged by Lenin’s ideals. In the years subsequent to the Civil War, therefore, constant vigilance and battle was all important. Yet the gradual liquidation of the old Bolsheviks in the years 1936 to 1938 pointed to less exalted motives, those of Stalin, using terror as a means for maintaining a monopoly of party leadership. The problem of reconciling this with the class struggle was solved by identifying any form of opposition to his rule with counterrevolution and espionage.

He effectively wrote the script that others followed. At his trial in August 1936 Kamenev confessed how “we have become fascists, we have organized counter-revolution against socialism. Zinoviev likewise: ”my defective Bolshevism was transformed into anti-Bolshevism, and through anti-Bolshevism, I arrived at fascism. Trotskyism is a variety of fascism and Zinovievism is a variety of Trotskyism” (Deutsche, The Prophet Outcast 333).

Having seized power after Lenin’s death, Stalin had to reconquer it again and again. Endless struggle will be terminated by the physical elimination of all whose party past or present attitudes made them potential opponents. Expulsion, Lenin’s penalty for “factionalism”, had been ineffective. Men who represented the potentiality of an alternative government of rival power centres had to be destroyed, be they active leaders or impotent symbols of opposition like Kamenev and Zinoviev. Reason justified the swift, merciless and all embracing preemptive strike to paralyse and to deter. Potential leaders, the men they influenced or were likely to influence, and an ever- widening circle of associates, friends and relative, who by the very nature of design were implicated. Vengefulness could engender opposition. Oppositional leaders had trained or promoted party man administrators and soldiers – in short, numberless alternative power centres.

The determining reason for Stalin‘s decision on his “final solution” lay perhaps in the realization that the mood of the Old Bolsheviks was one of hostility towards him, having remain unreconciled to personal dictatorship since the Kirov purges. Hostility could erupt into open challenge , and both he and his old comrades remembered the dying Lenin’s s pronouncement: “I propose to the comrades that they consider a means of removing Stalin from his post and appointing to it another person more patient, more loyal, more polite, and (relevant in this context) more considerate to his comrades” (Conquest 537)

When  the “Trial of the Sixteen began in August 1936, Trotsky wrote how “Stalin is staging this trial in order to suppress discontent and opposition … (he) treats every criticism and every form of opposition as a conspiracy”. (Deutsche, Outcast 322). Yet, in 1932 Trotsky himself had recognises the need for “unity of will”, “the upsetting at the bureaucratic equilibrium would benefit the forces of counter revolution” (Deutsche Stalin 344). But times had changed, and for the type of man Trotsky represented, there was no place in the party.

The reason for hostility perhaps lay in the basic psychology of the Old Bolsheviks. Nikolai Bukharin told historian Boris Nicolaevsky in 1936 that “we had all been trained in the psychology of oppositionalists … we are critics, destructionionists not builders” (Nicolaevsky 60) Soviet Russia wanted builders, not idealists. Stalin needed therefore to eliminate this millstone, to bring a new ruling class aimed at positive construction and not schismatic criticism. The theorist and the visionary were being supplanted by the young , hard and ambitious New Soviet Man, sincere communists holding key posts which merged political and professional leadership. The integration and stabilization of the regime necessitated increased centralization and the concentration of power in the hands of a select elite. The growing stability called for greater efficiency and control, the crystallization of totalitarianism demanding authority and obedience, and the accountability of the citizen for his inability to adjust to the new pattern.

Economic and social change that was not spontaneous as a product of attitudes and social relationships needed terror as a motive force. The men of the old revolution with the old ideas and ideals were liabilities to the new revolution. The “new man” created by Stalin’s regime, without a revolutionary past or tradition, ignorant and suspicious of intellectual arguments propounded by the oppositions, they were Koestler’s “Neanderthalers”, the generation “that started to think after of the flood … a generation without an umbilical cord”. Provided by Stalin with guidance, nurtured on Stalin’s Marxism- Leninism, and on the concrete achievements of the Five Year Plan.

Bukharin, in Nikolaevsky’s interview, and Koestler’s Rubachov see the new man as their creations, inevitable to socialist progress. They realise that survival depends upon success, and if they fail, they can no longer serve the revolution. History absolves those who are right – but those who are wrong must pay. Tthey understand the mechanics of the system. They share to some extent the values of the rulers. The process of selection is vital to stability and progress. And they are fatalistically determinist, agreeing to fabricated confessions because there was no existence outside of the party. Stalinism was the acceptable alternative to the counter-revolution.

