Revisionists on Stalin’s 1930s Purge

In American and Western European scholarship, most researchers place Josef (Iosif) Stalin along with Adolph Hitler as the most murderous dictators in Twentieth-Century history.  Stalin killed or imprisoned millions of his own countrymen.  The current Stalin debate does not dispute these murders.  The debate centers on why Stalin carried out the communist party purges in the mid to late 1930s.  Robert Conquest espouses the traditional western interpretation of The Terror, while Robert W. Thurston offers a revisionist interpretation of the purges.


Joseph Stalin from the Public Domain

Robert Conquest is a Lecturer at Stanford University and a famous political writer.    Oxford University Press published his book The Great Terror in 1968.  In a book review published in The American Historical Review, Donald W. Treadgold states, “Conquest has come as close to providing one (accurate history of the purges) as anyone is likely to do for some time, barring further substantial disclosures from Soviet sources.” (1670)  Conquest revised this edition and re-issued an updated version in 1990.

Conquest concentrates his discussion on Stalin’s purging the communist party ranks in the 1930s.  Conquest claims that Stalin planned the terror, so he could do away with political enemies.  Conquest further states that The Terror did not necessarily begin in Stalin’s mind.  Conquest theorizes that Stalin’s actions evolved from the ideas and actions of Lenin, when he seized control of the Russian Government.

“The Great Terror of 1936 to 1938 did not come out of the blue….The dominating ideas of the Stalin period….can hardly be followed without considering not so much the whole Soviet past as the development of the party, the consolidation of the dictatorship, the movements of faction, the rise of individuals, and the emergence of extreme economic policies.”  (1)  Stalin was not simply bad.  The Bolshevik tree grew poisoned fruit.

Conquest spares Stalin little sympathy.  Conquest considers Stalin a villain of the worst sort.  Stalin begins his campaign of terror by arranging the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the leader of the Leningrad communist party.  According to Conquest, Stalin believed Kirov was trying to replace him as General Secretary.  Stalin decided to kill Kirov to eliminate a possible rival.

An unwitting assassin murders Kirov, while his bodyguard is mysteriously absent.  Stalin claims that Kirov’s murder is part of a broad plan to assassinate the upper echelon in the communist party.  Stalin orders the secret police, NKVD, to begin arresting the plotters, who are all Old Bolsheviks.  The Old Bolsheviks had criticized Stalin or sought to replace him as leader.  Stalin uses the Kirov murder, which he arranged, as a pretext for eliminating other political rivals.

Conquest made the following statement about the killing.  “This killing has every right to be considered the crime of the century.” (p. 37)  While Conquest maintains that recent scholarship supports this view of the Kirov murder, he only cites one new source, Nikita Khrushchev’s memoir, which was discovered in 1989.

Stalin orders the NKVD to arrest “wreckers and enemies of the state”.  Nikolai Yezhov (Ezhov) develops acceptable arrest quota for each NKVD unit under orders from Stalin.  The NKVD arrests and prosecutes numerous Old Bolsheviks in “show trials”, which results in their sentencing and execution.  After eliminating the Old Bolsheviks, Stalin executes many high ranking officers in the Russian military without benefit of trial.

 Stalin purges the officers under the pretext that they are “Trotskyites”.  Shortly after the military purges, Stalin realizes the purges must end.  He arranges one last show trail of Bukharin and his alleged confederates.  After they are executed, Stalin begins to taper the purges although executions would continue until the beginning of Russia’s entry into World War II.

The purges were devastating to the people of the Soviet Union.  Prisoners suffered horrific conditions in labor camps, where most prisoners perished from exposure, hunger or overwork.  The NKVD arrested or imprisoned numerous ordinary members of society.  Conquest states,” Not less than five percent of the population had been arrested by the time of Yezhov’s fall-that is, already at least one in twenty.” (p. 290)  Stalin’s purge of the military deprived him of some of the most able officers, which nearly led to his defeat in World War II.  Fortunately, no army has figured out how to defeat the Russian winter.


