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Stalin’s Terror Revisited

Author(s):Ilic, Melanie
Reviewer(s):Barnett, Vincent

Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

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Melanie Ilic, editor, Stalin’s Terror Revisited. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2006. xviii + 263 pp. ?45 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-4039-4705-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Vincent Barnett, Creative Arts, Technology and Science, Bedfordshire University.

Melanie Ilic is an experienced scholar, having previously edited Women in the Stalin Era and Women in the Khrushchev Era. She has also published a monograph entitled Women Workers in the Soviet Inter-War Economy. This latest volume focuses on the Soviet terror between 1936 and 1938, and presents a number of detailed examinations of specific aspects of this phenomenon by both well-known historians of the USSR and newcomers to the field alike. Ilic provides a general introduction in which she states that “the terror of 1936 to 1938 was a multifaceted and complex event that defies simple interpretation” (p. 1). R.W. Davies then leads the collection with a chapter called “The Soviet Economy and the Launching of the Great Terror,” followed by Oleg Khlevnyuk on “Economic Officials in the Great Terror.” Indeed the economic aspect of the terror is the focus of special attention throughout the volume. Other chapters include Christopher Joyce on the Soviet penal system, Valerii Vasiliev on the terror in the Ukraine, and Junbae Jo on trade unions and the terror. Ilic herself discusses the effects of the terror on women.

All the contributors provide minute and newly-discovered detail as to the nature and progress of the Soviet terror in its empirical manifestation. Perhaps the most engaging chapter is by Joyce, who shows how the terror had a devastating impact upon the Soviet penal system, leading to serious overcrowding and health problems, and also to strains on the system of forced labor. Much archival study is on display throughout the volume, as is a thorough knowledge of the relevant published materials. If one desires a painstaking factual account of those elements of the topic outlined above, then this book provides it quite generously. However, here is where the limitations of the volume begin to present themselves.

Davies begins his chapter with the bold statement that “the terror of 1936-38 was substantially different from previous repressive measures, and requires special explanation” (p. 11). Unfortunately this statement remains unsubstantiated or even clearly defined in the book. How exactly was it different? It could be maintained that the 1936-38 terror was different in scale to previous Soviet repressions, but the underlying goal was very similar — to destroy perceived or actual indigenous enemy forces through state-sponsored violence. Davies does present a clear argument in his chapter: that the terror itself was unconnected with any apparent or real crisis or downturn in the Soviet economy in the first half of 1936, and hence was not caused by domestic economic factors. Davies demonstrates with detailed evidence how Stalin was not unduly worried about the industrial or agricultural sectors of the Soviet economy in this period. On this particular point Davies is convincing, and musters good support for his case. However, the reader might expect that, following this, Davies and the rest of the contributors would then provide an account of the actual cause(s) of the terror. This is where the volume falls down in a major way.

Davies himself mentions in passing that “the main criterion for the purge was political” (p. 25). Khlevnyuk also relates that the cadre purges were based on political factors, stating that Stalin and his colleagues were guided by a principle of politically justified losses which were seen as being required in order to strengthen the regime (p. 58). However, these brief statements are not substantiated in any way with reliable forms of evidence, and exactly why Soviet leaders thought in this way (if they did) is not discussed at all. Intellectual factors are simply ignored throughout the volume, as if only empirical circumstances had any role in generating historical events. As a consequence the reader is left none the wiser as to the nature of the political factors involved, or the reason(s) for them. Another point to consider is that Davies neglects the international element in the terror equation. The Soviet economy may not have been in crisis in the first half of 1936, but Stalin was concerned with overtaking the West in terms of industrial development, not just with standing still. Davies fails to consider sufficiently whether the USSR was seen as falling behind in relative terms.

Perhaps the root of the problem with the volume is as follows. Ilic confuses two separate but very significant issues. In empirical terms, the Soviet terror was undoubtedly very complex and had many component parts, which are well documented in the book. However this does not necessarily mean that the actual explanation for the terror has to be “complex” or has to “defy simple interpretation.” Simple causes can sometimes generate quite complex events. But the methodology employed in the volume mistakes empirical complexity for theoretical rigor, yielding a frustrating book for readers to engage with. This problem is heightened by the fact that there is no concluding chapter in the book where all the threads of the research are brought together, and where any general results could be discussed or analyzed. Thus the reader is left hanging in the air as to the underlying cause(s) of the terror, which is disappointing for a book entitled Stalin’s Terror Revisited. In general the volume can be characterized as offering original scholarship of a high caliber that is at least partially misdirected towards failing to answer the most significant questions which the topic naturally generates.

Vincent Barnett is the author of A History of Russian Economic Thought (London: Routledge, 2005).

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII