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Bolshevik Self-Destruction: A Review of J. Arch Getty’s The Road to Terror

23 Apr

Bolshevik Self-Destruction: A Review of J. Arch Getty’s The Road to Terror

In The Road to Terror, J. Arch Getty declares that “The Great Terror” of the 1930’s was not a plan.  There was no neat line of development from Lenin to Stalin and the horrors of that decade were not inevitable consequences of socialism or Bolshevism.  Rather, the terror was a failure to control the expansive Soviet Union by any other means than arbitrary force.  Furthermore, the mixed signals coming from the top throughout the 1930’s about strengthening or weakening the repressions did not represent “hard” factions in the Politburo gradually overcoming the “soft” factions.  Instead, Getty describes the terror with the metaphor of a “twisting” road that is evolving in a “series of contradictory zigs and zags.”  Far from fractional, the road is constructed by “an amazing group consensus” among leaders on the constant need to control and maneuver around their various real and imagined enemies. In the final bloodletting of 1936-37, this road ended in an “explosion” when the party committed “Stalin-assisted suicide” of many Bolshevik stalwarts.

Getty weaves hundreds of Soviet documents together and creates the most impressive study of the Great Terror to date.  Beginning with the negative effects of collectivization and the “Trotskyist threat” in the early 1930’s, the author guides the reader through the initial repressions, the assassination of Kirov, and then each of the increasingly horrific purges that culminated in 1937 with the Red Army.  As a historical piece, the book is innovative because the narrative encompasses two interdependent groups of characters, the Bolshevik leaders and the documents.

Stalin plays a major role in the terror, but Getty highlights how he was unique in his ability to maneuver through the contradictions and keep an air of mystique by distancing himself from the Terror’s dirty work until the 1936 purges. Figures like Yezhov learn to use the situation to their advantage, only to eventually become publicly berated scapegoats and internal party sacrifices.  Despite the consensus for control and sacrifice in the party, the author underlines that there was still some protest (often suicide) and two different types of Bolsheviks.  Men like Bukharin were complicated theoreticians who understood that they had built this system and were now being martyred.  Others, like Yezhov, inherited the system and learned to play along, but never understood the big picture.

Like their creators, the individual documents tell stories with words, style, and the way they were used and abused.  Some, like those concerning Bukharin’s refusal to confess, are edited to hide ambiguities and contradictions.  Directives ordering the liquidation of enemies across the USSR are shocking because they give regional leaders exact numbers.  Orders to arrest or expel someone from the party are cold and concise, while the passionate self-defenses drag on until the accused can think of no more reasons they are innocent.  One eerie document is the ballot for the Central Committee vote to expel K. Ukhanov.  The names of Yagoda, Piatikov, and others are scratched out and you assume that those voting were wondering if their name would be crossed out next.

The blending of the Bolshevik leaders with the documents that traced their maneuvering and demise is a unique accomplishment that gives evidence to Getty’s thesis that the “road to terror” was not a straight shot, but a long and confused detour.  Stalin, Bukharin, and the party leaders where the drivers, while the documents highlight the constantly changing road signs.  The scope of this study may be narrow, but Getty displays how a proper handling of new archival evidence can overturn long held historical assumptions and arguments, especially the long-standing notion posited by historian Robert Conquest that The Great Terror was the inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Book Reviewed:

J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

Further Reading:

Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (Revised ed.), (London: Macmillan, 1973).

Hiroaki Kuromiya, The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s,  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

Norman Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).