The question as to why the leaders of the Soviet Union murdered hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens during the Great Purges is one of the most important of modern history, primarily because it shapes what we are likely to think about communism. There are two schools of thought. On the one hand, there are those who feel Stalin launched the Great Purges because “social cleansing” was (and is) intrinsic to communist ideology and practice. On this gloss, communism itself is responsible for Stalin’s bloodletting. On the other hand, there are those who hold that Stalin launched the Great Purges in response to a momentary crisis, or perceived crisis, that had little to do with building communism per se. On this understanding, Stalin and his colleagues believed that the destruction of the Soviet Union, either by internal or external enemies, was an imminent possibility. Thus they felt they had to act, and act decisively.
Who’s right? In his path-breaking Policing Stalin’s Socialism: Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953 (Yale UP, 2010) David Shearer offers the most nuanced answer yet. He argues that the Bolsheviks believed class war was an essential and unavoidable part of building communism. The logic here is simple: if you are going to build a classless society, you have to destroy existing classes. This is precisely what the Bolsheviks did, and said they were doing, during the mass repression campaigns–especially de-kulakization–of the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Great Purges, however, were different. Here Stalin was not building communism via class war, but preparing the Soviet Union for what he believed would be a decisive battle with capitalist states without and “socially harmful elements” within. By the mid-1930s, all the top Bolsheviks were truly frightened. They thought the end might well be nigh, and they knew that something had to be done about it. In desperation (delusional though it may have been), they used the police organs developed during the the period of class war (the NKVD, the GUGB) to root out any potential opponents of the regime. Who were they? Basically anyone who had run afoul of the law or was a member of a suspect political class or ethnic group. Stalin ordered the police to tally these “socially harmful elements” and transmit the results to Moscow. On the basis of the tallies, Stalin issued arrest quotas and commanded that they be filled and over-fulfilled. The Great Purges began.
And then, after roughly 17 months, they stopped. The Germans invaded, were defeated, and the Bolsheviks set about rebuilding the country. The repression continued during this period, but, as Shearer shows, it was different from what had come immediately before. The political police were no longer rounding up masses of potential counter-revolutionaries (except in the newly occupied territories such as the Baltic States, Eastern Poland, and Western Ukraine; there class war and social cleansing still had to be undertaken). Instead, the civil police arrested and exiled hundreds of thousands because they had abused socialist propriety by pilfering food, refusing to work, or committing one or another crime.
What Shearer demonstrates is that while Soviet communism was inherently oppressive, it was not inherently murderous. Communism did not uniquely cause the Great Purges; Stalin’s paranoia and power did.
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