World War II and the Soviet Hero Myth

The hero myth surrounding the soviet veterans of WWII was created by a well-oiled machine of propaganda, the Sovinformburo and the memories of soldiers and civilians alike in the decades following the end of a war that claimed 27 million soviet lives.[1]  The myth of these heroes sought to describe soldiers of the Red Army as every-day citizens, loyal to their motherland, brave and happy to do their duty.[2]  These soldiers were not afraid of dying for their homeland and they fought selflessly for the good of the people they left behind.[3]  They never demeaned their place by failing in their task, panicking while facing a formidable enemy or experiencing doubt about their honorable and righteous cause.[4]  According to Merridale, it is only with great irony that “their state should have instilled in them a sense of pride so powerful that few could see how thoroughly it disinherited them.”[5]  Though this myth was fully developed and exploited during WWII and the decades that followed, it existed in some form before the first shots were ever fired in poetry and even masterpieces like Tolstoy’s War and Peace.[6]  The scope of the myth was further enhanced by the Sovinformburo and its censorship of news that would have caused soldiers and civilians alike to lose hope.[7]  Censorship minimized losses on the battlefield, focusing instead solely on pieces of progress that had been made against the fascist army – even if that meant only delaying an inevitable attack.[8]  Nothing was allowed in the press that even suggested the presence of fear, rewriting the official narrative of the war’s first year as a steady stream of heroism in the face of a great and terrible adversary.[9]

The myth held, in part, because no one particularly wanted to relive the pain and loss they endured throughout the war years.[10]  Survivors had much to gain by allowing the official, mythic narrative to stand, and much to lose by contradicting it.[11]  Even decades after the war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Merridale found that the overwhelming majority of veterans still felt obligated to keep their real experiences private.[12]  This silence was, in fact, their official duty to the state and demobilized soldiers were required to sign documents to that effect before they would be allowed to return home.[13]  This propaganda and censorship campaign allowed returning veterans to maintain a sense of pride and it served as the face they would continue to present to the public, regardless of the trauma they had either experienced – or in many cases – inflicted upon others.[14]  After the war was over, in fact, challenging the official narrative of the war could turn a veteran from a hero into an enemy of the state.[15]  In addition, loyal veterans were given pensions.  For many, to speak against the motherland seemed, at least symbolically, a dishonor to the millions who had given their lives for it.[16]

[1] Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War, (New York: Picador, 2006), 4.

[2] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 6.

[3] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 6.

[4] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 7.

[5] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 8.

[6] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 51.

[7] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[8] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[9] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[10] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 189.

[11] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 281.

[12] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 207.

[13] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 356.

[14] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 375.

[15] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 375.

[16] Merridale, Ivan’s War, 375.

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Holocaust By Bullets

Although I had a prior understanding of the nature of the Holocaust on the Eastern front and how much it differed from what thoughts of the death camp typically entail, I have to admit that I found Desbois’ book chilling and haunting on every level, and I was not prepared for the scale and the sadism of the Eastern Holocaust.  What was most troubling to me was how very personal the killing seemed and how close it occurred to ‘normal’ everyday life.  The book tells only a fraction of the stories of the 1.5 million Jews who were murdered just outside their former home villages, many who were forced to dig their own graves before being shot at extremely close range.[1]  Rather than the more impersonal gas chamber which is practically synonymous with holocaust imagery, these men, women and children faced their executioners and the executioners similarly faced their victims as they shot them.[2]  Meanwhile, former neighbors and friends were often close enough to witness the massacre first-hand – if not, they could almost certainly hear the shots.[3]  Holocaust studies has largely focused on the more massive extermination efforts at the infamous concentration camps – so much so that these initial mass-victims have almost dropped out of the pages of history.[4]  In a chilling sense of irony, this lack of remembrance is what the Nazi’s sought – to make these Eastern Jews disappear – almost as though they were never there at all.[5]  Although Soviet leadership was eager to chronicle the atrocities in their fight against Germany’s fascism, the records were largely sealed until the fall of the Soviet Union and Perestroika.[6]  Given the scope and horror of these atrocities, many scholars believed the records to be exaggerated until they began studying them in earnest and seeing first-hand what remained of Russia’s Jewish population after the devastation of WWII.[7]  In this grisly yet important work, Father Desbois seeks to – at least in some small part – return the humanity to these nameless, faceless victims of a vicious policy of a racist regime.

