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Now updated with new facts, and abridged for use in Soviet history courses, this gripping book assembles top secret Soviet documents, translated into English, from the era of Stalin’s purges. The dossiers, police reports, private letters, secret transcripts, and other documents expose the hidden inner workings of the Communist Party and the dark inhumanity of the purge process.
“[This] book will be of great value to students of the Terror and . . . the material, such as Bukharin’s last letter, is astounding.”—Michael J. Ybarra, Wall Street Journal
“It will be indispensable for all historians and researchers of communism, the USSR, and Stalinism for many decades to come.”—Roy A. Medvedev, author of Let History Judge
I believe that the implementation of a plan of such exceptional difficulty as that which confronts us in 1931 demands solid unity between the top echelons of the Soviet and Party leadership. Not the slightest cleft should be permitted. -V. V. Kuibyshev, 1930
THESE WERE TERRIBLE YEARS in the Soviet Union. It was the fifteenth year of the Revolution, and the country faced the paradox of rapid industrial expansion combined with the starvation of millions of people. How had things come to such a pass?
In 1917 the Bolsheviks had come to power in a relatively backward country suffering through a wartime crisis. As Marxists, they believed that socialism was the inevitable future for mankind but that it depended on the existence of an advanced economy. As Leninists, they were convinced that this future could be brought about through a highly disciplined party of professional revolutionaries acting as "midwives of history" to guide the masses toward their future. These beliefs associated with the Leninist version of Marxism were understood differently by various groups within the Bolshevik Party,but by and large they were fundamentals of Bolshevism and crucial factors in the futures of both the party and the country.
Almost immediately, the new regime was plunged into the three-year Civil War that pitted the Reds (Bolsheviks and their allies) against the Whites (politically almost everyone else). The Civil War saw not only military intervention by more than a dozen capitalist states against the Bolsheviks, but also almost unimaginable violence and cruelty on both sides. Torture and massacres of prisoners were common, epidemic and famine racked the country, and the economic base of the country was severely damaged.
The Civil War was an important formative experience for the Bolsheviks. To stay in power-to save the Revolution-they had launched a Red Terror and organized a secret police (CHEKA) with unlimited powers to arrest, try, and execute. The war had forced on the Bolsheviks a kind of military discipline that valued obedience, strict party unity, and a combative mentality. Words like implacable and pitiless came into the Bolshevik vocabulary as positive attributes for party members. Moreover, the life-and-death struggle against domestic and foreign enemies of the Revolution had nurtured in their minds a kind of siege mentality that saw enemies and conspiracies everywhere and allowed little in the way of compromise or toleration. Concerns for legality and civil rights were seen as "rotten liberalism" that was dangerous to the Revolution, and it was in this period that the Bolsheviks banned other parties and took monopolistic control of the press. Even after 1921, when the Civil War was won, these wartime measures were extended indefinitely. The regime never felt confident about its hold on power; domestic and foreign enemies were still out there, and to weaken the state seemed an unnecessary risk. Intolerance, quick recourse to violence and terror, and generalized fear and insecurity were the main legacies of the Civil War. The ends justified the means, and it was the Civil War that turned revolutionaries into dictators.
Indeed, so concerned were they with maintaining iron discipline in their own ranks that at the very moment of victory they passed a resolution banning the formation of factions within their own party. Lenin's ideas of party organization, known as "democratic centralism," held that party policies should be adopted democratically, but once a decision was taken it was the duty of all party members publicly to defend and support those policies whether or not they personally agreed with them. Rather loosely observed in the party before and during 1917, these norms received strong reinforcement in the desperate emergency of the Civil War, and party leaders of all kinds had little trouble institutionalizing them as a "ban on factions" at the Tenth Party Congress in early 1921.
Economically, the Bolsheviks faced a bleak outlook at the end of the Civil War. During that struggle, their policies had been a patchwork of nationalizations, labor mobilizations, food requisitions, and state-sponsored barter known as War Communism. The Russian peasants, a large majority of the population, had in their own spontaneous revolution seized and redistributed the land during 1917. They tolerated Bolshevik forced grain requisitions during the war only because the alternative was a restoration of the Old Regime with its landlords. But with the passing of the wartime emergency the peasants were unwilling to sacrifice their harvests for the Bolshevik state, and a series of revolts convinced Lenin of the need to placate peasant farmers to save the regime.
The result was the New Economic Policy (NEP), adopted in 1921. Free markets were allowed in agriculture and in small and medium industry (the Bolsheviks retained nationalized heavy industry in their own hands). Lenin saw this concession to capitalism as a necessary measure to appease the peasants and to allow market forces to help rebuild the shattered economy. NEP always enjoyed mixed popularity among the Bolsheviks, depending on their political views.
