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

The Russian Tradition – Russia, Ukraine and Tibor Szamuely

In a televised address on September 30th last year, Vladimir Putin said: Russia is a great, 1000-year-old power, a whole civilisation, and it is not going to live by such makeshift, false rules … What, if not racism, is the West’s dogmatic conviction that its civilisation and neoliberal culture is an indisputable model for the entire world to follow?”

Now, one might not agree with Putin, and today, he is certainly persona non grata in Western forums, but one thing is for sure: Russian history mines its own unique seamWe republish below an article by American author, journalist and editor Christopher Caldwell. He advocates that we adopt a cautious and open minded perspective on historical memory, contemporary perceptions, lexicological differences, the dangers of making assumptions, and coming to conclusions and adopting opposing positions on the basis of incomplete and inadequate knowledge of other countries than our own with their distinct but not hermetically sealed histories and cultures.

Caldwell’s central focus is the colourful life and legacy of exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely.

Like many refugees from Communism, Szamuely 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.

He taught at the University of Reading in England and befriended Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and Anthony Powell, among other literary anti-Communists. His book, unfinished when he died of cancer in 1972, was edited into its final form by Conquest and published two years later.

Szamuely taught me Russian and Soviet history and politics at Reading University. Back then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist sympathizer 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).

He 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, 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.

From medieval times, autocracy has coexisted with a revolutionary traditionalism – a contradiction in terms as only Russia could sustain, a unique Russian capacity to seek revolution and discover regression, to invoke liberty merely to reinforce repression. if he were with us today, Szamuely would explain that the Soviet Union under Lenin and his successors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin bears so disconcertingly close a resemblance to Russia under the most savage of its tsars. His people, it turned out, had wanted freedom but wanted to retain the idea of their old Russian empire more. They ended up with the would-be czar, Vladimir Putin. And so the world turns.

© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved

Posts in In That Howling Infinite, about Eastern Europe: The Roots and fruits of Putin’s irridentism; Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism; Ghosts of the Gulag, The Death of Stalin is no laughing matter, Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life, 2nd September 1939 – the rape of Poland (1), 17th September 1939 – the rape of Poland (2)  

You – Bolshevik recruiting poster 1918

You Are Needed In Kiev 2014

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin divide Europe at the Yalta Conference in Crimea, 1945

Why is Russia obsessed with slavery?

Tibor Szamuely: ‘The Russian Tradition’

Christopher Caldwell, UnHerd, 23rd august 2022

There’s nothing wrong with being cautious. Since 1709, when Peter the Great routed the troops of Swedish King Charles XII at Poltava, smack-dab in the middle of modern-day Ukraine, Europeans have understood Russia as a military threat. Never has this required us to close our minds to the glories of Russian culture or to forget that Russia’s strategic posture always has an explanation — and sometimes even a rationale.

But what was intellectually possible for Westerners in the winter of 1943, when Hitler’s troops and Stalin’s were killing each other by the millions on the Eastern front, is apparently beyond our powers today. In the wake of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, many Europeans will not be content with anything less than wiping Russia and its culture off the map. In April, novelist Oksana Zabuzhko, writing in the TLS  that it was the morality of Tolstoy and other Russian writers that “wove the camouflage net for Russia’s tanks”, urged us to “take a long, hard look at our bookshelves”. In early August, the Russian-language novelist Wolodymyr Rafejenko declared he now felt a “revulsion” when he conversed in Russian, and vowed never again to write in it.

These are Ukrainians — one can understand their anguish and rage. But Western Europeans, who are not even at war, have been even more zealous. A Milan university cancelled its Dostoevsky class last spring. The EU and UK have blacked out the Russian internet channel RT. Russians have been declared unwelcome at venues from Wimbledon to Estonia.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, when Russia was capable of far worse, the Russian-born historian Tibor Szamuely wrote an extraordinary book. The Russian Tradition explained how Russian political behaviour (about which Szamuely was wary to the point of hostility) arose from Russian history and culture (about which Szamuely was respectful to the point of reverence). This is the right balance. It has not been struck so well since. Too bad the book is out of print, because it is strangely relevant to a lot of this decade’s preoccupations: slavery, political correctness and Ukraine, for starters.

Like many refugees from Communism, Szamuely 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, which is really saying something. Szamuely’s family wound up in Moscow, where his father was executed in Stalin’s purges. In 1964, Szamuely, then nearing 40, was teaching in the “ideological institute” of Ghana’s Marxist president Kwame Nkrumah when he defected to England. He taught at Reading and befriended Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and Anthony Powell, among other literary anti-Communists. His book, unfinished when he died of cancer in 1972, was edited into its final form by Conquest and published two years later.

