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Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941

Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941

Robert W. Thurston
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bw0h
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  • Book Info
    Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941
    Book Description:

    Terror, in the sense of mass, unjust arrests, characterized the USSR during the late 1930s. But, argues Robert Thurston in this controversial book, Stalin did not intend to terrorize the country and did not need to rule by fear. Memoirs and interviews with Soviet people indicate that many more believed in Stalin's quest to eliminate internal enemies than were frightened by it.Drawing on recently opened Soviet archives and other sources, Thurston shows that between 1934 and 1936 police and court practice relaxed significantly. Then a series of events, together with the tense international situation and memories of real enemy activity during the savage Russian Civil War, combined to push leaders and people into a hysterical hunt for perceived "wreckers." After late 1938, however, the police and courts became dramatically milder.Coercion was not the key factor keeping the regime in power. More important was voluntary support, fostered at least in the cities by broad opportunities to criticize conditions and participate in decision making on the local level. The German invasion of 1941 found the populace deeply divided in its judgment of Stalinism, but the country's soldiers generally fought hard in its defense. Using German and Russian sources, the author probes Soviet morale and performance in the early fighting.Thurston's portrait of the era sheds new light on Stalin and the nature of his regime. It presents an unconventional and less condescending view of the Soviet people, depicted not simply as victims but also as actors in the violence, criticisms, and local decisions of the 1930s. Ironically, Stalinism helped prepare the way for the much more active society and for the reforms of fifty years later.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14365-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxiv)

    In September 1987 I walked out of Sheremetevo Airport and boarded a bus to Moscow. There I found myself staring at an image that embodies the central issue of this book: a portrait of Stalin, hanging on the back of the driver’s seat.

    Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin was born Iosif Djugashvili in 1879 in the Caucasian mountain town of Gori, Georgia. His notoriety in twentieth-century history is rivaled only by that of Hitler, Pol Pot, or Idi Amin. Leader of the Soviet Union from 1928–29 until his death in March 1953, Stalin presided over his country’s rise from second-rate status...

  6. 1 The Police and Courts Begin to Relax, 1933–1936
    (pp. 1-15)

    Much recent Western literature examines how the Soviet government drew on popular acquiescence, if not on outright voluntary support, in its early years.¹ During the Civil War, for example, the authorities found ways to integrate villagers into the new administrative structures and developed a policy concerning provisions that was acceptable to the peasants, whereby grain was funneled from farms to the Red Army and the cities, despite the grave lack of consumer goods flowing the other way.²

    As the Russian Empire fractured after 1917, bloodshed by the Reds was widespread and grotesque—but this was also true of their opponents,...

  7. 2 Politics and Tension in the Stalinist Leadership, 1934–1937
    (pp. 16-58)

    By 1934 new opposition to Stalin, especially regarding his handling of the economy and collectivization, had arisen within the Communist Party. The extent of the dissatisfaction, however, is unclear. Glasnost’ has not yet revealed the whole story, and may never do so, because in the nature of Soviet politics much would not have been committed to paper. Available memoirs are sometimes contradictory or problematic. Key records, kept in a special “presidential” archive within the Kremlin, are still not open to researchers. Nor can we be sure of the impact of this dissatisfaction on Stalin, though Robert C. Tucker is probably...

  8. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  9. 3 The Political Police at Work in the Terror, 1937–1938
    (pp. 59-106)

    A number of survivors recalled that the large wave of arrests among civilians started only after the Tukhachevskii case, in August 1937.¹ To the extent that the Terror expanded to become “great,” it did so now and not before. On July 3, shortly after the officers’ executions, Stalin and the Politburo adopted a resolution on “anti-Soviet elements,” in which they informed Ezhov and all leading party bodies that onetime kulaks and criminals were returning from exile to their home districts after serving their sentences, only to become the “main instigators of anti-Soviet and diversionist crimes.” The NKVD was to round...

  10. 4 The Terror Ends
    (pp. 107-136)

    In January 1938 the atmosphere began to change dramatically, though the pattern of arrests did not yet follow suit. At a meeting of the Central Committee in the middle of the month, speakers scorned excesses in the purges and repressions, while calling repeatedly for increased attention to appeals for reinstatement by ousted communists. Georgi Malenkov, director of the Central Committee’s department of cadres though still not a member of the committee itself, reported to the session on the party purges of 1937. About one hundred members had been expelled, twenty-four thousand in the first half of the year and seventy-six...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. 5 Fear and Belief in the Terror: Response to Arrest
    (pp. 137-163)

    Stalin, or rather Stalin with a great deal of help, killed millions or facilitated their untimely deaths. He was one of history’s leading murderers, and his crimes were truly grotesque.

    More precise efforts to estimate the number of victims have produced sharp debates for fifty years. Why dwell on the numbers? Those who suffered and died are no better off if one estimate is favored over another—even the lowest figures denote tragedy on a huge scale. No moral issue is at stake here; injustice was rampant, and there were millions of victims in the eight years of our focus...

  13. 6 Life in the Factories
    (pp. 164-198)

    With the possible exception of one short period, terror was not the central fact or motivating factor of Soviet existence between collectivization, when it touched many peasants, and June 1941. Other factors were more important in getting the populace to comply with the general goals and structure of the regime, or at least to forego working actively against it. In this chapter I explore some of these other dynamics for one important social group, the industrial workers. Although coercion and manipulation of workers existed on a fairly large scale, the successes of industrialization, the evidence on workers’ attitudes already cited,...

  14. 7 The Acid Test of Stalinism: Popular Response to World War II
    (pp. 199-226)

    At about 3:00 A.M. on Sunday, June 22, 1941, just as the first light began to spread across the northern European skies, German troops and satellite forces smashed across the Soviet borders. Some 4.6 million invaders were met by 2.9 million defenders.¹ Right from the start, the German campaign was a stunning success. The attackers quickly overran Soviet border posts, caught and destroyed the bulk of the defenders’ air force on the ground, and pushed deep into the USSR. In many places Red Army units simply collapsed; communications and supplies were hopelessly disorganized. After a little more than four days,...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 227-234)

    By the early 1990s, information about crimes under Stalin was old news in the former Soviet Union. Like Westerners, the educated Russian public felt it knew what his rule had been about and considered fear and coercion to be its essence. Assertions were common in and outside the old USSR that socialism—meaning, above all, Stalinism—had destroyed popular initiative, precluding meaningful change for a long time.¹

    From that position it was a short step to extremely condescending conclusions about the nature of the Russian people. Victims are helpless, and the helpless defective. Orlando Figes, a scholar of the Russian...

  16. Abbreviations
    (pp. 235-236)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 237-286)
  18. Glossary of Names and Key Terms
    (pp. 287-288)
  19. Index
    (pp. 289-296)