The Road to Terror: Stalin and the
Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939
(Review by DAVID J. NORDLANDER)
J. Arch Getty & Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror:
Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. New Haven and
London: Yale University Press, 1999, xxvii + 635 pp., [pounds]22.50 h/b.
AMONG RECENT PUBLICATIONS in Soviet history, those from the Annals of
Communism series published by Yale University Press have been some of the most
groundbreaking. As a hybrid between a monograph and a document collection,
they have offered archival records in translation alongside expert commentary.
The Road to Terror is the latest issue from this series. As with earlier
volumes, the Russian editor, Naumov, performed the initial selection of
primary materials and technical annotations, while the American editor, Getty,
assisted in final archival inclusions and provided the scholarly commentary.
The great merit of this volume can be found in the copious presentation of
annotated archival records on the Soviet 1930s. Many of the citations offer
fascinating insights into the evolution of events in the early Stalin era, and
will entrance the reader who has yet to peruse primary Soviet materials. At
the same time, The Road to Terror is a model of careful editing, with a
minimum of typos and other errors, only a few of which were factual
inaccuracies. In a close reading of the entire text, I cannot remember any
spelling, grammatical or transliteration mistakes.
On a more substantive level, several observations made by the authors will
prove valuable. As with his earlier work, Getty provides insights into the
complex nature of the Terror and the multifaceted impact of events. Thanks in
part to his findings and those of others, notions of a totalitarian state with
atomised masses moving strictly in step with the government have become
outmoded. As with most political phenomena, the Soviet 1930s constituted a far
more complicated reality. Getty's application of textual analysis, including a
comprehensive assessment of party 'narratives' and 'transcripts' meant for
varying public and private audiences, is for the most part useful in spite of
obscuring more salient points on occasion. Getty likewise has admitted to some
re-evaluation of his prior arguments, such as the fact that archival records
prove the involvement of the secret police in party purge operations (chistki)
of the early 1930s and the absence of a liberal or 'soft-line' leadership
cohort in the early Stal in era.
On the whole, however, Getty has hewn quite close to his previous
conclusions on the centre-periphery conflict. He rightly observes that the
archives contain scant evidence for a 'master plan' in which Stalin
established clear goals of political violence that inexorably culminated in
full power by the end of the 1930s. Such a flawed conception has long
bedevilled interpretation by implicitly assuming that Soviet events occurred
beyond the normal range of politics, whereby a one-party state never had to
interact with society on any level. Among others, Getty has helped to broaden
our notions of political realities in the Stalin period. But at the same time,
both in this volume and elsewhere, he sets up a false dichotomy in which the
absence of a 'master plan' is taken as proof for a Kremlin leadership that
typically propounds ad hoc initiatives in reaction to events driven by forces
on the periphery. From Getty's viewpoint, even Stalin's role in the Great
Purges shows his relative weakness in being a last res ort for political
control. Since he is not an omniscient ruler with clairvoyant ability, then in
this scheme Stalin remains too much of a second-rate boss scrambling to keep
up with the times.
One problematic aspect of The Road to Terror is that, aside from some
caveats, Getty made this same argument 15 years ago in Origins of the Great
Purges, long before full access to Soviet archives. Considering all that has
transpired in the meantime, such conclusions become insufficient. While Getty
makes several good points on socio-political evolution in the Stalin era, he
often loses sight of key interludes driving Soviet politics. As such, this
work at times suffers from a subtle disconnection between the archival
citations and the associated commentary. Although often portrayed in the text
as reactive to events, Stalin can be seen in the primary materials as
handpicking secret police cadres for various regional posts or dispatching A.A.
Andreev and G.M. Malenkov as Politburo emissaries to oversee the purge of
remote party committees in the provinces. The paradox of this volume is that,
contrary to key sections of the interpretation and analysis, the archival
documents cited in fact highlight centrifugal forces present throughout the
1930s. Stalinism may not have been totalitarian as previously construed, but
primary state and party records reveal that it was highly authoritarian, with
a preponderant level of control from the centre.
To be fair, Getty has clearly wrestled at times with the archival evidence.
In the process of refashioning his argument, he has acknowledged some key
points. As he writes, 'Stalin's guilt for the terror was never in question. We
can now see his fingerprints all over the archives' (p. xiii). In connection
with various Politburo resolutions from 1934, Getty also observes that they
'point toward regularisation and centralisation of police powers in the hands
of fewer and fewer people' (p. 125). Such statements undercut the notion of a
recalcitrant regional elite fuelling the purge process, especially when there
is clear evidence for 'the iron discipline of the nomenklatura behind Stalin'
(p. 446). In regard even to Ezhov's role in the Great Purges, Getty remarks:
'He had a certain amount of freedom in identifying and arresting various
"enemies", but he almost certainly took his orders from Stalin and
the Politburo' (p. 491). In spite of such admissions, however, Getty cannot
spurn his previous assertions of a ne rvous central leadership uncertain of
its role in events. At the same time, he too often makes a caricature of
serious archival research undertaken by other scholars, such as O.V. Khlevniuk,
whose work on Stalin becomes unfairly and simplistically described as 'the
further enumeration of foul deeds by the evil prince' (p. 10).
There are similar problems with the subtitle of this volume, Stalin and the
Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. Such a sentence contains an
inherent historical contradiction. If indeed the Bolsheviks self-destructed,
then why mention Stalin at all? The obvious inference of self-destruction here
is very revealing, for it implies that such a process really did not need
Stalin. Yet the archives reveal his hand in the party annihilation every step
of the way, often in excruciating detail and amongst the very materials
included in this book. Unless one accepts the Trotskyist viewpoint that Stalin
has to be equated with the Thermidor of the Revolution, it becomes irrelevant
to speak of Bolshevik self-destruction except in metaphorical terms.
Otherwise, such references minimise Stalin's crucial agency in the process.
Most historians would understandably feel uncomfortable with such
implications, all the more so since many have stated that the Bolsheviks might
have flourished in more positive ways without Stalin's malevolent
intervention. While such an argument presents its own problems, the key issue
here is that archival materials now show that Stalin and his associates played
the crucial role in destroying a party that did not simply implode.
Taken altogether, The Road to Terror is a useful new work that will enhance
scholarly comprehension of the Stalin era through a copiously annotated volume
of archival materials. Much of the commentary is illuminating on specific
events from the Soviet 1930s, and thus fills many gaps in our knowledge. But
while offering useful insights on the political ebb and flow of the Soviet
1930s, Getty's portrait of Stalin falls short in capturing the repressive and
personal nature of his rule that other authors have described in light of the
archival evidence. Although revisionist paradigms on a relatively weak Stalin
were useful several years ago in challenging academic orthodoxy in the West,
they less fully capture the essence of Stalin's authoritarian impact that has
been more aptly painted in recent Russian historiography.