The simple question that animates it is how Russia came to be the centre of Marxist revolution and late 20th-century totalitarianism. Did aggressive Communism subvert blameless Russia? Or was aggressive Russia using blameless Communism as a pretext?

The beginnings of an answer lie in geography. Lacking frontiers, Szamuely writes, Russia has faced “a history of armed struggle against invaders that, for length, intensity and ferocity has no parallel in the annals of any other nation”. That is a large claim. Russia is always vulnerable someplace — at least for as long as it takes to gather and concentrate its killing power. And it is always fighting for its life, which tends — at least in domestic Russian debates — to empty of meaning our concepts of just and unjust war. “Despotic government,” Szamuely writes, “was the instrument she shaped to cope with the everlasting emergency.”

For Szamuely, the central problem in Russian history is slavery. Yes, slavery. Using the word “serf” to describe its put-upon agricultural workers leads us to think of the society as merely backward, quaint, feudal. But this is wrong. Russian slavery was a creation of modernity. Once-free agricultural labourers somehow got buried under debt about 500 years ago, and in the mid-16th century the government bound them to the land, the better to tax them. The owner of the serfs was the state, not the notables on whose land they toiled. There was an equality in this, for the notables were beholden to the state, too. The upper crust owed the tsar military service. Until recent centuries, Russia was one of the rare countries where nobles could be publicly flogged.

But this changed, as Peter the Great tried to modernise the system — Russia got rum, minuets, a navy and of course St. Petersburg. For aristocrats it meant Western connections and new opportunities, for serfs an overload of labour and hard discipline. That was an end to society’s old “mystic unity” and the mumbo-jumbo that had surrounded it. Serfs could now be sold or lost at cards. Russia now had not one people, Szamuely writes, but two: “the Westernised upper classes, and the masses, whose way of life became ever less distinguishable from that of the population of the great Asian empires.” As middle classes in America and France were forging republics, aristocrats were living a Golden Age under Catherine the Great (1762-95). “The most striking feature of 18th-century Russian social history,” Szamuely writes, “was the great expansion and intensification of peasant bondage at the precise moment when, with the emancipation of the nobility, it finally lost any vestige of moral, political or legal justification.”

Szamuely’s preoccupation with slavery anticipates a lot of the “woke” discussion of our own time. If slavery warped the development of the United States (which was one-eighth slave at the start of its civil war in 1861), Szamuely asks, then why has there been so much less soul searching about Russia (which was seven-eighths slave at the time of emancipation that same year)? He may misunderstand the parallel: The difference lies not in the size of the enslavement but in the identity of the rememberer. Progressive white America is wracked by guilt over what it did to “them”. Russia feels no such guilt because the misdeeds were done to “us”. The moral tenor of its soul-searching is more like that of Sicily, or Ireland, or black America.

But it is not as if Russia had no reckoning with serfdom. As access to higher education and newsprint spread, “gradually the idea began to sink in that every Russian of education and leisure was an accomplice in a crime unparalleled in its enormity”. This was the cause around which a revolutionary and often violent intelligentsia arose in the late 19th century, a class unique in Europe until the rise of political correctness. “The Russian intelligentsia was an instrument of destruction,” Szamuely writes. “Unlike the European bourgeoisie it had no constructive purposes, neither was it equipped to fulfil any such tasks.”

There was something Messianic in the intelligentsia’s role. Szamuely recognises that it used others’ suffering as a rationale for autocracy. But he never entertains the idea that the intelligentsia was an outright racket. He even praises the “intellectual honesty” of the critic Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who saw that equality would be won only at a very steep price in liberty: “What a contrast he provides to certain Western ‘progressive’ intellectuals, who worship at the altar of egalitarianism yet refuse to recognise that their dream… can only be realised by an arbitrary dictatorial government. Chernyshevsky and his followers, down to the present day, have never harboured any illusions about this.”

He is nonetheless struck that the great 19th-century Russian novelists (“men of sensibility, compassion and humanity”) were almost unanimously contemptuous of the intelligentsia (“with their joyless utilitarianism, their dogmatic intolerance, their fanatical devotion to a messianic vision”).

The modern enslavement of Russia’s peasantry was not, strictly speaking, a capitalist project. But it felt like one. More than the exploitation undergone in advanced industrial countries, it resonated with the exploitation Marx described. In the end, the Russian revolution was a matter of adjusting Marx’s teaching to powerful Russian folk-institutions, above all the autonomous peasant cooperative known as the obshchina. Marx himself wound up backing peasant “populists” against his own more orthodox followers. It actually turned out to be a piece of good fortune for the revolutionaries that the Marxist spark caught in what Szamuely considers the most conservative country on earth.

That is where Szamuely’s book ends. It is a shame he was never able to write at book-length about the 20th century, of which he was a passionate chronicler. He considered Lenin “the supreme political genius of the century”, and was impressed with the way he and his followers allied Russia’s interests abroad to Asian and African nationalism, not Communism. It was, in a way, the same judgment Marx had made in backing the populists.

