Reviews The human hunt that nearly paralyzed the party. A microstudy of Soviet mass terror
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1 2012, pages 43-45
Published on balticworlds.com on april 12, 2012
The Great Terror in Stalin’s Soviet Union began as a campaign against terror. A systematic hunt for enemies of the regime was triggered by the assassination of Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov on December 1, 1934. Was it part of a plot, or not? Was the resistance against the regime a plot, or not? It is hard to imagine that Kirov represented an oppositional faction — in fact, he had supported Stalin in all disputes within the party — and all the speculation and conspiracy theories presented thus far suffer from a troubling lack of empirical support. As with the Reichstag fire in Berlin the previous year, the bulk of the evidence suggests an Alleintäterschaft1, a lone perpetrator on the loose.2
That the perpetrator was acting on his own, if he was, does not necessarily mean he was alone in his desire to strike a blow against a power that few could accept as legitimate. At the moment of seizing power, neither the Bolsheviks nor the National Socialists could rely on a popular majority. Yet how many revolutions, whether national, political, or social, ever have? At best, the legitimacy of the Russian Communists was based on victory in a protracted civil war (which was in part a defensive war against foreign military intervention). And as for the popular appeal of the Hitler regime, it was not based on a call for ethnic war — that was actually a complicating factor. What Hitler and his cohorts claimed they were able to do was to govern an ungovernable country, something none of his competitors had managed to do.
With the Reichstag fire came the emergency decrees, the obliteration of political opposition, and the regimentation of the social system, Gleichschaltung. The Kirov assassination was followed by repressions unprecedented in the history of modern states, but also by social chaos that threatened the foundations of the Communist monopoly on power: relatively cohesive cadres, a party machine with a long-term perspective, and the capacity to attract and retain sufficient administrative and intellectual competence to avoid being regarded as rabble by the masses. The line between populism and brutishness, between simplicity and foolishness, had to be held. When the fight against individual terror, albeit under the pretext of prevention, evolved into state-organized terror against undesirable party members (and undesirable non-party elements) who were also fully behind the fight against terror or at least willing to shut up and accept the brutalization of society, the line was jeopardized. The unity of the Soviet state collapsed. Only a fast-approaching confrontation with the archenemy Germany did change the course of a manipulative Soviet leadership. It was, nonetheless, almost too late.
Reading Wendy Z. Goldman’s book, one is struck — not once but several times — by the impression that a regime capable of unleashing such political madness as repressions of the party, the nomenklatura, and the technical intelligentsia — which would ultimately victimize tens of thousands of innocent engineers, technicians, and military personnel — must surely have expected a political opposition that wanted something completely different and whose ultimate aim was to topple it. And honestly: would it not have been extremely surprising if no attempts, however fumbling, had been made to organize a resistance, albeit symbolic and in rather desperate forms, against a leadership that did not tolerate the least objection, did not respect human life, and regarded its daily political work as one long, steady military campaign against a myriad of class enemies who would never admit defeat? After all, you may not be surprised to find an absurd rationality in Stalin’s, Molotov’s, Vyshinsky’s, Kaganovich’s and Yezhov’s many calculations — even in the “National Operations” of 1937—1938, when hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens charged with working on behalf of foreign powers were executed or given long GULAG sentences.3 That hardly makes them more appetizing.
The framework of the mass terror, most recently portrayed with a masterful hand in a monumentally structured book by Karl Schlögel4, was the three major trials of Joseph Stalin’s main competitors and opponents in the internal party struggle, with Zinoviev–Kamenev, Pyatakov–Radek, and Bukharin–Rykov as the principal leaders — and at least in Nikolai Bukharin, posterity has been tempted to see something approaching a credible and effective alternative to Stalinist centralism and tyrannical outrage. Yet these persons had been, at least ostensibly, outmaneuvered and disarmed long before, and if any of them had planned a coup d’état, it had already been nipped in the bud.5 The show trials can be seen on one level as personal acts of revenge, delayed vendettas, or political paranoia pure and simple. However, this staged indignation and perverse paranoia ought to have had its own peculiar rationality.
