Harris and The Great Fear

In The Great Fear, James Harris tells a story that leads up to Stalin’s infamous Great Terror of 1937-38 – a purge responsible for the imprisonment and execution – not only of party leaders – but of thousands of ordinary soviet citizens as well.[1]  Harris painstakingly describes not only the key events leading up to the purge, but also the way these events were perceived by soviet leadership in contrast to how they are perceived by historiography today.

The central theme throughout Harris’ work is perspective versus reality, and he frames this debate in the context of a Russian history that greatly predates the Bolshevik revolution.  From the very early years of Muscovy rule, challenging those in power was punished by either death or exile.[2]  The struggles for power, the regular conspiracies to overthrow it and the nature of the relationship between the ruling elite and those who were owned by them resulted in a cycle of increasing political violence.[3]  A secret police force was established by the autocracy as early as 1682, and its lessons continued through the age of revolutions.[4]

The strong state/weak state paradox that Harris describes in his introduction describes the controversy between the totalitarian and revisionist schools of historiographical thought in the realm of soviet history.  A strong state as proposed by authors like Robert Conquest focused on the consolidated power of Stalin as a dictator who implemented the purges as an effort to further solidify and maintain his power.[5]  The revisionist school of thought of the 1970s and 1980s as described by authors like J. Arch Getty focused instead on the effect that the civil war, Bolshevik ideologies and Russian cultural history contributed to political violence in Stalin’s regime, creating a system in which enemies existed everywhere.[6]  Harris’ thesis throughout his work describes the disintegration between the regime’s reality and its perception by those in power.

The lingering fear of war led to the misperception that the regime – and indeed the revolutionary movement as a whole – was in eminent danger.[7]  This threat convinced soviet leadership that repression and violence was the only way to survive and remain in power.[8]  Continual accusations of wrecking and sabotage were not legitimate attempts to overthrow the government – they were a direct result of the unrealistic expectations that Stalin imposed on both agriculture and industry that were nearly impossible to meet.[9]  As leaders were denounced and their conspiracies to meet those expectations were exposed, it further convinced Stalin of the eminent danger the party faced from within and without.[10]  This vicious, self-reinforcing cycle led to the increase of violence, arrests and executions of ordinary citizens with little to no evidence of their actual guilt.[11]

From the introduction through the conclusion, Harris strategically builds his argument through the various phases of the revolutionary regime through Stalin’s.  Due to the nature of the NKVD’s hunt for conspirators and their use of both confessions under torture and denunciations, it was impossible to find an ‘end’ to conspiracy.[12]  Although Stalin and other party leadership eventually admitted that there were ‘excesses’ and that innocent people had suffered as a result, the culture of suspicion, fear and threat contributed to the scope and the violence of the purges.[13]  Ultimately, Harris places the blame not on Stalin (or at least not solely on Stalin), but on faulty methods of gathering intelligence and the continual misperceptions that intelligence generated and perpetuated throughout party leadership as a whole.[14]

[1] James Harris, The Great Fear, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016), 2.

[2] Harris, The Great Fear, 7.

[3] Harris, The Great Fear, 7.

[4] Harris, The Great Fear, 9.

[5] Harris, The Great Fear, 3.

[6] Harris, The Great Fear, 3.

[7] Harris, The Great Fear, 142.

[8] Harris, The Great Fear, 142.

[9] Harris, The Great Fear, 167.

[10] Harris, The Great Fear, 167.

[11] Harris, The Great Fear, 168.

[12] Harris, The Great Fear, 182.

[13] Harris, The Great Fear, 183.

[14] Harris, The Great Fear, 186.


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