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?

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.” ((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 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”. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 193.)) 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. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 197.)) Newspapers even “carried a wealth of startling information about the sins of leading Communists”, creating even more unrest and suspicion among the masses. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 195.)) 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. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 205.))

“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. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 203)). 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?