For if, as indicated by the charges, Bukharin and a couple of parallel centers had conspired against the Soviet government, personified in Stalin and his henchmen, like Zhdanov and — yes — Kirov, they could hardly have done so only by entering into secret and treasonous alliances with an enemy power (and with the exiled Trotsky, who was by no means averse to the exercise of terror, considering that he was the early chief architect of Bolshevik state violence6): they must have relied on battalions of willing activists within their own country and among their own people. Only then did the equation work. And it was these real, potential, or imagined sympathizers and collaborators who were the targets of the mass terror. It was the Trotskyites and Zinovievites at the local level who had to be arrested and interrogated. The most committed proletarians and party workers of the “workers’ state” had to be put under the microscope, and both the scale and the targets were utterly unlike the cleansings and purges (of bourgeois experts, the Menshevik All-Union Bureau, etc.) of the late twenties and early thirties. “The Party grows stronger when it purges itself”, Stalin’s ominous 1924 slogan read, casting the Party as organism and the membership as corpuscles, impurities and poison in the blood.
Another equally ominous slogan was, “The cadres decide everything”. When something went wrong at a workplace or in an organization, there was always a human factor to finger, and this living and usually identifiable human factor could never shirk its responsibility. He (the targets of these accusations and subsequent purges were nearly always men) could not put the blame on a design flaw or an incorrect shipment, the laws of nature, or an accident. There were no accidents, only damage done. There were no unintentional omissions, only sabotage. And if there was a fault, there was always someone who had failed to detect or report it. Goldman’s accounts of the open human hunt at Dinamo, a large machine plant in Moscow with 10,000 employees, zero in on the unwavering suspicion directed at saboteurs, at elements (such as people of foreign extraction: Poles, Lithuanians) who could conceivably be agents for a hostile foreign intelligence service or espionage organization. Dinamo (like other factories) had a daily newspaper that aired suspicions, criticized suspect individuals in responsible positions by name, and called for resolute interventions in personal matters. The wall newspapers were a rumor mill, and zeal decayed into a competition for pettiness. The security organs invited written denunciations of coworkers and shop heads in such utmost secrecy that no one was told, until matters came to a public action, who had denounced whom.
And public actions and exposures did take place — at Dinamo and a number of other factories in Moscow that Goldman has studied at the lowest possible level. The author has combed through newspaper materials, letters to the NKVD and higher party organs, and stenographic records from local party meetings that could, in the end, assemble hundreds of members and that decided on matters of expulsion from the party or continued membership. Goldman has selected a large number of individual cases and focused on personal histories and attitudes, individual strategies and counter-strategies, career patterns, techniques of argumentation, and family relationships. What emerges is a microcosm of emotional outbursts, self-righteousness, and rigidity of principle, vengefulness, naïveté, empathy, shrewdness, and reckless frenzy. How might individuals behave? Being politically correct, devoted, loyal was by no means enough. People also had to be prudent, suspicious, vigilant, and informative. Yet even those perceived as too eager to unmask hidden enemies and wreckers were at risk of attracting attention. Hyperactivity might be a way to conceal true intent, as fury might be misdirected sympathy. Goldman’s source material is boiling with political magma.
In a few brief years (1935—1938), the mass terror at workplaces went through a number of phases. At first, accusations of sabotage and deliberate mismanagement of production were obviously widely believed among ordinary workers and party members. Events often happened that put them in danger: a collapse, an explosion, or a fire. Foolish managers and cadres ought to be punished and replaced: this was a reasonable local logic. Accusations of misuse of authority, drunkenness, and injustice by officials had been made in complaints to the leadership, even by non-party members, for several years.7 Initially, this did not escalate into hysteria. On the contrary, those higher up in the hierarchies were displeased that so many took the unsatisfactory state of affairs with too much composure, sometimes verging on lethargy. It was thought that factory party committees were too restrained in their correctional methods. Exchange of party documents was not enough. At this point, the Communist Party Politburo in the autumn of 1937 adopted a resolution aimed at “democratizing” and including every individual member in internal party criticism as a way of counteracting the relative lack of interest in the human hunt. The hectic era of mass meetings began. Earlier that year, the targets had been expanded from “class enemies” to encompass “enemies of the people”, which meant that a proletarian class background and a worthy revolutionary past could no longer be counted as an automatic merit. Everyone, without exception, could be made a scapegoat: political immunity could not be relied upon anywhere.
