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The Great Purge

No episode in Soviet history has provoked more rage from the old bourgeois world than the purge of 1937--1938. The unnuanced denunciation of the purge can be read in identical terms in a neo-Nazi pamphlet, in a work with academic pretentions by Zbigniew Brzezinski,  in a Trotskyist  pamphlet or in a book by the Belgian army chief ideologue.

Let us just consider the last, Henri Bernard,  a former Belgian Secret Service officer, professor emeritus at the Belgian Royal Military College. He published in 1982 a book called Le communisme et l'aveuglement occidental (Communism and Western Blindness). In this work, Bernard  mobilizes the sane forces of the West against an imminent Russian invasion. Regarding the history of the USSR, Bernard's  opinion about the 1937 purge is interesting on many counts:

`Stalin would use methods that would have appalled Lenin.  The Georgian had no trace of human sentiment. Starting with Kirov's  assassination (in 1934), the Soviet Union underwent a bloodbath, presenting the spectacle of the Revolution devouring its own sons. Stalin, said Deutscher,  offered to the people a régime made of terror and illusions. Hence, the new liberal measures corresponded with the flow of blood of the years 1936--1939. It was the time of those terrible purges, of that `dreadful spasm'. The interminable series of trials started. The `old guard' of heroic times would be annihilated. The main accused of all these trials was Trotsky,  who was absent. He continued without fail to lead the struggle against Stalin, unmasking his methods and denouncing his collusion with Hitler.' 


Bernard,  op. cit. , pp. 50, 52--53.

So, the historian of the Belgian Army likes to quote Trotsky  and Trotskyists,  he defends the `old Bolshevik guard', and he even has a kind word for Lenin;  but under Stalin, the inhuman monster, blind and dreadful terror dominated.

Before describing the conditions that led the Bolsheviks to purge the Party in 1937--1938, let us consider what a bourgeois specialist who respects the facts knows about this period of Soviet history.

Gábor Tamás Rittersporn,  born in Budapest, Hungary, published a study of the purges in 1988 (English version, 1991), under the title Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications. He forthrightly states his opposition to communism and states that `we have no intention of denying in any way, much less of justifying, the very real horrors of the age we are about to treat of; we would surely be among the first to bring them to light if that was still necessary'.


Gábor Tamás Rittersporn,  Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications: Social Tensions and Political Conflict in the USSR, 1933--1953 (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991), p. 23.

However, the official bourgeois version is so grotesque and its untruthfulness so obvious that in the long run it could lead to a complete rejection of the standard Western interpretation of the Soviet Revolution. Rittersporn  admirably defined the problems he encountered when trying to correct some of the most grotesque bourgeois lies.

`If ... one tries to publish a tentative analysis of some almost totally unknown material, and to use it to throw new light on the history of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the part that Stalin played in it, one discovers that opinion tolerates challenges to the received wisdom far less than one would have thought .... The traditional image of the ``Stalin phenomenon'' is in truth so powerful, and the political and ideological value-judgments which underlie it are so deeply emotional, that any attempt to correct it must also inevitably appear to be taking a stand for or against the generally accepted norms that it implies ....

`To claim to show that the traditional representation of the ``Stalin period'' is in many ways quite inaccurate is tantamount to issuing a hopeless challenge to the time-honoured patterns of thought which we are used to applying to political realities in the USSR, indeed against the common patterns of speech itself .... Research of this kind can be justified above all by the extreme inconsistency of the writing devoted to what historical orthodoxy considers to be a major event --- the ``Great Purge'' of 1936--1938.

`Strange as it may seem, there are few periods of Soviet history that have been studied so superficially.'


Ibid. , pp. 1--2.

`There is ... every reason to believe that if the elementary rules of source analysis have tended to be so long ignored in an important area of Soviet studies, it is because the motives of delving in this period of the Soviet past have differed markedly from the usual ones of historical research.

`In fact even the most cursory reading of the ``classic'' works makes it hard to avoid the impression that in many respects these are often more inspired by the state of mind prevailing in some circles in the West, than by the reality of Soviet life under Stalin. The defence of hallowed Western values against all sorts of real or imaginary threats from Russia; the assertion of genuine historical experiences as well as of all sorts of ideological assumptions.'


Ibid. , p. 23.

In other words, Rittersporn  is saying: Look, I can prove that most of the current ideas about Stalin are absolutely false. But to say this requires a giant hurdle. If you state, even timidly, certain undeniable truths about the Soviet Union in the thirties, you are immediately labeled `Stalinist'. Bourgeois propaganda has spread a false but very powerful image of Stalin, an image that is almost impossible to correct, since emotions run so high as soon as the subject is broached. The books about the purges written by great Western specialists, such as Conquest,  Deutscher,  Schapiro  and Fainsod,  are worthless, superficial, and written with the utmost contempt for the most elementary rules learnt by a first-year history student. In fact, these works are written to give an academic and scientific cover for the anti-Communist policies of the Western leaders. They present under a scientific cover the defence of capitalist interests and values and the ideological preconceptions of the big bourgeoisie.

Here is how the purge was presented by the Communists who thought that it was necessary to undertake it in 1937--1938. Here is the central thesis developed by Stalin in his March 3, 1937 report, which initiated the purge.

Stalin affirmed that certain Party leaders `proved to be so careless, complacent and naive',


J. V. Stalin, Report and Speech in Reply to Debate at the Plenum of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. (3--5 March 1937). Works (London: Red Star Press, 1976), vol. 14, p. 241.

and lacked vigilance with respect to the enemies and the anti-Communists infiltrated in the Party. Stalin spoke of the assassination of Kirov,  number two in the Bolshevik Party at the time:

`The foul murder of Comrade Kirov  was the first serious warning which showed that the enemies of the people would resort to duplicity, and resorting to duplicity would disguise themselves as Bolsheviks, as Party members, in order to worm their way into our confidence and gain access to our organizations ....

`The trial of the ``Zinovievite--Trotskyite  bloc''  (in 1936) broadened the lessons of the preceding trials and strikingly demonstrated that the Zinovievites  and Trotskyites  had united around themselves all the hostile bourgeois elements, that they had become transformed into an espionage, diversionist and terrorist agency of the German secret police, that duplicity and camouflage are the only means by which the Zinovievites  and Trotskyites  can penetrate into our organizations, that vigilance and political insight are the surest means of preventing such penetration.'


Ibid. , pp. 242--243.

`(T)he further forward we advance, the greater the successes we achieve, the greater will be the fury of the remnants of the defeated exploiting classes, the more ready will they be to resort to sharper forms of struggle, the more will they seek to harm the Soviet state, and the more will they clutch at the most desperate means of struggle as the last resort of the doomed.'


Ibid. , p. 264.

next up previous contents index
Next: How did the Up: Another view of Stalin Previous: The Party elections

Fri Aug 25 09:03:42 PDT 1995