World Affairs Journal
Tomasz Sommer and Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
For more than twenty years now, many thinkers in Russia have been free to reject Communism openly and borrow without fear or hesitancy from the latest Western intellectual fashions. This includes the West’s penchant for moral relativism, which has been embraced with particular enthusiasm by Stalin apologists, who have, in the manner of Holocaust deniers, been working feverishly to establish the Man of Steel’s innocence, in particular for the mass bloodletting of the Great Terror. The strange fruits of this revisionist endeavor, which has accompanied a general surge in Russian nationalism and imperialism, have cropped up in bookshops as shelves overflow with volumes adorned with Joseph Stalin’s face, sanitized of its pockmarks, the authors determined to “prove” the utter innocence of the Soviet leader. Apologetics of this order stopped forever after Khrushchev denounced his predecessor in 1956—or so it was thought. But in fact the freeze on Stalinism has been thawing ever since the fall of Communism two decades ago.
The Mystery of 1937 , a work brought out in 2010 by the prestigious publishing house Eksmo as part of its “Classics of the Russian Thought” series, is representative of this growing publishing trend. The book consists of three long essays by Yurii Zhukov, Vadim Kozhinov, and Yurii Mukhin, whose collaboration seems calculated to rehabilitate the old adage that any transformation of Russia requires a serious tyranny. But Kozhinov argues that the history of the Great Terror is a record of falsification: both Lenin and Stalin meant well and their only mistake was the lack of control over the secret police apparatus. Moreover, had other leaders, such as Mikhail Tomski or Nikolai Bukharin (who were shot for “right-wing deviationism” in 1936 and 1938, respectively), seized power, the Great Terror would have been much more ruthless.
Who is responsible then for the millions of victims of the Soviet purge years? No one. All the bloodletting was the function of impersonal forces of history. In the Russian context, according to Kozhinov, such deaths were the more or less natural result of a Time of Troubles (velikaia smuta), which, “as everyone knows,” occur cyclically in Russian history. There are repeated downturns and crises in capitalism that cannot be prevented. Why not in Soviet history as well?
But in addition to being the result of the Time of Troubles, the Great Terror, according to Kozhinov, was also a period of imperial restoration for Russia. Is this a shocking logical misfire? No. It is a natural conclusion flowing from Marxist-Leninist dialectics, according to whose formula contradictions complement and pervade each other. Therefore, Kozhinov concludes (in logic recalling the tortured intellectual gymnastics of the Politburo) that restoration is a contradiction of revolution. The latter is utterly alien and damaging to Russia; the former is wholesome and healing. The less revolution occurs, the more the real Russia emerges. In fact, the restoration of Russia consists of countering the revolution in all its stages. Thus Stalin’s Great Terror, with its millions of deaths, was actually a counterrevolution (“understandably a very relative one”) to restore Russia.
While defending Stalin’s innocence, Kozhinov also touches upon the so-called “Jewish problem”—from which he also exonerates the Soviet generalissimo. Stalin and his minions have nothing in common with the Black Hundred pogromist legacy of the end of the czar’s regime. On the contrary, they really respected Jews. “Why while discussing the phenomenon of ‘the year 1937’ are so many Jewish names always mentioned?” Kozhinov asks. The explanation is obvious and entails the deployment of Marxist dialectics and social Darwinism. Jews poured into Russia in the wake of the 1917 revolution because the ban on Jewish migrations outside of the Pale of Settlement was abolished. There were officially only 6,400 Jews in Moscow in 1912 and 241,700 in 1933. Their ascent occurred further because members of the traditional Russian elite were exterminated. The Russian Jews replaced them through a “natural selection” process because, on the average, they were better educated than the rest of Russian society. The Jews adapted better to the new circumstances in the Soviet Union, and their “overrepresentation” in Stalin’s government and party institutions occurred “naturally,” just as the Great Terror did later on. Each was part of a complex social process of historical evolution that had little to do with Stalin himself. If Jews (and others) perished in the Terror, it was simply because of the inexorable forces of history. Jews were more heavily represented at the higher reaches of Soviet power than other groups, so more of them died.
