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The Voices of the Dead: Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s.
« on: February 20, 2008, 01:14:30 PM »
The Voices of the Dead

By Jamie Glazov | 2/20/2008

Frontpag Interview?s guest today is Hiroaki Kuromiya, a professor of history at Indiana University. He is the author of the new book, The Voices of the Dead: Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s.

FP: Hiroaki Kuromiya, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Kuromiya: Thank you very much for your interest in my book and the opportunity to speak here.

FP: What made you write The Voices of the Dead?

Kuromiya: I was always interested in Stalin's terror. I have a keen scholarly interest in explaining it and I have written extensively on it. At the same time, I was also interested in exploring the lives of individuals who had the misfortune of being terrorized under Stalin. Solzhenitsyn once despaired that the thoughts and voices of millions of people who suffered under the Soviet regime had been lost forever. All the same he went ahead and wrote the magnificent The Gulag Archipelago which retrieved many, many lost voices. I have read numerous Gulag memoirs and am still interested in reading more. I have also read countless accounts of the Gulag by those Japanese who were interned in the Soviet Union after WWII. (I'm originally from Japan and, while growing up there, I met many returnees from Siberia who spoke some Russian, mainly obscene expressions. So my interest is old.) I did not think I had anything to add to these vivid and deeply moving accounts by survivors. I simply read them.

However, when I was writing an earlier book (Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s--1990s [1988]), I had the opportunity to read just-declassified files of people who were executed under Stalin. I used some cases in that book. After I completed the book, I began to read the files of the executed more widely and more carefully even though I didn't know at the time what to do with them. As I read these case files, I became fascinated. They revealed the terrible fates of those executed whom no one now remembers. Most of them were "ordinary people" who left no visible traces in history (housewives, workers, peasants, beggars and so on). I felt compelled to retrieve the voices of those executed who have been relegated to oblivion. They were not survivors. They were outright executed. No one has written on them. I was deeply moved by their tragedies, their courage, their complete helplessness in the face of the Soviet terror machine. So I wanted to recover them from oblivion and commemorate their lives. I deemed it my duty as a professional scholar.

These files also presented a formidable academic challenge which I was happy to accept. The files are extremely difficult to use, because they are full of falsehoods: people were beaten into making false, self-incriminating confessions. I read the files with great care and imagination and analyzed them in an academically rigorous fashion. I took this issue seriously because it was not only academically important but also I thought it absolutely necessary to tell the truth for the executed.

Such files are still largely inaccessible in Russia. I was fortunate to work in independent Ukraine and to be granted access to these files.

FP: Tell us a bit about dissent and conformity under Stalin.

Kuromiya: This is a fascinating yet extraordinarily difficult issue. We know that many people supported Stalin and his terror. Of course we don't know how many. Less known is resistance and dissent. The partial opening of the archives in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s dramatically enriched our knowledge. Many people apparently believed in Stalin?s heart and mind. Many others rejected Stalin and his regime. There are plenty of archival documents to show both sides. Opinions normally are sharply divided: some people (historians) emphasize the conformity side and others the dissent side exclusively and they dispute each other. Yet the picture is far more complex. Everyone had to conform, so the outward conformity did not mean inward dissent. How does one know? It is almost impossible because people did not normally disclose their private thoughts and feelings. All non-conformity was driven underground. Finding widespread resistance is in a sense much easier, because the Soviet-era archives are full of in formation on it. Yet this, too, is misleading, because the police presented a society full of enemies and created enemies of loyal citizens.

Stalin set up a trap for future historians so that they'd believe that the country were so full of dangerous enemies that he needed terrorize them. One cannot fall into this trap. (Many historians have fallen, however.) There is no doubt that dissent existed. Otherwise, the Soviet Union would have been a utopian society, and Stalin would have even been proud of it. He knew and we know that many people lived a dual life -- external compliance and internal doubt. We simply don't know the co-relation of conformity and dissent in Stalin's Soviet Union: there simply are not reliable data, because no free elections, no free polls, no free press existed. Yet Stalin and his secret police almost certainly faced the same problem as we do now: they were not sure of the actual extent of dissent in Soviet society. This meant that Stalin had to play safe by eliminating all potential dissenters.

FP: Can you shed some light on some aspects of the Stalinist terror that are of particular interest to you?

Kuromiya: As I said, I am interested in individual experiences. They are extremely difficult to retrieve and reconstruct, but given today's freedom (however limited it may be) in the former Soviet Union, this is becoming easier. My good old friend from Cambridge, Professor Orlando Figes, now of the University of London, has written a fascinating book called "The whispers." It discusses mainly survivors in Russia, while my books examines the executed.

