Over the last thirty years, Karl Schlögel has been the most distinguished flâneur among historians of Russia. A sense of place – both as the setting for human encounters and something that conditions cultural and intellectual life – has informed much of his work. In 1984 he published Moskau lesen, an essayistic exploration of the Soviet capital, while his later books include a history of St Petersburg in the early 20th century which sees the city as a ‘laboratory of modernity’, and a study of Russian-German interactions through the prism of Berlin, which Schlögel christens ‘Europe’s Ostbahnhof’.
In this latest book, however, the flâneur has to change his mode of transport. To represent Moscow in 1937, the leisurely intellectual stroll is traded for a bumpy ride on a witch’s broomstick. Moscow 1937 opens with the heroine’s flight in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which, for all its phantasmagoric trappings, provides an ethnographically grounded depiction of the city in the 1930s. Schlögel’s book, like Bulgakov’s, has stomach-churning narrative lurches. Bulgakov gives us a variety show that turns into a public execution; Schlögel has the NKVD co-ordinators of mass murder holding a public celebration in the Bolshoi Theatre to mark the twentieth anniversary of their organisation in December 1937. The grotesquerie is unavoidable. Schlögel’s task is to describe one of the most notoriously violent peacetime societies in modern history at its most notoriously violent moment.
The period has been much written about in the forty years since Robert Conquest made the Soviet 1930s synonymous with the Great Terror. Scholarship on prewar Stalinism has bifurcated. On the one hand, studies of the Terror have become more detailed and nuanced. Now that the Soviet archives have been opened, it seems that the number of victims in 1937-38 was lower than Conquest estimated. But the horror has not diminished. Rather the contrary: we now know far more about the Soviet phenomenon of death by quota. Besides taking aim at former oppositionists and ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in the state apparatus, the Great Terror consisted of ‘mass operations’ against whole categories of the population that were deemed dangerous: priests, Poles, de-kulakised vagrants and many others.
On the other hand, historians have painted Stalinist society as a new and distinctive civilisation. In attempting to launch itself into industrial modernity, it borrowed feverishly from the rest of the world (even if it tried to conceal the fact), but it remained distinctive, if only because of the scale of the civilising mission, the speed at which it was implemented, and the social backdrop against which it was conducted. For all the chaos, violence and squalor of the times, the 1930s saw the birth of a new social order based on industrialisation, coercion and mobilisation, but buttressed by patriotism and aspirations to a socialist version of self-betterment.
While most historians see both terror and civilisation as important to understanding the Soviet experience of the 1930s, they tend to spend their time investigating either one or the other. Schlögel is the first to attempt to knit them together so intricately. The title of the German edition of his book (published in 2008) makes the point absolutely clear: Terror und Traum. As he notes à propos the frenzied pageantry of parades on Red Square, ‘Everything came together: confetti parade and death-sentence plebiscite, popular celebrations and thirst for revenge, carnival extravaganza and orgies of hatred.’
Representing this chaos – keeping it chaotic without rendering it nonsensical – is a stylistic and formal problem as much as a historiographical one. Schlögel’s solution is what he calls ‘stereoscopic’ vision. The text is divided into 39 chapters ranging in length from one page to more than thirty; it takes us swiftly back and forth between show trials and executions, ‘Soviet Hollywood’ and shop windows. The grand scale is combined with the vignette. Schlögel doesn’t just change topics; he changes tone and perspective. On occasion he passes judgment; at other times he lets documents speak for themselves. When the issue is the culpability of the Soviet leadership, there is no text more powerful than Operational Order No. 00447, of 30 July 1937, which listed nine distinct ‘groups subject to punitive measures’ and set out in advance how many people were to be executed in the various administrative units of the USSR. The Eastern Siberian Region, for example, was given an allocation of a thousand ‘first category’ arrestees; the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic a hundred; and Moscow five thousand. Schlögel’s account of the victims at the Butovo shooting range, one of the main killing sites of Moscow’s Great Terror, has a shattering specificity: we find a long list of victims, from illiterate peasants accused of Trotskyism to Fedor Golovin, chairman of the Second State Duma in 1907.