The outcomes were multifarious. The turnover of cadres, especially at the highest level, had a devastating effect: Dinamo had three directors in six months, and one out of ten party members was sent to prison in 1937. Anxiety and instability crept into every corner; promotions to fill gaps put incompetence in the driver’s seat. General chaos spread and production losses were huge, much greater than under the management of wreckers who were eliminated early on. Goldman applies a rule of thumb concerning well-attended factory-wide meetings for mass criticism: “These larger assemblies, dominated by the most aggressive speakers, often voted to mete out harsher punishments than the party committees handed down. The rank and file tended to be more rabid than their leaders, and their participation was apt to produce a worse outcome for those subjected to their judgement.”
The atmosphere could become intimidating, monstrous. Rumors were taken as evidence and kinship as an aggravating circumstance. Even a gesture, a turn of phrase, or a general boorishness could be made politically discrediting; it was not, after all, the action that counted but the presumed intent.8 Paradoxically: the more who came to grief, the less credible became the individual denunciations. An inflationary cycle of blame and accusation arose. At the same time, the trust that may have existed in the beginning — the intent to clean up a swamp of poor conditions that no one was doing anything about (dangerous work procedures, horrible housing) — was replaced by fear of persecution and undeserved suffering. That culture of suspicion and distrust had been germinating long before the mass terror blossomed. In early 1934, Stepan Podlubny, a 20-year-old printing apprentice at Pravda who is trying to “transform” himself from the son of a kulak to Soviet man, notes:
I do not know why, but I constantly have a suspicion that Kol’ka Galankin is spying on me. Behaving very strangely. Either he is a spy, or he idolizes me, a hero in his eyes. Minor facts and evidence speak in favor of both, but neither makes complete sense. Don’t understand the matter, but must continue being careful.9
Over the course of 1938, those in the highest ranks realized something had in fact gone wrong. This insight was gained through the countless reports submitted to Stalin and the Politburo from meetings, interrogations of arrested technicians, engineers, and directors, Stalin’s own notes about the interrogations and decisions as to whether the investigations should continue or be suspended, along with his remarks to other Politburo members which bore witness to rising frustration over the fact that unsatisfactory conditions in industry and the transport system seemed as widespread as before the purges.9 The masses had taken excessive liberties in the destruction of enemies of the people. Nothing worked as it should in strategically vital industries. As during the collectivization of farming and the campaigns to exterminate the kulaks as a class, high-handed potentates had become “dizzy with success” (the title of a famous article by Stalin published in 1930).10 Considerable numbers had denounced someone with a view to gaining a position held by the accused, while others had made denunciations in order to gain a reputation as particularly vigilant — in other words, in a naïvely pre-emptive sort of self-defense. Naïve, because the more people who were deposed, expelled, convicted, imprisoned, deported, and executed, and the more who were dragged onto the carousel, the greater the risk that the individual, including the denouncer, who must always expect to be denounced in turn, would end up in the claws of the security organs. The pre-emptive move had become a chimera.
At the Central Committee level, the Party had no desire to change policy, nor did it find reason to engage in self-criticism. It was rather, as Moshe Lewin put it, a matter of camouflage meant to give the impression of a return to “normality”, and in 1939 the Party gained as many as a million new members.11 This required a re-examination of individual cases: when a party member had been excluded without subsequent intervention by the NKVD, a mistake had obviously been made and the mistake had to be rectified. (The opposite did not apply: if a person had been arrested who had been a party member all along, then the matter was clear and the case remained closed.) But the hunt for enemies had ceased to be the Party’s top priority, and from now on its local organizations had to deal with things other than humiliating and condemning individual comrades, which had been their all-overshadowing preoccupation for a number of years. The gigantic bleeding of resources needed somehow to be stopped and the lost skills and readiness for action regained. The Party was for all practical purposes paralyzed. The ones they wanted to get at now were the “careerists”, those promoted through machinations and chutzpah. Effective authority somehow had to be restored.
