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Stalinism: Its Nature and Aftermath

Essays in Honour of Moshe Lewin

Edited by: Nick Lampert, formerly Senior
Lecturer at the Centre for Russian and East
European Studies, University of Birmingham, and
Gabor T. Rittersporn, Senior Research Fellow,
Natinal Centre for Scientific Research, Paris

This is a collection of essays (with contributors from Britain,
Continental Europe and the USA) dealing with the character and
aftermath of Stalinism in the USSR. The focus is on the interwar years
and on the methodological problems of studying this period, but the
volume highlights also the links between Stalinism and the Tsarist
past, and the ways in which Stalinism, in its very formation, prepared
the ground for its own demise. In this way it contributes to a
historical understanding of the current upheavals in the Soviet Union.

Contents: Preface; N.Lampert - Notes on the Contributors - Grappling
with Social Realities: Moshe Lewin and the Making of Social History;
R.Lew - Demons and Devil's Advocates: Problems in Historical Writing
on the Stalin Era; V.Andrle - Gorbachev's Socialism in Historical
Perspective; R.W.Davies - The Tsar, the Emperor, the Leader: Ivan the
Terrible, Peter the Great and Anatolii Rybakov's Stalin; M.Perrie -
The Omnipresent Conspiracy: On Soviet Imagery of Politics and Social
Relations in the 1930s; G.T.Rittersporn - Soviet Peasants and Soviet
Literature; A.Nove - Masters of the Shop Floor: Foremen and Soviet
Industrialisation; L.H.Siegelbaum - Urban Social Mobility and Mass
Repression: Communist Party and Soviet Society; H-H.Schr der -
Construction Workers in the 1930s; J-P.Depretto - Nationality and
Class in the Revolutions of 1917: a Re-examination of Social
Categories; R.G.Suny - The Background to Perestroika: 'Political
Undercurrents' Reconsidered in the Light of Recent Events; P.Kneen -
Legality in Soviet Political Culture: a Perspective on Gorbachev's
Reforms; P.H.Solomon Jr - Index

January 1992

Studies in Russian and East European History and Society
Series Editor: R.W. Davies, and E.A. Rees
312pp 216x138mm

Hardback £55.00
ISBN 0-333-54824-8

Footnote: Published in association with the Centre for Russian and
East European Studies, University of Birmingham

Published in association with the Centre for Russian and East


The Great Purge

No episode in Soviet history has provoked more rage from the old bourgeois
world than the purge of 1937--1938. The unnuanced denunciation of the purge
can be read in identical terms in a neo-Nazi pamphlet, in a work with
academic pretentions by Zbigniew Brzezinski,  in a Trotskyist  pamphlet or
in a book by the Belgian army chief ideologue.

Let us just consider the last, Henri Bernard,  a former Belgian Secret
Service officer, professor emeritus at the Belgian Royal Military College.
He published in 1982 a book called Le communisme et l'aveuglement occidental
(Communism and Western Blindness). In this work, Bernard  mobilizes the sane
forces of the West against an imminent Russian invasion. Regarding the
history of the USSR, Bernard's  opinion about the 1937 purge is interesting
on many counts:

`Stalin would use methods that would have appalled Lenin.  The Georgian had
no trace of human sentiment. Starting with Kirov's  assassination (in 1934),
the Soviet Union underwent a bloodbath, presenting the spectacle of the
Revolution devouring its own sons. Stalin, said Deutscher,  offered to the
people a régime made of terror and illusions. Hence, the new liberal
measures corresponded with the flow of blood of the years 1936--1939. It was
the time of those terrible purges, of that `dreadful spasm'. The
interminable series of trials started. The `old guard' of heroic times would
be annihilated. The main accused of all these trials was Trotsky,  who was
absent. He continued without fail to lead the struggle against Stalin,
unmasking his methods and denouncing his collusion with Hitler.' 


Bernard,  op. cit. , pp. 50, 52--53.

So, the historian of the Belgian Army likes to quote Trotsky  and
Trotskyists,  he defends the `old Bolshevik guard', and he even has a kind
word for Lenin;  but under Stalin, the inhuman monster, blind and dreadful
terror dominated.

Before describing the conditions that led the Bolsheviks to purge the Party
in 1937--1938, let us consider what a bourgeois specialist who respects the
facts knows about this period of Soviet history.

Gábor Tamás Rittersporn,  born in Budapest, Hungary, published a study of
the purges in 1988 (English version, 1991), under the title Stalinist
Simplifications and Soviet Complications. He forthrightly states his
opposition to communism and states that `we have no intention of denying in
any way, much less of justifying, the very real horrors of the age we are
about to treat of; we would surely be among the first to bring them to light
if that was still necessary'.