Russian Policeman from the Public Domain

Robert Thurston espouses a different view of the purges.  Thurston is a Professor of History at Miami of Ohio University.  Yale University Press published his revisionist version of Stalin’s Communist Party purges of the 1930s in 1996.  Thurston builds his argument using recently discovered Soviet documents and scholarship, released since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Thurston theorizes that “The state’s use or threat of force did not result in a ‘broken’ people.” (xx) Thurston further states that Stalin was a popular leader, who was legitimately mourned upon his death in 1953.

Thurston confines his history to 1934-1941, which leaves out the collectivization drives of the late 1920s, the Jewish massacres during World War II, and the second round of purges after World War II.  Thurston writes each chapter in an effort to disprove long held beliefs about Stalin or the purges.

Despite the changes which would occur during the purges, the Stalinist courts and police were actually instituting reforms and relaxing their rules during the early thirties.  A lone gunman murdered Kirov, who was a longtime colleague of Stalin.  Stalin ordered two party organs “to ‘look for the killer among the Zinovievites.’…Stalin warned Yagoda (Iagoda) that ‘we’ll smash your mug (if you don’t cooperate).’…On this basis alone it is doubtful that  Stalin planned the killing with the help of the NKVD.” (p. 21)  Thurston cites new scholarship to dispute several points in Conquest’s version of the Kirov murders

“But there are many problems with the idea that he (Stalin) had Kirov killed.  Evidence recently released from Russia shows that, contrary to many accounts, the police did not detain Nikolaev three times near Kirov, on each occasion mysteriously releasing him despite the fact that he was carrying a gun.  He was stopped only once, and the circumstances were not suspicious.  He had not received the gun from a Leningrad NKVD officer, as is typically claimed, but had owned it since 1918 and had registered it legally in 1924 and 1930.” (p. 20)  Stalin believed the assassin was part of a larger plot and mobilized the NKVD to expose the plot.

Most of the NKVD operatives searched for real enemies of the state.  A few zealots mindlessly prosecuted innocent persons.  Stalin believed the reports of treason coming from the NKVD and began to expand the purges.  When he realized the communist party was suffering, he ended the purge.  Yezhov actually managed The Terror during its worst period between mid-1937 and 1939.  Stalin executed Yezhov after his crimes became known to him.

Thurston points out that The Terror was not a motivating force within the general population.  Factory workers exercised influence over their surroundings.  In fact, Thurston states the factory worker participated in government during this time. “Neither martyrs nor helpless puppets, they did play a significant role in both the achievements of the period and its state-sponsored violence.” (p. 198)  The populace also stayed together during World War II. “Just as there was no absolute collapse of the Red Army, which continued to fight on in the face of defeat after defeat, the country’s civilians experienced only occasional panic and psychic collapse.” (p. 226)

Thurston concludes that “There was never a long period of Stalinism without a serious foreign threat, major internal dislocation, or both, which makes identifying its true nature impossible.  Was Stalinism therefore little more than crises and brutal responses to them?” (p. 233) He answers this question in the affirmative.

Conquest and Thurston arrive at radically different conclusions in defining Stalinism and the motivating factors behind Stalin’s actions.  Conquest focuses his narrative on Stalin’s actions, while Thurston spends much more time explaining the action of others.  Conquest paints a portrait of a powerful dictator manipulating his puppets.  Thurston humanizes this portrait by illustrating the action of other actors in the purge often placing more blame on their actions.  Conquest’s version is the more excepted history.

John M. Thompson makes the following statement about the Kirov murder. “Whether Stalin engineered the murder remains unproven…it is hard to believe that the assassination of the number-two leader in the Party could have been arranged without Stalin’s knowledge, even if he did not initiate the plan.” (p. 311) Adam Hochschild takes a harsh view of Thurston’s work in a book review published in the New York Times.  Hochschild stated that Thurston’s book “has an …air of unreality.” Hochschild also attributes ulterior motives for Thurston’s work.  “Careers are built, institutes are founded and tenure is granted on the basis of someone’s claim to have a new interpretation of something.”  He asks, “What in the world are revisionists thinking of?”

I have to say I agree more with Hochschild than Thurston.  Trying to paint a sympathetic portrayal of Stalin by playing down his horrific crimes is difficult to accept.  While Stalin had many helpers, they were executing his will many times in fear for their own lives.  Thurston cannot explain away Stalin’s crimes so easily.

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