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.

Some major contributions to the economic and social history of the Soviet Union in the Thirties have resulted. Historians such as R.W. Davies, Sheila Fitzpatrick and Moshe Lewin have in different ways substantially revised the conventional picture of the period. Instead of a monolithic regime systematically implementing its strategy for constructing a totalitarian system, their research shows both state and society experiencing the acute problems and tensions of forced development in conditions of internal backwardness and external threat. The Soviet system is seen, not as created according to a predetermined master-plan, but as emerging in a piecemeal, even haphazard way. Behind the regime’s claims to omniscience and to faithful continuity with Leninist orthodoxy, it is argued, lay uncertainty and insecurity, zig zags and sudden reversals of policy, hastily improvised reactions to unforeseen circumstances, product of the regime’s own actions though the latter often were. Resolved to modernise Russia rapidly, and ready to employ violent means, Stalin and his followers may have been: but their control over the process of change was distinctly limited. The atmosphere of the time is brilliantly captured by Lewin in his essays on Soviet society in the Twenties and Thirties: ‘Social, administrative, industrial and political structures were all in flux. The mighty dictatorial government found itself presiding over a “quicksand” society.’

This approach has important implications for the interpretation of Soviet politics in the Thirties. One suggested by Lewin is that the regime’s ruthlessness towards the population resulted in part at least from a desperate determination to bring order to the chaos it had created. Another is that the secret police’s major role (which included managing factories and construction sites, as well as organising political repression) owed much to the fact that in a confused and unstable situation its capacity for swift and effective action was superior to that of other agencies. But until now little attention has been focused directly on the political sphere, on the role of the Party and on its development during these years. This is the task Dr Getty has undertaken, and with impressive originality and skill. In contrast to his predecessors, he has based his research on two hitherto underemployed sources. He has combed the Soviet press of the period, a mine of information for anyone able to read critically between the lines. And he has made extensive use of some unique unpublished material, the Smolensk archive. This large collection of Party records from the Western Region of the USSR for 1917 to 1939 was captured by the Germans in 1941 and subsequently by the Americans in 1945. Because of its state of disarray when seized, and the lack of a detailed catalogue of its contents, it has been relatively little used until now. Getty is the first historian to take full advantage of this remarkable source for research.

The core of his work consists of a detailed analysis of how the Communist Party of the Soviet Union really operated at the local level in the Thirties. He shows that in the regions it was a long way from being an effective machine for implementing Moscow’s will. Disorganised and overburdened, the local Party apparatus showed greatest ingenuity in evading the centre’s orders: ‘the chain of command collapsed more often than it functioned.’ Far from penetrating all areas of Soviet life, the Party had relatively few members outside the towns. Although two-thirds of the population lived in the countryside, only 0.3 per cent of rural inhabitants were Communists. ‘Such a thin organisation was unable to exercise total control or even to guarantee law and order ... Into the mid-Thirties, armed, mounted bandits continued to roam the countryside, ambushing communists (and others) and setting fire to collective farm property.’ The quality of the Party’s membership, moreover, left much to be desired. Many Communists lacked education, administrative experience, or even basic political knowledge. This, together with the chaotic state of Party records, made it easy for anyone with organisational ability to gain entry to the Party. In Smolensk it included former White Army officers, ex-kulaks, and even people previously expelled for criminal activities. There was also a thriving trade in false Party cards.