Szamuely was fascinated with Ukraine. “Perhaps no other historical experience,” he writes in The Russian Tradition, “has left as lasting an impression on the folk-memory of the Russian people as the horrors of [the] interminable struggle against the slavers and killers of the south. For centuries the steppe remained a source of constant menace, a land of terror, death, destruction and degradation. It was called the Wild Plain, or, as we would say today, the Frontier; the greater part of this region is now called the Ukraine…”

He was highly sympathetic to Ukraine’s modern struggles. In 1968 he wrote a fascinating and well-informed account of the nationalist protests and ensuing prosecutions that had then been going on in Ukraine for much of the decade. While granting that the Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis as liberators in June 1941, he wasn’t surprised by this nationalist sentiment, given the decade of famine and purges they had endured. He noted, too, the “methodological dilution” of Ukraine’s ethnic composition by Russia, insisting that Russian dominance of the country’s high culture was a recent and unnatural phenomenon. Only 41% of books published in Ukraine were in Ukrainian, it is true, but in 1930, before Russification and famine, that figure had been 84%.

Szamuely never let justified fear of Russia drive out justified fascination. Vastly well read in the country’s history, he still found it ambiguous, describing the policies of Ivan the Terrible at one point as “a strange mixture of farsightedness and paranoia — a combination frequently reproduced by his successors through the centuries”. Few historians have been better equipped than Szamuely to understand the paradoxes of Russia, where the novelists are sublime and the politics are unendurable, and often for the same reasons.

Tsar Nicholas the Last

The last of the Romanovs – Tsar Nicholas and his family, murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918



A House Divided – the nature of civil war

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Abraham Lincoln

The North would not let us govern ourselves, so the war came. Jefferson Davis

Perhaps is the personal dimension that makes civil wars so attractive to re-enactors in the U.K the US – the gloomy and yet paradoxically romantic concept of “a family divided” and “brother against brother”. When hundreds of ordinary folk meticulously don period garb and take up replica weaponry to replay Gettysberg and Shiloh, Worcester and Naseby, Towton and Bosworth Field, it is much, much more than a fun day out in the countryside. It might be good-natured play-acting, or participating in “living history”, but might it not also speak to some inner-need to connect with long-dead forbears who endured “the longest day” on those very fields in mortal combat with their own kith and kin.

This is just one of the many thoughts that entered my head on reading an article in the New York Review of Books in 2017 reviewing Civil Wars: A History in Ideas byDavid Armitage, and another in the Times in January 2022 reviewing a new book by american political scientist Barbara F Walter called How Civil Wars Start – And How To Stop Them. The review are reprinted in full below, but first, some of  of my own observations.

Notwithstanding the fact that civil wars are so devastating in terms of lives lost, the destruction wrought on the urban and rural environment, and the shattering of social and political institutions, fear of civil war and its consequences apparently does not deter belligerent parties from marching down that road. Often, one or another actually forces the issue, aware of the potentially disastrous consequences, but rationalizing it along the lines of national, ideological or sectional interest, and indeed, some concept of community, social, religious or ethnic survival, a perception defined nowadays as an existential threat, as happened historically, one could argue, in England, in the US, Russia, Spain, and Bosnia. Sometimes, it is an accumulation of seemingly minor events, perceived slights, discrimination, actual atrocities, miscalculations, or overreactions that ignite pyres that have been building for ages – generations even. I think of Lebanon here, and Syria.

So often, casus belli that are in hindsight viewed by historians as pivotal, are not seen as critical to the participants, and indeed, many would protest that they had “no idea that things would come to this”, and that even then, there may have been a sense that wiser heads would prevail, that it would blow over or that it would be all over soon. The idea of what people are fighting about often looks different from the perspective of those actually engaged in it to his outside observers, both contemporarily and retrospectively. Indeed, sometimes, reasons are tacked on afterwards, and indeed, actually mutate progressively as matters escalate.

Lebanon and Syria, again, and perhaps even the southern slave states that sought to secede from the Union in 1861, and the English parliamentarians who challenged the royal prerogative. But one can be damn sure Generalissimo Franco knew what he was doing when he flew the Spanish Foreign Legion with its Moorish mercenaries to the mainland in 1936, as did Leon Trotsky when he unleashed the Red Army against the Whites in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

A civil war can spawn from a wider, ongoing conflagration when factions or parties dispute the nature and terms of the post-bellum status quo and fracture along political and ideological lines. Many civil wars have arisen from the ashes of a prior war, when there are what are perceived as existential issues unresolved and the availability of weapons and materiel and experienced and discontented men to use them. The Russian Civil War which followed on from The First World War and the Chinese and Vietnamese civil wars which followed the second spring to mind, and historically, the Paris Commune which raised its red banner after the Franco-Prussian War whilst the victorious Prussian Army was still camped outside the city. Ireland’s civil war bled out of its independence struggle against British rule after  the Anglo-Irish Treaty left Ireland divided and dependent with the six Ulster counties excised as Northern Ireland.

