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Chapter 4 Gruesome Soviet Reality

4.1 After Kirov's Assassination

4.1.1 Naive Expectations

Many people in Russia were affected by the horrors of proletarian dictatorship immediately after the revolution. Others experienced it only after the revolution started killing those who served it faithfully. How did these new victims feel about what started to happen to them after Kirov was assassinated in 1934? Most of them thought it was an aberration due to some mistakes at low levels of administration. The autobiography of Evgenia Ginzburg (25) provides a good illustration.

"Later I was to learn what a lucky number I had drawn in the political lottery. My investigation was over by April, before the Veverses and Tsarevskys were authorized not only to curse and threaten their victims but to use physical torture. ... How much easier and simpler if I had been [in the hands of the Gestapo]! A Communist held by the Gestapo - I would have known exactly how to behave. But here? Here I had first to determine who those people were, who kept me imprisoned. Were they fascists in disguise? Or victims of some super-simple provocation, some fantastic hoax? And how should a Communist behave "in prison in his own country?"

These were the questions she communicated to an old Bolshevik, also a prisoner, who blamed Stalin. After many years of prison the old Bolshevik maintained: “I was and I remain a Leninist. ... Tell them straight out, you disagree with Stalin's line, and name as many others as you can. They can't arrest the whole Party, and by the time they have thousands of such cases on their hands, somebody will think of calling an extraordinary Party congress and there will be chance of overthrowing him [Stalin]. Believe me, he's as much hated in the Central Committee as here in prison. Of course it may mean the end of us, but it's the only way to save the Party."

4.1.2 Stalin's Loyalty Tests
How naive were such expectations! How little did the devoted servants of revolution know about the criminal nature of Stalin! The first thing this man did, in trying to become an absolute leader, was to secure his own backyard and to select a gang of obedient followers. They did not wait for protests; they actively eliminated all potential opponents. The inner circle of Stalin consisted of Beria, Jagoda, Yezhov, Kirov, Molotov, Malenkov, Kalinin, Mikoyan, Suslov and Vyshinsky. Each of them, without knowing it, passed Stalin's loyalty test--participation in the elimination of close associates with no hesitation. Short biographies of six of them can be found in (34).

According to the author, Stalin's subordinates "all fought with each other, which was exactly what Stalin wanted. ... He did not value friendship; he preferred certain other qualities that those around him possessed. Nearly all ... were diligent and energetic workers ... prepared to carry out their leader's every order, even if it was criminal. Anyone who was unable to commit a criminal act was not merely removed from power but physically eliminated. This special process of selection was one through which all of six of these men passed more successfully than others. They all traveled the road along which revolutionary tenacity degenerates into callousness, even sadism, political flexibility into pragmatism and enthusiasm into demagoguery."

A short biography of Yezhov, the head of NKVD who, on personal orders from Stalin, was in charge of purging the party (between 1936 and 1938), can be found in (36). The biography of his successor, Beria, is also available in English (37). In the 1936 Politburo document for the party and NKVD, Stalin wrote "up until the present time, the Party Central Committee has viewed the Trotskyist/Zinovievist scoundrels as the advanced detachments of the international bourgeoisie. The latest facts indicate that these gentlemen have slid even further, and it is now necessary to view them as secret service men, as spies, saboteurs, and fascist bourgeoisie wreckers in Europe." Confessions of crimes had to be produced.

4.1.3 Wholesale Convictions

According to (36): "During Yezhov's tenure, the use of convictions by list came into practice. Before this, lists were prepared by the OGPU (predecessor of NKVD) after the investigation was completed and after the actual pronouncement of sentence. Now the sentence was declared in the Party Central Committee. According to information given by N.S. Khrushchev, N.J. Yezhov prepared 383 such lists. Current research, however, allows us to assert that there were many more of them. In November of 1937, Stalin was sent a list naming 292 people as 'the Moscow Center'. In July of 1938, Yezhov sent a list of 138 names. The accompanying note stated the following: 'Secret. To Comrade Stalin. I am sending a list of the people who have been arrested and are subject to the verdict of the military tribunal according to the first category.' The following resolution [signed by Stalin and Molotov] can be found on the sheet: 'Shoot all 138.' "

Things reached a state of utter absurdity. Norms for convictions were established and regions competed to surpass them. Lists of undesirables were prepared and the system was set up to deal with them very efficiently, either by killing or by sending them to concentration camps. Ezhov, who organized all this, was awarded the Order of Lenin. As a member of the Central Committee he was elected to the Politburo. A year later, however, he was also arrested and shot, like Jagoda, the NKVD chief before him. They knew too much and Stalin did not want to have potential witnesses. The next NKVD chief, Beria, was shot at the beginning of destalinization.