Little wonder, therefore, that having pushed through the crucial policies of rapid industrialisation and forced collectivisation during the first Five Year Plan of 1928-32, the Party leadership turned to the task of remedying the defects of local Party organisations. It did so by carrying out a series of purges of inactive, unreliable or degenerate Party members between 1933 and 1936. According to Getty, these were actually less severe than several similar purges of the Twenties – though less by intention than because of the very faults the purges were designed to rectify. Local officials were often reluctant to rock the boat, or were unwilling to divert time and energy from more pressing tasks, or were simply incapable of organising an effective purge. The centre’s frustration with the regional Party apparatus is not hard to imagine. But in Moscow, too, there were serious problems. A basic premise of Getty’s analysis is that conflict was a continuing feature of Soviet politics in the Thirties. Only the extremes of Left and Right oppositions to Stalin’s policies had been removed, he argues, in the great battles of the Twenties. Within the victorious Stalin group, disagreements frequently arose. The pace of economic expansion was one key issue, with Molotov heading those who advocated a very high rate of growth, while Ordzhonikidze spoke for a more moderate line. This conflict also found institutional expression, with the Council of People’s Commissars under Molotov challenging Ordzhonikidze’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry for control over industrial policy. Another controversial issue concerned the relative importance attached to encouraging workers’ criticisms of managers and bureaucrats, or to strengthening managerial authority over the work-force. Within the Party apparatus itself, Getty detects a clash between Zhdanov’s drive to improve the quality of Party cadres and Yezhov’s campaign to stamp out resistance to official policies from hidden ‘enemies of the people’.

Where does Stalin fit into this reconstruction of events leading up to the Purges? Here is one of the book’s most controversial themes. Getty is critical of what he calls the ‘Great Man’ theory of history, and believes that Stalin’s role has been exaggerated by contemporaries and historians alike. His Stalin is not the master strategist, but rather the arbiter between different groups in the leadership, balancing interests, backing now the radicals, now the moderates. The cult of the personality is seen, not as a real reflection of Stalin’s power, but as a device to conceal splits in the leading group. Getty follows other historians in detecting evidence of opposition to Stalin in the period preceding the 17th Party Congress in February 1934. Unlike most, however, he presents Kirov, the supposed liberal challenger to Stalin, as his staunch ally. The record certainly shows that, whatever rumours may have circulated, Kirov backed Stalin’s policies loyally, fought his opponents in Leningrad vigorously, and was rewarded with promotion and high responsibilities in return. This leads Getty to make a convincing critique of the theory (presented as established fact in most histories of the period today) that Stalin planned Kirov’s assassination in December 1934. He had no reason to kill Kirov, and his immediate reaction to the assassination suggested panic, confusion and rage more than anything else. As Getty points out, no one, not even Trotsky, accused Stalin of the murder at the time or for another two decades. Even Khrushchev, who attributed to him direct responsibility for the deaths of several leading Communists, did not lay this charge at his door.

For most historians of Soviet politics in the Thirties, the Purges of 1937-38 were the deliberate culmination of the process of eliminating opposition in the Party which began in 1933. This Getty emphatically denies. There was, he argues, no ‘crescendo of terror’. The Great Purges were a separate phenomenon from the earlier purges, and had their own specific causes. He sees them as resulting primarily from severe central-regional conflicts, from bitter factional struggle in Moscow, and ultimately from the breakdown of the balance between radicals and moderates. Persuaded of the existence of a major threat from internal opposition, consisting perhaps of a revival of Trotskyist influence, perhaps of an alliance of economic administrators, local Party leaders and military commanders, Stalin threw his weight behind the radical faction. A savage pre-emptive strike was launched against opponents, real or imaginary. Yezhov was given command of the NKVD in summer 1936, and the following spring launched the terror which in the Soviet Union to this day bears his name, the Yezhovshchina.

It is important to note what Getty does not do. He states clearly that there is ‘no intention to exonerate Stalin of any guilt or responsibility for these horrors; regardless of the real nature and extent of his participation, his position as Party leader forces upon him primary responsibility for the events that ensued under his leadership.’ But such moral responsibility does not explain why the Purges happened. Nor, in Getty’s view, do the personal ambition, paranoia, ruthlessness, desire to settle old scores, of Stalin and others, though they may well have made the impact of the Purges more extreme. The essential point is that the Purges were a political phenomenon whose basic causes must be sought in political factors.

