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The Road to Terror

The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939

J. Arch Getty
Oleg V. Naumov
Translations by Benjamin Sher
Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 672
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  • Book Info
    The Road to Terror
    Book Description:

    The vast and complex tragedy of Stalin's purges, culminating in the Great Terror, made victims of millions of Russians between 1932 and 1939. This gripping book assembles and translates into English for the first time an astonishing array of formerly top secret Soviet documents from that period. Exposing to daylight the hidden inner workings of the Communist Party and the dark inhumanity of the purge process, these documents immeasurably deepen our understanding of an agonizing episode of Soviet history.From dossiers on the liquidated Soviet elite to police reports of peasant unrest to private letters from victims and purgers to secret transcripts of Central Committee meetings, the nearly two hundred documents presented here confirm Stalin's role as executor of the terror. Yet the top party elite, ornomenklatura, were also key to the unfolding of a terror that proceeded with fits and starts, moves and countermoves, and steps toward and away from the abyss. From 1932 to early 1937 Stalin and thenomenklaturaagreed on the need to destroy all dissidents, to stage show trials, to carry out mass arrests, purges, and shootings, and to prevent any resistance to these "cleansings." Eventually deep insecurities that magnified any opposition and iron discipline within the party led thenomenklaturato support Stalin in purging their own colleagues, and in 1937 and 1938 they serially voted one another into prison.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13310-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    J. Arch Getty
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    J. Arch Getty
  5. Translator’s Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    Benjamin Sher
  6. Notes on Transliteration and Terminology
    (pp. xix-xxi)
  7. A Note on the Documents
    (pp. xxii-xxiii)
  8. Soviet Organizational Acronyms and Abbreviations
    (pp. xxiv-xxx)
  9. INTRODUCTION: Party Documents and Bolshevik Mentality
    (pp. 1-30)

    ALEXANDER YULEVICH TIVEL, enemy of the people, was executed by a firing squad of the Soviet secret police on a day in early March 1937, a day that did not shake the world.

    A journalist and editor, Tivel was a midlevel bureaucrat, a minor figure whose records in no way stand out in the archives of his era. We shall not meet him in the corridors of Stalinist power. But precisely on that account his story is worth telling: he is a kind of Soviet Everyman. For some reason—or for no reason—Tivel became one of three-quarters of a...

  10. PART I. Closing Ranks

    • CHAPTER ONE The New Situation, 1930–32
      (pp. 33-73)

      THESE WERE TERRIBLE YEARS in the Soviet Union. In 1932, the fifteenth year of the revolution, 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...

    • CHAPTER TWO Party Discipline in 1932
      (pp. 74-102)

      THE CENTRAL COMMITTEE plenum of January 1933 took place in a crisis atmosphere. The famine was still raging. Because of the hunger and the rapid industrialization, population movements took on a titanic scale as millions of peasants moved about seeking food and employment. As a result of mass recruitment drives in 1929–32, the party’s membership had swelled from 1.5 to 3.5 million.¹ Many of these were raw, “untested” recruits about whom the party leadership knew little. As we have seen, significant numbers of lower-level cadres had balked at the stern measures of collectivization, and the Riutin and Trotsky episodes...

    • CHAPTER THREE Repression and Legality
      (pp. 103-139)

      LITERARY CENSORSHIP in this period provides an example both of ambiguous policies and of direct attempts to construct the regime’s dominant rhetoric and narrative. Since 1917 the Bolsheviks had suppressed publication of books and newspapers by their political opponents. But during the 1920s the Stalinist leadership had often permitted the publication of statements and articles by various oppositionists within the party, at least until the moment of their defeat and expulsion. Trotsky’s works were published until the mid-1920s, and Bukharin continued to publish, albeit within controlled parameters, until his arrest in 1937; he was in fact editor of the government...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Growing Tension in 1935
      (pp. 140-196)

      ON 1 DECEMBER 1934, Politburo member, Leningrad party secretary, and Stalin intimate Sergei Kirov was shot in the corridor outside his office in the Smolny building. Over the next four years the Stalinist leadership used the assassination as evidence of a widespread conspiracy against the Soviet state and its leaders and as a pretext for the Great Terror of the 1930s. Millions of people were arrested, imprisoned, or shot in the aftermath of the assassination, and because it provided justification for Stalinist terror, the crime has been called “the key moment which determined the development of the Soviet system, and...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Screening Cadres
      (pp. 197-218)

      ANOTHER PARTY MEMBERSHIP screening operation, or purge, was conducted in the middle of l935, the verification (proverka) of party documents. Planned even before the Kirov assassination, this purge was in the tradition of party screenings since 1921 and was designed to rid the party of “ballast”: corrupt bureaucrats, those who had hidden their social origins or political pasts, those with false membership documents. The order for the operation (“On Disorders in the Registration, Distribution, and Safekeeping of Party Cards and on Measures for Regulating This Affair”)¹ had characterized the verification as a housekeeping operation to bring some order to the...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Fork in the Road
      (pp. 219-244)

      DOCUMENTS FROM ROUGHLY the first half of 1936 indicate a continuing desire by the top party leadership to ease up on uncontrolled repression. The first three texts below relate to judicial policy and pertain to nonparty urban and rural victims of previous waves of repression in 1933–35. Several of these are connected to A. Vyshinsky, procurator general of the USSR, who has sometimes been seen as an advocate of procedural legalism (if not legality) and even as an opponent of indiscriminate terror (if not terror itself).¹ In February 1936 USSR Procurator Vyshinsky had complained to Stalin that NKVD officials...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  11. PART II. The Terror

