Denunciation and the Great Purges

“…he ‘hunted for enemies everywhere with a magnifying glass’.” ((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)).

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. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 199)). 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. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 207-208)). 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. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 208)). 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. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 209)).

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”. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles”, 192)).

Brain Slave to the Machine

I found this reading to be invaluable insight into both the zeitgeist of the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and human psychology. Being born in the United States in 1993, I found this article to be both very fascinating and disturbing. Part of what I have been taught growing up is that it takes until somewhere in early adulthood to obtain a grasp of what you’re identity is as a person, and many never understand. I see the journey to understanding ones self as a fluid part of life, shapeless and easily distorted by pressure, but ultimately liberating. My conscience has been heavily influenced by a type of social revolution of cultural, religious, ethnic, and sexual acceptance brought about closely before the second millennium, and through my education I have been taught to transcend observed boundaries. Podlubnyi’s world is one which is hard to imagine myself in.

The first thing that surprised me was that Podlubnyi truly believes that he has been tainted with some sort of kulak blood, as if it were an inescapable genetic trait or a physiological, psychological defect. Podlubnyi spent his life as a prisoner of his own conscience, desperately digging an escape route from his kulak past to be identified as a worker of the state. The state truly owned him through what I would assume he would perceive as a somewhat transparent label which had been given to his father. Podlubnyi continued to lose sleep even when the state validated him as “working class”, as he continued to look towards guidelines for his thoughts and behaviors in order to be “free”.

The fact that suicide was brought about by a self-perceived uselessness towards the state also shocked me. Suicide to me comes about after extreme personal failure, but it is usually because of severe psychological depression or a severe implosion of ones life, causing one to see no purpose to continue. Although these may have been the thoughts and emotions of Podlubnyi, they were a product of the state’s influence on him rather than what I would perceive to be as a more personal affair. But perhaps the state was more personal to him than love or friendship would be to me, it is impossible to know.