In any case, given the scale of terror, there are millions of case files still sitting in the former Soviet archives. If fully exploited, they'll present an enormously rich and moving history of people who lived under Stalin. Another interesting aspect is the apparent support for terror. Many, though we don't know how many, believed that there were so many enemies in the country that Stalin's terror was justified. Belief is important but dangerous. People have for centuries been killing each other for different beliefs, often for very minor theological differences, for instance. Without the support of the believers, Stalin could not have ruled the country. It was not with terror alone that Stalin maintained his power. I tend to agree with my former colleague the late Professor Ernest Gellner that terror does not destroy but often affirms belief. This is a universally interesting historical issue.

FP: You had access to recently declassified archives of the former Soviet Secret Police in Kiev. Share with us some of the hushed voices of the condemned.

Kuromiya: Many were beaten and confessed to the crimes they had not committed. Even though their voices of innocence and protest were often completely hushed, the voices of fear, despair and terror clearly emerge from the files. A perusal of the case files also reveals that some people put up some subtle resistance by taking issue with minor details of the confessions dictated by the police. Some had been working as police agents and informers and then were arrested. They knew too much. They acted as provocateurs with the approval of the police, but their provocative "anti-Soviet" remarks and actions were then used against themselves by the police. Their complete breakdown and their loss of rational voices are perceptible in their case files. In the view of the police, many of them were politically suspect to begin with (for example, they were former kulaks, priests, foreign refugees, etc). The police took advantage of their vulnerabilities and recruited them.

In the end, however, the police could not trust them because they were politically suspect in the first place. These people were used and dumped as human ballast. One could hear their often voiceless agony in the files. There are also people who were brave. They refused to be intimidated and to incriminate themselves and others. Still many were executed. Others survived because of their courage to stand up. There was a case of an illiterate woman, Apolonia Kurovskaia, who was arrested as the wife of the "enemy of the people" (who was executed as a "Polish spy.") It is not known whether she was tortured (women, too, were routinely tortured), but she refused to admit her husband's alleged crimes and insisted on his and her own innocence. She was fortunate not to be executed outright. Even a year of confinement did not break her. In the end she was released. It is often difficult even to imagine their lives for us who live in a "normal society". I described many cases like these in my book.

FP: Tell us your new interpretation of Soviet society that sheds light into the dark phenomenon of Stalinist terror.

Kuromiya: It is the extent of internal espionage and deployment of provocateurs and informers that is rather new to me. (The same can be said about external espionage as well.) Of course, it is not entirely new, because we are speaking of a police state. Yet little has been known about the concrete mechanism of such police operations. By the very nature of the matter, they will never be known in full, but when they impacted individual lives, they are particularly revealing. After all, the police were dealing with a society that refused to speak of its private minds. By tricks and terror, they had to ply open the mouths of the silent. Even then, the police couldn't trust what they heard. Stalin liked the famous novel of Mikhail Bulgakov, "The White Guard" (or "Days of Turbins") even though it described the anti-Soviet Turbin family in civil-war Kiev in a rather sympathetic fashion. Stalin liked it because it portrayed the Turbins completely powerless in the face of, to use Stalin's expression, the "all-conquering power of Bolshevism". Stalin certainly wanted the hearts and minds of everyone in the Soviet Union, but of course he knew that he couldn't get what he wanted. Using terror extensively, he intimidated and frightened the Soviet citizens into submission. This may not be a new interpretation, but I have discussed it as part of retrieving the voices of now completely forgotten individuals.

FP: Why the Stalinist terror? How do we explain the occurrence of this mass evil?

Kuromiya: Terror is difficult to explain regardless of the fact that it has been part and parcel of human history. When I teach I tell my students how pervasive political and religious terror has been in the history of humankind, even in the history of the West. Often for what appear to be minor theological or religious differences, for instance, people killed each other. Faith justified terror. In this respect Stalin's terror is not unique.

In modern times, terror has become mechanized and massive because the means to do so have become available to perpetrators. Here, too, Stalin's terror is not unique. The Holocaust is an obvious example and often compared with Stalin's Great Terror. What distinguished Stalin's terror is that it was carried out in the name of a 'noble cause', the victory of Communism, as opposed to the "base" ideology of Hitler's racism. All the same, even Hitler's base racism was quite popular in Germany. Political and religious terror often has mass support.

