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)).