Rancorous Luminaries

R.W. Davies

  • Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives edited by J. Arch Getty and Roberta Manning
    Cambridge, 294 pp, £35.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 521 44125 0
  • Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant by Amy Knight
    Princeton, 312 pp, £19.95, January 1994, ISBN 0 691 03257 2
  • This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Nikolai Bukharin’s Widow by Anna Larina
    Hutchinson, 385 pp, £25.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 09 178141 8
  • Stalin i Ordzhonikidze: Konflikty v Politbyuro v 30-e gody by O.V. Khlevnyuk
    Rossiya Molodaya, 144 pp, December 1993, ISBN 5 86646 047 5

Western historians have been struggling for decades to get into the archives of the Stalin period. In the early Eighties, before Gorbachev took office, we were granted very limited access, but were forbidden to see the finding aids and were segregated in a special foreigners’ reading-room. The real transformation came after the defeat of the August 1991 coup. The following month, the party archives made available reports of plenary meetings of the Party Central Committee from the Thirties, as well as Politburo minutes of that time, to both of which I had been refused access the previous April.

May promises made that autumn have not been kept. The KGB, military and foreign affairs archives remain administratively separate from the other state archives, and access is extremely difficult. And we still await the Presidential of Kremlin archives, promised over two years ago – these contain the working papers of the Politburo for the whole Soviet period, and most of Stalin’s own papers. In spite of these restrictions, and the archives, desperate financial situation, the millions of previously inaccessible files now available in Moscow and in the regions have made possible a vast increase in our knowledge of Stalinism, and perhaps in our understanding of it.

The new information about the gulags provides a notable example. While the archives of the KGB are still closed, the stale archives contain a large store of materials from the KGB’s predecessor, the NKVD. Ever since the gulag system was established in the early Thirties. Western historians have inconclusively and often acrimoniously discussed its size and significance. Before the archives were opened, estimates of the camp and prison population could only be made by assessing survivors’ reports, and by manipulating gaps in the statistics, the confidential but incomplete 1941 plan, and other indirect evidence. The estimates for the end of the Thirties ranged from Dallin and Nicolaevsky’s ten million and Robert Conquest’s nine million (the latter figure excluded ‘criminals’) to Wheatcroft’s maximum of four to five million, Jasny’s three and a half million and Timasheff’s two million. Elaborate records in the NKVD archives reveal that about two million people were incarcerated in camps, colonies and prisons at the beginning of 1939, and about one million in the ‘labour settlements’ to which kulaks and other undesirables were exiled – some three million in all. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 the total number had risen to well over five million, largely as a result of the mass exiling of Soviet Germans, Crimean Tatars and others accused of treachery or potential treachery during the war.

These figures do not give a complete picture. The files available at present may exclude certain top-secret camps, and they certainly exclude the many people released from camps or exile but not permitted to return to their town of origin. But they do indicate that Jasny’s estimate, largely based on the 1941 plan, was about right for the number of people in camps and labour settlements; almost all the others were too high.

There is more room for dispute about the total number of people who passed through the camps during the Stalin period, and even more doubt about the number of excess deaths from violence, hunger and disease. Newly available demographic material indicates that between eight and fourteen million excess deaths – deaths above the normal expected level – occurred between the population censuses of 1926 and 1939, most of them during the calamitous famine of 1932-3. The estimates made as long ago as 1946 by Lorimer, and in the Seventies by Stephen Wheatcroft and myself, proved to be too low, but many estimates by Western historians were too high.

The present state of our knowledge about these grim consequences of Stalinism is succinctly summarised in Alec Nove’s 14-page chapter in Stalinist Terror. Most of the other contributions to this important collection of essays deal with the Great Purge of 1936-8, the Yezhovshchina. Several authors deal with the impact of the Great Purge on particular sections of the population. A preliminary study of the Soviet élite, by Getty and William Chase, indicates that, contrary to the usual assumption, the purges hit economic administrators more severely than writers and other members of the creative intelligentsia. An ingenious study by Sheila Fitzpatrick of Moscow and Leningrad telephone directories before and after the purges tends to confirm this. As many as 60 per cent of senior officials in heavy industry, as compared with 17 per cent of the creative intelligentsia, dropped out of the phone books between 1937 and 1939.

The same was true for officials and managers working in heavy industry at a local level: Hiroaki Kuromiya shows that between 1936 and 1938 in the Donbass, the main coal-producing area, the Stalinist Terror ‘virtually decimated the party leadership’ and eliminated more than a quarter of all senior mining officials. Nor was the Great Purge confined to the towns. Using the Smolensk archives, Roberta Manning concludes that in the Belyi agricultural district as many as 15 per cent of rural party members were expelled in the single year 1937, and many of these were arrested.

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