Incidentally, Kozhinov is virtually the sole neo-revisionist of 1937 who brings up Soviet Jews. Unlike the National Bolsheviks and neo-Nazis in today’s Russia, the “mainstream” revisionists have tended not to play the Jewish card. If anything, they deny that there was Jewish participation (or “overrepresentation”) in Communism, which they, for nationalistic reasons, insist was purely a Russian affair.
In his contribution to The Mystery of 1937 , Yurii Zhukov takes a different path but reaches a similar destination. For him, the reason why millions died was that Communist Party cadres failed to grasp that the Soviet leader was trying to turn away from the idea of world revolution, to embrace the concept of peaceful coexistence and essentially return to the paradigm of the Russian Empire. Instead of cooperating with these noble goals, Zhukov claims, party activists and the secret police defied Stalin by clinging irrationally to their outdated revolutionary ideals. Thus, it was only natural that they should be swept away from the USSR’s political scene. Regrettably, they dragged down many innocent people along with themselves, but clearly this was their fault and not Stalin’s. If these Communist activists had not insisted on indulging in revolutionary fantasies inimical to the country’s well-being, millions would not have died.
The third author of the book, Yurii Mukhin, whose prior work has argued, against compelling evidence from the former Soviet archives, that it was indeed the Germans and not the Soviets who massacred the Polish officers in the Katyn Forest during the Second World War, significantly ups the ante when he holds that the Great Terror occurred because the party’s “top brass” hated Stalin so irrationally that he was forced to purge them and their allies in the military to ensure the survival of the state. Mukhin also asserts that the deaths of “hundreds of thousands” of kulaks (or allegedly prosperous farmers) and representatives of the ethnic minorities were justified by the fact that they were furthering the plots of warmongering Adolf Hitler. The suggestion here is that while Stalin struggled heroically to strengthen Russia’s defenses, others throughout the Soviet ranks worked to undermine him hand in glove with fascist foreign enemies. The lone leader understood the threat and saved Russia through decisive measures.
The interpretations at the heart of The Mystery of 1937 can be seen in other works as well—most of them suggesting that events of the 1930s occurred precisely as the Communist Party mouthpiece Pravda described them at the time. At least that is the conclusion of A. B. Martirosyan’s 200 Myths about Stalin , published in 2008 by Veche. Martirosyan brazenly asserts that the terror of 1937 was not initiated by Stalin himself and that it is a lie to claim that he permitted the torture of prisoners during NKVD police interrogation sessions. Documents proving that the dictator sanctioned the bloodbath were brazenly falsified, according to Martirosyan. The most mendacious of all the charges is the claim that that there was no anti-Soviet conspiracy by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. The former chief of the Red Army was indeed a treasonous officer who deserved to be put against the wall without any discussion. All in all, Martirosyan demolishes forty-five pernicious myths about Stalin’s participation in the Great Terror. After this stupendous neo-revisionist tour de force, only the most bitter detractor would dare blame anything on the goodly Soviet dictator.
Mythbusting also abounds in 1937: The Principal Myth of the 20th Century , published jointly by Eksmo and Yauza in 2010, in which Dimitrii Lyskov augments and enriches Martirosyan’s approaches. He begins by stressing that “the thesis” about the hundreds of thousands, millions, or even tens of millions of victims of the Soviet system is a myth circulated by Mikhail Gorbachev as part of his effort to dismantle the Soviet Union. True, there was repression in the 1930s, but enemies of the people were likewise legally suppressed everywhere else in the world at the time. Lyskov also insists that we remember that at the time of the Great Terror, Soviet prisons held just as many inmates as American prisons. Does anyone accuse FDR of overseeing a repression? Why should Stalin and his people be singled out for having upheld the law? Why do we even talk about 1937? That year was nothing exceptional in terms of the Soviet system, Lyskov insists. There were more deaths during Russia’s Civil War (1917–22) and in the Great Famine (1932–33), as well as in its postwar replay (1946). What’s the big deal about 1937?
