12 July 2014

Stalin's Great Terror and Its Mitigation

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 3100-3114, 3297-3309:
But the Great Terror was more than a bloodletting among Bolsheviks. It was a complex series of repressions involving many different groups. The striking thing about it, compared to other waves of Soviet terror, is that such a high proportion of the victims were murdered. Of the 1.5 million people arrested by the secret police (and we do not have the figures for arrests by the regular police), 1.3 million were sentenced, and more than half of these (681,692 people) were executed by a firing squad for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. At the height of the Great Terror, between August 1937 and November 1938, on average 1,500 people were shot each day. The population of the Gulag labour camps meanwhile grew from 1.2 to 1.9 million, a figure which conceals at least 140,000 deaths within the camps themselves.

The sheer scale of the Great Terror makes it all the harder to explain. The types of people caught in it were so diverse. Some historians have maintained that it is best understood as a number of related but separate waves of terror, each one capable of being explained on its own but not as part of a single phenomenon. There was certainly a complex amalgam of different elements that made up the Great Terror: the purging of the Party, the great ‘show trials’, the mass arrests in the cities, the ‘kulak operation’ and ‘national operations’ against minorities. But while it may be helpful to analyse these various components separately, the fact remains that they all began and ended simultaneously, which does suggest that they were part of a unified campaign that needs to be explained. To begin to understand it, we must look at the Great Terror, not, as some have argued, as an uncontrolled or accidental happening, a product of the chaos and infighting of the Stalinist regime, nor as something driven by social pressures from below, as argued by ‘revisionist’ historians, but as an operation, which we now know from studying the archives was masterminded and controlled by Stalin directly in response to the circumstances he perceived in 1937.


At the rate the arrests were going on, it would not be long before doubts spread. How many ‘enemies of the people’ could there be? By 1938 it was becoming clear that unless the arrests came to an end the terror system would be undermined. The terror was getting out of control. In January Stalin warned the NKVD not to carry on arresting people solely on the basis of denunciations without first checking their veracity. He spoke against ‘false vigilance’ and careerists who made denunciations to promote themselves. Yezhov’s power was gradually reduced. In November he was replaced by his deputy, Lavrenty Beria, who immediately announced a full review of the arrests in Yezhov’s reign. By 1940, 1.5 million cases were reviewed; 450,000 convictions were quashed, 128,000 cases closed, 30,000 people released from jail, and 327,000 people let out of the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies. These releases restored many people’s faith in Soviet justice. They allowed those with doubts to explain the ‘Yezhov terror’ as a temporary aberration rather than as a product of the system. Their reasoning went like this: the mass arrests had all been Yezhov’s doing, but Stalin had corrected his mistakes, and uncovered Yezhov as an ‘enemy of the people’ (he was shot in 1940), who had tried to undermine the Soviet government by arresting so many innocent people and thus spreading discontent. People now accepted that anybody not released by Beria, and everyone arrested under him, must be guilty of the crimes for which they stood accused. The belief system had been stabilized, allowing rule by terror to go on.

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