For some "moderate" or "rightist" Bolsheviks, NEP was a strategic "retreat" that implied a fairly long road to the eventual socialist goal. Traversing that long evolutionary path would require patient socialist indoctrination of the population, education, and above all maintaining the goodwill of the peasant majority as it "grew into" socialism. For "leftist" Bolsheviks, NEP was more of a tactical "breathing spell," a temporary rest period before restarting the socialist offensive. For these leftists, NEP was always a dangerous concession to capitalism, and they believed that reaching socialism was a revolutionary process that would inevitably involve a "class struggle" with "capitalist elements" among the peasantry.
Regardless of their political disposition toward the mixed economy of NEP, virtually all Bolsheviks agreed that the basic problem was an economic one. If Russia was to reach socialism, it would have to undergo a dramatic industrial expansion. Marx had taught that socialism followed developed capitalism and was based on a modern technological and industrial base. Nobody in the party believed that Russia was anywhere near that stage, so the question was how (and how fast) to industrialize.
Rightist Bolsheviks, who clustered around the economic theoretician and Pravda editor Nikolai Bukharin (and eventually around the trade union leader Mikhail Tomsky and Premier Aleksei Rykov), saw NEP as a long-term strategy in which the party should maintain its alliance (smychka) with an increasingly prosperous peasantry. Funds for industrialization would be generated by rational taxation and the general growth of the economy. Leftist Bolsheviks, on the other hand, favored "squeezing" resources from the peasantry at a faster rate. Led by the Communist International chief and Leningrad party boss Grigory Zinoviev, Moscow party chief Lev Kamenev, and the brilliant Lev Trotsky, the leftists, impatient with what they considered coddling of the peasantry, pressed for a more militant and aggressive industrial policy. Rightists accused them of courting disaster by provoking the peasantry. Leftists retorted by arguing that the rightist version of NEP was a sellout to capitalist elements that were holding the Bolsheviks hostage and delaying industrialization.
Overlaying and sharpening these disagreements was a classic struggle for succession that followed Lenin's death in 1924. Responding to personal loyalties, patron-client networks, and sometimes policy platforms, Bolshevik leaders began to gravitate to various high personalities of the party who contended for Lenin's mantle. Bukharin spoke for the pro-NEP rightist Bolsheviks. Zinoviev became the leading spokesman for the more aggressive economic leftists. Trotsky, always an iconoclast, took varying-although generally leftist-positions on economic questions but was best known as an advocate of antibureaucratism and increased party democracy.
Iosif Stalin, as general secretary of the party, had influence among the growing apparat, or full-time corps of professional party secretaries and administrators. The party had grown tremendously from its relatively humble size in early 1917. As it became larger and more complex and took on the tasks of government rather than those of insurrection, Lenin and other leaders saw the need to regularize the party's structure. Toward the end of the Civil War the party's governing body, the Central Committee (CC), formed three subcommittees to carry out the party's work between sittings of the full body. The Political Bureau (Politburo) was to decide the grand strategic questions of policy. An Organizational Bureau (Orgburo) was to organize implementation of these decisions by assigning cadres to the necessary tasks. Finally, a Secretariat was charged with the day-to-day mundane matters of handling correspondence and communication, moving paperwork through the party bureaucracy, and preparing agendas for the other bodies. Stalin, pushed forward by Lenin as a good organizer, sat on all three subcommittees.
Most party leaders believed that the Politburo would be the locus of real political power, and to a great extent it was. But as the struggle for personal power heated up in the 1920s, real power-as is always the case in a large organization-was as much a question of patronage as of theory, and from his vantage in the Orgburo and Secretariat, Stalin was able to influence personnel appointments throughout the party. While the other leaders stood on economic policy platforms and theoretical formulations, Stalin's power was that of the machine boss. Throughout the country, territorially based party committees were led by a network of party secretaries who, in theory, carried out the Politburo's policy in the provinces. More and more in the 1920s, this full-time party secretarial apparatus looked to Stalin as its leader.
And he was an attractive leader for many reasons. Unlike the other top leaders, Stalin was not an intellectual or theoretician. He spoke a simple and unpretentious language not unattractive to a party increasingly made up of workers and peasants. His style contrasted sharply with that of his Politburo comrades, whose complicated theories and pretentious demeanor won them few friends among the plebeian rank and file. He also had an uncanny way of projecting what appeared to be moderate solutions to complicated problems. Unlike his colleagues, who seemed shrill in their warnings of fatal crises, Stalin frequently put himself forward as the calm man of the golden mean with moderate, compromise solutions.