The experience, cost, and legacy of civil war is often a powerful political and social disincentive to venture there again. It is this fear that probably prevents Lebanon from falling back into the abyss notwithstanding the many centrifugal forces at play in this perennially divided country. It most probably had a powerful influence on the political development of post-bellum England in the mid seventeenth century. The next and ultimate showdown between crown and parliament, and indeed “regime change” as we now call it, was a relatively peaceful one, and indeed, was thus named the “Glorious Revolution”. And yet, the deposition of James III and the ascension of Queen Mary and her husband,the Dutch Prince William of Orange, was preceded by what can be described as the last invasion of England by a foreign force. The spectre of the Commune haunts still the French soul. The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for and as a solemn reminder of the bloodletting In the streets of Paris in much the same way as Byzantine emperor Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after his soldiers had slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.

There is a view that civil war can be retrospectively be seen as a crucible of nation, a fiery furnace through which the righteous must walk – an ex post facto rationalization  of the Nietzschean paradox of “that which does not kill us makes us strong”. Abraham Lincoln verbalized this in his Gettysberg Address in 1863 on a battlefield where the fallen had been only recently interred. Franco made a similar play as he laid claim to the wreckage that was Spain in the wake of three years of carnage, but then petrified his riven, country in autocratic stone until his death many decades later. The Russian Civil War was not accorded such a nation-building ethos as it was viewed by the Bolshevik victors as the crushing of a counter-revolution against a new world already being born.

 And finally, to conclude this conversation, let us briefly contemplate the article’s discussion of how and when protagonists actually define their internecine conflict as civil war. The American Civil War is a case in point, referred to at times as “The Rebellion” and “The War Between the States”. The American War of Independence, also know as The American Revolution was indeed a civil war as defined by the author, fought along political lines by people who had race, faith, culture and identity in common. The English Wars of the Roses, which staggered on for thirty years in in the  fifteenth century is largely viewed as a dynastic struggle between noble houses rather than civil wars per se. And yet, nearly thirty thousand Englishmen died on the snow-swept fields of Towton, near York, the largest loss of English lives on a single day (a third more than perished on the first day of the Somme in June 1916).

 The Syrian tragedy, as the author notes, is regarded by the concerned, and hypocritically entangled outside world, a civil war by any definition. But it is at present a harrowing work in progress, viewed by the Assad regime and its supporters as a rebellion and as an assault by extremist outsiders, and by the rebel forces, as a revolution, albeit a comprised and even hijacked one. Jihadis for their many sins, see it as a messianic prelude to Armageddon.

Once thing for sure, civil war, the Hobbesian “war if all against all” (Hobbes was thinking England’s) is undoubtably the saddest, bloodiest and most visceral of all conflicts. I leave the last words to WB Yeats:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   Are full of passionate intensity.

© Paul Hemphill 2017, 2022.  All rights reserved

This is a revised version of the original post of June 1st 2017

See also: Rebel Yell. Pity the Nation, Sic Semper Tyrannis, and A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

Now, read on…

What Gets Called ‘Civil War’?

Linda Colley, New York Review of Books, June 8, 2017
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas,  by David Armitage (Knopf) 

The end of the world is on view at Philadelphia. Hurtling across a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Together, Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War ravage the earth amid blood-red banners and what looks like cannon smoke. Warriors fall before their swords and spears, and women, children, and babies are slaughtered.

Benjamin West completed this version of Death on the Pale Horse in 1817, two years after the Battle of Waterloo. It is tempting therefore to see in the painting not only the influence of the book of Revelation, and perhaps the elderly West’s intimations of his own imminent mortality, but also a retrospective verdict on the terrible catalogue of death and destruction that had been the Napoleonic Wars. Yet West’s original inspiration seems to have been another conflict. He first sketched out his ideas for Death on the Pale Horse in 1783, the concluding year of the American War of Independence. Bitterly divisive on both sides of the Atlantic, the war imposed strains on West himself. Pennsylvanian born and bred, he was a supporter of American resistance.

But in 1763 he migrated to Britain, and he spent the war working as a historical painter at the court of George III. So every day he served the monarch against whom some of his countrymen were fighting, knowing all the while that this same king was launching his own legions against Americans who had once been accounted British subjects. It was this tension that helped to inform West’s apocalyptic vision. More viscerally than most, he understood that the American Revolution was also in multiple respects civil warfare.