Gábor Tamás Rittersporn,  Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet
Complications: Social Tensions and Political Conflict in the USSR,
1933--1953 (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991), p. 23.

However, the official bourgeois version is so grotesque and its
untruthfulness so obvious that in the long run it could lead to a complete
rejection of the standard Western interpretation of the Soviet Revolution.
Rittersporn  admirably defined the problems he encountered when trying to
correct some of the most grotesque bourgeois lies.

`If ... one tries to publish a tentative analysis of some almost totally
unknown material, and to use it to throw new light on the history of the
Soviet Union in the 1930s and the part that Stalin played in it, one
discovers that opinion tolerates challenges to the received wisdom far less
than one would have thought .... The traditional image of the ``Stalin
phenomenon'' is in truth so powerful, and the political and ideological
value-judgments which underlie it are so deeply emotional, that any attempt
to correct it must also inevitably appear to be taking a stand for or
against the generally accepted norms that it implies ....

`To claim to show that the traditional representation of the ``Stalin
period'' is in many ways quite inaccurate is tantamount to issuing a
hopeless challenge to the time-honoured patterns of thought which we are
used to applying to political realities in the USSR, indeed against the
common patterns of speech itself .... Research of this kind can be justified
above all by the extreme inconsistency of the writing devoted to what
historical orthodoxy considers to be a major event --- the ``Great Purge''
of 1936--1938.

`Strange as it may seem, there are few periods of Soviet history that have
been studied so superficially.'

Ibid. , pp. 1--2.

`There is ... every reason to believe that if the elementary rules of source
analysis have tended to be so long ignored in an important area of Soviet
studies, it is because the motives of delving in this period of the Soviet
past have differed markedly from the usual ones of historical research.

`In fact even the most cursory reading of the ``classic'' works makes it
hard to avoid the impression that in many respects these are often more
inspired by the state of mind prevailing in some circles in the West, than
by the reality of Soviet life under Stalin. The defence of hallowed Western
values against all sorts of real or imaginary threats from Russia; the
assertion of genuine historical experiences as well as of all sorts of
ideological assumptions.'

Ibid. , p. 23.

In other words, Rittersporn  is saying: Look, I can prove that most of the
current ideas about Stalin are absolutely false. But to say this requires a
giant hurdle. If you state, even timidly, certain undeniable truths about
the Soviet Union in the thirties, you are immediately labeled `Stalinist'.
Bourgeois propaganda has spread a false but very powerful image of Stalin,
an image that is almost impossible to correct, since emotions run so high as
soon as the subject is broached. The books about the purges written by great
Western specialists, such as Conquest,  Deutscher,  Schapiro  and Fainsod, 
are worthless, superficial, and written with the utmost contempt for the
most elementary rules learnt by a first-year history student. In fact, these
works are written to give an academic and scientific cover for the
anti-Communist policies of the Western leaders. They present under a
scientific cover the defence of capitalist interests and values and the
ideological preconceptions of the big bourgeoisie.

Here is how the purge was presented by the Communists who thought that it
was necessary to undertake it in 1937--1938. Here is the central thesis
developed by Stalin in his March 3, 1937 report, which initiated the purge.

Stalin affirmed that certain Party leaders `proved to be so careless,
complacent and naive',

J. V. Stalin, Report and Speech in Reply to Debate at the Plenum of the
Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. (3--5 March 1937). Works (London: Red Star
Press, 1976), vol. 14, p. 241.

and lacked vigilance with respect to the enemies and the anti-Communists
infiltrated in the Party. Stalin spoke of the assassination of Kirov, 
number two in the Bolshevik Party at the time:

`The foul murder of Comrade Kirov  was the first serious warning which
showed that the enemies of the people would resort to duplicity, and
resorting to duplicity would disguise themselves as Bolsheviks, as Party
members, in order to worm their way into our confidence and gain access to
our organizations ....

`The trial of the ``Zinovievite--Trotskyite  bloc''  (in 1936) broadened the
lessons of the preceding trials and strikingly demonstrated that the
Zinovievites  and Trotskyites  had united around themselves all the hostile
bourgeois elements, that they had become transformed into an espionage,
diversionist and terrorist agency of the German secret police, that
duplicity and camouflage are the only means by which the Zinovievites  and
Trotskyites  can penetrate into our organizations, that vigilance and
political insight are the surest means of preventing such penetration.'

Ibid. , pp. 242--243.

`(T)he further forward we advance, the greater the successes we achieve, the
greater will be the fury of the remnants of the defeated exploiting classes,
the more ready will they be to resort to sharper forms of struggle, the more
will they seek to harm the Soviet state, and the more will they clutch at
the most desperate means of struggle as the last resort of the doomed.'

Ibid. , p. 264.


retrieved Feb 15 1998

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