Habitual Terror

The In Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, the chapter “A Time of Troubles” analyzes the nature and evolution of the Great Purges of 1937-1938. She introduces the notions of surveillance, when the State monitors its population, and terror, when the population are the target of extreme State violence, and tracks their relationship in the Soviet Union1 . She writes about how State violence, originally aimed at specific classes, eventually turned inward and escalated due to paranoia and publicity.

I was particularly intrigued in the self-perpetuated escalation of terror within the Soviet Union. The State targeted elite Communist leaders in 1937 because of they abused their regional power, stole money from the State, lived lavish lifestyles, undermined the State, and developed dangerously powerful personal cults2. These habits defined a new type of bourgeoisie class that the Communist Party feared and battled. The public trials by which the State tried these leader, and highly detailed coverage of them, wrecked the state, heightened public interest and awareness. In the same public manner, everyone connected to a guilty individual faced the real threat of State persecution. These criminalization of human interactions and connections set ablaze a wild fire of paranoia among the populous. I am impressed how the nature of the Great Purge naturally changed.

In many respects, the Great Purge outgrew the State. It became a self perpetuating terror. Citizens turned in neighbors for the slightest remarks, suspicions, or seeming self preservation. Fitzpatrick captures the evolution of the Great Purge with the example of Andrei Arhilovsky. This former political prisoner’s attitude towards the Purge shifted over time through three stages. He originally praised the arrest and elimination of enemies of the State, then feared their overwhelming presence as the number of arrests escalated, and ultimately viewed them as “‘a replay of the French Revolution. More suspicion than fact”3. The Great Purge’s fanatic nature fueled it but eventually out grew and consumed itself. Was the escalation of the Great Purge inevitable? Were the Great Purges a product of Modernity or Communism?

  1. Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “A Time of Troubles,” in Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. (Oxford University Press, 2000), 190. []
  2. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 196 []
  3. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 215 []

2 thoughts on “Habitual Terror

  1. The use of the media to create show trials suggests that the Great Purge is a product of modernity. Moreover, the emphasis on denunciation and guilt by association in print partially explains the escalation of the Great Purge. However, the role of the people in transforming a state implement into a tool for their personal revenge should not be underestimated. In my opinion, the escalation was not inevitable, but a logical product of the rationale and climate used by the Soviet government.

  2. I agree with Victoria that the Great Purge is a product of modernity. I would extend her argument to include that the Great Purge is a product of modernity in the same sense that Bauman uses the term modernity to describe the Holocaust. The Soviets relied upon newspapers to spread the effectiveness of their state terror and surveillance. In addition, they also used concentration camps in the style of Gulag labor camps to ‘reform prisoners’. In addition, the entire operation was run by the institution and bureaucracy of a revolutionized, modern state. I believe that the escalation of the victimization and violence was inevitable because of the feeling of paranoia and distrust emanating from all aspects of society. Finally, the violence was encouraged by the Soviet government; guilty or not there was no true way of proving innocence. The feeling of total entrapment within the Soviet system was emboldened the state’s approval of the violence and terror.

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