Moscow 1937 is an act of remembrance as well as a work of history. It is one thing to know in the abstract that the late 1930s in the Soviet Union were a dark time, or even to be presented with a body count. It is quite another to be confronted with the physical and psychological particularity of what happened in 1937, to be forced to make the effort to grasp it in its totality. All too often – especially in Russia – the whole pre-1941 period becomes a blurry Time of Troubles. Yet, as Akhmatova wrote in the epilogue to Requiem, a cycle of poems in response to the Leningrad Terror, we must want to ‘call them all by name’.
The most urgent sense-imposing question to be asked of the Terror is, quite simply: why did it happen? Although there had been instances of cataclysmic violence in Bolshevik Russia before 1937, the events of that year have always seemed mysterious in a way that is not true of the Civil War, where the revolutionary regime fought for its existence, or even of Collectivisation, where the Soviet leadership waged terrible war on a section of the population that was deemed to stand in the way of its main political and economic goals. In 1937, by contrast, we have, as Schlögel puts it, ‘arbitrariness, suddenness, shock, attacks out of the blue, and the disappearance and obliteration of the distinction between the real and the fantastic’.
How was all this possible? Perhaps the oldest answer to this question, but one that bears repeating, lies in the political culture of the Bolshevik Party. Here was an inherently secretive and suspicious organisation with multiple sources of internal tension; as of the late 1930s, its sole method of conflict resolution was the public humiliation and physical destruction of those who lost the argument. Although Bolsheviks could be ruthless and outspoken in private, they adhered to the principle of democratic centralism: a combination of ‘dog eat dog’ and ‘follow the pack’. In other words, once they had lost a particular political struggle, they followed the public script. They also acted for all the world as if they believed what they were saying. At the gatherings of the Bolshevik elite, notably the Central Committee plenum of February-March 1937, which provided political momentum for much of the violence to come, language was unmoored from reality. In most political arenas, speakers recognise that there is a gap between rhetoric and action. Not so in Bolshevik Russia: if Trotskyism had to be eradicated and X was designated a Trotskyist, that meant X had to be eradicated too. The most poignant illustration of this point remains Bukharin’s account of himself at his show trial in March 1938. After agonising self-interrogation over the preceding 12 months of incarceration, he denied specific guilt but admitted general responsibility for ‘political crimes’. As his testimony made clear, the court drew no distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ crimes. In other words, if the party said he had conspired to commit terrorist actions against the state, he must have done so – even if he had been unaware of the fact. Before too long, the topsy-turviness of the times takes over: even now, after reading a succession of Stalin-era biographies, I begin to wonder, not why a particular functionary was shot, but why his colleague wasn’t.
The culture of the Bolshevik Party was a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for the events of 1937. Only the wider context can help to explain why the carnage extended far beyond the Central Committee. ‘Terror from above’ was met halfway by ‘terror from below’. Violence was a form of release for the frustrations, humiliations and suffering of Soviet-style industrialisation and urbanisation. Presented with the opportunity to settle scores with their managers at factory meetings, industrial workers could be just as rhetorically skilled as members of the Central Committee – and often had a clearer sense of what they wanted to achieve. Better wages and housing were top of their agenda, but failing that they would settle for the arrest of their bosses. This was a society at the end of its tether. As Schlögel puts it, ‘A history of 1937 must also be a history of the physical and emotional exhaustion and of the limits of what can be done to human beings by disrupting their everyday existences but stopping short of the terrorising use of force. It is not only individuals that can “crack up”; societies can crack up too.’ In conditions of scarcity, danger and powerlessness, conspiracy theory was an emotionally satisfying and intellectually persuasive way of understanding the world.
Perhaps the single most important factor, however, was that the Soviet Union was a ‘peacetime’ society only in the most literal sense. In the 1930s, a Stalinist conspiracy theorist didn’t have to work hard to prove that the world was a dangerous place. The whole economic and political project of Stalinism was predicated on the medium-term certainty of a major European war. The Soviet Union was also involved in genuine conflicts: in the east, border skirmishes with the Japanese in Manchuria; in the west, the Spanish Civil War, which the Stalinist media packaged as a proxy test of Soviet socialism. All the while, Soviet society was kept on a war footing. In Gorky Park, showcase of 1930s ‘cultured leisure’, one of the main attractions was a tower for parachute jumping.