Now that Lyskov and his literary comrades have exposed the lies about Stalin’s murder of his opponents inside the Soviet regime, other post-Soviet intellectuals can get on with the job of glorifying the Great Leader and his henchmen. Thus Alexandr Sever openly lauds Stalin with the title of his book, The Secret of the Year 1937: The Great Mission of the NKVD (published in 2008 by Moscow’s Algoritm). By 1937, according to Sever, so much mendacity, falsehood, and corruption had insinuated itself into the Soviet system that someone had to clean up the whole racket. Good thing Joseph Stalin stepped in to save the situation—and backed by a figure who was nearly as heroic: secret police chief Lavrentii Beria, “the marshal of secret victories.”
A more sophisticated example of Stalinist apologetics came in 2009 when Yuza and Eksmo published Leonid Naumov’s ‘The Bloody Dwarf’ against the Leader of Nations: Yezhov’s Plot . Naumov considers the pro-Stalin historian J. Arch Getty, a UCLA history professor who has soft-pedaled the Great Terror for American audiences, to be his master. One of Getty’s more significant contributions to revisionism was the shifting of blame for the bloody purges from Stalin to Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD in the mid-1930s. But this apparently didn’t go far enough, and Getty later exculpated Yezhov as well in a 2008 monograph published by Yale University Press (and coauthored with Oleg V. Naumov—apparently a distant relative of Leonid’s) called Stalin’s ‘Iron Fist’: The Times and Life of N. I. Yezhov , in which Getty and Naumov write, “Although it seems so from our liberal perspective, Yezhov’s cruelty was not in contradiction with the specific ideas of humanity and community he shared with his fellows.”
Leonid Naumov’s ‘The Bloody Dwarf’ is simply a variation on his mentor’s themes. In his introduction, the Russian apprentice explains that as far as the Great Terror goes, three competing interpretations exist in the post-Soviet world—all of them borrowing, consciously or not, from Western intellectual debates. First, there is the boring old “totalitarian school,” represented by such scholars as Nikita Petrov, currently the deputy head of Memorial, a Russian-based human rights organization. According to Petrov and his colleagues, it is fairly easy to establish who was responsible for the crimes, both at the levels of decision making and execution. The monstrosities of Communism materialized not as some deus ex machina, but rather they were conceived, debated, and implemented by particular individuals, beginning with Stalin himself.
The second interpretation of the Great Terror, according to Naumov, relies on the “modernization theory.” Its adherents argue that the atrocities of the 1930s derived not only from the ruthlessness of Stalin and his followers, but also, and perhaps primarily, from the objective necessity of the drive for industrialization. The Communists commenced a radical transformation of Russia’s society, which could not help but produce collateral damage. In this light, the Great Terror was not a result of the sinfulness of human nature but rather a stage in an inevitable historical process.
Third is the “revisionist orientation,” represented most prominently outside of Russia by J. Arch Getty and the University of Chicago’s Sheila Fitzpatrick, who sees the Great Terror as the consequence of the USSR’s newfound social mobility and concludes that in such chaotic political flux inadvertent atrocities were bound to be committed. This is obviously Naumov’s favored group. He delights in invoking the higher authority of these Western allies and the shrewdness of their ideas. He supports the positions of Getty and Fitzpatrick, but with some innovative caveats. According to the Russian revisionist, a plot to assassinate Stalin had probably been hatched by his comrades, and the Great Terror was simply a form of self-defense.
The following “truth” emerges from Naumov’s manipulation of circumstantial evidence: At the beginning of 1937, Stalin realized that “Yezhov’s group” had gained so much strength that it was capable of threatening his very power. Although he was not certain that his secret police boss was even contemplating an attack, in a knee-jerk spasm of better-safe-than-sorry self-defense, he resolved to preempt the alleged threat. Stalin was unable to act directly, however, because it could have endangered his own position. Therefore the Soviet dictator resolved to push Yezhov to undertake such actions against Nikolai Bukharin and others of his own “associates” who would eventually compromise the security chief and lead him into a trap. Simultaneously, the master of the Kremlin prepared a purge, or a cadre replacement, within the ranks of the political police. The men handpicked to spearhead the purge would ultimately destroy the Yezhov team. And precisely this came to pass.
