The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective

By Robert Gellately; Ben Kieman | Go to book overview

10
The Mechanism of a Mass Crime
The Great Terror in the Soviet Union, 1937–1938
NICOLAS WERTH

In the past few years, the access, though limited, to previously inaccessible documents from the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the State Security Police has thrown new light on the mechanism, the organization, and the implementation of the “Great Terror.”1 This crucial episode of Stalinism had provoked, long before the opening of the Soviet archives, a number of studies and debates about the amplitude, the reasons, and the purpose of the massacre of tens of thousands of communist officials and of a huge number (the evaluations ranged between hundreds of thousands and several millions) of ordinary soviet citizens–a massacre perpetrated by “a state against its people.”2 In the 1950s American scholars proposed a structural explanation of the Great Terror: as a totalitarian system Stalin's regime had to maintain its citizens in a state of fear and uncertainty, and recurrent random purging provided the mechanism.3 At the end of the 1960s Robert Conquest published the first detailed account, which was to become a classical reference, of the Great Terror. Based primarily on testimonies or memoirs of those who had survived or deserted the “Fatherland of socialism” and on the numerous Soviet publications in the years of the “Khruschev thaw, ” the work of Robert Conquest emphasized Stalin's paranoia, focused on the Moscow show trials of old Bolsheviks, and analyzed the carefully planned and systematic destruction of the Leninist party leadership as the first step toward terrorizing the entire population.

____________________
1
The term “Great Terror” was popularized by Robert Conquest's pioneer study, The Great Terror (1968; new ed., updated, New York, 1990). In Russia, this episode is known as the Ezhovschina, “the reign of Ezhov, ” the people's commissar for the interior and chief of the State Security Police from September 1936 to November 1938.
2
See Nicolas Werth, “A State against Its People: Violence, Repression and Terror in the Soviet Union, ” in S. Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), 33–269.
3
Zbigniew Brzezinski's The Permanent Purge (Cambridge, Mass., 1958) is the clearest statement of this hypothesis.

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