“In a war which may be only a few months away”, Gletkin tells Rubachov in Darkness at Noon, “such currents (that is disaffection and popular dissatisfaction) could lead to catastrophe … the party must be cast in one mold, filled with blind discipline and absolute trust”. In 1936 the chances of agreement with Germany were slim. Cases such as “the homosexual conspiracy” of 1933-34 gave substance to fabricated charges of treason and espionage.

The threat of war and undoubtedly heightened Stalin’s fears for his political survival. He remembered how the Bolsheviks has seized power in such conditions after 1914. It certainly gave him a pretext, and legitimacy sanctioned by popular patriotism, for what Deutsche called a “perverted psychological truth” which instigated a pre-emptive strike to prevent instability and collapse during a national emergency. Yet, wouldn’t a conciliatory policy aimed at creating voluntary, popular and national cooperation and solidarity have been more logical than the disorganisation and demoralisation which Stalin had invited? Purges are deliberate and planned, and Stalin in no doubt realised their consequences if not their scope.

The motive for the Yezhovchina, named for Victor Yezhov, the head of the NKVD, does not hold its own independently. Neither does that of protecting the revolution. Bukharin in 1936, and Nikita Khrushkev in his groundbreaking Secret Speech to a closed plenum of the Central Committee in February 1956 claimed that Stalin had used too extreme means when the economy had been strengthening, the exploiting classes destroyed, and the party consolidated ideologically and numerically. Stalin himself would not have downplayed his achievements merely to attack his enemies. In reality, the new range of the charges brought against the “enemies of the people” avoid the question of a specific motivation, whilst not once did the chief victim of so many conspiracies. and yet the author, manager and producer, appear in court as a witness. Once again therefore, Machiavellian motives appear to predominate – those of Stalin consolidating his personal power. Potential opponents must be kept in a state of permanent insecurity so that all embracing terror by the “lopping off of heads” of possible alternatives to the regime. The party is cleansed of infiltrators and careerists, opening channels for new blood more loyal and more efficient. Individuals, uncontrolled and undirected, were susceptible to intrigue, and hence the unreliable need to be replaced.

The Nikolaev case following the assassination of Kirov by Leonid Nicolaev in December 1934.  Nikolaev and several suspected accomplices were convicted in the Moscow Trials and executed less than 30 days later, with complicity as a common charge for the condemned. Kirov’s assassination remains controversial and unsolved, with varying theories regarding the circumstances of his death., and provided a blueprint for discovery of accomplices and instigators, and the investigation of “ideologically undisarmed oppositions”, for “capacities for mischief” (Nicolaevsky 60), and for the punishment for the negligence of security and party organs for tolerating oppositional circles in their midst. In 1934, harmless Leningrad dissidents became terrorists; and in 1934, “Trotskyists” and ”Zinovievites” were tried, being told that by admitting complicity and condemning terrorism, they would check their own supporters.

The trials of 1936-38 merely keynoted the purge, the grand design finding full realisation in prisons and camps. The slaughter of the Old Guard showed that their day was gone, that resistance and opposition to the new regime was futile. Their fall, in a power struggle which had been waged since Lenin’s death, had been completed after Kirov’s murder, yet they were now called upon to justify the purge, to vilify the victims to publicise and popularize the forthcoming purges.

The trials of “the sixteen (August 1936 – Kamenev and Zinoviev, and others), of “the seventeen” (January 1937 – Pyatkov, Sokolnikov and the so-called anti-Soviet Trotskyist Centre), and of “the twenty one (March 1938 – Bukharin, Rykov, Yagoda, and the so called anti-Soviet Bloc of the Rightists and Trotskyists), saw the extermination of the Old Guard, and with it, the reputation of Trotsky, the arch-instigator and defendant in absentia. In colluding with Trotsky, the greatest “enemy of the people”, they were accused of treason, espionage, diversion, terrorism, and wr cling. They had plotted disrupt the economy to betray the Soviet state; they had plotted Kirov’s death, and had conspired to assassinate Stalin himself, together with others of his inner circle.

The case was different with popular national figures, and hence trial and publicity gave way to secrecy and speed trial “in camera”, illustrating Stalin’s determination bypassing even superficial legality. Hence, in secrecy, the party itself was purged by “electoral defeat” and arrest, by vigilance and police infiltration. 4434 Of 11,017 Moscow committee members were in 1937 new replacements, whilst elsewhere, 50 to 70% renovation was quite common, introducing new and ideologically pure cadres (Z Brzezinsky The Permanent Purge 94). Public trials would have strained loyalty and discipline.