It would be interesting to see manuals distributed to new NKVD recruiters in various training schools or workshops. Such documents probably still exist somewhere in the archives, together with books containing camp rules or regulations. Will a museum with such materials be open one day in Kolyma, or in Lublyanka? Why not? Who would be against such museums, and why? Who would be against teaching the tragic Soviet history to high school students in Russia? The “never again" attitude calls for the analysis of "how it happened."

4.2 Women in Prison

4.2.1 “It Must Be A Mistake..."

According to (25) the following took place in a Soviet prison in 1937. The author, a committed communist "in prison in her own country," meets a cellmate who was an SR (Social Revolutionary). The SRs were Socialists but their party was suppressed in 1918 and they were treated as enemies of the revolution. As a propagandist the author certainly criticized the SRs on numerous occasions. The SR woman said: “I am glad that some of you Communists are in jail at last. Perhaps you will learn in practice what you couldn't understand in theory. But you'd better get settled now. We will talk later."

And here is another little story. It happened in the Moscow Butyrki prison. The captives, some brought from other prisons, others arrested several hours earlier, were searched before being taken to cells. . . .

4.2.2 Who Betrayed Whom?

And here is another episode, from the same prison. In a common cell the author was asked about news from outside. She answered: "I do not know, I come from another prison." Then another inmate, Julia Annenkova, whispered to her confidentially: "You are quite right not to answer their questions. Who knows which of them really is an enemy, and which are the victims of a mistake, like you and me? I advise you to go on being careful, to make sure that you don't commit a crime against the Party after all. The best way is to say nothing." . . .

4.2.3 Stalin Will Fix It

Another interesting conversation took place two years later, in the locked prison car, traveling toward Kolyma. The women knew that the chief of the Soviet Secret Police, Yezhov, was executed and replaced by Beria. They also knew, and accepted it as just, that Yezhov replaced Yagoda, who was also executed as an enemy of revolution. Stalin did not want those who knew too much to be alive. But that is not how they evaluated the situation. Twenty of them (out of seventy in that car) asserted "with lunatic insistence" that Stalin was not aware of what was going on, and that Beria would set things right. Stalin, they believed, was a highly moral individual and he would correct injustices.

This was not an ordinary trainload. The prisoners were not defeated civil war opponents or Mensheviks and SRs hit by the sword of proletarian dictatorship. Nor were these women nationalists or kulaks or members of uncommon religious sects. A large fraction of them were past members of the Bolshevik Party who believed in the necessity of the "intensification of class warfare in the process of building socialism." For many years they had enthusiastically participated in this warfare until they became victims. Personal tragedies of these women are well described in the autobiography.

4.3 How Did Stalin And Beria Die?

There are several versions of Stalin's death. All agree that Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Bulganin came for a late dinner on February 28, 1953. They left the dacha at about 4 A.M and Stalin went to bed. . . .

4.4 Two Kolyma Tales.

4.4.1 Golubev Trying To Save His Life

A great Russian poet and writer, Shalamov (40) spent many years in Kolyma camps. According to Solzhenitsyn “Shalamov's experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own, and I respectfully confess that to him and not to me was given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the camps dragged us in."

He asked Shalamov to co-author “The Gulag Archipelago" but the poet declined, claiming he was too old and too sick. In a short tale, “A Piece of Meat," Shalamov describes a prisoner who suspected that his name was on a list of workers to be reclassified. Up to now Golubev was lucky to have a privileged staff position but now he would be turned into a mine worker. The meaning of this was clear to him. . . .

4.4.2 Trying To Escape

In another tale Shalamov describes a rare case of escape attempt. The organizer, Major Pugachov, was the last to die in a forest, only one day after the escape. The escapees were soldiers sent to Kolyma after the war. Their "crime" was to be taken as prisoners by Germans. These people knew how to take chances and how to fight. They were very different from traditional lonely intellectuals who . . . .