The constant war scares and talk of mobilisation might lead us to assume that the Soviet Union in the 1930s was an autarkic, closed society. As Schlögel shows in several chapters, this was far from the truth. The internationalism of Soviet society was evident above all at the heart of the establishment: many leading Bolsheviks had spent extended periods abroad, and the turn to ‘socialism in one country’ in the mid-1920s had tempered but not broken the ambition to turn the USSR into the hub of an international socialist network. Moscow was a pole of attraction for alienated or oppressed left-wing intellectuals from Europe and beyond. By 1937, many of them were living in squalid conditions, their social circle limited to fellow foreigners, waiting for the knock on the door from the NKVD. Foreign influence in the 1930s wasn’t limited to ideological matters. During the first Five-Year Plan the Soviet Union had paid for technology transfer on a massive scale. While that was scaled back after 1932, the Soviet elite continued to take inspiration from the world beyond. Boris Iofan, author of the winning design for the never constructed Palace of Soviets, spent his formative years in Rome and then enjoyed a Damascene moment on beholding Manhattan’s skyscrapers in 1934. Even more remarkably, the satirical duo Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, authors of the Soviet Union’s two finest comic novels, published in 1937 an admiring account of a coast to coast road trip they had taken in America. Most of all, however, the Soviet Union found itself intertwined with the outside world by virtue of its own ‘multinational’ (i.e. multiethnic) population. The dozens of ethnic groups in the USSR included several with large co-ethnic populations just over the border, in unfriendly states. When the time came for death by quota, Poles and Germans were high on the list. ‘National operations’ – that is, the targeted killing of members of particular ethnic groups – accounted for more than a third of the victims of the Great Terror.
The rhetoric of the time insisted on clear divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘Soviet’ and ‘un-Soviet’. The reality, however, was that the Soviet Union of the 1930s was a messy and interconnected place where lines were more than usually hard to draw. Social distinctions were washed away by a tidal wave of migration. In the salons of Stalinism, the leading lights of the NKVD served as patrons of the arts and socialised with writers – until their own heads rolled. Perhaps most troubling for Soviet designs on modernity, the present still couldn’t shake off the past. The evidence was there in full view for any Muscovite: the Kremlin, after all, still stood. The architectural elite continued to be dominated by ageing luminaries such as Aleksei Shchusev (b.1873), whose prerevolutionary credits included the design for the Kazan Station in Moscow. The architects took three years longer than the writers to have their founding congress. And here, even more than in other branches of the Soviet arts, the concept of Socialist Realism remained resolutely nebulous.
Schlögel’s book is at its most insightful when it asks how people made sense of the events of 1937. It has been one of the great puzzles of 20th-century history: did first-hand observers, or the Soviet public more generally, really believe in the guilt of the show trial defendants? How did people cope with the cognitive dissonance that must have resulted from the relentless proximity of violence? The most important construction project of the time, the Moscow-Volga canal, turned the quiet town of Dmitrov, a mere sixty kilometres north of Moscow, into a hub of the Gulag. Butovo was located in a dacha district. How, in the light of all this, could the NKVD top brass pull off holding a gala at the Bolshoi?
Part of the answer is grimly prosaic: the regime made great efforts to keep terror separate from the Soviet dream. At Butovo strict measures of secrecy were taken, and the cast of executioners was limited. So successful was this campaign of concealment that the locations of the massacres came to light only fifty or more years later – not the least significant reason why commemoration of Stalin-era violence in Russia compares unfavourably with that of Nazi-era atrocities in Germany. Stalin’s regime was absolutely ruthless in its treatment of anyone who might be too well informed about what was going on. The Great Terror was also a purge of specialist knowledge, from geologists to census-takers.
Whatever the regime’s efforts to stage-manage events, the Soviet dream couldn’t have survived against the backdrop of terror without the participation of many sections of the population, or at any rate their willingness to suspend disbelief. More striking are the high-profile foreigners who, whatever their misgivings, played their part on the Stalinist stage set. Near the start of his book, Schlögel discusses Lion Feuchtwanger’s almost six-hour audience with Stalin on 8 January 1937, during which Feuchtwanger quickly ‘realised that I could talk frankly with this man’. As an exiled Jewish intellectual desperate to encourage resistance to fascism, Feuchtwanger had powerful personal reasons to believe (or at least, to suppress doubt). Even more poignantly, the returned émigré Nikolai Ustrialov, who had served in Kolchak’s government in Siberia before convincing himself that the Bolsheviks were the rightful custodians of the Russian nation, wrote himself into a frenzy in the mid-1930s professing his commitment to the Soviet cause. Later on, while under investigation, he would offer his diary as evidence of loyalty. (Naturally, he was shot.)