Tracing some of the histories of the idea of civil war, and showing how definitions and understandings of this mode of conflict have always been volatile and contested, is the purpose of this latest book by David Armitage. Like all his work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is concise, wonderfully lucid, highly intelligent, and based on a confident command of a wide range of printed sources. It is also ambitious, and divided into three parts in the manner of Julius Caesar’s Gaul. This seems appropriate since Armitage roots his account in ancient Rome. It was here, he claims, between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, that lethal conflicts within a recognized society, a common enough experience in earlier eras and in other regions, began to be viewed and categorized as a distinctive form of war: bellum civile.

How this came to pass is the subject of Part One of the book. In Part Two, Armitage switches to the early modern era, which is here defined mainly as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and shows how elite male familiarity with classical texts encouraged Europeans and some of their overseas colonizers to interpret the civil commotions of their own times very much in Roman terms. Part Three takes the story from the nineteenth century to the dangerous and precarious present. Whereas the incidence of overt conflicts between major states has receded during the post-1945 “long peace,” civil wars have proliferated, especially in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The “shadow of civil war,” Armitage contends, has now become “the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.”

But why ancient Rome to begin with? Armitage attributes its centrality to evolving Western conceptions of civil warfare partly to this culture’s marked success in establishing and stabilizing the idea of a distinct citizenry and political community. “Civil War could, by definition, exist only after a commonwealth (civitas) had been created.” More significant, as far as perceptions in later centuries were concerned, were the writings and careers of two brilliant Romans, each of whom in different ways was caught up in the rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey and destroyed by the violence of their warring successors.

Cicero, an opponent of Caesar, is the earliest-known writer to have used the term “civil war.” He also employed it in a speech that he delivered at the Forum in 66 BCE, close to the spot where his severed head and hands would be put on display twenty-three years later, as punishment for his activism and his words. In the following century, the youthful poet Lucan completed a ten-book masterwork, De Bello Civile, on how, under Caesar, “Rome’s high race plunged in her [own] vitals her victorious sword.” Lucan dedicated his saga to Nero, the emperor who later forced him to commit suicide.

Their writings and the gory fate of these men helped to foster and perpetuate the idea that civil warfare was a particularly nasty variant of organized human violence. It is in part this reputation, Armitage contends, that has made the subject of civil war a more impoverished field of inquiry than inter-state conflict. Given that the English, American, and Spanish civil wars have all long been historiographical cottage industries, I am not sure this is wholly correct. But it is the case, and he documents this powerfully throughout, that the ideas and negative language that have accumulated around the notion of “civil war” have resulted in the term’s use often being politically driven in some way. As with treason, what gets called civil war, and becomes remembered as such, frequently depends on which side eventually prospers.

 At times, the term has been deliberately withheld for fear of seeming to concede to a set of antagonists even a glimmer of a claim to sovereignty in a disputed political space. Thus the royalist Earl of Clarendon chose in his history to describe the English Parliament’s campaigns against Charles I after 1642 not as a civil war, but as a rebellion. In much the same way, an early US official history of the Union and Confederate navies described their encounters between 1861 and 1865 as a “War of the Rebellion,” thereby representing the actions of the Southern states as a mere uprising against an indisputably legitimate government.

For Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863, by contrast, it was essential to insist that America was undergoing a civil war. He wanted to trumpet in public more than simply the rightness of a particular governing regime. Since its survival was still in doubt, he needed as well to rally support for the Union itself, that “new nation, conceived in liberty” as he styled it: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Of course, had the American Civil War ended differently, it might well not have been called a civil war at all. Later generations might have remembered it as a “War of Southern Independence,” or even as a “Southern Revolution.” As Armitage points out, when major insurrections break out within a polity, they almost invariably start out as civil wars in the sense that the local population is initially divided in its loyalties and responses. But if the insurrectionists eventually triumph, then—as in Russia after 1917, or China after 1949—it has increasingly been the case that the struggle is redescribed by the victors as a revolution. Partly because of the continuing influence of the ancient Roman cultural inheritance, “revolution” possesses far more positive connotations than the more grubby and ambivalent “civil war.”

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Rebel–held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo,  recaptured by government forces, March 2017

As a searching, nuanced, and succinct analysis of these recurring ideas, linguistic fluctuations, and shifting responses over a dramatic span of time, and across national and continental boundaries, Armitage’s account is a valuable and suggestive one. But as he admits, it is hardly comprehensive. This is not simply because of the scale of his subject matter, but also because of his chosen methodologies.