4.5 What Do Students Know?

According to (41) as many as two thirds of German teenagers know nothing about the Holocaust, in which the Nazis massacred some six million European Jews. Millions of other Europeans were also killed. How many Russian teenagers know about Stalin's crimes? Or what do they know about other crimes committed to promote the ideology of proletarian dictatorship? I suppose statistical data to answer such questions are available somewhere. I suspect that the average grade of American students would be no higher than the grade of Russian students, in the same age group. A similar test for German students, on Hitler's crimes, would probably generate a higher grade than those of American and Russian students. But speculations aside, I am very interested in mechanisms by which history is swept under the carpet. Why does this happen? Who is promoting it and why? We all know what Santayana wrote about those who do not learn from history. Several people wrote to me after the URL of Alaska Notes was posted at Montclair State University. According to one professor most MSU students do not know who Stalin was. I was very surprised and decided to survey my students. Of 23 present only 13 raised their hands indicating they knew who Stalin was. Was my small sample a good representation of the student population at our university? This was a statistics class, composed mostly of non-science students. As an exercise in data gathering I asked each student to conduct a survey in another class on campus. Find the fraction of students declaring "I know who Joseph Stalin was." I now have 19 samples based on 439 students. On the average 72% of polled students think they know who Stalin was. The actual results are shown below. . . .

4.6 What Do Some Professors Think?

Part of this book, shared with colleagues, triggered an e-mail debate about Stalinism at Montclair State University (where I taught). One professor vigorously defended Soviet system. He claimed that the number of deaths was well below one million, that the great majority of people sent to camps did not die there and that criticizing Stalinism is a cover for defending American Imperialism. Two professors stated that Alaska Notes are relics of Cold War misinformation and propaganda. As one professor wrote to me, in private, "the discussions often reveal more about our colleagues than about the issues they confront." At first I started showing debate messages in this section. But the section became so long that I changed my plan and decided to place debate messages into the last chapter. . . .

4.7 Bukharin

4.7.1 From The Very Top To The Very Bottom

Nikolai Bukharin became a leading party theoretician and was widely known abroad. Two biographies of him were published in 1980 (42,43). As a student of economics at Moscow University he joined the Bolsheviks in 1906. He was arrested in 1911 and sent to Siberia. After escaping, Bukharin lived in several European countries and made his way to New York City. He returned to Russia after the 1917 revolution and became a close associate of Lenin. Later he became a member of the Poliburo and wrote many books about communism and the Soviet economy.

But like many other old Bolsheviks Bukharin was arrested and shot after the famous 1938 show trial. Here is how he was described in the Soviet Journal of Proletarian Revolution (No 9, p. 10, 1938): "At this trial the mask was stripped of one of the vilest Jesuits and perfidious Pharisees ever known to history, Bukharin, the ‘theoretician.' Neither his 'scholarly' distortion nor his 'philosophical' buffoonery enabled him to hide the genuine truth from the Soviet people. As early as the prewar period and during the Imperialist War Bukharin was a sworn enemy of Leninism, the author of provocational 'leftist' slogans, an apologist for imperialism.”

4.7.2 Foreign Communists Accept Ridiculous Accusations

Foreign communist leaders, who knew Bukharin personally, immediately accepted Soviet accusations. According to (42), "virtually every Communist party in every country of the world held a wave of meetings and published manifestoes in 1938 supporting the execution of Bukharin, Rykov, and their fellows. Take, for example, the French Communist party, whose leader Maurice Thorez stood up at one of the numerous workers' assemblies on 3 June 1938 and spoke as follows: ‘Justice in the Soviet Union has performed a service of inestimable value in the cause of peace by striking down without mercy those Trotskyite Bukharinite traitors, murderers, and Gestapo agents, those fifth column elements, those canting hypocrites, mourned by one or two people in England, for having been punished with the necessary severity.'

A large group of Communist and members of the Communist Youth movement sent a telegram to Yezhov in the spring of 1938. Part of it read: ‘Your resolution and your unbending will have led to the exposure of vile agents of fascism.... Please be assured of our total confidence in the justice of the people who have punished the traitors.' "

People who once glorified Bukharin as the leading party theoretician had no trouble accepting the absurd accusations. Khrushchev was one of these people. I suspect that this was the main reason for not rehabilitating Bukharin in the 1950s, when many other prominent Bolsheviks were rehabilitated. The formal posthumous rehabilitation occurred only in February of 1988, under Gorbachev. According to (27), the writer Edvard Radzinsky (38) studied forty-three letters which Bukharin wrote to Stalin during his year in prison. The victim was presumably able to accept his fate as a necessary sacrifice toward achieving "some great and bold political idea." Bukharin's widow, Anna Larina who survived the Gulag, memorized his last message before the arrest and published it in her memoirs (44).

4.7.3 Looking at the Great Soviet Encyclopedia

It is interesting how Bukharin was described in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. The second edition (1951) does not have an item devoted to him. That is an illustration of Soviet censorship. According to the first edition, however (Volume 8, 1927), he was "an outstanding theoretician of communism, an economist and a sociologist."

