In a decree of 5 September 1793, the revolutionary government of France announced the implementation of harsh measures against those considered to be “enemies of the revolution,” under the slogan “terror is the order of the day.” For the next nine months this reign of terror throughout France, inaugurated and orchestrated by Maximilien Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, resulted in the deaths of 17,000 mainly innocent people.
One hundred and sixty-one years later Stalin announced his own decree of terror. On 1 December 1934, after the murder of Leningrad Party Secretary Sergey Kirov, Stalin urgently gave out instructions on the special procedure to be followed “in dealing with terrorist acts against officials of the Soviet regime.” But unlike Robespierre, Stalin was extremely careful to ensure that he himself was never publicly associated with what Nikolay Bukharin called the “hellish machine” that acquired gigantic power in the Soviet Union over the next four years. This machine, which would mete out retribution and punishment to enemies of the Soviet state, was the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, better known as the NKVD.
Historian Robert Conquest’s choice of the title The Great Terror, with its allusion to the horrors of the French Revolution, for his groundbreaking 1968 study of the Stalinist years, while proving a powerful analogy, was not intended as a direct comparison. For the scale and duration of the Russian experience bear no comparison with the French Terror. In fact Stalin’s concerted policy of coercion and terror spanned three decades, and since Conquest first coined the phrase “Great Terror” there has been a considerable variation in the term’s application by others. In their search for an appropriate way of encapsulating both the prevailing atmosphere of coercion and fear of Stalin’s rule and its concomitant arrests, purges, deportations, and executions, historians have referred variously, in English, to the Purge(s), the Great Purge(s), the (Stalinist) Terror, the Great Terror, the (Moscow) Show Trials (emphasizing merely the public prosecution of major political figures during 1936–1938), and so on.
In Russia, the term “Ezhovshchina” is applied to the worst period, 1936–1938, when Nikolay Ezhov was head of the NKVD, thus emphasizing the underlying assumption (particularly among ordinary Soviet people at the time) that the responsibility was his and not Stalin’s. More general, euphemistic catch-alls are also applied, such as the Russian terms “repressions” (repressii), “purges” (chistki—literally “cleansing,” often used with specific reference to card-carrying members of the Communist Party), and the more sinister Bolshevik expression “liquidations” (likvidatsii). This latter term, much loved by Leon Trotsky, gained currency, particularly among the Bolshevik military and officers of the secret police, during the 1920s.
There is also a certain confusion, if not disagreement, over the dating of the worst period of the Great Terror, which some say began just before the first secret trial of Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev in July 1936, and others pinpoint to their official second show trial in August. But most people generally agree that the major escalation of terror began with Ezhov’s appointment in September 1936,was officially sanctioned by Stalin at the February–March Plenum of 1937, and was abruptly brought to a halt after Lavrenty Beria replaced Ezhov in November 1938. It is not surprising, therefore, that the general reader is confused when confronted with this contradiction in dates and terms, used interchangeably in different texts, and varying from author to author according to preference. Such confusion lends support to a recent revisionist contention that the use of one single word “terror, with its implication of unitariness, tends to obfuscate the overlapping patterns and cross-currents of repression.”
The use of terror as a means of social and political control had first been advocated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks soon after they took power in 1917. Lenin had had no doubt that intimidation and reprisals were legitimate tools in the fight to establish socialism and rid the country of parasites, malingerers, hooligans, and counterrevolutionaries. In an essay written in January 1918 he had urged the people to unite in “purging the Russian land of all kinds of harmful insects,” in other words “enemies of the state,” and on his orders the Cheka (the first Soviet secret police) had set up a network of special revolutionary tribunals to deal with any acts of counterrevolution. By an order of January 1921, an intensification of repression after the savagery of the civil war was instituted. In 1923 the OGPU (as the Cheka had been renamed) was given even broader investigative and judicial powers. The Cheka had even established the first prototype concentration camp for the incarceration of enemies of the state—the Solovetsky Special Purpose Camp, a converted monastery complex in northern Russia, on an island in the White Sea.
