Zizek follow-up

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Jan 31 08:12:45 MST 2000

This article on the Getty-Naumov book might be useful in understanding the
politics behind Zizek's NLR article. The review states that the authors
argue that Stalin's reign of terror had nothing to do with consolidating
his personal rule. And that Bukharin gave credit to Stalin as a guardian of
the revolutionan, despite a long record of vocal opposition since the war
on the Kulaks. J. Arch Getty, upon whose "research" Zizek's article rests,
is professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, and
director of the Center for the Study of Russia and the Soviet Union. His
previous claim to fame was "Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet
Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938," a book that makes the case that
Stalin's Terror was fairly minor. Getty thinks that thousands rather than
millions were executed. Getty is the favorite of paleo-Stalinists on the
Internet such as Adolfo Olaechea, the maniacal London spokesmen for the
defunct Shining Path.


Sunday Times (London), November 7, 1999, Sunday

Uncle Joe's killing fields

BYLINE: John Crossland

THE ROAD TO TERROR: Stalin and the Self-destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932
1939. by J Arch Getty and Oleg V Naumov. Yale Pounds 22.50 pp635. John
Crossland reads a radical new interpretation of the orgy of mass murder and
denunciation instigated by Stalin from 1936 to 1938

Taking a break in Moscow from my trawl of the newly opened Soviet archives
in 1992, I crossed the river opposite the Kremlin by the Moskvoretskiy
bridge and pulled up short before a series of portrait plaques adorning a
sinister dark-grey block of flats in art deco style. "These were the
apartments of Stalin's Nomenklatura, the party high-ups, at the time of the
great purge," explained my guide. "Many of them were shot and their
families sent to the Gulag," she added.

It was from here that the Old Bolsheviks, Lenin's comrades, said their last
farewells to their wives and children and either drove off in their
official cars, to be swallowed up behind the walls of the Kremlin where the
NKVD waited with arrest warrants as they left party meetings, or were
hustled before dawn into Black Marias and taken directly to the underground
cells of the Lubyanka for interrogation.

>From 1936 to 1938 the revolution devoured its own, an orgy of denunciation
and mass murder which gave a word to the Russian language, the
Yezhovshchina (the time of Yezhov), a coinage which took its name from the
diminutive leader of the NKVD who masterminded it before he, too, was swept
into an anonymous grave.

Until now, the official line has been that the purge was a coup to clear
any rivals from Stalin's path to supreme power. He personally ordered the
assassination of Sergei Kirov, party boss of Leningrad and the most popular
tribune of the Russian people - thus excusing a reign of terror against
anyone, be he Trotskyist or "White Guard", who could be identified as their
enemy. Robert Conquest first revealed the scale of the tragedy 30 years ago
in his book The Great Terror, which drew on personal testimony and
statistics provided by survivors of the Gulag and by political refugees,
some of them disaffected former NKVD officers and old-guard Bolsheviks.

He made as complete a case against Stalin as the available archival
evidence allowed, but it has taken a deal between Yale University Press and
the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent
History to advance the story. And what an intriguing one it turns out to
be, as we penetrate the hermetically sealed world of the Stalinist Central
Committee via the secret transcripts of its proceedings, NKVD dossiers on
"enemies of the state", and appeals from their victims both to the Central
Committee and to Stalin himself.

As he worked his way through a mass of declassified documents to isolate
key files which might answer the question of how and why Russia suffered
the most bizarre and terrible political self-mutilation of this century,
the book's editor, J Arch Getty, professor of modern Russian history at the
University of California, became aware that he would have to revise
radically the received version of the Terror.

It had not been a meticulously planned campaign to crush opposition to
Stalin but rather stemmed from internecine strife between left and right in
the Nomenklatura that Stalin exploited to his own advantage. Stalin, Getty
believes, probably had no hand in Kirov's murder, an event that panicked
the Nomenklatura, coming as it did on the heels of the great famine and an
upsurge of discontent with Moscow's leadership from the countryside.

Here, for instance, are demands for an increase in student grants that had
been passed on to the secret police. "Students, fight for a real
improvement in your life! We receive a stipend of 93 roubles. Make a note
of all that is negative and write about it. Only in this way will Stalin
and the 'big shots' pay any attention to the proletariat." There are also
suicide notes from former party faithful who have been expelled for
"deviationalism" and lost their jobs as well as their sense of self worth,
and appeals from inside the Gulag against death sentences passed on
comrades who were hunger striking against their unjust imprisonment.

What he calls "these priceless documents" have drawn from Getty a
recantation of his earlier work which the hard men of the Kremlin might
have applauded. He says, "Stalin's serpentine and convoluted road to terror
can no longer be explained by organised resistance to him. The notion we
have clung to for so long - that there must have been 'liberal' or 'decent'
Bolsheviks who tried to stop Stalin's plan for terror - is no longer
tenable." The real picture is even more depressing "than a heroic but
futile resistance to evil". At every step in this nightmarish descent to
the lower circles of Hell, with 638,000 innocent people arrested in one
year alone (1938) and 328,000 executed, there were hardliners (and
self-servers) who wanted to go to even greater extremes (the author, by the
way, halves the likely total of deaths of political prisoners in the Gulag
during the Terror from Conquest's 3m).

Getty makes the point that Stalinism involved ceremonies and acts of public
penance and confession that any anthropologist would recognise as a ritual
with quasi-religious significance. He says, "Virtually the entire elite
(and even its victims) shared ideas about what constituted treason and
conspiracy that differed sharply from ours".

This certainly applied to Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin's "Golden Boy of the
Revolution". As leader of the right wing of the Nomenklatura, he was
Stalin's natural successor in any successful coup. His last letter
(originally found in Stalin's archive by the Russian historian Edvard
Radzinsky) to the man who had been his coadjutor in ruling Russia, had been
at one stage his friend and was now his executioner, is perhaps the most

It is stained with the tears of a man whose only remorse is for his
foolishness in "hanging around with Kamenev" (a fellow Politburo member,
later shot) and referring to Stalin's supporters in the ruling body as "the
Gang". Getty explains, "He was saying to Stalin, 'We have been insiders
together for a long time. I want you to know that I understand the symbolic
rituals and am willing to play along to show my loyalty.'" (He had offered
to lead propaganda against Trotsky from exile in the America with an NKVD
"minder"). Even as victim, however, Bukharin reiterates to Stalin his
belief that a great purge is necessary to cleanse the body politic.

Twice already, as Getty proves, Stalin had intervened to save Bukharin from
the left-wing wolves. On the second occasion he had to order Nikolai
Yezhov, the original "poison dwarf", who was slavering for Bukharin's
blood, to call off his NKVD persecutors.

Getty likens Bukharin to Rubashov in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.
"His education and western logic told him that he was innocent and that he
did not deserve to die. But his whole political life in the Bolshevik
milieu told him otherwise and forced him to play out the political sequence
he himself had helped to create...He had devoted his life to the Revolution
and now the Revolution was destroying him."

The purge had its origins in widespread disillusionment throughout all the
Russias with the increasing centralising policies of the Politburo in
Moscow. Not only Stalin, but so-called moderates such as Bukharin, feared
for their power base. Sixty years on, the political ethic they followed so
slavishly is down but not counted out. The successors to the ruling clique
whom Stalin refers to contemptuously in the files as the "princes" of the
Kremlin are also having to resort to force to try to stop secessionist
tendencies in the Russian Federation. It is a sobering thought that, in a
recent poll, a significant section of the Russian people said they favoured
a return to the absolute discipline of Stalinist rule.

Louis Proyect

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