In the Promised Land


“Great massacres may be commanded by tyrants, but they are imposed by peoples,” H.R. Trevor-Roper wrote on the European witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Afterwards, when the mood has changed, or when the social pressure, thanks to the blood-letting, no longer exists, the anonymous people slinks away, leaving public responsibility to the preachers, the theorists, and the rulers who demanded, justified, and ordered the act.

This passage is cited by J. Arch Getty in The Road to Terror, a selection of documents on internal purges among the Soviet Party elite in the 1930s. The opening up of former Soviet Party and police archives has allowed scholars to narrow the range of estimates of the number of victims of Stalin’s Terror. In its two worst years (1937–1938) 1.5 million people were arrested on political grounds, hundreds of thousands were shot, and the population of the labor camps increased by half a million. The overall number of deaths caused by repression in the Thirties (including the casualties of the collectivization of agriculture) has been calculated as between 1.5 and 2 million, although some estimates are considerably higher.1 Add to that countless ruined lives, the use of torture to extract confessions, the brutality of the huge system of work camps, and a national trauma that lasted for decades.

Enormous though Stalin’s guilt was, the mass slaughter and the widespread repression of the Soviet 1930s cannot be explained away by the paranoia of a power-crazed despot. We now know that the Soviet party-state was not (as the “totalitarian” school of analysts once believed) a monolithic system ruling omnipotently over a passive, victimized society. Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stephen Kotkin, and others have demonstrated from previously inaccessible archives that Stalinism was not just a political system but a set of values and a way of life which many Soviet citizens actively embraced or passively assented to from a wide variety of motives. As Getty observes, at every step of the road to terror

there were constituencies both within and outside the elite that supported repression of various groups, sometimes with greater vehemence than Stalin did…. Repression was as much a matter of consensus as of one man’s dementia, and this is somehow even more troubling.

Many would argue that the boundaries of responsibility for the Terror extend more widely still. The phenomenon of Stalinism may owe something to the peculiar history of the Russian state, in which a native tradition of arbitrary authority blended with the heritage of Mongol rule; but it is equally indebted to the Western utopian tradition—in particular to the two dreams that have shaped modern Western culture: the Enlightenment’s ideal of a rationally ordered society, and the Romantic notion of the Promethean self-transformation of man. Both these visions were combined in Marxism, which owed its great potency to a third ingredient: the view that an earthly paradise is no utopia but the necessary outcome of precise and demonstrable historical laws. Hence the enthusiasm with…

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