The stories that witnesses to these atrocities relay to Desbois and his team are horrific, and while decades often make memory more subjective and muddled, I find it hard to think that these events could ever be stricken from the minds of those who witnessed them or who were forced to participate.  In some areas, the killings lasted not for days or weeks, but for months on end.[8]  In one extermination site of the Ukraine, over 90,000 people were exterminated.[9]  I cannot even imagine what living so close to killings on that scale would do to those left behind with the remains and the memories.

There were undeniable heroes in the East who, despite the danger to themselves, attempted to shelter and protect the Jews in their communities – much like what was happening throughout Western Europe.[10]  Many of them suffered and died along with their Jewish neighbors as a result.[11]  There were also those who betrayed their Jewish neighbors and/or those who sheltered them to the Germans, resulting in a death sentence for Jews and their protectors alike.[12]

One of the things that struck me the most, however, was the story of the village of Sataniv.  The Jews in this village made up almost half of its population.[13]  The Germans rounded them up and walled them, alive, into the cellar of the marketplace.[14]  Witnesses recall the ground moving with those buried alive for five days after they were walled in before it was finally silent.[15]  Yet no one remaining in the village thought to open the cellar door for another 12 years, leaving their Jewish neighbors at the site of their execution and simultaneous burial for over a decade after the war was over.[16]

While it was certainly a difficult book to stomach, it gave life to the millions of Jews, almost forgotten, on the Eastern front of WWII.  Their stories most definitely deserve to be remembered, along with the millions more from the camps, and the relevance of this work bears repeating, especially given the fact that many of the survivors and remaining witnesses will soon reach the end of their lives, leaving no eyewitnesses to these historical horrors, leaving a vacuum of memory for future generations.

[1] Father Patrick Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), vii.

[2] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, vii.

[3] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, viii.

[4] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, viii.

[5] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, ix.

[6] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, ix.

[7] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, x.

[8] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 113.

[9] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 116.

[10] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 193.

[11] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 193.

[12] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 196.

[13] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 204.

[14] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 205.

[15] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 205.

[16] Desbois, Holocaust By Bullets, 205.

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, 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] 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, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5612/slavicreview.72.1.0024.

[10] Goldman, “Twin Pyramids,” 25.

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.

POLICY, RESISTANCE AND REBELLION UNDER SOVIET POLICY

Despite the soviet government’s attempt to portray society as cohesive and progressive in the 1920s and 1930s, their claims could not be further from the truth.  In two informative and influential works, authors Lynne Viola and Wendy Goldman shine a light on the often-ignored side of soviet history, highlighting the fractures between the party and the citizens it claimed to represent.  More than that, however, both Goldman and Viola show how effective these forms of resistance could be in altering official state policy and in changing the way that ordinary citizens interacted with their government.  Whether the focus was on soviet family policy and the ‘withering away’ of both the law and the familial unit as explored by Goldman or the resistance against collectivism described by Viola, both of these works paint an alternative picture to the official party line presented to the country and the rest of the world.  Additionally, both of these books preset a masterful case for revisionist soviet history, showing definitively that although everyday people were often victimized by Stalin’s regime, they were neither powerless nor voiceless, demonstrating time and time again that both active and passive forms of resistance could affect real, lasting change in official state policy.

Women, The State and Revolution by Wendy Goldman focuses primarily on family and social law, beginning with the 1918 Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship and continues on to discuss the unforeseen consequences the code created and its impact upon the people it strived to govern.  The code was rewritten in 1926 amidst massive debate and controversy over the role of the family, the inequality facing women in the workforce, divorce and homeless children.  Goldman chronicles those debates and highlights the problems facing the many women and children throughout the country.  Finally, in 1936, the soviet government shifted their position in an abrupt about-face and made efforts to stabilize rather than dismantle the family – a reversal of the original code of 1918.[1]