Stalin, in his turn, shared Lenin’s obsession with the ruthless eradication of perceived enemies of the state and the maintenance of internal security at any price. It is important to distinguish between the different elements and phases of the years of terror that characterized his rule, as well as the people who promoted it, and those against whom it was directed. While the term “Great Terror” was originally used by Conquest with specific reference to the Ezhov years, he and other historians have demonstrated that it can also be used comprehensively to describe the prevailing atmosphere of fear that colored all of Stalin’s years in power. Thus, the pattern of terror under Stalin had its roots in events reaching back into the mid-1920s, when shortly after Lenin’s death Stalin had begun eliminating his political rivals among the Mensheviks (particularly those in Georgia), the Old Bolsheviks (contemporaries of Lenin), and those on the extreme left, beginning with the hounding of Trotsky and the arrest of other “political deviationists” associated with him.
Stalin first tested the water in terms of public show trials in the late 1920s, when a new category of “enemies” was found in the supposed “wreckers” in heavy industry and the railroads. Several—most notably the engineers accused at the Shakhty trial in 1928—were put on trial, accused of subverting the tempo of industrialization through their inefficiency, corruption, and premeditated sabotage.
Some historians also extend the period of the Great Terror to encompass Stalin’s personally initiated revolution—his war against the peasantry, the mass collectivization drive of 1929–1930.This involved the enforced collectivization of 14 million peasant families and the dispossession and deportation to Central Asia and Siberia of thousands more, who had been classified as capitalist and uncooperative kulaks. And then there was the famine of 1932–1933, brought on by bad harvests and excessively high government grain requisitioning. After Stalin refused to provide relief supplies or appeal for international aid, it is said to have killed as many as 7 million people.
The terrorization of the Soviet peasantry during collectivization was a reflection of the traditional Bolshevik attitude toward its people as one “amorphous, anonymous crowd” who only understood one thing— coercion. But during the early months of 1930, a rampant excess of bureaucratic zeal in instituting collectivization in the countryside forced Stalin to call a temporary halt to the process. Local Party officials, in their anxiety to implement far-reaching changes to traditional agricultural practice, had overstepped the mark in their levels of efficiency. It was the same compulsion to overachieve that later gave a Stakhanovite-like impetus to the unbridled years of the Ezhovshchina of 1936–1938, at the end of which Stalin was again forced to take similar action in reestablishing control over the killing machine that the NKVD had become by the end of 1938.
In 1932–1933 Stalin had been forced to come to terms with the fact that he still had some political dissenters in his midst. He had to deal with a call for his removal led by Martimyan Ryutin and others, who sought a “return to Lenin.” And again in early 1934, Stalin had been painfully reminded, at the end of the Seventeenth Communist Party Congress, that there were those who sought his removal as general secretary—even though most of his more prominent opponents, such as Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and Nikolay Bukharin, had by now been fatally weakened and politically isolated.
One of the most significant events of the years of Stalinist terror was the murder of Sergey Kirov in December 1934.This murder has also become one of the most contentious issues in Soviet history, with many seeing it as the major catalyst for the mass arrests and purge of the Communist Party that followed and that culminated in the later show trials. But bearing past history in mind—both Stalin’s and the longer Bolshevik tradition—it is hard to see how Kirov’s death alone could suddenly have acted as the sole catalyst. Stalin was by now convinced of widespread treachery in the Party rank and file and decided to strike against any potentially disloyal elements, particularly in the bureaucracy and the military; in particular he had a pathological fear that the Red Army might form a fifth column against him in the event of war.
Within hours of Kirov’s murder, Stalin issued a decree to speed up the investigation process into political treachery, which also limited the investigation of other crimes against the state to a mere ten days. He also introduced trial by military courts, from which there was no right to legal defense or appeal and which could immediately implement the death sentence. Within two weeks of Kirov’s murder the government announced the uncovering of a vast Zinovievite plot and, as the NKVD gathered to itself an ever-growing network of spies and informers, treachery was exposed in every possible area of Soviet society and the professions. A clean-up of the Party through a mass verification of party cards led to thousands of arrests in 1935 and a 20 percent drop in membership. In May Stalin further accelerated the process by instituting three-man NKVD troikas to travel the regions and Soviet republics meting out summary justice.
