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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Another Kremlin Apologist?

National Post, 18 September 1999

Book Review
The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov
Yale University Press, 688 pages

The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939“Not everything that enters our ears penetrates our consciousness,” reflects Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. “Anything too far out of tune with our attitudes is lost, either in the ears themselves or somewhere beyond, but it is lost.” Solzhenitsyn never believed it would be easy to convey the appalling reality of Stalinist terror to those who had not experienced it firsthand. In his efforts at “penetrating our consciousness,” he faced jail, exile, and—even worse—the endless expanses of Western indifference.

But it must pain the great Russian writer in the twilight of his long life that he must now contend with the resurrected voices of his persecutors, newly liberated from the Russian archives. In The Road to Terror, a book of freshly-released documents, we come upon voices that must have been all too familiar to Solzhenitsyn: the wretched squawk of a party informant, the menacing hiss of a secret police chief, the implacable monotone of a prosecutor. This is harrowing reading. Even the finest scholarly treatment of Soviet Russia in the 1930s—Robert Conquest’s magisterial The Great Terror—fails to match the chilling eloquence of these documents.

But The Road to Terror, a collaboration with Oleg V. Naumov, the deputy director of Moscow’s Central Party Archive, is also a work of history. Its documents have been selected, edited, and given narrative structure by J. Arch Getty, a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, and one of the foremost authorities on Stalinist Russia. Here Getty expands on an earlier revised dissertation, published in 1985 as The Origins of the Great Purges, in which he controversially argued that the escalating terror of the 1930s was not part of some master plan by Stalin to seize absolute power, but rather a series of discrete episodes driven in part by power struggles between the party’s elite and its rank-and-file. He now expands upon this interpretation, finding fresh evidence to answer his repeated question: “How was it all possible?”

We might as well start by finding out what Getty means by “it.” The Terror, according to the book’s subtitle, was essentially about the “self-destruction of the Bolsheviks.” Lest there be any misunderstanding, Getty subtitles his chapter on the bloodbath of 1937, “The Party Commits Suicide.” For those inclined to view the Terror as something closer to “mass murder” than “suicide,” Getty explains: “The party ratified, validated, and to some extent administered the Terror. And it was the party that, as a group or institution, suffered most from it.” He’s right, of course: the millions of non-party members imprisoned and shot during the 1930s didn’t suffer “as a group or institution”: they suffered as millions of individuals, helpless in the face of a murderous police state.

Take the story of Alexander Yulevich Tivel, with which Getty begins his book. A midlevel bureaucrat with solid party credentials, Tivel was arrested in 1936 on trumped-up charges, and shot the following year. But his wife was also arrested, jailed, and sent to a labour camp for sixteen years. His mother-in-law was exiled to Siberia, and Tivel’s nine-year-old son was taken away and sent to an orphanage.

Getty utterly misses the point of this story, and thousands of others even more distressing: the Terror claimed many times more non-party than party victims. Could Getty find nothing more relevant to ask about the case of Alexander Tivel than “What led the Soviet Communist Party elite to destroy its own?”

Getty’s response to his own question is perverse. The party elite, he writes repeatedly, was “afraid,” “in a panic,” “desperate,” and felt itself to be “under threat.” But from whom? According to one document from September 1933, from collective farm workers who were “feigning hunger and starvation,” and should therefore be dealt with “mercilessly.” Using such evidence, Getty determines that Soviet leaders were “afraid of anything that might challenge their political monopoly and privilege.” Free elections to the 1937 Supreme Soviet provoked even greater fears; indeed, according to Getty, the renewed political activity inspired by the elections might even have triggered the homicidal nightmare of 1937 and 1938. Because of the “dangerous plan for contested elections …. the Politburo became worried about losing whatever control of the countryside they enjoyed.” How terrifying! What was one to do but organize mass executions?

Given his extraordinary sensitivity to such imagined “fears,” Getty’s indifference to expressions of genuine terror is startling. “I swear to you that I would gladly wipe away my crime with my own blood at the party’s call at any moment,” writes one desperate Leningrad official in 1936. “Don’t punish me so harshly, don’t deprive me of that which I have believed in and revered all my life. Please help me to be restored into the good graces of our party, give me the opportunity to devote to it the little that is left of my life.” This—the cold and desperate fear of the genuinely powerless—is met with Getty’s laconic observation that “[s]uch petitions for intercession were part of a long Russian tradition of appeal to tsars for help and are a special category of personal-political text.”

A similar treatment is given to former Central Committee member Nikolai Bukharin’s anguished letter to Stalin from his jail cell in late 1937. “If I’m to receive the death sentence,” Bukharin pleads, “then I implore you beforehand, I entreat you, by all that you hold dear, not to have me shot. Let me drink poison in my cell instead.” Getty coolly evaluates the letter as a “discursive strategy to try to save his life …. The documents can therefore be seen as dialogues, although their interlocutor, Stalin, remained silent.” (Bukharin’s “dialogue” with Stalin didn’t work—he was shot. Getty somehow neglects to mention this.)

If Getty seems overly eager to unearth “discursive strategies” and “negotiations” behind such clear expressions of despair, he is surprisingly reluctant to find hidden truths behind official Soviet documents. It’s not that Getty’s too credulous—he’s simply uninterested in any “objective reality” behind the official line. As he writes, “the objective realities of the 1930s were perhaps not as important as the Bolsheviks’ perceptions of them, not least because the Bolsheviks acted on their perceptions.”

But how certain can we be that these documents represent genuine Bolshevik perceptions? What if Stalinist bureaucrats simply lied, even amongst themselves? What if the elaborate ritualistic language they employed disguised a deeper awareness of the reality of the Stalinist Holocaust? “It is not crucial, even if it were possible,” Getty responds, “to establish whether or how often the Stalinists believed what they said and wrote. Regardless of their relation to ‘truth’ or ‘reality,’ the texts can tell us at a minimum what their authors wanted others to think.”

At a minimum? Did we really need to scour the Soviet archives to discover what Soviet officials wanted others to think? Hasn’t this been obvious for sixty years? Getty is shockingly indifferent to the historian’s primary duty—to delve below the surface, to scrape away the distortions and lies that officials regularly use to justify criminal behaviour, to get to the heart of “what really happened.”

For the 80-year-old Solzhenitsyn, what could possibly be more astonishing? Having risked everything to expose Stalinist lies, he is now told that the lies are more “important” than the truth. Yet he might derive some hope from this detail: Fifteen years ago Getty wrote that between 1933 and 1938 “thousands” were executed in the Soviet Union, while “many thousands” were arrested and imprisoned. He has now discovered evidence in the archives that these numbers should be closer to 700,000 and 2.6 million respectively—a difference of roughly two orders of magnitude. (Most Russian and Western historians believe the numbers should be even higher than this.) Perhaps Solzhenitsyn was wrong. Some messages are so powerful they will eventually penetrate anyone’s consciousness.