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)).

Habitual Terror

The In Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, the chapter “A Time of Troubles” analyzes the nature and evolution of the Great Purges of 1937-1938. She introduces the notions of surveillance, when the State monitors its population, and terror, when the population are the target of extreme State violence, and tracks their relationship in the Soviet Union ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “A Time of Troubles,” in Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. (Oxford University Press, 2000), 190.)) . She writes about how State violence, originally aimed at specific classes, eventually turned inward and escalated due to paranoia and publicity.

I was particularly intrigued in the self-perpetuated escalation of terror within the Soviet Union. The State targeted elite Communist leaders in 1937 because of they abused their regional power, stole money from the State, lived lavish lifestyles, undermined the State, and developed dangerously powerful personal cults ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 196)). These habits defined a new type of bourgeoisie class that the Communist Party feared and battled. The public trials by which the State tried these leader, and highly detailed coverage of them, wrecked the state, heightened public interest and awareness. In the same public manner, everyone connected to a guilty individual faced the real threat of State persecution. These criminalization of human interactions and connections set ablaze a wild fire of paranoia among the populous. I am impressed how the nature of the Great Purge naturally changed.

In many respects, the Great Purge outgrew the State. It became a self perpetuating terror. Citizens turned in neighbors for the slightest remarks, suspicions, or seeming self preservation. Fitzpatrick captures the evolution of the Great Purge with the example of Andrei Arhilovsky. This former political prisoner’s attitude towards the Purge shifted over time through three stages. He originally praised the arrest and elimination of enemies of the State, then feared their overwhelming presence as the number of arrests escalated, and ultimately viewed them as “‘a replay of the French Revolution. More suspicion than fact” ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 215)). The Great Purge’s fanatic nature fueled it but eventually out grew and consumed itself. Was the escalation of the Great Purge inevitable? Were the Great Purges a product of Modernity or Communism?

A Time of Troubles

Surveillance and Terror.  These two terms were used in Sheila Fitzpatricks chapter, A Time of Troubles, as a way of discussing the Great Purges of 1937 and 1938.   In this Chapter, Fitzpatrick explored the many ways the Great Terror took hold of the Soviet State and how it spread throughout the state.

The one part of Sheila Fitzpatrick chapter that really stood out to me was her section on how the Great Terror Spread.  Fitzpatrick noted that there were several ways that the Great Purge spread.  The first was through the “NKDVs practice of interrogation, in which arrested ‘enemies of the people’ would be forced to write confessions naming their conspiratorial associates.”  ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Surveillance and Terror” in Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 205-206.))  If people found themselves in hot water, whether it was true or not, were forced to write down names of who helped them commit crimes, even if their ‘associates’ actually existed or not.  This seemed really interesting to me because it seemed like the state was just as interested in weeding out potential enemies than actual enemies.   The states main weapon, in the case of spreading the terror and finding enemies, was the use of fear.  The fear of violence, the fear of being sent to Gulags greatly impacted peoples decisions to write down names or tell the state who is an enemy.  People were afraid that if they didn’t cough up names, they themselves could have ended up in the Gulag and possibly end up dead.

Within Fitzpatricks section of how the Great Purge spread, the example of how children were used in the process of finding enemies was really interesting.  She stated that children thought “catching spies seemed like Great Sport.”  ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Surveillance and Terror” in Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 207.))  She used an example of a girl named Lena who was on a bus coming back from camp and overheard a man speak in German about “rails” and “Signal”. ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Surveillance and Terror” in Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 207.))   This example that Fitzpatrick used was really fascinating to me, but it was also a reminder that children in the Soviet Union were a key component of the states future in the eyes of the party.  As Fitzpatrick noted with this example, the minds and behaviors of children were incredibly important and helpful to the state.  Not only could the state change their minds through indoctrination, but they could also use these children as spies within homes, within camps, and within schools to rat out enemies of the state.  What really intrigues me is why children saw this as a sport?  What kind of images or stories would the state use on children to help them see a connection between ‘sport’ and ‘catching spies?’  If there were any rare cases of intelligent children who could see beyond this propaganda game that the State was playing on the children, what do you think might have happened to them?


Energizing the Everyday

Chapter 7 of Beyond Totalitarianism ,“Energizing the Everyday”, by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Alf Lüdtke explores bonds between people and bonds to Nazism and Stalinism. The authors attempt to explore the range of possibilities within society in each regime’s sphere. An area of this essay I found particularly interesting was Sociability Outside the Workplace.

 This section focuses on the difference between sociability in Russia and Germany, as they are strikingly dissimilar. In Russia during the Stalin period, there was great control over activities outside of Soviet productivity. When the New Economic Policy ended in the late 1920s, private industry closed down and the state created substitutes for this private sector. Contrastingly, in Germany, there was much reorganization of recreational activities. Sporting clubs and singing groups just to name a few were allowed in Nazi Germany. However, the incorporation of the swastika and Nazi ideals ensued. Although there was this reorganization, the fundamentals and inner-workings of each club did not change. Although there was a change in social structure in society both in Russia and Germany, there were underground scenes for things such as drinking and religion. I think one of the main reasons, at least in Russia, that this social elimination and/or reorganization occurred all leads to the productivity of each citizen. By eliminating areas in which citizens could become brainwashed or not in their best state of mind, the State gained more power for ideology infiltration.