The first public victims of the main phase of terror were leading political figures. In January 1935, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and seventeen others had been tried and sentenced in closed court, leading to mass arrests of Party members in Leningrad. In August, Zinoviev and Kamenev, along with fourteen others, were tried again in the grand Tsarist Nobles Club in Moscow. There would be two more major show trials. The first was of Georgy Pyatakov, Karl Radek, and other Old Bolsheviks in January 1937, after which public fury against these traitors was whipped up and thousands of “oppositionists” under arrest were shot. In March 1938, after a year’s detailed preparation and careful rehearsal by the Soviet Ministry of Justice, Bukharin, Aleksey Rykov, Yagoda, and eighteen others were prosecuted. All the major trials were witnessed by specially invited foreign diplomats and pressmen, one of whom, Fitzroy Maclean, has left a penetrating eyewitness account of the Bukharin trial, noting the carefully handpicked Soviet citizens who were allowed to witness the trial, “sitting there like schoolchildren out for a treat, in their neat blue suits and tidy dresses . . . men and women who could be counted on to place the correct interpretation on what they saw and heard, to benefit from the lessons and, for that matter, the warnings which it might contain.”
In September 1936 Stalin, with his usual impatience, had confided in a secret telegram to members of the Politburo that his head of secret police, Genrikh Yagoda, was inefficient and had “definitely proved himself to be incapable of unmasking the Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc.” The NKVD investigation was “four years behind,” and Stalin wanted results. No matter what the situation, he always thought like a bureaucrat. There were timetables to be observed, quotas of arrests and executions to be met—what did it signify if human lives were the commodity involved? Having castigated Yagoda for his failures (he was eventually shot after being tried with Bukharin and Rykov in 1938), on 26 September Stalin appointed Nikolay Ezhov in his stead as head of the NKVD.
Ezhov threw all his energies into the mass arrests and, describing the task in hand to his officers, resorted to the words of a Russian proverb: “Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away.When you cut down the forest, woodchips fly.” Stalin, meanwhile, was keeping a very low profile and ensured, during the worst excesses from March 1937 to early 1939, that he made no public appearances or speeches, thus allowing rumor to ferment among ordinary citizens that Ezhov had embarked on a one-man vendetta against society and that Stalin didn’t know what was going on.
The three major show trials of 1936– 1938 are the only trials that are well documented. In fact, only seventy major political figures were to enjoy the privilege of seeing the inside of a court of law during the Great Terror. For the Soviet people as a whole, the four years between 1934 and 1938 were lived in an atmosphere of paralyzing fear of arrest, denunciation, deportation, and execution. Such a protracted period of psychological strain did irreparable damage to the national psyche.
What happened to all the thousands of Ezhov’s “woodchips” that disappeared during this final onslaught? Their fate might well have been similar to that of Lara in Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago: “One day Lara went out and did not come back. She must have been arrested in the street, as so often happened in those days, and she died or vanished somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list that was afterwards mislaid, in one of the innumerable mixed or women’s concentration camps in the north.”This was most certainly the fate of many Soviet citizens. Arrest, when it came, was not necessarily in the dead of night, although the NKVD favored the hours between 11 P.M. and 3 A.M. It has been observed that during the 1930s “Russia was full of insomniacs.” Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the element of surprise often used in the timing and manner of arrest, which did not necessarily take place at home, but could occur, as in Lara’s case, on the way to work, at the theater, in the factory corridor, in the hospital, even straight off the hospital operating table, in the grocery store, on a bus or train, preventing the arrested person any opportunity to destroy papers, however innocuous, that might in any way be considered incriminating.