    • CHAPTER SEVEN The Face of the Enemy, 1936
      (pp. 247-299)

      IN THE FIRST DAYS of 1936 one Valentin Olberg, a former associate of Trotsky, was arrested by the NKVD in the city of Gorky, apparently in connection with a suspicious history of foreign travel.¹ Under interrogation, he admitted to being an “emissary” of Trotsky’s who had carried news to the exiled leader and “instructions” from him back into the USSR. This “information,” along with scattered reports from NKVD informers about other couriers, was passed to Stalin in the Central Committee. Stalin had decided to reopen the Kirov investigation. According to Yezhov’s later account, “Stalin, correctly sensing in all this something...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Tide Turns
      (pp. 300-330)

      FROM THE DOCK of the August 1936 show trial, Lev Kamenev had mentioned the names of former rightist leaders Nikolai Bukharin, Aleksei Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky in his testimony. Such allusions in a carefully scripted trial text were not accidental. At the close of the court session, Procurator Andrei Vyshinsky announced that he was opening an official investigation of their possible complicity with the accused. The next day, Tomsky committed suicide.¹ Even before this, the denunciations of the leftists had begun to rub off on Bukharin. On the eve of the trial, in the wake of the closed letter of...

    • CHAPTER NINE The Sky Darkens
      (pp. 331-363)

      IN JANUARY 1937 Moscow decided to press the point about the dangers of “carelessness” among the regional nomenklatura by making examples of two of the most prominent regional leaders, Pavel Postyshev (secretary in the Ukraine) and Boris Sheboldaev (first secretary of the Azov–Black Sea Territorial Party Committee). Recent arrests of alleged Trotskyist terrorists in both regions provided an issue and a setting for criticizing the practices of the regional satraps without delving too much into the real workings of the system and without weakening the regional party apparatus as an institution, both points that no central party leaders wanted...

    • CHAPTER TEN Party Discipline and the Fall of Bukharin
      (pp. 364-419)

      ALTHOUGH THERE WAS A critical but generally conciliatory attitude toward the regional secretaries at the February-March plenum, the official rhetoric on former oppositionists was increasingly severe. Two months earlier, at Stalin’s suggestion, the previous plenum had not condemned Bukharin and Rykov and had postponed consideration to the next meeting. In the interim, Yezhov had been busy. He continued to interrogate former oppositionists in order to get “evidence” incriminating the rightist leaders. On January 13, 1937, Bukharin participated in a “confrontation” with V. N. Astrov, a former pupil of Bukharin’s now arrested for treason. In the presence of Stalin and other...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN The Storm of 1937: The Party Commits Suicide
      (pp. 420-490)

      THE FEBRUARY–MARCH 1937 plenum was also the stage for an incipient purge of the police. Although Yezhov had taken over leadership of the NKVD from Yagoda the previous September, most of Yagoda’s senior deputies and appointees were still in place. These NKVD officials were professional chekists, having served in the police since the civil war, and removing such people unceremoniously would be disruptive and politically difficult. Not only were they entrenched political players of the nomenklatura, but their removal could raise inconvenient questions: if Yagoda and company were to be directly branded as longtime incompetents (or worse), as was...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Ending the Terror, 1938
      (pp. 491-552)

      THE WILD AND VICIOUS terror of 1937 is sometimes known as theYezhovshchina: the “time of Yezhov.” This is a misnomer for several reasons. First, it puts excessive emphasis on N. I. Yezhov, who, though he was the head of the secret police that carried out much of the terror, was only one of the important political actors and forces involved. He had a certain amount of freedom in identifying and arresting various “enemies,” but he almost certainly took his orders from Stalin and the Politburo.

      Second,Yezhovshchinais a misleading epithet because the terror consisted of a number of...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Two Bolsheviks
      (pp. 553-568)

      NIKOLAI IVANOVICH BUKHARIN and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov had both joined the party before the 1917 revolutions and therefore belonged to the exclusive group of “Old Bolsheviks.”

      Bukharin was of the Lenin type: a highly educated intellectual who spoke and wrote several languages. Like Lenin, Bukharin was a theoretician who produced an impressive corpus of published works within the Marxist tradition. Even as he languished in a Stalinist prison awaiting trial, he wrote several extensive philosophical and economic works, as well as a novel.¹ His theoretical writings had been cornerstones of Bolshevik politics. They were widely read and discussed by the...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 569-586)

    SERIOUS STUDY of the Soviet Union began after World War II, when the “Free World” faced the “Masters of Deceit,” and when the line between good and evil seemed stark.¹ This was also a time of academic model building, hypothesis testing, and variable analysis, and these methods made important initial contributions to a new field of study. But they also sometimes facilitated the creation of straight-line causal thinking and politicized conclusions. Such chains of determinism as “Lenin → communism → Stalinism/totalitarianism → terror” were popular, and it was easy to conclude that socialism always led to terror, or that Stalinism...

  13. Appendixes

    • APPENDIX ONE Numbers of Victims of the Terror
      (pp. 587-594)
    • APPENDIX TWO Biographical Sketches
      (pp. 595-614)
  14. Index of Documents
    (pp. 615-622)
  15. Index
    (pp. 623-635)