Stalin’s purges — what really happened?

reviewed by Andy Brooks

Stalin’s purges’ of 1937-38: what really happened? by Yuri Emelianov, Scientific Socialism Research Unit, West Bengal India 2015, 80pp, illus, £3.00.

IN RUSSIA today Joseph Stalin is remembered as a great war-time leader. But he is still reviled by the powers-that-be as a tyrant who had his rivals shot on trumped up charges and sent millions of innocent people to Siberia during the massive purges that swept the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Much of this narrative comes from Stalin’s successor, Nikita Krushchov, whose anti-Stalin critique, which began after the 20th Communist Party Congress, was used to remove and disgrace all those who opposed his revisionist line.

Khrushchov’s lies were used by bourgeois and Trotskyist historians alike to portray this period as the time of “Stalin’s terror”. Ludicrous figures were given of the numbers sent to labour camps during the crackdown and astronomic numbers were said to have died in the camps. Most claim “millions” perished. The most rabid talk about “25 million” in an effort to equate Stalin with the very real number of people who died on the orders of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazis during the Second World War.

But when the archives were opened up in the 1990s a different picture emerged. Two academicians discovered that the total number held in the Gulags was much lower, little more than half-a-million, and that most were common criminals. Other Russian academicians are now challenging the very foundations of the myth of the “great terror”. Yuri Emelianov is one of them.

Back in 2012 Emelianov, a social scientist in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, wrote a series of articles on the purges that were published in Communist Review, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Britain. Now an Indian progressive publishing house has made them available to a much larger audience.

The author draws on archival documents and direct past experiences in an attempt to answer the old questions of why did the purges happen and who was to blame for breaches of Soviet legality.

Emilianov starts off by debunking the figures for those executed during the purges and the numbers sent to the Gulags that are regularly trotted out by Russian bourgeois historians, even today. He then looks at the Moscow Trials. Most of this is familiar ground for New Worker readers. Some of it is not.

The purges followed the assassination of Sergei Kirov in Leningrad in 1934. Kirov, regarded as second only to Stalin himself in the Party leadership, was shot dead by an agent of those long opposed to Stalin within the Bolshevik party. Stalin’s enemies within the Soviet leadership were arrested and charged with treason. All the accused confessed to being members of a secret “Block of Rights and Trotskyites” that was responsible for all sorts of anti-Soviet crimes

Emilianov says that “though some of the accusations were plausible most of them now appear far-fetched”. But he adds: “Practically no-one in the Soviet Union had doubted the indirect responsibility of the two opposition leaders (Zinoviev and Kamenev) for Kirov’s murder; so it was easy to believe that both of them, as well as their supporters, were directly involved in organising the murder not only of Kirov but of other Soviet leaders as well.”

The author then startlingly argues that while Stalin was battling against his old foes inside the Party there were other hidden enemies, like Krushchov, who posed as loyalists while encouraging mass arrests to sabotage the new “Stalin” constitution plans for secret ballots and multiple choices at elections.

Emilianov says: “The leaders of the provinces and republics were afraid that they would lose the first general, direct, equal and secret elections with alternative candidates. By resorting to reprisals they wanted to create an atmosphere of Red Terror, characteristic of the situation in Russia during the Civil War. In such an atmosphere it would be impossible to conduct political debates between different candi- dates but it would be easy to make loud speeches against class enemies.”

Though Emilianov defends Stalin he also criticises the Soviet leader for not bothering to “check many of the dubious accusations made at the Moscow Trials”; condoning false accusations; failing to make a profound analysis of “these tragic events” and not finishing the political reform of the Soviet Union that he, himself, had initiated in the first place.

There is plenty more of this in the profusely illustrated, quality publication from India. It’s an important contribution to the study of Soviet history and it’s available from our online shop Shopping Trolley