The Holocaust casts a great shadow, but Stalin’s shadow is bigger and his political ideologies have survived to this day. Political motives and actions based on paranoia have become the norm. The Great Purge was born out of fear and severe paranoia. There are multiple reasons as to why Stalin’s political ideas have survived but it mostly has to do with Stalin’s utopian view. According to Stalin the future of Russia looked bright and almost like a paradise, and who wouldn’t want to live in paradise? Where the SS were blatant in their actions and well known around Europe the NKVD (Stalin’s Secret Police) was a shadowy and vague enigma of an organization. A history of warped communism, a destabilizing crisis, an unhinged authoritarian government, the categorization of an individual, a skewed government ideology, and government aggression greatly paved the way for the “Purges”. Never has the idea that, absolute power corrupts absolutely, been truer.
Group Cultural History
Stalin believed that Russia was a victim, a country that had been beaten countless times as early as the Mongols to as recent as the British and French capitalist seeing Russia as a land full of untapped resources. He thought now was their time to rise up and become a world power, but in order to do they would need to move fast. All the other countries had been powerful world players for centuries. Stalin needed to make up for lost time. Russia had been known as primarily being economically based on farming, but the industrial revolution would forever change that. There was some truth that Russia needed to get with the times, but Stalin saw this as their chance to surpass the other countries. Stalin wanted Russia to be the industrial capital of the world. Stalin’s beliefs were absolute in scope.
A nationwide crisis had developed in Russia affecting social, economic, and political relations. Disorder in industry had intensified, and difficulties in obtaining provisions had increased. Gross industrial production had decreased greatly, and most of the private enterprises and business in Russia closed down. Strikes “plagued” Russian factories and farms. Then in October 1917 the lower class disregarded the Russian government as having any political authority or power. Ultimately the Bolsheviks overthrew Russia’s long-standing government and replaced it with their own a Soviet government. With the Bolshevik’s seizure of power came a radical transformation of how Russia was governed.
Lenin’s death significantly contributed to the political turmoil that would take place in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.
Past political revolutions and those that happen today usually involve mass killings. That is where the NKVD came in. If captured by the NKVD they were interrogated shortly after and the questions almost always didn’t have to do with the individual but with the group(s) they belonged to. Interrogations often lead to torture. Regardless of their answers they were usually charged. The charges ranged from: sabotage, murder, betrayal/treason, evil intentions, and the creating and promoting anti-Soviet propaganda. When charged a Troika then sentenced the person, a Troika is a committee of Three NKVD officers, who had the authority for express judgments. Deportation, shipments to a gulag, or executions were the punishments given.
The use of propaganda during this period was overt. Propaganda relating to Russia’s future used metaphors and imagery of illumination, sunlight, sparkling seas, and of course red. But these posters of a bright future for all were greatly overshadowed by the Soviets use of terror and violence to move the process along at a speedier rate. Paranoia in the government probably stemmed from when the Bolsheviks seized power. During that time the Bolsheviks had very little support, only a few radicals.
Where the Nazi’s were most concerned about race and religion, the NKVD and Stalin’s Soviet Army were concerned with whom you affiliated with. Therefore every citizen in Russia was under stark scrutiny. Stalin wanted a pure socialist society and during the chaotic times they needed to identify their friends but more importantly their enemies. Individual guilt or innocence was disregarded. If your group was guilty, you were guilty.
The peasant and worker class got an incredible amount of recognition following the Bolshevik Revolution but with that recognition came a form of extreme prejudice, classification. There were three classes: poor (beredniak), middle (seredniak), and wealthy (kulak). There was a subtle tension between all three. Part of the tensions stemmed from the beredniaks wealth of possibilities to claim political influence, right to claim basic goods, and access to jobs and housing. A country that had almost universal poverty for most of its existence that then has a dramatic shift leaving a group of people in deficiency while the others surpass them greatly is bound to have internal conflict.
Their job and financial state were only part of the way they were classified. Russia was a very diverse country. There was a vast array of ethnicities and nationalities and these too in the Soviet mindset needed categorization. Therefore between 1920 and 1930 the Soviets sent a massive workforce of statisticians, ethnographers, linguists, and geographers to basically map out this somewhat new empire.
The kulak class was one of the main targets during the purges. But the term kulak status was very elastic, broad and vague. Thus being kulak was by no means self-evident.
As the Nazis compared the Jews to rats and roaches, Stalin compared the “enemies of Russia” to a wide range of beasts and animals such as bloodsuckers, spiders, vampires, dogs, and lice. These names were used to evoke a sense of menace and parasitic being.
With the drastic classification came the differing of beliefs and opinions. Some believed that Russia should be an open and transparent country sharing resources with other countries and vice versa, others sought to isolate Russia and focus internally and focus on maintain the industrial renaissance that was thought to be taking place at the time. Stalin was part of the latter.
Stalin surrounded himself with a group of few key central political aids, and they oversaw the purges. These political aids were much like Stalin; they were men of ability, not intellect. They were decisive and that’s all that mattered. Not having many people in the “politics of the purges” streamlined the decision making process and this philosophy would later be seen during the Cambodian genocide.
