Vienna, November 24 – Seventy years ago this month, Stalin regularized the terror, changing it from the indiscriminate act of force into continuing reality of society of the Stalinist type, an act that two Moscow historians suggest constituted the establishment of “a power vertical of the Great Terror.”
On November 17, 1938, Gennady Bordyugov and Mark Yunge write, the Communist Party Central Committee issued a decree nominally ending a pre-existing order which allowed the Soviet Union’s police to subject members of particular social and ethnic groups to repression without any judicial control.
(Their “New Times” article (newtimes.ru/magazine/2008/issue092/doc-59810.html) is the republication of a chapter that appears in a book by Rolf Binner, Gennady Bordyugov and Mark Yunge, “The Vertical of the Great Terror. The History of Operations based n NKVD Order No. 447 (in Russian, Moscow: AIRO-XXI, 2008).
That action, the two write, ended what Robert Conquest called the Great Terror of 1937-38, in which more than two million people were arrested and 700,000 executed over the course of 15 months. But in ending that, this decree institutionalized state terror in a new way that proved much harder to eradicate.
Archives open since the fall of communism, the Moscow historians write, have transformed the search for an adequate description of the Great Terror from one based on “a deficit” of sources to one in which the real problem is “an excess” of information which needs to be surveyed and systematized.
The terror was conducted on the basis of NKVD Order No. 447 which identified entire groups of the population for repression, such as former kulaks, anti-Soviet activists, spies, and criminal elements. Additional orders (439, 485, and 593) extended this list to include “counterrevolutionary” nationalities.
As many students of the period have concluded, the terror was not “without targets” or “blind,” but because there were no legal or judicial limits on the actions of the police, a certain “synergy” emerged between those giving the orders and those carrying them out that led to a dramatic and terrifying extension of the application of these orders.
Those above, especially if they had achieved office after their predecessors had been accused of crimes against the state, were only too willing to increase the size of the lists of those to be repressed lest they fall victim to the same charges, and those below had equally serious reasons for arresting and killing more rather than fewer.
On the basis of their research, Bordyugov and Yunge draw attention to several aspects of the Great Terror that many have missed and thus are in a position to explain why some of the interpretations of Stalin’s crimes in this regard now on offer in Putin’s Russia are tendentious to the point of absurdity.
They pointedly note that “those who planned the action of state terror [in 1937-38] operated on the experience gained by the OGPU during the period of the mass terrorist campaign of 1930-33,” during collectivization and the terror famine. Indeed, NKVD Order 447 is very similar to OGPU Order 44/21 which called for “the liquidation of the kulaks as a class.”
And while they conclude that the question as to why Stalin cancelled order 447 and thus ended the mass murders “remains open,” they suggest that a major part of the explanation lies in the reality, denied by Stalinists then and now, that the terror was an effective means of mobilizing society or prevented the emergence of a fifth column during World War II.
In fact, Bordyugov and Yunge write, “the system created in the 1930s could work only in a feverish regime for the resolution of a very narrow range of priority tasks.” Once, the leadership saw the need to create the conditions for longer-term progress, the terror had to be brought under tighter control than Order 447 had created.
But if the terror was brought under tighter control, it was not ended and has not been subjected to thorough judicial evaluation. On the one hand, acts of terror continued throughout Stalin’s time and even later. And on the other, the instruments of Stalin’s terror – the troika tribunals – have never been denounced as completely illegal.
And they note that “rehabilitation [of the victims] remained an act of political-administrative arbitrariness, defined by political requirements and not by conformity to the law” not only in Khrushchev’s time but even in Gorbachev’s and the post-Soviet period. And such arbitrariness in and of itself puts yet another obstacle on Russia’s path to a law-based state.
The two historians suggest that the 70th anniversary of the end of the Great Terror ought to become the occasion “for the rehabilitation of all citizens without exception who were condemned by the extrajudicial extraordinary organs and for the declaration of these organs and their sentences as illegal.”
If the Russian government were to do so, it would truly be affirming the principle that “the use of mass terror as a means of state administration” is illegal on its face. But the tone of the article suggests that there is little hope that the current regime will do so, however much it talks about its commitment to the supremacy of law.