This was also the case with the military, a fair accompli being necessary. In June 1937 civil war hero General Mikhail Tukachevsky and seven others were executed for treason and sabotage. Only by purging potentially disloyal or unduly independent commanders like Tukachevsky, who opposed politicisation, could be army be absorbed into the totalitarian system, and hence removing its strength as an alternative source of power while simultaneously developing its efficiency and its potency as a subordinate weapon. Whether a conspiracy existed or not is questionable, but but facility of suppression suggests the negative. Elimination would have been inevitable in order to insure full control in the event of war.

The purge of the Nationalities shows similar motivations. Nationalism had been contrary to the socialist ideals of international totalitarianism and international economics. Growing national resentment towards Russian central control had led Moscow to believe that national cadres and local leaders were responsible, whilst the atmosphere was highly conducive it the wide discovery of plots and conspiracies among the Nationalities. More objective reasoning saw the necessity of solidifying central control by removing sources independent national leadership, and hence, throughout the USSR bourgeois nationalists, deviationists, White Guards, kulaks and spies were exposed, the purges extending from the elimination of identifiable opponents to the impersonal elimination of thousands of suspects.

“Unity of Will” was all important, and all subsidiary elements had to be subordinated. Even the Comintern had to be cleansed to provide uniformity of policy in accordance with Soviet national interests, as opposed to Communist international interest. Soviet diplomats were removed. German, Hungarian, Polish, and Italian communists domiciled in the Soviet Union including former Hungarian strongman Bela Kun) were liquidated. Even in Spain, the KGB successfully purges the extremist left wing. Not even the KGB remained immune, Genrich Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov both falling to their own terror.

Stalin and Yezhov

In the industrial and agricultural sectors, also. the politically unreliable became scapegoats for failure, and inefficiency, to be replaced by the new generation of graduates in technical and professional fields. Technicians holding key posts in the economic structure, and intellectuals – natural critics – had to be submissive. Socialist competition being achievement orientated meant that failure to produce and to fulfill norms was tantamount to wrecking and sabotage. Failure demanded retribution: to deter, and to provide additional stimuli for greater endeavours. Yet, Stalin’s prime aim was total control – imprisonment have have been deterrent enough to encourage efficiency, whilst a general improvement in the standard of living was beginning emerge, giving little cause for such repression. Physical liquidation was primarily a means of control and not of production … as Lazar Kagonovich failed to note when, at the 18th Congress, he proclaimed: “ we have now cadres which carry out every directive of the party, of the Central Committee of the Soviet power, every directive of Comrade Stalin” (ibid 90).

Isaac Deutsche describes “Trial of the Sixteen”as “so hallucinatory in its masochism and sadism that it seemed to surpass human imagination” (Deutsche Outcast 332)…The defendants were made to crawl to their deaths amidst denunciation and self-derision. Although this justifies the character rather than the reason behind the Great Purge, it’s illustrates an all important function of the Purge as an institution – what Fainsod calls prophylactic and preventative.

The first Five Year Plan had brought a degree of stability, but the regime could not afford to let stability lapseinto inactivity. The messianic and totalitarian nature of the regime, demanded further goals, and further fervour and enthusiasm, to avoid the degeneration of party and the state. The internal emigration of the silent majority was synonymous with negation and opposition; and hence participation was vital. The policy of critique had originally been intended as an instrument of improvement, of exposing inefficiency, and error, but now, Kritika was associated with denunciation and Samokritika, with confession (often false), mutual suspicion, and fear of denunciation for lack of fervour, providing mass participation, synthetic enthusiasm, and Revolutionary, Watchfulness”… Legitimacy and consensus was thus created whilst also serving to crystallise and dramatise the policies of the government… The success of propaganda campaigns was shown during the public trials when frequent and hostile emotional outbursts often provided an ex post facto rationale for physical liquidation. State Prosecutor Andrev Vyshynski was symptomatic of the popular hysteria generated… “These mad dogs of capitalism, tried to tear limb from limb the best of the Soviet land… I am joining my angry indignant voice to the, rumbling voices of millions… I demand that dogs gone mad should be shot, every one of them … “ (Conquest 335)

Propaganda campaigns were aimed at dehumanising the enemies, and developing an atmosphere of hostility that stifled resistance. The supreme correctness of the regime was asserted and failings were attributed to the accused, who would be charged with conspiring with hostile powers (Germany, in particular) planning to destroy the fruits of the revolution … their fate was pragmatic; resistance was useless; the system is unchallengeable; the leadership is in fallible. Confession, wrote Koestler in Darkness at Noon, is “to gild the right to blacken the wrong … to make the opposition appear contemptible, to make the masses understand that opposition is a crime… Sympathy and pity for the opposition are danger to the country…The can be no martyrs or heroes – no potential focii for factionalism … they must die as degenerate traitors, and this must be impressed upon the uninformed, easily influenced masses … Hence the victim is often called upon to collaborate in his own moral and physical destruction, often willingly, as a final service to the party and to the revolution …his duty is “to gild the right, to blacken the wrong” … his wrong – he must pay!