The 1918 code in theory was both progressive and revolutionary and it focused on gender equality and claims of liberation.[2]  The state saw the family unit as eventually obsolete, removing both women and men from the restrictions of traditional marriage and allowing both partners to participate equally in the workforce and in politics.[3]  Along with the concept of making the importance of the family irrelevant, the state saw the law as temporary and that the appearance of a true proletarian revolution would make the necessity of law superfluous.[4]  The increase of socialism would move the majority of the housework typically reserved for wives and shift it to the public sphere, allowing for an advance in female education and employment – a liberation of soviet women from the chains which had traditionally bound them to the home and out of public and political life.  The socialist ideal, therefore, was a nation of individuals who were equal in choosing their own partnerships in which the government would not interfere.[5]  The state was about to discover, however, that ideologies did not necessarily comport with reality and the best laid plans did not always work out the way that they were supposed to.

As women increasingly left the home to pursue employment, several problems inadvertently presented themselves.  The first issue facing the state was that of Besprizornost – orphaned, abandoned or runaway children that flocked to the cities in search of food and shelter.[6]  Children’s advocates originally advanced the idea of socialized child-rearing, claiming that these children belonged to the state and were the state’s responsibility.  This adopted the language of liberation, freeing them from the confines of the family and allowing them the opportunity to realize their potential.[7]  In 1926, the soviet government retreated from the ideology of socialized child-rearing, removing the sanction on adoption.[8]  Although a socialized system of raising children was attractive, it was simply infeasible under the country’s current economic conditions.[9]

The other large problem that became quickly apparent after the family code of 1918 went into effect was two-fold.  First, the concept of free love was designed to create a society of equality, but the ease of divorce caused economic catastrophe for single mothers across the country.[10]  Secondly, the economic conditions created by the NEP made it incredibly difficult for women to obtain employment, and wages and opportunities were anything but equal for women in the workforce.[11]  Women became increasingly dependent upon men as a result in order to survive in an economy that favored men, providing few support services to the increasing number of single women.[12]  These disadvantages forced many women, like female Besprizornost, to turn to prostitution in order to feed their dependents and themselves.[13]

The revisionist scholarship Goldman employs in her work is often over-shadowed by its seemingly totalitarian policies.  Yet Goldman displays a keen sense of explaining the multitude of ways that women were able to become their own advocates in the burgeoning soviet government, asserting their voices effectively and with a unity that produced lasting and impactful results.  Although the original policies passed down in the family code of 1918 and its revision in 1926 were totalitarian and nature and negatively affected the overwhelming majority of the population, these affects did not go unnoticed, and women were able to speak out in their own interests and affect change.  Ultimately this resulted in a reversal of policy after 1926 in regards to male responsibility, the importance of the family and the family’s role in raising children effectively.

Like Goldman, Lynne Viola highlights the effectiveness that ordinary people could have upon government policy and practice.  Her work, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin focuses on the problems of forced collectivization in the countryside and does an amazing job of showing just how widespread and effective peasant rebellion could be under a brutal and often violent regime.  She painstakingly describes the varied means of rebellion employed by peasants that made up the majority of the USSR’s population and the real danger these rebellions posed to soviet authority.  From passive resistance to more direct and confrontational forms, Viola describes what life was like as collectivism was forced upon an unwilling majority and details the threat that it posed not only to peasant culture but its livelihood as well.[14]

Viola describes peasant resistance as a civil war, framing her work from the very beginning as a revolution within a revolution with a culture that found itself at odds with the authority of the state.[15]  The fight took many forms, from the female led revolts of the Bab’i bunty to letter writing and the protection of villagers in danger of being labeled kulaks.  Many of these peasants eagerly took matters into their own hands, imposing self-dekulakization to reframe their own social status, or razbazarivanie – destroying or selling off their property to remove the potential kulak label before it could be applied.[16]  Due to the insistence of the state to label peasant as dark, backwards, uncultured and uneducated individuals, many of these methods had surprisingly effective results.[17]  Women, who were usually immune from prosecution as they were denied agency and thereby incapable of political protest were often the first to protest church closings, and often acted to protect their village priests and the kulaks within their midst.[18]  Unable to assign responsibility to these female results, kulaks were often blamed for their actions.[19]