A handful of people, mainly more vulnerable political figures such as Mikhail Tomsky, who anticipated the horror of what might befall them, preempted arrest by killing themselves, but a haunting characteristic of the mass terror that began unraveling in 1937 is that few did commit suicide. Such was the swiftness and arbitrariness of the NKVD’s way of operating that many people, rather than be taken completely unawares, would keep a small suitcase packed and ready, just in case the midnight knock should be heard at their door. But there was also something else common to most of those arrested—a lack of resistance—a weary capitulation “without any spirit, helplessly, [and] with a sense of doom,” as Solzhenitsyn described it.
It has taken a poet of the stature of Anna Akhmatova to crystalize the agony of those years in a deeply moving poetic form. Her poetry cycle Requiem is an evocative lament for the Soviet dead, in which she describes her own experiences of standing in line for days outside a prison, waiting for news of her arrested son. She made a promise to herself and others to one day describe it all, and she is one of the few who was lucky enough to survive to do so. Her testimony is endorsed by others. Nataliya Ginzburg’s moving account of her own arrest, torture, and incarceration in the Gulag in her Into the Whirlwind; Varlam Shalamov’s extraordinary, visceral Kolyma Tales; and Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Children of the Arbat are but a few representative works that transcend the dry, analytical fact of purely historical accounts. Solzhenitsyn’s monolithic Gulag Archipelago remains an extraordinary hybrid, an exhaustive collection of eyewitness testimony that describes the many incomprehensible aberrations and absurdities of the Great Terror; but in its urgent need to set the record straight it is too often hostage to excessive hyperbole and religiosity, with a pontificating tone that has alienated some historians and wearied many readers.
The period of Ezhov’s hegemony has been likened by many to the atmosphere of the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition. It was a time when, as the writer Isaac Babel wryly remarked to a friend only two years before his own arrest, “a man talks frankly only with his wife, at night, with the blanket over his head.” Much of the fabric of ordinary, civilized society was inexorably undermined, as all the basic human instincts of respect, trust, honor, and decency were relentlessly worn away in the mania for rooting out treachery. Even the closest of relatives and the most intimate of friends became mutually suspicious, and the unity of the family was shattered. Children were given awards for denouncing their own parents, wives were forced to divorce their convicted husbands in the faint hope of protecting themselves and their children, and the relatives of those who had been arrested and shot were treated like pariahs.
The list of treasonous charges in Article 58 of the Criminal Code, under which people could be arrested and which in the majority of cases were utterly unfounded, is extensive, but the most-used charges were Trotskyism (there are even cases of teachers being arrested simply for using out-of-date textbooks with his picture in them), political deviationism, sabotage, industrial “wrecking,” spying (particularly for the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan), conspiring to overthrow the state, and conspiring to murder Stalin himself. But the reasons for arrest became more absurd, once the obvious candidates in the Party and bureaucracy had been rounded up and the net was thrown wider. Any pretext, however ridiculous, would be found in order to make up the arrest quotas demanded. People with the remotest link with a foreign country could be hauled in as traitors (on this count, stamp collectors, international athletes and devotees of the international language Esperanto proved ready victims). The writer Adam Hochschild related the case of one old man being held in prison who, when asked why he had been arrested, said it was because “he was the brother of the woman who supplied the German consul’s milk.”
One of the greatest crimes inevitably became any act of irreverence, however innocent or unintentional, toward the image or words of Stalin, the Great Leader. Such acts of treachery included one unfortunate decorator, who was arrested for removing Stalin’s portrait to paint a wall and insulted his image by stacking it under a painting of the Volga boatmen. And even in the Gulag, “if a newspaper with Stalin’s portrait was found discarded somewhere on the ground, somebody had to be found and punished.”
People were frequently taken away under arrest in black vans marked “meat” or “milk,” which became known as Black Ravens. Their distraught relatives would then wait for days on end outside prisons for news, only to be told that the accused had been sent to the Gulag “with no right to correspond.” It soon became apparent that this was an NKVD euphemism for the death sentence.
