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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Partial Picture Distorts the Criminal Past

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June 12 was the 70th anniversary of the execution of the members of the "Red Army military-fascist conspiracy" -- Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, army commanders Ieronim Uborevich, Avgust Kork, Yona Yakir and other Soviet military leaders. In many ways it is this people think about when they hear the phrase the "Great Terror."

This was not the first group to be tried together in this way, but it made the biggest noise. People had already been forced on a number of occasions to accept that legendary names had suddenly become those of enemies and had to be erased from memory immediately. No one, however, expected that the same fate could befall the canonized heroes who had defeated Anton Deniken and Pyotr Vrangel in the Civil War.

Their accusers planned to absolutely destroy their reputations. By transforming them from "ours" to "theirs," their names came to represent the enemy. "World fascism will learn that its trusted agents Yan Gamarnik and Tukhachevsky, Yakir and Uborevich and other traitors, the lackeys of capitalism, have been wiped from the face of the Earth, and that their memory will be cursed and then forgotten," read the decree by Marshal Kliment Voroshilov published in the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda on June 12, 1937. At the time, no one knew that these military leaders had been brutally tortured. They appeared in front of the chairman of the military board of the Supreme Court, Vasily Ulrich, and their former comrades in arms -- Semyon Budyonny, Boris Shaposhnikov, Vasily Blukher, Pavel Dybenko, Ivan Belov and Yakov Alksnis -- crushed and duped by the promise that their confessions would save their lives.

While under investigation, Yona Yakir wrote to Josef Stalin: "I will die with words of love for you on my lips." The leader's response: "A scoundrel and prostitute." Voroshilov toadily added: "An absolutely accurate assessment," and Lazar Kaganovich provided the footnote: "For traitors, bastards and whores, just one penalty -- death." They were all found guilty and hastily executed.

The secret police "found" hundreds of other conspiracies lurking behind this one. A week after the shooting of the first group, 21 corps, 37 divisional and 25 brigade commanders were arrested. Among the list of judges in the first case, only two -- Shaposhnikov and Budyonny -- escaped being charged. Of the 85 members of the military council of the People's Defense Committee, just nine survived. The terror gathered momentum: Groups of spies and vermin were routed out in every people's committee, institute and collective farm. A bacchanalia of arrests and shootings seemed to seize the whole country. Investigators competed with one another in the coordination of conspiracies and in the number of "deviasionists," but the Kremlin script writers and directors kept the entire process under precise control.

Figures produced by the late Alexander Yakovlev, the head of the presidential committee for the rehabilitation of victims of political repression, leaders rushed to hand out death sentences. On Dec. 7, 1937, alone, Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov and Andrei Zhdanov signed 13 lists containing 2,397 names, 2,274 of whom were sentenced to death.

Molotov ultimately signed 373 lists containing the names of 43,569 people, and Stalin signed 361 holding a total of 41,391 names. The contributions of the other participants in this orgy of lawlessness were smaller. Zhdanov put his signature to 175 lists, containing 20,985 people, Kaganovich to 189 lists, of 19,110 names, and Voroshilov to 186 lists carrying charges against 18,474 individuals.

Altogether, about 700,000 were executed at the end of the 1930s for "counterrevolutionary" crimes, according to data provided by the human rights organization Memorial. Historian Viktor Zemskov has provided the figure of 104,826 prison camp inmates serving sentences for crimes against the people on Jan. 1, 1937, a number that had risen to 444,999 by the same date in 1940. Their share of the total population of the gulag system rose significantly over the period -- from 12.5 percent to 34.5 percent. But they remained in the minority. In the postwar years, the number of former Soviet prisoners of war and participants in national undergrounds in Ukraine and the Baltic states listed as counter-revolutionaries topped that at the end of the 1930s. In 1947, for example, they numbered 427,653 -- or 54 percent of the entire prison camp population.

Millions fell victim to state policies in other periods. A famine in the Volga region in 1921 and 1922 was a result not only of the ravages of the Civil War, but also of the Bolsheviks' stubborn refusal to introduce rationing, despite prognoses of a coming crop failure. Estimates of the number who starved to death range from 3.5 million to 5 million people. The repression of the peasants during collectivization involved the internal deportation of from 5 million to 6 million "kulaks" and members of their families, of which about 250,000 died in 1932 and 1933 alone. The ensuing famine as a result of the policies followed during collectivization claimed the lives of 4 million to 9 million people, according to various assessments. Demographers blame the postwar famine, in which the Soviet Union's refusal of food aid from the United States played a significant role, for the loss of another million lives.

The end of the 1930s have been etched in the public memory as the peak of the Great Terror because those executed at the time were well-known figures. The blow fell on party, state and military elites. The state declassified information about the crimes of this period earlier than about those of any other wave of repressions, and blamed them partly for the failures in the early years of the war against Nazi Germany. Moreover, unlike the majority of previous waves of repression, the terror was public. It was openly formulated on a political and legal base, including the famous formula of Prosecutor General Andrei Vyshinsky: "A defendant's confession is the queen of proof."

But not only those within the system became its victims. The deportation of millions of "kulaks" and their families, just like the repressions of the late 1930s, was undertaken on the initiative of the country's highest leaders. This led to endemic suspicion and denunciations. As Central Committee member Anastas Mikoyan said in 1937, "every worker is a People's Committee internal agent."

The lessons of the exposure of the role of the Stalinist leadership and rank-and-file participants in the Terror in the years of The Thaw and perestroika are instructive. They demonstrate that making public only partial information about important historical events distorts the general picture and allows different commentators to call into question the criminal acts of the past. It not surprising, therefore, that the number of those who either criticize or support Stalin to some degree is about even according to public opinion polls.

There is, likewise, the temptation to blame the system's defects on one person: 40 percent of those surveyed by polling agency VTsIOM hold Stalin personally responsible for the repressions, 34 percent place the blame on the secret police, and just 17 percent lay the responsibility at the feet of the country's leadership as a whole. Further, half-truths about the past lead to a situation where many historic figures -- like Tukhachevsky himself, who used poison gas against peasants in the Tambov region in 1921 -- are treated to an objective evaluation only far too late.

Pavel Aptekar is an historian and a commentator for Vedomosti, where this essay appeared.