Wendy Z. Goldman has conducted a beautiful empirical investigation, a study in everyday Stalinism in the inspiring spirit of Sheila Fitzpatrick. An inquisitional ritualism prevailed in the war against enemies of the people, but there was also, in the rumormongering and slander that was officially encouraged, an almost anarchistic dynamic that made every petty inquisitor into a weak vessel.12 Goldman’s insights into the smallest mechanisms of terror call into question just how totalitarian the system was: during this period, she argues, the system was becoming ungovernable and on the verge of spinning totally out of control.13 The author does not align herself with any specific theory and it is difficult to assign the work to any particular school of Soviet studies. Beyond doubt, the strength of her book lies in the narrative. Goldman’s political/psychological interpretations can sometimes feel a bit light on substance, although without deteriorating into speculation and propagandizing, which has become tediously fashionable in a certain type of historical writing about the Soviet epoch. Goldman’s basic research into the repressions at the lowest level makes it possible to examine the scanty accounts from contemporary testimony, mainly by German and American workers, who published their memoirs of the time they spent at Soviet companies. ≈
- See Uwe Backs et al., Reichstagsbrand: Aufklärung einer historischen Legende, Munich & Zurich 1986.
- See Åsmund Egge, Kirov-gåten: Mordet som utlöste Stalins terror [The Kirov enigma: The murder that unleashed Stalin’s terror], Oslo 2009; Matthew Lenoe, The Kirov Murder and Soviet History, New Haven 2010.
- For a study of the repressions at the regional level, see Lennart Samuelson, Tankograd: The Formation of a Soviet Company Town; Cheliabinsk 1900s—1950s, London 2011, chapter 5.
- Karl Schlögel, Terror und Traum: Moskau 1937, Munich 2008. The “lynch-mob justice” Schlögel talks about (p. 114 ff.) can be examined closely in Goldman’s book.
- The liquidation of the Ceauşescus in Romania in December 1989 may be considered strong evidence that notions about coups d’état executed by the system’s own are not necessarily figments of the imagination. As is known, there was also an internal opposition against Hitler that was ready to take action, although without proper preparations.
- As Sheila Fitzpatrick notes, “Lenin and Trotsky expressed contempt for socialists who could not understand the necessity of terror.” (The Russian Revolution, Oxford 2008, 3rd ed., p. 77.)
- See for example a 1932 letter from a technical director at Transmshtekh, an energy company, to Mikhail Kalinin, head of state of the Soviet Union, in Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov, Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents, New Haven & London, 2000, p. 122 ff.
- “Anti-communism” may be a mirror image of the attitude: an intent, an opinion, is considered equal to an accomplished fact, a crime.
- Tagebuch aus Moskau 1931—1939. Ed. Jochen Hellbeck (ed.). Munich 1996, p. 150.
- See, however, Vladimir Khaustov and Lennart Samuelson, Stalin, NKVD, and the Repressions, 1936—1938, New Haven, forthcoming 2012, chapter 2 (“The Destruction of the Soviet Nomenklatura”).
- Was there also an inherent fear among the top dogs that exposures made to the government would sooner or later impact the elites themselves? As Sarah Davis notes, “The terror against the elites was clearly popular. However, in some cases, it seems to have stimulated hostility towards all those in power, including Stalin himself.” (Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia: Terror, Propaganda and Dissent, 1934—1941, Cambridge et al., 1997, p. 131.)
- Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century. Ed. by Gregory Elliott, London & New York 2005, p. 110.
- Even the grand inquisitor himself, Nikolai Yezhov, was swept out of the way before 1938 came to an end.
- See here, however, Oleg Khlevniuk, Master of the House: Stalin and his Inner Circle, New Haven 2008. Tracing Politburo archives, rather than studying in detail reports and wall newspapers from the base level, factories, and workshops, the author sees — like Khaustov and Samuelson — that Stalin never loosened his hold on the doings of regional Party and NKVD bosses.