Terror and Surveillance

“Surveillance means that the population is watched; terror means that its members are subject on an unpredictable but large-scale basis to arrest, execution, and other forms of state violence.”1 This is the theme of Chapter 8 of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism, in which the modes of Soviet public repression and purging are explored in detail.

The development of the Communist “Great Purges” in the 1930s was a self-propelling loop of suspicion, witch-hunts, and above all else, terror. Initially, excessive disfranchisement of Communist party members led to large amounts of ex-Communists, who were all assumed to be enemies of the state. At first, there was no method of integration by which these ex-members might become respectable citizens once more- the “black marks on the record could not be expunged”.2 Because of their inability to operate in a country under such intense surveillance and suspicion, many of these blacklisted individuals assumed new identities, oftentimes forging passports and moving and changing their names. This caused the Soviet regime to perceive an even greater threat of disguised corruption, resulting in more purges.

Soviet officials frequently attacked their “enemies” with hypocritical claims. Despite possessing these characteristics themselves, they accused party enemies of engaging in favoritism, the creation of cults, and luxurious lifestyles. The accusers were no different in this regard than the accused, but they painted the victims in such a light as to use them as scapegoats, providing an outlet for the regime.3 Newspapers even “carried a wealth of startling information about the sins of leading Communists”, creating even more unrest and suspicion among the masses.4 This particular notion seemed odd to me at first; wouldn’t this cause people to lose faith in the party? However, upon further reading, I came upon the surprising fact that there existed a great deal of resistance to Communist rule during the 1930s- a particular quote regarding taking revenge during World War II (apparently much anticipated) bridged that gap of continuity.5

“Show trials” were also characteristic of the Great Purges. However, because of the amount of Communist officials that were placed on trial outside of Moscow, these had a distinctively “populist” aspect, which furthers the idea of resistance to the regime.6. These shows of public resistance intrigue me. How did the Soviet regime deal with the deposition of their leaders in rural areas? Perhaps it makes sense that entire villages were emptied and their inhabitants sent off to the Gulags.

A Soviet official crushing the snake of deceit.

One final thought: the fact that most, if not all, of these Purges were state-instituted and not publicly supported, as Fitzpatrick seems to suggest, implies that much of the violence rampant in Stalinist Russia was primarily implemented by the state. Where was the public support that Beyond Totalitarianism tells us was necessary for such violence to exist?

  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,” 193. []
  3. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 197. []
  4. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 195. []
  5. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 205. []
  6. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 203 []

2 thoughts on “Terror and Surveillance

  1. Fitzpatrick mentioned the practice of denouncing people, which explains popular support for the state-sponsored violence. Denunciation began as a not always life threatening act, which morphed in the climate of terror created by the Great Purges, into life threatening accusations. The Purge began as a state sponsored thinning of the party and transformed and amplified by the Russian public into a catch all for eliminating enemies.

  2. Going off of Victoria’s comment, the public participated by naming the enemies of the people that the state was searching to root out. No one was safe: friends, family members, co-workers, children, bosses, peasants and elite alike were all potential targets. The fear was so great people felt the enemy could even be masked within themselves. On pg. 208 Fitzpatrick discusses the odd phenomenon of “super-denouncers”, in which “some people became virtually professional public denouncers.” Ironically, even the people who routinely named names during public or party meetings were eventually seen as slanderous and counterrevolutionary themselves. No one could hide from the Stalinist surveillance because the surveillance more of less came from the public themselves naming names and the NKVD did the rest of the state’s dirty work.

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