Stalin's need for terror

The Road to Terror
J Arch Getty and Oleg C Naumov

Reviewed by Robert Service


Stalin's Great Terror traumatised generations of Soviet citizens and continues to have consequences in Russia today. How else do we explain the extreme reluctance of Russians to take part in public life? Under Stalin, only the most ambitious and foolhardy took such a risk and it may well be years before the political apathy of the Russian people is overcome.

In the 1930s, Stalin was not the only murderous dictator in Europe. Hitler rivaled him in bestial policy. But there was much about Stalin that distinguished him from his German competitor. The terror campaign in the USSR was not very orderly. In Germany the victims were announced in advance: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, socialists and the mentally ill. The timing and the intensity of the assault came as a shock to many of them. But it had been known for a long time whom Hitler wanted to liquidate. In the Soviet Union there was always an arbitrary aspect to the state terrorism.

Frequently, Stalin's victims were astounded by their arrest, and many thousands of them wrote personal letters to him to complain that a dreadful mistake had been made.

Another difference was the close interest taken by Stalin in the process. He had an album made of the names of those marked down for arrest so that he might review the NKVD's suggestions for punishment. It was as if he was taking pleasure in flicking through a book of photographs. Stalin's other quirk was that he enjoyed humiliating his victims. They had to confess to their crimes, however imaginary, beforehand. They had to die already broken in spirit.

Among the documents in The Road to Terror, one of the most extraordinary is a final letter to Stalin from Nikolai Bukharin, who had been one of his leading political opponents. In 1929 Bukharin had opposed Stalin's forcible herding of peasants into collective farms. Having defeated him, Stalin gave him various jobs in Soviet public life. But in 1937 Bukharin was arrested and put on show trial in the following year. In desperation he declared that he had long ago given up campaigning against Stalin. He argued that the Communist state could still make valuable use of his talent. First he pleaded to be allowed to go the USA to act as the party's propagandist against Trotsky. Alternatively he offered to work as an administrator in the depths of Siberia.

But if he had to die - and Bukharin accepted that all revolutions are greedy devourers of their own children - then so be it. He made one last plea. Bukharin begged Stalin to be allowed to be given a dose of morphine. He did not trust himself to face a firing squad with sufficient self-control. But Stalin saw no reason to show greater indulgence to Bukharin than to any one else.

The book covers the debates among the central and local Communist leaders through the 1930s about the reasons why the Soviet state remained insecure despite the apparent achievements in industrial construction and military preparedness. The Russian archivist Oleg Naumov has located material in the party archives that have gathered dust for 60 years, and little by little we are beginning to comprehend the tense situation in the Communist party that led to the Great Terror. His fellow author J Arch Getty once contended that Stalin's associates virtually manhandled Stalin into sanctioning the violence. Such an analysis was always flimsy and was further exposed by the archival revelations.

Now Getty in his commentary limits himself to stressing that the Communist leadership colluded in its own destruction by agreeing with Stalin on the need for terror. There is something in this approach. But, unfortunately, the book over-looks the evidence that whenever one of Stalin's close associates - even Molotov or Kaganovich - queried his demands for terror, he dropped unmistakable hints that he would treat them, too, as "ene-mies of the people".

As an accumulation of fresh material on Stalinism, The Road To Terror has few equals. Not all the mysteries have been cleared up. Perhaps they never will. But a little more light is shining in the murky historical depths of the cellars of the Lubyanka.

Associated Newspapers Ltd., 8 November 1999