But the ordeal for those arrested had only just begun. In addition to suffering the humiliation of trumped-up charges and fabricated denunciations, often made against them by friends and colleagues, those arrested would then be required to satisfy Stalin’s great abiding obsession—a “total moral capitulation” in the form of a full, written confession of their guilt. Isaac Babel, who had been on close terms with Yagoda and his wife, once asked the former NKVD head what he should do if he should ever be arrested. Yagoda replied that the essential was to deny everything “whatever the charges, just say no and keep on saying no. If one denies everything, we are powerless.”And to a certain extent this was true in the case of those indicted in the Moscow Show Trials, since the official script to which the whole corrupt process ran demanded a public act of breast-beating by the accused, who would have to be seen to have cooperated voluntarily.
For the ordinary person who resisted confession, however, the end result was savage beating and often torture resulting in death. Once inside major prisons, such as the Lubyanka, Butyrki, or Lefortovo, very few, once subjected to the conveyor-belt system of interrogation, were able to resist the pressure to confess. They would often do so on the promise of a prison sentence rather than the death penalty, or out of fear for the safety of their loved ones. After confessing, the person arrested and condemned was expected to provide lists of accomplices, for which the NKVD set quotas for the numbers of people to be denounced. These were usually in the range of five to ten, but, sometimes, in the case of people higher up in the Soviet bureaucracy or the military, the number could run into the hundreds. Searching for a suitable pretext on which to denounce someone else frequently stretched the imagination of those doing the denouncing. The most preposterous crimes were concocted. The historian Roy Medvedev described how one military commander was denounced because he “deliberately chose spotted horses for the army in order to spoil the camouflage of the cavalry in any future encounter with the enemy,” and a naval mechanic, having wracked his brains, denounced the entire crew of his steamship. The NKVD, under pressure to keep the quotas up, were happy to accept any charge, however risible. And if this failed, they would simply swoop on local collective farms and round up everyone they could find.
The prisons of the Soviet Union soon became filled to overflowing with victims from all walks of life and, in particular, from the professions. Medvedev, in his classic account Let History Judge, was with Solzhenitsyn, the first Soviet Russian to extensively catalog the roll call of the victims of Stalinism. His text rapidly became the basis of a reinterpretation of the Stalinist Terror, both in Russia and the West. It revealed the frightening extent to which so many of the essential institutions of the Soviet administration had been critically weakened by arrests by 1938. Those professions hardest hit included administrators in factories and industrial plants; regional Communist Party cadres of officials (the regional Communist Parties in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were left entirely without officials); candidate members of the Central Committee (of 139 who attended the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934, 98 were executed during 1937–1938); scientists and economists, especially those who did not support the spurious theories of Trofim Lysenko; academics in universities, especially those survivors of the prerevolutionary intelligentsia; ambassadors; and Comintern members living and working in the Soviet Union. Soviet literature and letters suffered the loss of 1,000 writers, but few painters and musicians were targeted—which no doubt testifies to the age-old fear of the pen on the part of dictatorships and tyrannies of every persuasion. Books might be proscribed and burned, but nothing could stop people from memorizing and passing on to others the work of great writers. The work of poets, in particular, was kept alive in this way.
The most eminent recipients of the prescribed “eight grams of lead,” traditionally administered by an automatic pistol in the back of the head, included ten of Lenin’s leading Old Bolsheviks; the elite of the Red Army (three marshals of the Soviet Union, including Chief of Staff Mikhail Tukhachevsky; half its generals and 15,000 officers and political army personnel; eight admirals, including Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Admiral Aleksandr Orlov); fifty-five full and sixty candidate members of the 1934 Central Committee of the Communist Party; 1 million Party members; five first secretaries of the Komsomol; and six members of the Politburo. Historian Alan Bullock, in his study of Hitler and Stalin, cited the prophecy of a moderate Girondin guillotined during the French Revolution in 1793, that Saturn (the revolution) had ended up devouring its own children. This was certainly the case in the Soviet Union. It is estimated that one in every eight citizens of the country perished or was consigned to the Gulag. In a final twist to the story, the purgers themselves would be purged, with eventually all three heads of the NKVD—Yagoda, Ezhov, and Beria—as well as all twenty top commissars listed in 1935 and 20,000 officers, all suffering the fate of their own victims.
