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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Orgy of Recrimination




In 1985, J. Arch Getty caused a flutter in the Sovietological dovecotes when he published "The Origin of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-38." He advanced the thesis that the main cause of the 1930s terror was not Stalin's urge to stamp out all dissent, but rather the "chaotic, irregular and confused" nature of the Soviet bureaucracy and the fact that it was "split by conflicts between factions, strata and key personalities." The book attracted heavy criticism from those who took the view that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian system in which the leader exercised total control, and for that reason it was raised high on the banners of the "revisionists," who saw the Soviet Union as a merely "authoritarian" society, making progress, despite errors and excesses, toward the building of socialism.


Nowadays, both sides of that argument look oversimplified. Many archive sources have been published, and we have a much clearer insight into the practical workings of Stalinism in many of its aspects. Crucially, we can begin to observe and assess the reactions of the various strata of society to the state's experiments. The image of the dictator giving orders and everyone obeying no longer looks tenable, but neither does the notion of the Communist Party building socialism. With The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-39, compiled jointly with Communist Party archivist Oleg Naumov, an altogether more convincing picture begins to take shape.


Driven by its ideological imperatives, in the late 1920s the Party had launched a headlong program of social change that had plunged the country into chaos. The countryside was subjected to an unprecedentedly brutal social revolution, in which the peasants were dispossessed of their land and herded into collective farms, while the better-off among them - or those resistant to Communist policy - were deported in cattle trucks to remote and inhospitable places. In one sense, the Party was totally in charge; there was no political opposition, and its directives were being implemented everywhere. In another sense, though, its officials felt as if they were a small elite occupying force, holding on precariously amid an ungovernable and seething population.


This was the atmosphere when Hitler came to power in Germany with a political program dedicated to smashing communism, conquering Russian Lebensraum and enslaving the Soviet peoples. Communist officials, no novices to war, reacted by closing ranks and projecting an image of complete unity and absolute resolution. Like every collective, in an extreme form, they created their own mode of discourse in which rhetoric became virtual reality and then the reality itself, as evidenced by the steadily more monolithic ideological texts that they generated. The outstanding feature of "The Road to Terror" is the generous selection of documents it presents, taken from the archives and from recent publications. They enable us to penetrate further into the mentality of the Soviet leaders than has been possible before.


One of the surprises that emerges is that, even in private correspondence, they used the same language and articulated the same thoughts as in their public utterances. Whether it is right to deduce from this that they actually believed most of what they said is less clear. All we can say for certain is that they were frightened, but also resolute and battle-hardened men, who felt it was absolutely imperative to hang together and if necessary sacrifice themselves for the sake of solidarity. Members of the former "left" and "right" opposition were expected to renounce their views, criticize their own past behavior and pledge complete loyalty to the present leadership.


But - and here is the crucial problem - there was an inbuilt impediment to military-style unanimity: the Party's inescapable tendency to generate intermediate-level patron-client networks. The way the Communists had imposed their monopoly power on the country meant that at all levels regional leaders had absolute authority within their own fiefs. The nomenklatura system of appointment to responsible posts also meant that each regional boss had an extensive network of clients, ready to rally round and stand up for him, because if he suffered, they suffered too. In 1933 and 1935, the Party tried to weed out the corrupt, the lazy, the greedy and the mendacious from its ranks through an "exchange of Party cards" or "purge" (chistka). But the leaders, Stalin in particular, became convinced that the chistki had not been successful, because regional bosses were exploiting their local power to get rid of their opponents and protect their own clients, regardless of the interests of the Party at large. As a result, former oppositionists were still ensconced in their positions.


The murder of popular political "moderate" Sergei Kirov, head of the Leningrad Party organization, in December 1934 launched a new round of rhetorical escalation and completely changed the complexion of "oppositional activity," which now began to be seen as aiding and abetting terrorism, then as preparation for terrorism. For the first time, the NKVD was brought into the process of investigating the past and present activities of Party members, so as to break down the patronage networks and "family circles" of officials covering up for one another. Stalin, who had done more than anyone else to create the system that made the terror possible, bore ultimate responsibility for what ensued.


In 1937, something like a "collective panic" set in among the leaders and the whole system temporarily got out of control. More or less anyone with a grievance could eliminate an opponent by the simple act of denouncing him to the NKVD. No evidence was required, since failure to act on a denunciation could easily be construed as "harboring enemies." Anyone who coveted another's job, apartment or wife could get rid of the person standing in his way. Patronage networks fought each other, using the weapons of the secret police. These murderous provincial intrigues are comparatively less well covered in this book than the high-level drama, presumably because the secret police archives,where most of the evidence lies, still remain closed.


There is relatively little material here, too, on the re-establishment of "order," as that was understood within the Party. This is one of the most delicate and intriguing parts of the story of the terror. By removing and disgracing so many regional Party secretaries, Stalin ran the risk of enfeebling the Party as an organization, and discrediting it in the eyes of the population. He now had to limit the damage and restore some kind of juridical credibility and administrative coherence to Communist rule; he aspired, after all, to build a new society, not to spawn a criminal conspiracy.


The most tragic figure in the whole orgy of recrimination was Nikolai Bukharin. A sophisticated intellectual and leading member of the Party since long before the civil war had hardened its arteries, he now found himself arraigned by undistinguished upstarts, facing allegations so fantastic that he must have regarded them as beneath contempt. His final letter to Stalin, written from prison shortly before his trial, must be one of the most agonizing documents in the history of political correspondence. He actually asks Stalin's forgiveness, conceding that "it would be petty for me to place the question of my own person on a par with the universal-historical tasks resting ... on your shoulders." But he still declined to confuse reality with rhetoric, sticking to a criterion of truth long ago abandoned by all his comrades and subordinates. "My heart boils over when I think that ... in your heart of hearts you yourself think that I am really guilty of all these horrors. ... My head is giddy with confusion, and I feel like yelling at the top of my voice. ... I ask you for forgiveness, though I have already been punished to such an extent that everything has grown dim around me, and darkness has descended upon me." Three months later, he confessed to "all these horrors," with only minor reservations, was sentenced to death and executed.


The title of "The Road to Terror" indicates honestly the book's limitations. It deals with the origins of the terror, not with the details of its apogee, nor its later decline. We learn little about victims outside the Party and almost nothing about conditions inside prisons and labor camps. Nevertheless, in its own terms, it is a most illuminating work that should lift the level both of information and of discussion on the unprecedented and macabre events it describes.


"The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-39," edited by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, translations by Benjamin Sher. 635 pages. Yale. $35.


Geoffrey A. Hosking is the author of "Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917." His latest work, to be published by Harvard, is provisionally titled "From Rus to Russian Federation: A New History of Russia."


This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.