Lynn Viola and the Ecosystem of Violence

In describing the ideologies, historiographical schools of thought and the arbitrary cycle of both victims and perpetrators in Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-1938, Viola describes an ecosystem of violence – one that came from many directions and grew almost of its own volition across the Soviet State as a whole.[1]  Viola carefully describes the subjective and often malleable nature between both victims and perpetrators in the Soviet system, which differentiate drastically from that of Nazi Germany, to which Soviet Stalinism is often compared.[2]  The soviet system created a pyramid of perpetrators, and those who once denounced their neighbors and were thereby perpetrators to their own destruction often later became victims themselves.[3]  This ecosystem of continual violence was two pronged, the first being specifically Russian environmental factors and a second, modernizing feature.[4]  Bolshevik thought, from the very beginning of the revolution, believed that the ends justified the means, making violence an often unavoidable tool in the creation of socialism throughout the Soviet Union.[5]  The rapid pace of modernization combined with the language of war, making anyone who refused to comply a “wrecker” or “saboteur” – enemies of the state who needed to be removed from the party and the population at large for the good of the growing socialist society.[6]

Viola also describes multiple motives for those who became perpetrators under the soviet system.  While alcohol often accompanied violence under soviet Stalinism, as it was in the case of Nazi soldiers, Viola remarks that it was more likely a lubricator for the violence, enabling it and allowing it to continue rather than a root cause behind the violence itself.[7]

Opportunism and Careerism surely played a role in the perpetrator pyramid, although it was also undeniably a dangerous road to travel.  Many of those who sought to align themselves with the party in its beginning stages in order to achieve social mobility often found themselves caught within the confines of the party and subject to suspicion, caught up in the trap of repression that their own system had created.[8]

Ambition, like opportunism also played its own role.  After collectivism had taken hold and the first five-year plan was put into place ambition played a large role in the fulfilling of quotas, creating a competition for arrests which caught up many more people in the ever-increasing nets of the police.[9]  Along with ambition, economic advancement played a role in the repression, as the belongings of those arrested often became the property of those that arrested them rather than property of the state.[10]

It also seems obvious in hindsight to historians like Viola that fear played a role in the scope of the repressions and cycles of denunciations that accompanied them.[11]  Cadres sent out to enforce collectivization, for example, feared being labeled as “rightists” should their quotas go unmet.[12]  In addition, the system that the soviet government created was one that required reports of suspicious activity or even potentially suspicious activity – a failure to report something could (and often did) result in suspicion being placed on those who failed to report anti-Soviet sentiment in the first place.[13]

Lastly, Viola expands on the ideologies underneath soviet policies which played a role in the scope of the purges that swept the country.  There were large numbers of loyal party members who were fully devoted to Bolshevik ideologies in practice and in thought, which in turn created a system by which victims often became their own accusers due to their linguistic parity.[14]  Viola also argues that “ideology in one form or another permeated all dimensions of Soviet life and consequently shaped official behavior at all levels.”[15]

[1]Lynne Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator in Soviet History,” Slavic Review 72, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 10 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5612/slavicreview.72.1.0001.

[2] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 10.

[3] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 10.

[4][4] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 14.

[5][5] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 14.

[6] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator, “ 15.

[7] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 12.

[8] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 12.

[9] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 12.

[10] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 12.

[11] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.

[12] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.

[13] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.

[14] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.

[15] Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator,” 13.

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