In dealing with civil wars he practices what, in an earlier work, he styled “serial contextualism.” This means that he offers detailed snapshots of a succession of discrete moments and of particular intellectual, political, and legal figures spread out over a very long stretch of time. The strategy is sometimes illuminating, but one has to mind the gaps. Most obviously, there are difficulties involved in leaping, as he does, almost immediately from ancient Rome to the seventeenth century. By the latter period, for instance, England’s “Wars of the Roses” were sometimes viewed and described in retrospect as civil wars. But at the time, in the 1400s, commentators do not seem to have resorted to medieval Latin phrases such as bella civilia or guerre civiles to describe these particular domestic and dynastic conflicts. Although classical texts such as Lucan’s De Bello Civile were known to medieval scholars, the impress of this ancient Roman inheritance on contemporary interpretations of fifteenth-century England’s internal wars does not appear to have been a vital one.

Why might this have been? The question could be rephrased. Why should it be imagined that language and concepts drawn from the ancient Roman past supplied the only or even the dominant ideas and methods for subsequent Westerners wanting to make sense of the experience of large-scale civil contention and slaughter? After all, in the medieval era and long after, most men and even more women possessed no direct knowledge of the Roman classics. Multitudes in Europe and everywhere else could not even read, never mind afford books. Yet in the past as now, it was precisely these sorts of “ordinary” people who were often the most vulnerable to the chaos and bloodshed of civil warfare, and so had little choice but to work out some ideas about it. What were these ideas?

A practitioner of intellectual history from the so-called Cambridge School of that discipline, Armitage barely touches on such questions. More international in range than many of his fellow scholars, he shares some of this school’s leading characteristics: its fascination with the long-term impact of Aristotelian and Roman republicanism, its overwhelming focus on language and on erudite elite males, and its comparative neglect of religious texts. It is partly this deliberately selective approach to the past and its sources that allows Armitage to venture on such an enormous topic over such a longue durée. But again, there is a mismatch between this methodology and the full extent and vital diversity of his subject.

To be sure, many of the impressive individuals who feature in his book were much more than desk-bound intellectuals or sheltered and austere political players. One of the most striking segments in Civil Wars is Armitage’s treatment of the multiple roles of the Prussian-born American lawyer Francis Lieber, who provided Lincoln with a legal code for the conduct of the Civil War. Lieber had fought at Waterloo and was left for dead on the battlefield. During the 1860s, he also had to bear the death of one of his sons who fought for the South, even as two others were fighting for the North. As he remarked: “Civil War has thus knocked loudly at our own door.” The fact remains, however, that most men caught up in civil wars throughout history have not been educated, prosperous, and high-achieving souls of this sort. Moreover—and this has a wide significance—civil wars have often been viewed as having a particular impact on women.

In harsh reality, even conventional warfare has usually damaged non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. Nonetheless, the idea long persisted that war was quintessentially a separate, masculine province. But civil wars were seen as taking place within, and cutting across, discrete societies. Consequently, by their very nature, they seemed likely to violate this separation of spheres, with women along with children and the old and frail all patently involved. This was a prime reason why civil warfare was so often characterized in different cultures not just as evil and catastrophic, but as unnatural. In turn, this helps to explain why people experiencing such conflicts have often resorted, far more avidly than to any other source of ideas, to religious language and texts for explanations as well as comfort.

The major holy books all contain allusions to civil warfare and/or lines that can be read as addressing its horrors. “I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians,” declares the King James version of the book of Isaiah: “and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour.” It was often the Apocalypse, though, as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s great canvas, that Christians mined for terrifying and allusive imagery. Such biblical borrowings sometimes crowded out references to the Roman classics as a means of evoking and explaining civil war altogether, as seems often to have happened in medieval England.

At other times, religious and classical imagery and arguments were combined. Thus, as Armitage describes, the English poet Samuel Daniel drew on Lucan’s verses on the Roman civil war when composing his own First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke in 1595, a work plundered for its plots and characters by William Shakespeare. But it is also easy to see in portions of Daniel’s text the influence of the Apocalypse:

Red fiery dragons in the aire doe flie,

And burning Meteors, poynted-streaming lights,

Bright starres in midst of day appeare in skie,

Prodigious monsters, gastly fearefull sights:

Straunge Ghosts, and apparitions terrifie,

…Nature all out of course to checke our course,

Neglects her worke to worke in us remorse.

It was never just Christians who turned to holy books and religious pieties so as to cast some light on the darkness of civil war. Unlike allusions to the Roman past, such responses seem to have been universal. Indeed, I suspect that the only way that a genuinely trans-continental and socially deep history of civil warfare could conceivably be written would be through an examination of how civil wars have been treated by the world’s various religions, and how such texts and interpretations have been used and understood over time. In particular, the idea that Samuel Daniel hints at in the passage quoted above—that civil war was a punishment for a people’s more than usually egregious sins—has proved strikingly ecumenical as well as persistent.