“The Purges” however awful achieved, overall, what Stalin intended. By the late 1930’s Russia was on its way to becoming a force to be reckoned with. It was turning into an urban and industrial dynamo.
The Soviet Union often saw themselves as a machine, their citizens were: brick, nails, lumber, and mortar that were to be manipulated to make the motherland run smoother. Personal interest and inquiries were insignificant. All wants and desires should be geared toward the new world order currently arising in the recently born Soviet Union. Almost all of Soviet ideologies revolved around the greater good. The conflict of Russian imperialism and Marxism greatly contributed to the purges.
Stalin’s belief system can be easily traced back to Lenin and Karl Marx. But Stalin’s seems more like a mutant bastard child of a concrete political system more than anything else.
Even Lenin, on the verge of death, started to see the potential defects and holes in his political philosophy. After suffering from his first stroke Lenin cut himself off from political proceedings to a certain degree. A period of intense self-reflection occupied Lenin during the later years of his life. Lenin sought to strengthen the middle class, in order to create peace between classes. He believed class warfare was imminent. He was right. Lenin in his writing warned Russia that they would soon be given great power and he was worried they would not know what to do with this enormous swell of power swiftly given to them. He was right. He urged Russia to proceed with caution. Lenin described Stalin as an able man, a brute without brains.
The decision to “purge” Russian society wasn’t one that came in haste. Soviet doctrine at first praised the diversity of its people but this was almost always underlined with the idea that Russian politics and culture were far superior. There was also a mutual distrust among the Russian people.
The idea of the pliability of humans was an idea rooted in Leninism and Marxism and to disregard it would seem hypocritical. Stalin’s idea of a Russian powerhouse was rooted in moving fast. Gulags were the answer. Located far away from the Russian populace gulags were hard labor camps that were seen as a way of “reforming” a citizen into a true communist Soviet through tough work. This did two very important things: the first being it eliminated “the lingering threat” of anti-Soviets by moving them en masse to distant and remote places, the second it “confirmed” the belief of the “malleable man”. But their idea of being a flexible individual far extended beyond individuals political leanings. The Soviets wanted to reshape basic behaviors and change thought patterns. The Soviets knowing that this was a daunting task contributed to the gulags being an extremely harsh environment.
The classification of its people helped greatly with speeding up the process of “purging”. This categorization efficiency would be seen decades later during the Kurdish genocide. Disputes or disagreements against the Soviet party, however logical, were seen as a hostile threat to national security. The Soviets saw themselves as well oiled machine and those that went against Soviet ideology were kinks that needed to be taken out.
During this time Stalin’s power was heavily consolidated. The NKVD, which at first operated in secret, became a public oppressor and acted on the same scale as the red army, maybe even larger. But they were still obscure. The NKVD officers had no names to identify them, and they were given little to no orders from Stalin. Instead they were given free reign to enact “law and order” however they saw fit.
Another way the Soviets successfully simplified the “purges” was by encouraging denunciations. Citizens were encouraged to point out “Anti-Soviet” citizens. They were to be seen as national heroes. Some saw this as a way to settle old scores; neighbors turned on each other so did friends and family. Denunciations became the most widespread and most used tool in the Soviets arsenal during the purges. The NKVD mainly worked from what the citizens said about each other. Denunciations also heavily benefitted political careerist. It was a very easy way to get ahead.
The purges started against political opponents (real or imagined) and branched out from there. One of the official goals of the Russian purges was to “liquidate the kulaks as a class” Stalin himself stated this. This statement, and the actions following, dramatically changed Russians citizens’ and the world’s view on Soviet practices. It was the most radical form of political action that had ever taken place under Soviet watch. This “political” action fused perfectly with “military” action. Stalin’s red army was one of the main gears keeping the Soviet machine going; consequently the red army was also an incredibly important asset during the purges. 2 million peasants were deported for being accused of kulak status and the red army oversaw their deportation. During this time of mass deportation a reported number of 6 million peasants died of famine.
The Purges are not considered genocide because there was no particular group targeted; everyone’s safety and lives were in jeopardy. But this doesn’t mean there wasn’t prejudice against certain groups. Recent research indicates: the aristocratic, those living in border regions, minority nationalities, and those with foreign contacts were seen as part of the enemy of the Soviets. A guilty individual was seen as a virus hence anybody they had contact with (friends, family, coworkers) were automatically suspect.
Despite the fact that the purges were widespread and prevalent through almost all of Russia there was very little recorded via government documents. In the 1960’s the USSR fully acknowledged “The Great Purge” by stating, “an event of mass repression had transpired”. It was also made clear that most of the confessions made during interrogation, torture, and trial were false.
Horrific atrocities were committed and yet Stalin’s political ideas still exist to this day. His view is an optimistic one that wants the betterment of all over the betterment of one. Therefore it is easy to see why it has not died out. Stalin’s political system evokes a sense of hope, however false that hope may be, it is still considered hope.