The American Historical Review
Vol. 106, No. 1 February 2001


Chris Ward
University of Cambridge

J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov.
The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932–1939
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999

    Most works on the purges written before the collapse of communism try to explain why they happened, and the kind of answers adduced invariably focus on a series of well-rehearsed themes. What is surprising about the post-Soviet landscape is just how little has changed. Even though we now have unparalleled access to previously closed archival material, the same timeworn explanations reappear over and again: Joseph Stalin's wickedness, Bolshevik amorality, Soviet totalitarianism, Russian authoritarianism. Sometimes it seems as if the profession simply cannot bear to let go of the Cold War. The authors of the present monograph—one, the deputy director of what used to be Moscow's Central Party Archive, the other one of the foremost Western historians of Stalinism—attempt to escape from the sterility of so much purge writing by asking a different but related question: not "why did it happen?" but "how was it all possible?"— specifically, what was it about the situation of the Soviet leadership in the 1930s that resulted in the tensions that wracked the party and led to the bloodbath of 1937–1938, the "Great Purge" that wiped out practically the entire Bolshevik elite?

     The book is organized around a selection of some 200 previously secret documents of the party's Central Committee, but what is most interesting is not the documents themselves but the construct of which they form the basis—the "history" narrated by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov. Their interpretation asserts that Stalin stood at the epicenter of terror, but they also aver that other actors were important: local party bosses anxious to strengthen their position and Central Committee members determined to impose their will on the country. So far so unexceptional. What we are presented with is pretty much standard "revisionist" historiography. For Getty and Naumov, Stalin is a necessary but not a sufficient factor in the terror equation; the question "how?" cannot therefore be answered without reference to the General Secretary, but he cannot "stand for" the political elite, still less for society at large. Moreover, Stalin, like others, did not always foresee the consequences of his actions or know where he was going. Terror was therefore not something planned but something that happened. But, argue the authors, in what is the most original aspect of their work, it happened in a certain way because of the manner in which Bolshevik ideology interacted with the "Stalin Revolution."

     As Moscow's leaders looked out on a world turned upside down by mass collectivization and forced industrialization, they were seized by fear and insecurity. Fear because they had been formed in the crucible of civil war and were only too aware of the fragility of state power, insecurity because they scarcely knew what was going on around them; communications were poor and the sinews of government weakly developed. The upshot of all this was that Moscow might propose, but the localities disposed and frequently ignored or distorted the center's orders. In response, the Central Committee, determined to push on with its program of economic and social change, tried to micromanage virtually every aspect of Soviet life.

     Perhaps none of this would have mattered, argue the authors, had it not been for the peculiarities of the Bolshevik Weltanschauung. Stalin and his cronies shared an ideology, sincerely held for the most part, which evinced a deep-rooted belief in enemies, a fanatical devotion to party unity, and a series of discourses—phrases, slogans, complex theoretical formulations, and rhetorical devices—that ordered the world and, crucially, shaped the Central Committee's corporate self-image. By "speaking Bolshevik," party leaders became their ideology and, eventually, acted it out in a series of lethal purges.

     Initially, Stalin and the Central Committee—an uneasy alliance of "centralizers"—strove to augment Moscow's power by "cleansing" local party organizations of those deemed responsible for the failures of collectivization and industrialization, "Trotskyists" and "wreckers" in particular. But since these "enemy" categories were mutable and contested, local party bosses interpreted them to rid their bailiwicks of troublemakers. When victims appealed against their expulsion, Moscow mobilized the "enemy" discourse against local elites responsible for the repression of "honest communists." Finally, as this expedient failed to improve matters and the economy took a turn for the worse in the winter of 1936–1937, the alliance between Stalin and the Central Committee, under strain for some time, finally broke down. With Stalin's encouragement, the "enemy" discourse erupted inside the Central Committee, unleashing a war of all against all. Only in 1938, when the entire political system seemed under threat, did policy switch back to buttressing the authority of regional elites.

     This is an elegant and persuasive thesis that signals a further and welcome step in what might be termed the "historicization" of Soviet history. Of course, those anxious to demonize Stalin, or V. I. Lenin, or socialism, or the Soviet experience, will not be persuaded. But then the purpose of history is not—or should not be—to point the moral tale.