The majority of peasant resistance, however, was passive in nature, knowing full well that if violence began, retaliation by the state would be overpowering.[20]  Although letter-writing was common before collectivism was widespread, the main form of resistance after the spread of collectivization was simply tikhaia sapa – on the sly.[21]  The most common form of this was simply not showing up to work, known as a lack of labor discipline.[22]  Theft of food, supplies, and labor days were also common as peasants became desperate to feed themselves and their family among an unreasonable percentage of governmental grain requisitions pushed many towards starvation.[23]

Like Goldman, Viola takes a revisionist approach to soviet history.  Although the peasants were unable to fend off collectivization on massive scale, they were able to gain rights for themselves under the socialist system that could at least provide some measure of sustenance in the form of private plots.  These plots also produced surpluses which could be sold or traded for necessary items throughout the village.  The peasants under soviet collectivization were certainly victims of the system, but they did not take their impending victimization laying down – they fought back with every tool at their disposal, from letter writing, to female led rebellion, to refusing to work and focusing their attention instead away from the collective farms and towards their own private plots.  In these ways, these ‘simple-minded’ and backwards Russian people were able to affect real, lasting change.

While easy to demonize the soviet regime for all of its problems and violent reprisals, these works combined show the effectiveness of rebellion carried out by everyday people in the course of their daily lives.  In response, soviet party policy was faced with the choice of change or death – forced to evolve to the reality of their population or to lose power over the nation almost before their power had begun.  The state’s willingness to acquiesce to pressures asserted by both women and peasants illustrated by both Viola and Goldman shows a different perspective from the totalitarian school of historiographical thought, and creates an alternative narrative to the typical top-down approach often taken when studying the Soviet Union.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Goldman, Wendy Z.  Women, The State and Revolution.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

 

Viola, Lynne.  Peasant Rebels Under Stalin.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

 

 

[1] Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 296.

[2] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 1.

[3] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 1.

[4] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 1.

[5] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 3.

[6] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 59.

[7] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 63.

[8] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 90.

[9] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 100.

[10] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 101.

[11] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 103.

[12] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 109.

[13] Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution, 119.

[14] Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), vii.

[15] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 3.

[16] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 69.

[17] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 69.

[18] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 189.

[19] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 189.

[20] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 157.

[21] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 205.

[22] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 211.

[23] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 227.

Was Peasant Rebellion Irrational?

As the Soviet government pushed peasants towards collectivism throughout the countryside, resistance from the peasants was inevitable.  Collectivization forced peasants into socialized farms, threatening not only their culture and their way of life, but threatening their very survival as well.  Soviet authorities relied on the ability to classify peasant resistance as illogical and irrational thereby avoiding the reality of acknowledging that 80% of the population could be viewed in a state of official rebellion against the Soviet government.  Viola not only argues against the official party line of dismissing peasant rebellion, she provides numerous, important examples to illustrate the fact that peasant resistance was anything but irrational and illogical.  In chapter 3, she begins by describing peasant self-help initiatives aimed at self-defense of the peasant communal cohesion when initial dekulakization efforts began.  She states outright that “peasant self-help was neither irrational nor the emanation of backwards peasantry.  It was, rather, logical, political and humane.”[1]  The first example provided is razbazarivanie, the squandering of livestock and/or resources which allowed peasants who were fearful of the dreaded label kulak to transform their socio-economic status.

Perhaps the most impressive example of the logical and rational nature behind peasant resistance against the state was the prevalent practice of the babii bunt which the state officially deemed female hysteria, spontaneous and irrational.[2]  In reality, however, the babii bunt was anything but.  Led by women, these rebellious not only showed evidence of prior planning and inter-village cooperation, they also shielded the participants in many cases from the state’s brutal repression that was often brought to bear on male-led rebellion.  By officially denying women political agency, it was thereby impossible for the baba to stage a political protest, protecting her in most cases from the otherwise frequent repercussions often visited upon others.[3]  The fact that women were virtually ‘untouchable’ by state reprisals was not lost on the women or their male villagers which was often exploited to their advantage in preventing the closure of a church or kulak deportation.[4]  The very fact that the state’s resistance to prosecute the baba was used strategically by the village shows clear insight and planning that was often successfully employed in achieving village objectives.  This is the epitome of rational and determined actions against a repressive government.

[1] Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 68.

[2] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 237.

[3] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 237.

[4] Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, 237.

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.