To Soviet leaders, the purge is an instrument employed in a rational and predetermined fashion, cleansing the system of undesirable elements, and streamlining organisation, revitalising the system and eliminating alternative power centres. Such motives, provide rationalism enough – but Stalin perhaps sinned in his excess … If his fear of war and collapse had precipitated his actions, then disaster of 1941 revealed his folly. In advancing and preserving the revolution, at face value, the immediate consequence was of detriment. The liquidations had outstripped available replacements, whilst privation and hardship, damage and hatred amongst the influential sectors, severely hampered the development of Soviet society … Yet, the dynamic momentum of industrialisation had been maintained, and “new men” quickly adapted to their new responsibilities, whilst fear of an rest had led many to great endeavours in all fields of production … Yet, the economic and social needs of the Soviet state could not justify the bloodshed … When Stalin told the 18th Congress that “we shall have no further for resorting to the method of mass purges” (Deutsche Stalin 381), he was, perhaps primarily reviewing his own position, firmly established at the apex of a hierarchy of power of his making. Frederick Engels may have told Karl Marx that “terror consist mostly of useless cruelties, perpetuated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves” – and Stalin was certainly in need of reassurance in 1934: but on the eve of the great purge, Stalin had held a position of strength, his opposition defeated, his Politburo hand-picked. Yet, the very nature, personal dictatorships necessitated control at all levels of the system – supreme control, unlimited and in divided. His aim was total control, the vanguard of the revolution personified – and all other aims, all other motive were subordinate and indivisible from this. It is therefore rational to secure complete personal power? Khrushchev condemned Stalin as a mad man – but was not Stalin his teacher, and the teacher and mentor of the Soviet leadership after his death – and no one would obviously seriously admit that his creator (for this was just what Stalin was) was a madman …

The question invites to consideration whether the acquisition and the maintenance of power is rational, or whether, in Stalin’s case, it was a men’s to an end escapes explanation, whether power was his aim – and this he had achieved – or whether power was a necessary means of strengthening the Soviet state and economy, for despite failure and setback he did create a major industrial power. Totalitarian purges are unnecessarily carefully planned, and controlled from the centre. In Stalin’s case the purge was perhaps carried too far, and with detrimental consequences, by the sheer force own momentum, but the fact that Stalin had maintained control was demonstrated by the facility and efficiency which the purgers themselves, and in particular, Yezhov, of were also purged after 1938, Stalin’s targets within the party, the nationalities, the economy, the intelligentsia in the army, were categorised and identified. Potential enemies and obstacles to his total control were officially eliminated. From the Machiavellian standpoint, this was more rational than Hitler’s “Final Solution”, although in both cases, pretexts were created, whether sabotage or treason or “lebensraum”. But once again, subjectivity is strong when a word such as rational is employed. “Expedient” would perhaps be more applicable. Innocent victims were numberless as the circle widened, yet even then, the psychological and deterrent effect on the population was beneficial to the regime. The toll and ensuing atmosphere of insecurity in the wasteland called peace induced submission and facilitated control, necessitating only occasional and selective terror, such as employed during 1939-41 in the newly sovietised Baltic states… In its way, the Great Purge was in fact a “final solution”, ridding the regime of opposition, and the disunity it brought. To Stalin, unity was essential to progress, and perhaps, like Peter the Great, it was necessary to employ barbaric means to modernise a backward, and perhaps in western eyes, barbaric state, and to ride roughshod over all obstacles to achieve this end …

The Old Bolsheviks. Most perished


I Deutsche, Stalin
I Deutsche, The Prophet Outcast
M Fainsod, How Russia is Ruled
A Koastler, Darkness at Noon
H Finer, The Man in Horseback
R Conquest, The Great Terror
H Nicolaevsky, Power and the Soviet Elite
Z Brzezinski, The Permanent Purge

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