Russian author Alexander Vatlin gives insight into his book Agents of Terror: Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in Stalin’s Secret Police, published this week by the University of Wisconsin Press. With Seth Bernstein providing the translation, Vatlin expands upon Stalin’s legacy today and the issues that still divide the Russian people.
I am delighted that my study of Stalin’s terror at the local level has been translated into English. In this blog, I’d like to frame the book in the context in which I wrote it— present-day Russia. When I wrote the original Russian-language book [published in 2004], the primary point of dispute among Russians stemmed from their opinions about Stalin’s regime. Indeed, this divide remains today. Academic historians have written hundreds or thousands of books with well-researched arguments about Stalinism. Some have even published documents from formerly secret archives, revealing the inner workings of the party-state. Yet among many ordinary people, these works have had little impact. As a colleague commented, a Russian’s view about Stalinism are a question of faith, not knowledge.
Stalin’s era remains the period in Russian history that attracts the most attention from researchers. It is an epoch that allows, even encourages, contradictory interpretations. Take the example of Stalinist forced collectivization: one historian might condemn the campaign as a crime against the peasantry, another lauds it as one of the regime’s great achievements. It suffices to cite a recent survey of Russians on the place of Stalin in history. Over the last several years, approximately 40 percent have claimed that Stalin would be the right leader for Russia today. Among people older than sixty, this figure is nearly 70 percent.
There are three main questions that divide the Russian public’s interpretations of Stalinism:
- Did the violence of Stalinism reflect the broader trends of European history in the twentieth century (what historian Eric Hobsbawm called the “age of extremes”)? Or was it a path peculiar to Russia (borrowing from the German concept of the sonderweg in their country’s history), a product of the country’s underdevelopment?
- Was Stalin’s regime—despite all its brutality—the only way that Russia could have survived the crises of the twentieth century? In other words, could the country have industrialized so rapidly without the Gulag?
- The final question, especially relevant for today: did Stalinism represent a dark age—a historical regression that forced the country to restart its development anew after the dictator’s death? Or was it the opposite—did Stalin drag the USSR into modernity, and now we can forget about the troubles of the past?
In current debates, few (other than the most politicized radicals in the Russian Communist Party) continue to defend the massive state violence of 1937-38, better known as the Great Terror. However, there is still reason to be concerned about the terror’s place in society. It is not that the public celebrates the elimination of so-called enemies of the people, but that Stalinist repression has been effectively forgotten. Scholarship on 1937-38 has almost no popular resonance today. This fact is most striking, because the history of the Great Terror was enormously important during Gorbachev’s perestroika of the late 1980s. Then, new revelations about Stalinist repression drove a moral reckoning in the country and were partially responsible for political reforms. In 1989, 39 percent of those surveyed in said that Stalinist repression was one of the most significant episodes for the USSR/Russia in the twentieth century. By the time my book was published in 2004, that number fell to just 10 percent. When I tried to present my book at a library in Kuntsevo municipal district in Moscow—where the events of my work took place—I was turned away. Administrators from the library said, “We can’t raise our children on that kind of history.”
Russians, the young above all, have turned away from the dark pages of their country’s past. This lack of historical perspective is dangerous—a formula for collective amnesia and apathy. Only a quarter of the locations are known where mass shootings occurred during the Great Terror. The only people currently looking for the mass graves are volunteers who receive no support from the state. The relatives of the repressed in many cases still do not know where their parents and grandparents are buried.
In short, readers of the English-language translation of my book should be aware that Russian historical understandings differ significantly from those in the West. Russians like to quote the poet Fedor Tyutchev’s famous lines:
Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness,
She stands alone, unique,
In Russia, one can only believe.
Every country has traditions that govern acceptable attitudes toward domestic and international tensions. This behavior formed over hundreds of years, and the resulting national traits are not always laudable. Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore them.
There are several aspects of Stalinist rule that are important for a non-Russian reader to understand. Stalin constructed his dictatorship by working within the Russian tradition of autocratic rule. He also exploited the passivity of ordinary people, who had grown weary of struggling after decades of revolutionary upheaval. The threat of external aggression contributed to Stalin’s ability to form an authoritarian regime. A huge number of ordinary Russians were isolated in the small world of their villages, and many peasants cared little about what was happening in Moscow. These Russians had limited experience with representative democracy. Even today, people’s deference to central leaders is not based on a social contract, but upon fear of the powerful and anxieties about instability.
For all these reasons, both the victims and the executors of the Great Terror could not understand its causes nor comprehend its scale. Perpetrators’ lack of understanding allowed them to deny their responsibility—a phenomenon readers can see among the officers of the Kuntsevo NKVD in my book Agents of Terror. NKVD workers often claimed that they had only fulfilled quotas, that they had completed the number of arrests that leaders had demanded. If agents had questioned the purpose of the terror, let alone objected to it, they could have soon found themselves on the other side of the interrogation table.
This argument was a convenient way for NKVD officers to absolve themselves of guilt. All the main figures in Agents of Terror made similar claims when they were called to account at the end of 1938. As a scholar who works primarily on German history, I could not help but think of a phrase that millions of Germans recited during Hitler’s reign: Der Führer denkt für uns. The Führer thinks for us.
I do not want to suggest that today’s Russians should come to a final understanding about the meaning of Stalin’s regime in the country’s history. It will take perhaps another two or three generations to reach a popular consensus about the era. More important is that individuals work through the past—a process that cannot occur without moral assessments. Asking a personal question—how would I have acted in the place of a victim or an executioner, in the place of a hero or a traitor?—does not permit one to hide behind the straw men of the great villains in history. Strange as it sounds, the history of the Great Terror can have a positive impact on contemporary Russia. It should force every one of us to reflect, so that a tragedy like 1937-38 will not occur again.
is a professor of history at Moscow State University. The author of many works in Russian, he is the editor of Piggy Foxy and the Sword of Revolution: Bolshevik Self Portraits.
Seth Bernstein is an assistant professor of history at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.