Stalin's Great Terror (1937--38), which accounted for the vast bulk of political executions that took place in peace time under Stalin, had the specific purpose of destroying all people who were potentially disloyal to the Soviet regime. He killed approximately 1 million of Soviet citizens whom he suspected would be a liability in the face of a war which he knew would be forthcoming. Whether the terror helped or undermined the Soviet Union in the war is debated by historians. Many say that it undermined the Soviet Union. (How else could it be when the entire nation was terrorized?) Others say that, for example, unlike Hitler who had to quarrel with his military commanders constantly, Stalin destroyed the old Soviet military commanders and then created new cadres of military commanders whom he trusted politically. This is an awful thought to contemplate. Yet Hitler himself came to admire Stalin's monstrous terror against the old Soviet military commanders: towards the end of the war when he realized that he had lost the war he had unleashed on Stalin, Hitler regretted not having created his own military cadres as Stalin had done. Hitler said that it would have taken twenty years for him to do what Stalin had done, but the war came "too soon": "We lacked men molded in the shape of our ideal."

FP: Why were there no Nuremberg-style trials for the Stalinist Holocaust?

Kuromiya: Hitler lost the war and killed himself, while Stalin won the war and was celebrated as a victor. Hitler's ideology collapsed, while Stalin's communism survived. Germany was occupied by the Allies, while the Soviet Union, a member of the Allies, had expanded its territorial hold and enjoyed its rise to the position of a world superpower on a par with the USA and Great Britain.

So there was no possibility of a Nuremberg-style trial at the time. After Stalin's death in 1953, the possibility still did not exist, because his successors were all former Stalin men and the Soviet Union remained a world superpower. Even though Khrushchev criticized Stalin, he could not negate Stalin's legacy which survived until the end of the Soviet regime in 1991.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, opportunities existed, but there was no political will. After all, almost 40 years had passed since Stalin's death. Numerous people suffered from Hitler's terror, but it tended to be focused on certain groups of people (such as Jews, Romas/gypsies, homosexuals and Communists.) Stalin's terror, too, ostensibly targeted certain categories of people, but in practice virtually all Soviet citizens were suspect, and affected to one extent or another. Such later leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsyn and others all had family members repressed under Stalin. It was and is difficult for people to make sense of the violent history of which they were an integral part, whether as victims, perpetrators or bystanders. While trials in which all relevant documents were made accessible to the public would be helpful to historians, there is virtually no possibility of that in Russia today.

In other former Soviet Union republics, now independent states, there are more possibilities. Yet as in the case of Ukraine, for example, the situation is complicated. There are people who risked their lives (millions were indeed killed) and fought in the Red Army. There are people (West Ukrainian people) who fought for the independence of Ukraine on the German side and against the Soviets but then found themselves fighting against both the Germans and the Soviets, neither of whom allowed the independence of Ukraine. However terrible the Soviet government, the lives of many people were inexorably bound to it. For those who fought against the Soviets, the question is simple
enough: the Soviet Union should have been defeated in the war. But today's independent Ukraine cannot simply dismiss who fought against German encroachment. So there is much complexity in this issue. Now it is a question that each country of the former Soviet Union must answer on its own.

FP: How do you explain the yearning for Stalin in many segments of present-day Russian society? What are the roots of this pathology in the Russian character?

Kuromiya: I don't know whether Russia has a pathology. Russia is thriving in terms of economic growth, but post-Soviet Russia has numerous problems (including widespread poverty and the collapse of social welfare). It is not pathological to look back to the Stalin era, forgetting all the terrible things that happened under Stalin, and long for a clearer sense of security, predictability and direction. By rejecting Peter's Westernization in the eighteenth-century, the Russian Slavophiles of the nineteenth century idealized the pre-Petrine era, conveniently forgetting that Russia before Peter was far from what they believed it to be.

Nostalgia exists today for Stalin's time, for sure, but whether there is a "pathological" yearning for Stalin's iron hand is not clear. What exists may not be so different from what exists in some parts of the US South where confederate flags are still hoisted here and there. I'd like to believe so, although I am not entirely sure.

It is true that Russia is having a terrible time shedding its difficult past. No one would call today's Russia under Putin a free and democratic society. Yet I don't think that the Russian people want Stalin and his terror back. What they want is not so different from what people elsewhere want, security and prosperity. What is important is whether the Russian people can create and maintain an open, free and democratic society.

FP: I am not referring to all Russian people. But I am referring to quite a sizable portion of Russians who yearn to be ruled by strong authority rather than to have individual freedom. There are those Russians who pine for Stalin, notwithstanding all of his evil. But we will have to explore this phenomenon in another time and place.

Thank you Hiroaki Kuromiya for joining Frontpage Interview. And thank you also for commemorating the lives of those who were victims of Stalin's terror. Because of people like you their memory will never be snuffed out. And because of this your book is not just a tremendous contribution to history and to academic scholarship, it is a noble and magnanimous humanitarian act.

Kuromiya: Thank you very much for this opportunity.
Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz?s Left Illusions. He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev?s Soviet Union (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at