But Volume 33 of the first edition (printed in 1938) tells us that Bukharin, together with Trotsky and Zinoviev, were Gestapo agents hired to spy on the Soviet Union. He is also said to have organized attempts to kill Lenin, Stalin and Sverlov. Other accusations, added in Volume 49 (page 419), were assassinations of S.M. Kirov, W.R. Meazhinsky, W.W. Kujbyshev and Maxim Gorky. Why would Bukharin want to kill the great Russian writer Gorky? Didn't Stalin know that many Russians would ask this question? Yes, he anticipated this. And he knew what to do with those who dared to ask.

Addressing Stalin by his nickname, the last letter of Bukharin was a single question: "Koba, why do you want me to die?" This question can probably be answered as follows. Stalin was certain about his ways of building a new social system. But many old revolutionaries did not always agree with him. Instead of discussing the issues, Stalin decided to eliminate potential opponents, especially those who were more educated than himself. Anticipating more criticism he decided to broaden the elimination process. To do this he had to use an effcient killing machine and select its workers. The machine already existed, having been created by Lenin. Stalin, however, started using it against potential rivals within the party. Trotsky, Rykov, Zinoviev, Pietakov, Kaminev and Bukharin were the most prominent victims.

4.8 Prelude to Great Terror

4.8.1 Krondstadt rebellion

The first act of Bolshevik brutality directed toward comrades in arms took place in 1921{ the suppression of a rebellion in the port of Kronstadt, close to Petrograd. Kronstadt sailors had supported the Bolsheviks in 1917; they fired the first revolutionary shots from the famous warship Aurora. But by 1920 they were disenchanted by the reality of the proletarian dictatorship. They realized that the "power to the people" principle, under which the mass-based revolution started, was quickly replaced by the "power to the party" principle. In solidarity with striking workers (February 1921) Kronstadt sailors formed a Provisional Revolutionary Committee demanding "Soviets without Bolsheviks" and the establishment of political freedom. A detailed description of their demands can be found in (45). These demands were totally unacceptable to Lenin and Trotsky. The rebellion was crushed by Red Army troops; its participants were shot or imprisoned. In this first large-scale act of terror against those who faithfully supported the revolution, a profoundly socialist revolt was brutally suppressed and its organizers were declared agents of Imperialist powers.

According to (45), the American Anarchist Alexander Berkman, who was on the scene in Petrograd, summarized the lessons he took from the events in these words: "Krondstadt destroyed the myth of the worker's state; it provided the proof of an incompatibility between the dictatorship of the Communist Party and the revolution." Trotsky of course managed to produce a different description of the same events. In (46) he wrote "It has been said more than once that we have substituted the dictatorship of the Party for the dictatorship of the Soviets. However we can claim without fear of contradiction that the dictatorship of the Soviets was only made possible by the dictatorship of the Party... In fact there has been no substitution at all, since the Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class... the Communists become the true representatives of the working class as a whole."

This was not true. As it turned out, those who controlled the party never hesitated to use brutal force against groups they were supposedly representing. Trotsky himself was later branded an agent of Imperialist powers. The same happened to Tukhachevsky, the commander whose elite units were used to crush the sailors. Both were killed, as ordered by the party.

4.8.2 Anarchists

Anarchism is a political philosophy according to which governments are sources of all social ills. According to supporters of this philosophy, (47), such as Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Bukanin, all sources of authority, government, church, penal system, etc., should be abolished to create a new commune-based society. That society would replace private property and unequal incomes by free distribution of goods and services according to needs rather than contributions. The penal system would be replaced by the moral pressure of communes in which people live and work. Humans, as often emphasized by Chomsky (48), have a natural instinct for freedom. That instinct, rather than formal authoritarian structures, should be the basis of an ideal society.

Anarchists, like Social Revolutionaries, supported Bolsheviks in their fight against the old Russian government but they were quickly disillusioned by the post-revolutionary reality. The idea of proletarian dictatorship, first formulated by Marx, was certainly in conflict with aspirations for an equal and just society. Like the Kronstadt sailors, Anarchists, Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were also declared enemies of the revolution; many of them perished in the first Soviet concentration camp. That camp, on the Solovetsky Island in the White Sea, was set up by Lenin in 1918.

Before the revolution Lenin was willing to take advantage of every manifestation of discontent and cooperated with other social parties. But a democratic society based on humanistic principles was not on his agenda. Dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx promoted as a transitional step toward a classless society, became a permanent dictatorship of one party. Liquidation of the embryonic democracy in Russia led to its liquidation within the ruling party. This process has been repeated in every "socialist" country.


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