Very few people in Soviet society had the opportunity to make the same ill-advised decision as Ustrialov had made, returning to Russia from physical safety abroad. But very many wanted to persuade themselves that their lives made sense. The new Soviet mass urban culture of the 1930s offered a panoply of sense-making possibilities. There were opportunities for ‘cultured’ strolling in Gorky Park. There were appealing myths in the cinema: socialist Cinderellas, Hollywood-on-the-Volga musicals. There were jolly tunes: Soviet ‘mass song’ injected vim into folk tradition, while Muscovites could also enjoy dzhaz (jazz had recently been pronounced non-decadent by Pravda) at many venues around the city. There was cultural enfranchisement: the endless events and publications to mark the centenary of Pushkin’s death are incomprehensible if we fail to understand that this reappropriated national poet was being made available to millions of newly literate Soviet people as ‘a shorthand name for access to education, literature, knowledge and the wider world’. There was adventure and spectacle in abundance. Aviators and polar explorers were the heroes of the age, and their exploits could now be followed in real time by listening to the radio. The Papanin expedition to the North Pole, whose members drifted south on an ice floe for nine months until they were rescued in February 1938, offered an impeccable metaphor for life in the Soviet 1930s: dangerous, but also offering excitement and opportunity. To a Soviet sensibility, freedom and life-threatening risk were two sides of the same coin.
To find this situation exhilarating rather than paralysing, one needed to be a particular kind of person. Above all, one needed to be young. In the Soviet 1930s, as Schlögel writes, youth was a ‘habit of mind’. A future orientation was not only part of Zhdanov’s classic definition of Socialist Realism at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934; it was also an essential attribute for any Soviet person who wanted to make life liveable. The Bolshevik leadership, along with its small army of technicians, scientists, scholars, writers and artists, was attempting to establish a new space-time continuum for a country of 150 million people. While it had some success in creating a modern urban culture for an aspirational new generation, it had to reckon all the time with the possibility of failure. The most impressive logistical operation of 1937 was without doubt the first Soviet census, with a million enumerators and 200 million punched cards. But when it delivered the ‘wrong’ population figure, its administrators were arrested. At the end of the year, the regime exposed itself to an even more severe test of its nation-building credentials: the first ‘free’ and universal Soviet elections, without suffrage restrictions on social undesirables. Just as in the show trials, the regime believed its own rhetoric: the December elections would be an enactment of an integrated Soviet society without class divisions. What this meant was that anyone thought to be un-Soviet had to be rounded up in advance. In a grisly non-coincidence, the launch of the murderous campaign against ‘anti-Soviet elements’ in summer 1937 took place in parallel with arrangements for the elections.
In 1940 Vladimir Vernadsky, a world-renowned geochemist and extraordinarily outspoken observer, noted in his diary: ‘For the last twenty years no one has had the feeling that the regime is stable.’ Did Schlögel choose 1937 because that year represents in concentrated form all the tensions in the Soviet version of modernity? Or does he see it as a tipping point? On reading the transcripts of the Moscow show trials, he finds himself hearing ‘the roaring and cracking sounds you hear when a whole world collapses, the grinding noises when an entire nation is shifted onto a new track’.
The metaphor is telling. A world had collapsed, a nation had been wrenched onto a new track – but where that track led was unclear. In his diary for 1941, Vernadsky placed his hopes on the aftermath of the war that had just begun. Schlögel denies that the Terror contains its own narrative resolution: it may be possible to say what caused 1937, but it’s much harder to say what it brought into being. The bewildering fact is that it would soon be swamped in the national consciousness by a cataclysm whose death toll was perhaps ten times as high. Anything approaching a ‘steady state’ for Soviet socialism would have to wait at least another decade. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about 1937, Schlögel suggests at the end, is that it leads nowhere.