Perpetrators and Victims

The demarcation between perpetrators and victims under the soviet system is not nearly as cut and dry as it is when examining the perpetrators and victims of Nazi Germany.  Lynne Viola makes a point to criticize the comparison between the two systems, stating that it is not a representative comparison.[1]  In Nazi Germany, a Jew was a Jew regardless of their economic or social status, and were the outsider to the German system and were thereby targeted.[2]  Under the Soviet system, by contrast, the enemy was not an outsider – it was internal, and virtually anyone could be targeted by the system as an enemy of the people.[3]

In Goldman’s book describing her arrest, interrogation, imprisonment and life within the gulag, she brought this home for me personally in her description of one of her fellow prisoners, Valya Streltsova.[4]  Remaining silent for the majority of her imprisonment, Valya supposedly confided to a friend as she was dying that her denunciations of others had resulted in several dozen death sentences.[5]  In this regard, Valya was a perpetrator of pain upon others by denouncing them which ultimately resulted in their deaths.[6]  In the same way, however, she was simultaneously a victim of the system – sentenced to solitary, hard labor and imprisonment as a political prisoner acting against the soviet government.  The same concept arose in the early chapters of Goldman’s book as she was pressured to denounce others repeatedly throughout the course of her interrogation.

Similarly, Viola describes the “grey zone” in the perpetrator/victim relationship in which the binary between the two position disappears and former perpetrators often become victims themselves.[7]  By the end of the Great Terror, a great number of elites within the soviet system became victims, including members of the secret police whose activities had terrorized so many.[8]

Like Viola, Goldman’s article points to a wide-based pyramid of perpetrators that often became victims themselves.  For example, after former oppositionists were largely eliminated from the country, the party turned upon itself and many who had denounced numerous others became victims themselves.[9]  She goes further, stating that “the process of ‘unmasking’ involved the mass participation of coworkers, relatives, friends and colleagues who turned against each other, poisoning the atmosphere with terror and fear.”[10]  This culture of suspicion and paranoia created a system by which neighbors turned against each other, often resulting in mutual arrests or at least suspicion by the state.

[1] Lynne Viola, “The Question of the Perpetrator in Soviet History,” Slavic Review 72, no. 1 (Spring 2013) 10,

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

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

[4] Wendy Z Goldman, Into the Whirlwind, (San Diego, Harcourt, Inc, 1995), 308.

[5] Goldman, Into the Whirlwind, 308.

[6] Goldman, Into the Whirlwind, 308.

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

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

[9] Wendy Z Goldman, “Twin Pyramids – Perpetrators and Victims,” Slavic Review 72, no. 1 (Spring 2013) 25,

[10] Goldman, “Twin Pyramids,” 25.

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