Know Your Enemy

Fitzpatrick’s chapter regarding the Great Purges of the Soviet Union reads like a dystopian novel. Even the epigraph at the beginning stirs thoughts of “Big Brother”; it reads “You know they are putting people in prison for nothing now”.  Fitzpatrick attributes this quote to an anonymous “local official”, circa 1938, the temporal heart of the Great Purge. ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “A Time of Troubles,” in Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. (Oxford University Press, 2000), 190.))  This epigraph highlights a concept touched on throughout the rest of this chapter: no one in the Soviet Union, whether they be members of the communist party or ordinary citizens, escaped the wrath of the purge.

In other cases of state sponsored violence studied in this course thus far, a specific group finds themselves in the cross-hairs of the government. In Nazi Germany, the state took aim at the Jews. In Soviet Russia, however, the target never stayed the same. As Fitzpatrick notes, “enemies of the party” came under heaviest scrutiny, which ranged from people politically opposed to the rule of Stalin, to those ‘bourgeois degenerates’ who used state money to make their living situation more comfortable. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 197.))  These high born degenerates suffered a great number of trials and tribulations due to their perceived offences. Public scapegoating came into common practice. These scapegoatings, as Fitzpatrick notes, often occurred among workers towards an individual in a position of power above them. These “Stakhanovites” organized meetings, and in them, flung insults at whomever they chose, calling them “bureaucratic barbarians” and comparing the accused to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 200.)) Still, however, at this point in the purge, the elites suffered, not the commoners.

The Great Purge did not spare the common, government fearing citizen.  In fact, as Fitzpatrick eloquently points out, it did not spare anyone. This all occurred because of denouncement. Neighbors snitching on neighbors to secret police and spies. Students on teachers. Factory workers on one another. Even members of the communist party sought fit to report crimes. No one, not even an innocent (albeit troubled) 8 year old boy, found themselves under an umbrella of safety from this disturbing phenomena. It is this that made the Great Purge so terrifying and effective.((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 207-208.))

Sending people to the Gulag on a tip from their neighbor, persecuting political prisoners, and denouncing members of the privileged elite created, in essence, a state of fear in Soviet Russia. It fostered obedience to the state. Why? In times of most stark oppression, as seen in Italy under Mussolini (who met his end at the hand of his own people) and in Kenya during the Mau Mau era, people often organize, revolt, and overthrow the government; every society has its breaking point. How far would Stalin have to have gone in order to incite a revolt among his own people? If mass imprisonment, murder, and development of total paranoia among all members of society didn’t do it, what would?

One thought on “Know Your Enemy

  1. The Great Purge divided the population too much in order for it to organize against the government. People were too busy trying to not offend anyone and reconcile with their “enemies” to worry about the role of the government in perpetuating the state of terror. Furthermore, the purges created enemies for the population to focus on instead of the Soviet government.

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