By early 1938, even Stalin realized that the country’s infrastructure was in a precarious state. He called a halt to the purges and, castigating Ezhov for the excesses of the NKVD meat grinder, removed him from his post. Stalin was not, however, quite finished. While the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, which eliminated his greatest political enemy, proved to be an important psychological milestone for Stalin, there were still certain recalcitrant national and ethnic elements in the Soviet Union with which he had yet to deal. In one huge exercise in ethnic cleansing, Stalin deported many of the country’s ethnic minorities— the Volga Germans, the Chechens and Ingush, the Crimean Tatars—during the war years. At the end of the war, under the terms of the Yalta Agreement and after their compulsory repatriation from Europe by the Allies, thousands of Soviet nationals, including Cossacks who had fought with the Germans, prisoners of war, slave laborers, and even Russian émigrés, were murdered on their return to the Soviet Union.
From the late 1940s and prior to his death in 1953, Stalin appears to have been preparing his own “final solution” for the Soviet Union’s Jews. The Great Terror had done much to reawaken traditional Russian animosity toward the Jews and to associate them in the popular consciousness with the bureaucratic excesses of bigwigs in the nomenklatura and with the intellectual elite (many prominent writers, scientists, and so on were Jews). In the late 1940s many Yiddish- speaking writers and intellectuals were purged, and the fabrication of the Doctors’ Plot early in 1953 (a plan by mainly Jewish doctors in the Kremlin to murder top officials) was possibly designed by Stalin as a prelude to the mass deportation of the Jewish population to the deserts of Central Asia and beyond.
The peculiar mentality of the Soviet population during the Great Terror has been much commented on; many voice disbelief at the degree of incredulity displayed by a great many Soviet people in their dogged acceptance that many of the arrests were justified and that the accused must be guilty. Soviet people, for so long indoctrinated by the cult of the personality, simply could not associate their god Stalin with such evil. Even those sent to the Gulag refused to blame him. Nataliya Ginzburg confirmed this, recalling that “at the camp, I was to come across many people who managed strangely to combine a sane judgment of what was going on in the country with a truly mystical personal cult of Stalin.” There is even eyewitness testimony of people being executed still expressing their undying loyalty to him and of prisoners in the Gulag weeping when he died.
Indeed, there was even a degree of popular support for the purges. While the Terror was decimating the intelligentsia and Party bureaucracy, many ordinary workers and peasants remained generally indifferent and even voiced their support for some of the arrests of local Party officials who had made their lives a misery. They also sometimes expressed their satisfaction at the condemnation of the more prominent political “enemies of the state,” although some decried the execution of such popular figures as Zinoviev (“Lenin’s pupil”) and Tukhachevsky (“the best commander”). In many cases, workers saw the Terror in the simplistic terms of a traditional battle between good and evil that did not impinge on their everyday lives. As one group of factory cleaners commented on a trial of Trotskyists, “We clean the floor; that doesn’t concern us.” In any case, people everywhere became weary of searching for a rational explanation for it all. The words zachem/za chto? (why?/ for what reason?) were often found scratched on the walls of prison cells, constantly reiterating the general public bewilderment at the whole process. Most difficult to explain, though, was the moral cowardice that induced people to behave as they did and made accomplices of them. The weight of that complicity still troubles many Russians today. Nadezhda Mandelstam is of the opinion that “we were all the same: either sheep who went willingly to the slaughter, or respectful assistants to the executioners. Whichever role we played, we were uncannily submissive, stifling all our human instincts. . . . Crushed by the system each one of us had in some way or other helped to build, we were not even capable of passive resistance. Our submissiveness only spurred on those who actively served the system.”
While a lack of control allowed the level of purging to run to extreme levels in some regions of the Soviet Union, it is clear that Stalin kept a very careful, personal check on what was going on in the higher political echelons. With Vyacheslav Molotov, he personally vetted the lists of those to be purged, which were presented to him on a daily basis by Ezhov. Archival evidence that has survived confirms that Stalin certainly reviewed 383 lists of 44,000 names of leading Communists. By the time most of the older, and in Stalin’s eyes, inefficient and poorly trained generation of apparatchiks in the bureaucracy and professions had fallen victim to the purges, he had replaced them with new blood. Half a million new members of the Communist Party, indoctrinated and drilled in his version of Party history, as epitomized by the History of the All-Union Communist Party, would secure him politically once and for all.
