Denunciation and the Great Purges

“…he ‘hunted for enemies everywhere with a magnifying glass’.1.

In Shelia Fitzpatrick’s “A Time of Troubles” she analyzed the impact the Great Purges had on everyday life and what mechanisms allowed the wide-spread terror to occur between 1937 and 1938.2. The Great Purges differed from earlier purges the Soviet Union experienced in that the term “enemy” was no longer associated with solely class. The classification of “enemy” became much broader and more difficult to identify. This broader characterization combined with flexibility of social identification and the ability to forge documents and family histories (as we discussed earlier in the semester) made individuals who would have been obvious targets for Soviet terror indistinguishable from others. The broader definition and atmosphere of suspicion created self-perpetuating mechanisms that caused the spread and escalation of the Great Purges in Soviet society.

Denunciation was one of the most notable mechanisms that allowed terror to proliferate. This public condemnation pitted colleagues against colleagues, workers against managers, communists against other communists of the same organizations.3. This was a result of competition, friction and power struggles between people and organizations to gain support from the government. In the Soviet Union during this time it became important not to “step on anybody’s toes”, even seemingly small incidents had the potential to become problematic.4. During the pinnacle of the Great Purges some people became professional denouncers as a way to protect themselves. Fitzpatrick uses an excellent example to illustrate this point. A senior soviet official secretly denounced many of his colleagues, after his death approximately 175 written denunciations were found in his apartment.5.

Fitzpatrick also discusses the role of newspapers in the spread of terror- To what extent do you think the Great Purges of 1937-1938 were prompted by newspapers? Do you think that the Great Purge would have reached the same heights without such media outlets? Additionally, Fitzpatrick states that the majority of the population had low levels of education. Would you argue that lack of education among the population quickened or slowed the spread terror during this period?

On a final and somewhat unrelated note, I also found it interesting how peasants rationalized the purges. The Great Purges were viewed by peasant as inevitable or unavoidable problems, comparable to disasters along the lines of floods, wars, poor harvests, famines and other “great misfortunes”.6.

  1. Sheila Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles” in Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 206 []
  2. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 199 []
  3. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 207-208 []
  4. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 208 []
  5. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 209 []
  6. Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 192 []

2 thoughts on “Denunciation and the Great Purges

  1. Your questions about newspapers and education reminded when we discussed in class how large numbers of the Soviet population were illiterate or either in the process of becoming literate during this time period. I wonder how much this influenced or decrease the effectiveness of newspapers publications concerning the escalation of denunciations and show trials? Word of mouth is effective but newspapers are certainly more efficient at disseminating information. However, if the majority of the peasants were illiterate how vital were the newspaper at “adding fuel to the fire of unmasking enemies and spies” ? (p. 207) Your last point concerning how submissively the Soviet public received the waves of repression is also significant. Could it be those remarks about how the Purges were felt as a ‘natural occurrence’ were from a conditioned, reformed Soviet, who knew no other option than compliance and acceptance of state terror? Those who angrily denounced the regime and it’s practices clearly would have been eliminated on the spot.

  2. Within the cities one would think there was a higher rate of literacy, allowing the news to spread quickly, and word of mouth was fuel to the fire. Literary campaigns began relatively early in the regime. Children of peasants in the villages should have had a basic understanding of the written word by then. They easily could have spread the news of denunciations amongst the other villagers. Were posters and other forms of pictures involved in the media frenzy? That would be easier for peasants to understand.

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