Thus for Sunni Muslims, the idea of civil war as fitna has been central to understandings of the past. But fitna in this theology connotes more than civil warfare. The term can evoke sexual temptation, moral depravity—once again, sin. The First Fitna, for instance, the war of succession between 656 and 661, is traditionally viewed by Sunnis as marking the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the true followers of Muhammad.

As Tobie Meyer-Fong has shown, the civil wars that killed over twenty million Chinese in the 1850s and 1860s, the so-called Taiping Rebellion, were also often interpreted as divine retribution for immoral, decadent, or irreligious behavior.* Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist commentators on all sides rationalized the carnage and disorder in these terms. Poor, illiterate Chinese caught up in this crisis seem also to have regularly turned to religion to make sense of it, and not simply out of faith, or as a means to explain apparently arbitrary horrors. By viewing civil war as punishment for Chinese society’s sins in general, they could also secure for themselves a strategy and a possible way out, even if only in spiritual terms. They could make extra and conscious efforts to follow a moral pathway, and hope thereby to evade heaven’s condemnation.

Analogous responses and patterns of belief continue today, and understandably so. As the ongoing civil warfare in Syria illustrates all too terribly, vulnerable people caught up in such ordeals can easily be left feeling that no other aid is available to them except a deity, and that the only alternative is despair. David Armitage concludes his book with a discussion of how the “long-term decline of wars between states” (a decline that should not be relied on) has been “accompanied by the rise of wars within them.” As in his previous book, The History Manifesto (2014), co-written with Jo Guldi, he also insists that historians have a duty—and a particular capacity—to address such large and recurrent features of human experience:

Where a philosopher, a lawyer, or even a political scientist might find only confusion in disputes over the term “civil war,” the historian scents opportunity. All definitions of civil war are necessarily contextual and conflictual. The historian’s task is not to come up with a better one, on which all sides could agree, but to ask where such competing conceptions came from, what they have meant, and how they arose from the experience of those who lived through what was called by that name or who have attempted to understand it in the past.

Certainly, a close reading of Civil Wars provides a deeper understanding of some of the semantic strategies that are still being deployed in regard to this mode of warfare. Thus President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters frequently represent Syria’s current troubles as the result of rebellion, revolt, or treason; while for some of his Russian allies, resistance in that country is to be categorized as terrorism.

But historians can illumine the rash of civil warfare that has characterized recent decades more deeply than this. Whereas Armitage focuses here on the making and unmaking of states, it is the rise and fall of empires that have often been the fundamental precipitants of twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century civil wars. At one level, the decline and demise of some old, mainly land-based empires—Austrian, Ottoman, and Soviet—have contributed to a succession of troubles in Eastern Europe. At another, the old maritime empires that invaded so much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East frequently imposed new boundaries and yoked together different peoples in those regions in ways that were never likely to endure, and stoked up troubles for the future. In these and other respects, Armitage is right to insist that history can equip men and women with a better understanding of the past and of the troubled present. It always has done this. But only when its practitioners have been willing to adopt broad and diverse and not just long perspectives.

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton. Her latest book is Acts of Union and Disunion: What Has Held the UK Together—and What Is Dividing It? 
. (June 2017)

Is America’s second civil war brewing? All the signs are all there

The Balkans conflict gives an ominous glimpse of potential future strife in the US. A democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory

David Aaaronovitch, The Times,  January 21, 2022

It turns out that there is a discipline that you might call “civilwarology” – the study of the factors that lead to civil war. It exists in think tanks and universities, and its experts are consulted by state agencies anxious to better understand the world in which they operate.

Barbara F. Walter became a civilwarologist nearly a quarter of a century ago and her entry is evidently well thumbed in the Rolodexes of the CIA and the US State Department.

In other words, she knows what she’s talking about – which makes this book rather scary.

The discipline is based on observation and measurement over time. Out of these have emerged a series of data sets and analytical tools relating to the progression towards or away from the conditions likely to lead to civil war. And it adds a word to the list of possible-ocracies.

Anocracy, disappointingly, is not government by assholes, but a troubling middle point between democracy and autocracy. An anocracy may exist during the transition from authoritarianism to full democracy, or the other way round, but it is less stable than either. Right now some states that lay claim to being democracies are in fact anocracies.

If anocracy is a key precondition for the outbreak of a civil war, “factionalisation”, Walter says, is another. Not to be confused with polarisation, this is “when citizens form groups based on ethnic, religious or geographic distinctions – and a country’s political parties become predatory, cutting out rivals and enacting policies that primarily benefit them and their constituents”. Winner takes all. Or loser loses all.

The postwar conflict that features most prominently in this book happened in the territories that had once been Yugoslavia. For 35 years the communist autocrat Marshal Tito had suppressed any latent ethnic rivalry between a series of closely related peoples. When he died in 1980 this settlement died with him.

