Policing Stalin's Socialism: Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953

Hidden victims of Stalinist suppression are revealed, finds Harold Shukman

January 28, 2010

Under Stalin, from 1924 to 1953, the subject matter of Russian history was governed by the propaganda needs of the Communist Party, and the most severely restricted theme was the Stalinist period itself. Slight relaxation under Khrushchev was curtailed with his ouster until the eve of the regime's demise. Since then, almost no corner of Stalinist history has been left unearthed by Russian scholars who suddenly found their voice, often in harness with Western scholars for whom the Russian archives seemed like an Aladdin's cave. David Shearer has retrieved a large and important part of this treasure and produced an original and impressive book, showing in detail the origin and development of the vast state-within-a-state that was Stalin's policing system.

The Soviet regime identified its internal enemies from its earliest days in power, beginning with the monarchy and aristocracy, the Whites, the clergy, former non-Bolshevik revolutionaries, and the burzhui, or middle classes; moving on to peasants who resisted collectivisation; then workers who were accused of "wrecking" the regime's efforts to industrialise on a mass scale. Then it was the turn of military and Communist Party leaders who looked like potential critics; writers and the remaining free-thinking intellectuals. Soviet nationalities policy was based on the principle that the multitude of ethnic groups would grow closer over time and eventually achieve a happy state of "fusion". Instead, Stalin alienated many national groups by mass deportations before, during and after the war, on the false collective charge of disloyalty. These included ethnic Germans and Poles, Crimean Greeks, Koreans, Finns, Iranians, Afghanis, Armenians, Georgians, Chechens and Ingushes. After the war the Jews, who were collectively suspected of hidden loyalty to the new state of Israel, faced the threat of extinction, saved only by Stalin's death in 1953. The aim of all this continual terror - the hallmark of Stalin's regime - was to create a society that would respond to the twists and turns of party propaganda at a touch of the whip.

Unprecedented access to party and other archives in Russia since the last years of the Gorbachev era has shed light on many hidden chapters of state suppression. The most recent category of the Soviet population to come under scholarly scrutiny as victims of Stalinist repression are the "marginals", or those who were perceived by the state to be a danger to social rather than political order.

Shearer demonstrates this point by underlining the fact that in 1930 the civil police were subordinated to the political police (known under Lenin as the Cheka, and later the OGPU, the NKVD and finally the KGB), and were ultimately renamed the Militia. Centralisation, improved pay and militarisation of the civil police gradually brought them under the supervision of the political police, making them into an all-embracing state apparatus - a "Soviet gendarmerie".

Stalin and his henchman Genrikh Yagoda, who was head of the OGPU in the early 1930s, redefined the role of their "gendarmes" as preventive and prophylactic: in addition to cracking down on society's enemies after the fact, the forces were required to be on constant guard, gathering information on subversives before they committed their destructive acts. Given this approach, it is easy to understand how the Soviet Union came to be perceived as a society immersed in suspicion, supervision and spying, and why the penal system grew to such unprecedented size, as camp after camp had to be built to accommodate vast numbers of suspects, as well as actual miscreants.

The "socially harmful elements" who were the targets of this system included, Shearer notes, "indigents and itinerants, criminals, ex-convicts, members of religious sects, unemployed and orphaned youth, gypsies, the politically disenfranchised" and any other groups that the turbulent and disruptive policies of the regime had turned into misfits and socially useless outcasts. "Repression" meant imprisonment, deportation to penal settlements in the frozen wastes of the huge country, or execution with or without trial or even investigation.

Such a regime required a means of registering every arrested person, whether guilty or innocent, and the development of such a registry absorbed much police time and energy. Even so, as Shearer shows, the personnel were frequently lax in applying the rules of the system, and illegal residence, abuses of the internal passport system and even escapes were surprisingly common.

In 1936 Yagoda reported that the problem of social order had been solved, and yet a year later he himself was "liquidated" and replaced by Nikolai Yezhov, and the "long, dark night" from July 1937 to November 1938 descended on the whole of Soviet society. While the "celebrities" of the military and political leadership were being tried and shot, mass arrests and executions of "anti-Soviet elements" were launched as the Great Terror. Yezhov's declared aim was to liquidate dangerous elements "once and for all time", but Shearer shows that Yezhov failed, as police reports in the late 1930s indicate the same level of social disorder as those preceding the Great Purge. The damage to society, however, was devastating.

Policing Stalin's Socialism: Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953

By David R. Shearer

Yale University Press, 544pp, £40.00

ISBN 9780300149258

Published 24 November 2009

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