The ultimate and most contentious issue of the Great Terror is, of course, the question of how many people were arrested, condemned to death, or died in the Gulag. Stalin is reported to have once remarked that “one death is a tragedy—a million deaths is a statistic.” Such a remark has a perverse logic. It is hard to relate individual human suffering in real terms to the bald lists of figures quoted by various authorities, even though there is something reprehensible in reducing the whole story of the Great Terror to an argument over statistics. In general, though, since the original publication of Conquest’s book in 1968, the consensus among Western historians had for some time settled at around 20 million, which would appear to be in line with a drop in the Soviet population of about the same figure for the period 1929–1953 (excluding war casualties). But the revisionist debate that developed in the second half of the 1980s, based on an analysis of newly available Soviet archival sources, has opened the whole issue up to fierce and often bitter controversy.
The few figures released since Nikita Khrushchev’s political thaw and under the glasnost policies of Mikhail Gorbachev have been deduced from limited archival sources and serve only to further confuse the issue, because they are incomplete and because one cannot be certain to what extent these official figures might have been doctored. Khrushchev declared a figure for those shot between 1930 and 1953 at approximately 800,000. A KGB figure, released in the 1990s on the basis of their own archives, talks very precisely of “686,480” executions for the years 1936–1939 alone and a figure of 1.3 million being held in the Gulag in 1939. Other Russian analyses of such archives that have been made available have suggested between 3.5 and 7 million casualties. But the problem, of course, is that the figures offered by different bodies and different historians cover different periods and have variable terms of reference. Some figures are only for known executions and some include subsequent deaths in the Gulag. Some include arrests and deportations to the Gulag, others include those held under arrest in prisons, and so on.
The recent lower estimates have become the cornerstone of a revisionist argument in Stalinist studies. It seeks to dramatically reevaluate the traditional Western interpretation of Stalin and argues not only that there were far fewer deaths during the Great Terror, but also that there was more popular support for many of Stalin’s repressive policies than had previously been thought. Although not necessarily intended as an apologia for Stalinism, the revisionist argument might easily be misinterpreted as such. In truth, the whole argument over precisely how many died has now become a dry and futile statistical exercise, for (to paraphrase the poet John Donne) any man’s death diminishes us. The only historian to try to quantify the figures for the worst period of 1937–1938 with any clarity and consistency remains Robert Conquest. In a 1990 reassessment of his 1968 study, he suggested that between 7 and 8 million people were arrested during 1937–1938 alone, 1 million of whom were executed. Two million people died in the Gulag during the same period, and by the end of 1938, a further 7 million were still in the Gulag, resulting in a total of 17–18 million victims. But if one were to add those who also died as a result of the wider ramifications of the Great Terror— collectivization, the famine, and the postwar revival of terror under Beria until Stalin’s death in 1953—the figure rockets to around 40 million.
Robert Conquest. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. London: Pimlico, 1992 (“traditional” view of Great Terror);
Gregory Freeze, ed. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997 (useful brief summaries of the revisionist statistics);
J.Arch Getty. Origins of Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered,1933–1938. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985 (revisionist view and revised statistics);
J.Arch Getty and R.T. Manning, eds. Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993;
Adam Hochschild. The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1995 (a recent retrospective Russian account based on eyewitness testimony);
Fitzroy Maclean. Eastern Approaches. London: Jonathan Cape, 1949 (eyewitness description of the Moscow Show Trials);
Evan Mawdsley. The Stalin Years: The Soviet Union, 1929–1953. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998;
Roy Medvedev. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989;
Chris Ward. Stalin’s Russia. London: Arnold, 1993. (See also the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nataliya Ginzburg, Anna Akhmatova, and Vasily Grossman.)