Stalin’s Purges

John Barber

  • Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered 1933-1938 by J. Arch Getty
    Cambridge, 275 pp, £25.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 521 25921 5
  • The Making of the Soviet System: Essays in the Social History of Interwar Russia by Moshe Lewin
    Methuen, 354 pp, £19.00, June 1985, ISBN 0 416 40820 6

Nothing in the history of modern revolution illustrates so vividly the contrast between the ideals of a revolution’s makers and the catastrophes it may be fated to endure as do the Great Purges of 1937-38 in the USSR. It was then that Stalin unleashed the NKVD in a murderous onslaught against all key sections of state and society: the Communist Party and the government apparatus, industrial management and the military, scientists and technical specialists, writers and artists, as well as ordinary workers and peasants. More Communists perished in the Purges, it has been remarked, than in the struggle against Tsarism, the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War combined – among them, many of Lenin’s closest comrades. The flower of the Soviet intelligentsia was destroyed and cultural life paralysed for two decades. Great damage was inflicted on both the Soviet Union’s economy and its defences. Meanwhile the last remaining vestiges of revolutionary Bolshevism were eliminated and a despotic regime created, buttressed by a grotesque cult of Stalin’s personality and by the powerful machinery of a police state.

The impact of the Great Purges on Western attitudes towards the USSR was immense; for many immediately, for others after Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes in 1956. Of all episodes in Soviet history, this probably influenced people’s view of the USSR more than any other. Yet there remain large gaps in our knowledge, let alone understanding, of the events of this period. Intense debate still continues as to the number of victims. Scholars have advanced estimates of the labour camp population in 1938-39 ranging from two million to eleven million. Deaths have been put at anywhere between a few hundred thousand and fifteen million. There are many mystifying aspects of the Purges. Why were so many loyal Stalinists killed? Why were former oppositionists liquidated when they had long ago been politically crushed? Why was the NKVD allowed to decimate the armed forces with war increasingly likely? Most of all, controversy surrounds the causes and motives of the Purges. Were they the result of Stalin’s paranoia or megalomania? Was their purpose to guarantee a united leadership in the face of external attack? Did they mark the logical evolution of Bolshevik authoritarianism into a totalitarian state? Or were they the consequence of a counter-revolutionary betrayal of true Marxism-Leninism?

Such controversy exists primarily because of the lack of hard evidence. Not surprisingly, the Soviet authorities have been reluctant to encourage investigation into the most traumatic period in their country’s history. Party and government archives for these years are firmly closed to historians, whether Soviet or foreign. Memoirs of leading participants are totally absent. Until recently, the few Western historians attempting to penetrate the darkness surrounding the Purges have relied heavily on the reminiscences of Soviet defectors and dissidents (none anywhere near the centre of power at the time) and on the Russian émigré press. Both kinds of source may contain plausible and intelligent guesses at what was happening, but inevitably their accuracy as well as their objectivity leaves much to be desired. In recent years, however, opportunities for studying Soviet history of the Thirties have improved significantly. Visiting the USSR and working in Soviet libraries has become easier for Western scholars. A wide range of published material of the period has become available, some of it, especially local publications, very revealing. Numerous works by Soviet historians have appeared from which valuable information can be gleaned. Limited access to archives has even become possible. And in the West the decline in the influence of stereo typed models of the USSR manufactured during the Cold War has increasingly turned historians’ attention to the actual evolution and functioning of the Soviet system.

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