The personal struggle for power among the Olympian Bolshevik leaders was complicated but can be summarized quickly. Beginning in 1923 Trotsky launched a trenchant criticism of Stalin's "regime of professional secretaries," claiming that they had become ossified bureaucrats cut off from their proletarian followers. Trotsky also argued that the survival of the Bolshevik regime depended on receiving support from successful workers' revolutions in Europe, and he accused Stalin and other leaders of losing interest in spreading the revolution. To the other Politburo leaders, Trotsky seemed the most powerful and the most dangerous. By common recognition he was, after Lenin, the most brilliant theoretician in the party. More important, he was the leader of the victorious Red Army and regarded as personally ambitious, a potential Napoleon of the Russian Revolution.
Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin closed ranks to isolate Trotsky, accusing him of trying to split the party because of his personal ambition to lead it. They argued that Trotsky was only using "party democracy" as a phony political issue: during the Civil War he had never been for anything less than iron discipline. Now, they charged, his criticism weakened party unity. Stalin in particular played a nationalist card by noting that the world revolution was not coming about as soon as they had thought, and in any case "we" Bolsheviks and "we" Soviet people do not need the help of foreigners to build socialism. "Socialism in One Country" was a real possibility, he argued, and Trotsky's insistence on proletarian revolutions abroad betrayed a lack of faith in the party's and country's possibilities. Faced with the unity of the other Politburo members, the party's near-religious devotion to party unity and discipline, and Stalin's influence among the party apparatus, Trotsky could not win. He was stripped of his military post in 1924 and gradually marginalized in the top leadership.
The following year, in 1925, Zinoviev and Kamenev split off from the "party majority" by launching a critique of NEP from the leftist point of view. They said that the NEP policy of conceding constantly increasing grain prices to the peasantry was depriving the state of capital for industrialization, bankrupting industry, confronting the proletariat with high bread prices, and indefinitely postponing the march to socialism. In 1926 Trotsky joined Zinoviev and Kamenev in the "New" or "United Opposition." To the Leningrad and Moscow machine votes controlled by Zinoviev and Kamenev, Trotsky brought the remnants of his supporters.
Stalin and Bukharin denounced this United Opposition as another attempt to split the party by challenging the existing policy and violating the centralism part of democratic centralism. Moreover, they defended NEP as the only viable and safe policy. Their arguments seemed far less incendiary than those of the left. Bukharin's impressive pragmatic and theoretical defense of "Lenin's" NEP, combined with Stalin's low-key pragmatic approach, made a formidable combination. The votes from the party secretarial apparatus, loyal to Stalin and not eager to provoke a dangerous turn in party policy, won the day, and the United Opposition went down to defeat in 1927.
In a final bid for power, followers of Trotsky organized a street demonstration on the anniversary of the October Revolution in 1927 to protest the Central Committee majority and defend the leftists. Stalin and Bukharin used the police to break up this demonstration, characterizing it as an illegal and disloyal blow against the party. It was one thing to disagree with the leadership by voting against it in conferences and congresses, but quite another to take to the streets. Such a move horrified the party majority because it threatened to take the inner-party struggle into the public eye, where real ("White," "counterrevolutionary") enemies, disgruntled workers, and discontented "elements" of all kinds could take advantage of the friction in the party to threaten the regime as a whole. Trotsky seemed to be putting his own interests above those of the Bolshevik government, thereby endangering the entire Revolution. As we shall see, any attempt to carry politics outside the confines of the party was the one unpardonable sin. Zinoviev and Kamenev were stripped of their most powerful positions. Trotsky was expelled from the party and exiled to Central Asia. Two years later, in 1929, he was deported from the country.
Bukharin and Stalin were in charge. Bukharin handled theoretical matters and the powerful party press. His associates Tomsky and Rykov ran the trade unions and the government ministries. Stalin, for his part, led the growing party apparatus, aided by a corps of Old Bolshevik lieutenants that included Viacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Kliment Voroshilov, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze. By all accounts, Stalin and Bukharin became close friends in this period. They called each other by familiar nicknames neither of them had used for Trotsky, Zinoviev, or Kamenev, and their arduous but successful struggle against the left certainly was a source of personal bonding. Their families saw each other socially, and Bukharin was a frequent guest in Stalin's home, sometimes spending entire summer months at Stalin's country house.
Excerpted from The Road to Terror by J. Arch Getty Oleg V. Naumov Copyright © 2010 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Pt. I The Fork in the Road
1 The New Situation, 1930-32 21
2 Party Discipline in 1932 45
3 Repression and Legality 55
4 Growing Tension in 1935 71
5 The Fork in the Road 95
Pt. II The Terror
6 The Face of the Enemy, 1936 109
7 The Sky Darkens 143
8 The Storm of 1937: The Party Commits Suicide 165
9 Ending the Terror, 1938 196
10 Two Bolsheviks 217
Conclusion: Quicksand Politics 231
Appendix 1 Numbers of Victims of the Terror 241
Appendix 2 Biographical Notes 246
Illustrations follow page 106