Egged on by Stalin, as well as his own power lust, Yezhov launched the Great Terror. Once it was under way, Stalin tapped Lavrentii Beria to attack “the bloody dwarf” for errors and distortions, and then to replace him. Naumov further claims that even after he was fired as the Commissar of Internal Affairs, Yezhov was planning to overthrow Stalin during the commemorations of the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1938. In the end, the purged policeman concluded that he lacked the strength to execute his coup and decided to forgo this act of desperation.
Can the Great Terror then be considered as part of the Dostoyevskian dichotomy of crime and punishment? Naumov argues that it cannot. Another lecture on the dialectical forces of history is hardly necessary.
A mirror image of Nazi apologetics—including Holocaust denial—but without the moral and intellectual stigma, Stalinist revisionism has a long pedigree. Its initial, primitive version was actually offered up by Nikita Khrushchev in his “Secret Speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. The most recent incarnation is the growing body of work suggesting that the time of Stalin was neither evil nor dark but, to the contrary, wholesome and enlightened. Even the former dissident Alexander Zinovev declared himself a dedicated Stalinist during the Yeltsin years. Even so, Zinovev’s Stalin: The Flight of Our Youth (published by Eksmo and Algoritm in 2002) is one of the best explanations of the transformation of attitudes among some of the Russian intelligentsia. In this confession-as-novel, the author assumes the persona of a Stalinist-careerist snitch. He sympathetically presents the dilemmas faced by such an individual and apologizes for acts that a decent human being would have to consider criminal.
Zinovev’s was an opening salvo of neo-revisionism. On the heels of his ruminations, there appeared such manifestos as Maxim— nomen omen —Kalashnikov’s Forward to the USSR-2 , published by Pauza in 2003, in which the pundit openly calls for the restoration of the Soviet Union with all its totalitarian encrustations.
The current wave of Stalin nostalgia has a certain desperate brio and seeks the total expiation of the former dictator, facts be damned. Someone familiar with the Russian intellectual scene cannot help but be surprised not only by the sheer volume of books about Stalin’s innocence but also by their accessibility. Does all this mean that a new generation of Russian historians, failing to find a moral compass in Russia’s past, have resolved to forge Stalin into a new Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great? Or does this reflect the continuing moral and intellectual confusion in the post-Soviet sphere? Or is it merely part of a delayed effort to rehabilitate almost anything that was challenged under Gorbachev and Yeltsin?
The year 1937 is a crucial symbol of the struggle between memory and Stalinist propaganda. It touched “foreigners” and also, on a vast scale, the Russian intelligentsia and people, including Communist Party members. The Great Terror of the Purges has more resonance for contemporary Russians than, say, the Holodomor (the Ukrainian famine), the Doctor’s Plot, or the Finnish Operations of the NKVD. Stalin apologists find it a far easier tool by which to augment the post-Soviet moral chaos that still characterizes Russian intellectual life.
After we had purchased a few of the books mentioned above at a bookstore in Kamenets Podolsk, a town that has been, by turns, Polish, Ottoman, Russian, and now Ukrainian, or, more precisely, post-Soviet, we asked the clerk if she had anything else on the same subject. She enthusiastically handed us two handsomely published volumes by Grigorii Klimov, who died in New York three years ago. The author argues in a highly sophisticated and scholarly way that “latent homosexuals” rule the world, including Russia. And their confederates are other “degenerates” and “passive lesbians,” the latter often “Jewesses.” We were tempted to say that this is different story. But maybe not.
Tomasz Sommer is a journalist, publisher, and editor and co-owner of the Polish weekly Najwyzszy Czas!. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is the Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Institute of World Politics. He translated and expanded Dr. Sommer’s original article.