As the component republics of the old state began to agitate for more autonomy, one group – the Serbs – saw themselves as losing out. This sense of loss on the part of a large group, Walter says, is a significant element in creating the conditions for war.

She reminds us that the election of Abraham Lincoln as US president in 1860 meant slaveholding Southern states no longer exercised a veto on federal policy; the other states could outvote them.

In Yugoslavia the new anocracy opened the way for what experts call “ethnic entrepreneurs” – a breed of politician that mobilises around ethnic grievances or anxieties. These included most notably Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and Radovan Karadzic for the Bosnian Serbs.

At a more local level ethnic politics became exploited by “violence entrepreneurs” – the men who formed and armed militias to take control and to kill their enemies. These militias do not need to be large. In the town of Visegrad one man with 15 gang and family members carried out a local genocide of Bosnian Muslims.

Rescue workers remove the body of victim following mortar attack on Sarajevo market in 1994.
Rescue workers remove the body of victim following mortar attack on Sarajevo market in 1994.

A common dimension in civil war development, Walter tells us, is a rural/urban divide, in which resentful “sons of the soil”, organising away from the supervision of the authorities, see themselves at cultural war with the more cosmopolitan town-dwellers. In Bosnia this was embodied in the bloody four-year siege of Sarajevo, with the Serb hicks from the hills mortaring and sniping the occupants of the city.

One of Walter’s reasons for reminding us of the horrors of the former Yugoslavia is to point out that to the population of these lands, civil war had never seemed likely until it happened and suddenly, one day, their good neighbours turned into their executioners.

And here we come to the nub of it. The title of the book is misleading. It isn’t really about civil wars generically, but about one conceivable conflict in particular: the Second American Civil War. Roughly at the halfway point, having established how fratricidal conflict occurs, Walter turns her attention fully to her own country. Naturally, she knows how absurd such a possibility will seem to many readers as they take the subway to their downtown offices or listen to the audiobook as they drive the children to school.

“No one wants to believe,” she writes, “that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war; the decay is often so incremental that people often fail to notice it or understand it, even as they’re experiencing it.”

Yet objectively the danger signs are there. So that “if you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America – the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela – you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”

My psychological disposition inclines me against claims such as these. In the Great Journalistic Division between the hysterics and the phlegmatists, I tend to side with the latter. But happenings in the US since 2016 – and especially the events of the past two years – have shaken my complacency.

There has been the loss of conventional politics from much of the national discourse, so that sharp political difference no longer concerns taxes or the environment, but (for one side at least) is almost entirely about ethnicity, identity, culture and loss. The Kyle Rittenhouse court case arose from armed men stalking the ungoverned streets shooting at each other in pursuit of political, not criminal objectives. Militias line statehouse steps openly carrying weapons of civil war lethality.

Erick and Jade Jordan guard the perimeter of Civic Center Park while activists protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 21, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Picture: AFP
Erick and Jade Jordan guard the perimeter of Civic Center Park while activists protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 21, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Picture: AFP

Then there was January 6, 2021, and the storming of the Capitol, in which political thugs sought to prevent the accession of a democratically elected president. Even more alarming than the mere fact of this act of what the CIA classified as “open insurgency” has been the way the Republican Party and its supporters have minimised this attempt at insurrection.

Walter shows how developments in the US match the conditions for other civil wars.

The sense of loss among many white-identifying voters (the US as a whole will follow where California and Texas have led by becoming minority white by 2045), the rural-urban divide, a failure of trust in politicians and other citizens, the factionalisation of politics, the rise of grievance-exploiting “ethnic entrepreneurs” (in this case most obviously Donald Trump), and all of this hugely exacerbated by the catalyst of that great creator of anxiety, social media.

Portland police officers chase demonstrators after a riot was declared during a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Picture: AFP
Portland police officers chase demonstrators after a riot was declared during a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Picture: AFP

The psychological fuel for civil war, Walter reminds us, is not hate, but fear. Between January and October 2020 a record 17 million firearms were sold in the US. In December 2020 one poll showed that 17 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.”

Walter admits that in light of all this she and her husband, children of European migrants to the US, considered leaving the US last year. A useful rule of thumb could be that when your experts on civil strife start moving abroad you may be in trouble.

Yet for all that, Walter is not fatalistic. If the forces of division have a playbook, then, she writes, “we have a playbook too”. She advocates better civics lessons in schools, prosecuting armed militias as terrorists, reform of what is a terribly inefficient and patchwork voting system, tech regulation and much greater attention to developing policies that benefit the majority of citizens. The threat can be averted. To which the watching Brit, otherwise powerless, can only whisper a heartfelt: “Amen.”

How Civil Wars Start – And How to Stop Them, by Barbara F. Walter (Viking)