There can be no doubt that this book makes much of the traditional interpretation of Soviet politics in the Thirties redundant. It establishes once and for all that politics continued to function in those years, that the disappearance of political conflict at the end of the Twenties did not mean its abolition. It also hammers a good many nails into the coffin of the totalitarian model of Soviet politics. Its description of the shortcomings of the Party apparatus in the Smolensk region makes the old picture of a monolithic, omnipotent Communist Party impossible to sustain. Of its more speculative hypotheses, the idea of a link between radical anti-bureaucratic policies and working-class hostility towards bosses and officials is particularly interesting. It suggests that the Purges may be viewed as an example of extreme revolutionary populism, akin to the Jacobin terror of 1793-94 or the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

At the same time, some of Getty’s conclusions are questionable. The Smolensk archive provides him with much of his evidence: but how typical was Smolensk? In more urbanised and industrialised regions the Party apparatus may have been more effective, its members more committed and better disciplined. Whether the stated grounds of expulsion from the Party in the purges of 1933-36 (corruption, passivity etc) were always the actual reasons, as Getty assumes, may be doubted. These were convenient accusations to throw at political opponents; and in any case a lack of zeal was one of the chief sins of so-called Right deviationists. Moscow’s incessant criticisms of local incompetence, moreover, need not necessarily be taken at face value. What party headquarters is ever satisfied with the performance of its local branches? And despite its failings, the Party had a very tangible effect at the local level, playing a key role in mobilising the industrial work-force and collectivising the peasantry. Getty also seems to exaggerate the significance of the leadership’s appeal to the workers to criticise bureaucracy. This was not unique to the Thirties; it has been a perennial feature of Soviet politics from Lenin to Gorbachev.

Most problematic is Getty’s treatment of Stalin. It may be true that his role in the Purges has been exaggerated, that he was essentially a balancer of interests and an improvisor, that he often changed course, and that there were significant constraints on his power up to 1937. But was he really as removed from the political struggle as Getty implies? If he seems frequently to have reacted to events rather than to have directed them, is this not what all political leaders tend to do? And was Stalin’s position in fact as centrist as is claimed? While he sometimes sounded the retreat and supported moderate policies, especially in the face of economic setbacks, from 1928 onwards he mainly identified with the radical line. The decisions to industrialise rapidly and to collectivise, the ruthless squeezing of the peasantry in 1932-33, the support for the Stakhanovites’ challenge to managers’ authority in 1935-36, the doctrine of the intensification of class conflict as the victory of socialism approached, providing the rationale for the search for heresy and treason in 1937-38 – all these were basic Stalinist policies which did much to define the course and the style of Soviet politics in the Thirties.

To be fair, Getty’s main concern is to examine the origins of the Purges, not to provide a total analysis of their causes. He acknowledges that other factors besides the struggles within the Party played a part, though he leaves the task of evaluating these to other historians. But the result is that we have a considerably fuller account of how the Communist Party functioned between 1933 and 1937 than we have of the Purges themselves. The former and the latter may have been causally linked, as Getty argues they were, but it cannot be said that he has demonstrated this beyond any doubt. In fact, his reconstruction of the Yezhovshchina is no less speculative, though rather more plausible, than the accounts given by his predecessors. It is certainly the case that the political situation in the Soviet Union in the late Thirties was conducive to the terror which occurred, for the reasons given. But what tipped the balance? What turned potential into reality? Getty wishes to confine Stalin’s role to ‘catalytic and probably ad hoc interventions at three pivotal points’: the decisions to reopen the investigation into Kirov’s murder in July 1936, to put Piatakov, the ex-Trotskyist Deputy Commissar for Heavy Industry, on trial in January 1937, and to give Yezhov a free hand to attack ‘enemies of the people’ in February 1937. But even allowing that this was all, and that these crucial interventions were not part of any grand design, the fact remains that they were essential contributions to the terror. Stalin’s role, in other words, was central. Personal, political and structural factors all interacted.

Like most seminal works, this book raises more questions than it satisfactorily answers. Further investigation of the conflicts in the Politburo, the extent of real opposition, the relations between Moscow and the regions, the influence of the international situation, is needed. But it will take place, thanks to Getty, in a new context. He has cleared the ground of many influential myths and has advanced many challenging hypotheses. His book is a landmark in the writing of Soviet political history.