The Legacy of 1937


We speak of the Terror yet the repressive machine of the proletariat’s dictators began working long before 1937.

Indeed, the repression began immediately after the October Uprising. The communist dictatorship was always, before and after 1937, accompanied by political repression. However it was specifically 1937 that was to become the terrible symbol of mass killings organized and carried out by the State regime. Presumably this was because the Great Terror involved certain specific features and because of the huge impact it had – and continued exerting – on the fate of the whole country.

So it was in the scale of the Terror?

1937 was the gigantic scale of the repression engulfing all layers of society without exception, from the leaders of the country to peasants and workers far removed from politics. More than 1.7 million people were arrested on political charges during 1937 and 1938. If you add the victims of deportation and those convicted as “socially dangerous elements”, the number exceeds two million.

You get the impression that there was a carefully planned machine.

Which was also incredibly brutal, with more than 700 thousand of those arrested being executed.  And there was the unrepresented degree of planning in the terrorist “special operations”. The entire campaign was carefully thought out by the top leaders and carried out under their constant control.  Secret orders issued by the NKVD stipulated the period for carrying out particular operations, the groups and categories of the population who were to be “purged”, as well as the planned numbers of arrests and executions for each region. Any changes, any “initiatives from below” needed to be agreed with Moscow.

And yet people were living, working, having children…

For most of the population, unaware of the orders, the logic of arrests seemed inexplicable and far removed from commonsense. The Great Terror seemed like a huge lottery. There was almost a mystical sense of it being incomprehensible and this elicited a special type of terror and sense of insecurity. The fates of people well-known throughout the country (and these were the main ones reported in the newspapers) whose loyalty had never seemed in doubt heightened the sense of panic and exacerbated the mass psychosis.  This was to give rise to the myth that the Great Terror was directed solely against old Bolsheviks and the Party elite. In fact the overwhelming majority of those arrested and shot were simple Soviet citizens. it was up to the investigator to formulate each individual’s “guilt”. Therefore hundreds of thousands of those arrested faced absurd charges of “counter-revolutionary conspiracies”, “espionage”, “planning terrorist acts”, “sabotage” and so forth.

And yet many even then knew about who was building the Belomor Canal, and that the charges were false. Why was there no reaction to the violence?

The Soviet leadership tried to implicate the whole nation in a system of mutual responsibility. There were meetings where people were forced to vehemently applaud public lies about exposed “enemies of the people”. Children were forced to denounce their parents, wives – their husbands. It was incidentally in 1937 that the characteristic feature of Soviet society formulated – double-thinking, as a result of split reality imposed by propaganda of public and individual consciousness.  Later there were the systematic lies over years regarding the fate of those who’d been executed – first about mythical “camps with no right of correspondence”, and then fictitious dates and places of death supposedly from natural causes.  Yet the Terror, or battle against dissident thinking, didn’t end with the death of Stalin and Beria.

It continued to the middle of the 1980s, virtually to the start of perestroika and collapse of socialism.

There is a stereotype that Stalin was the father of terror, while Lenin was an impassioned revolutionary, the friend of children, workers and peasants.

Lenin was as much a killer as Stalin and Beria and the real father of the terror. It was at his instigation that the labour camps [called concentration camps – translator] were created. He argued after all that for a great cause you could kill as many as needed. That’s clear now from archival documents.

Representatives of today’s left wing continue to espouse the ideological stamps about the humanity of this most humane man, and exploit his social ideas and slogans.

Of the multitude of ideas the main most attractive one is voiced most often, that of social justice. It appeals to people and it’s hard to free oneself of its charm. Communist ideology uses the slogan of equal income and needs, while socialists talk of equal opportunities. Yet in fact inequality is established by the law. If parents are well-off their children have an easier time. If a person has a talent for business, s/he can make a lot of money. It’s the way of the world. Left-wing ideas are fairly popular everywhere, however the law defends human rights.  The communist ideas about justice and equality were quite attractive, but how they were implemented in the USSR led to the Terror, and into a dead end, with victims and violence.

And yet there was the Thaw, an attempt to build socialism with a human face.

We should simply remember Czechoslovakia in 1968 ending with all hopes crushed. The repressive machine was switched on again.

There is yet another myth that under Stalin all was well. And that they repressed “enemies” while order honest people had nothing to fear.

It’s a consequence of ideology and brainwashing. The machine devoured all. Stalin’s approach was based on using fear and slavery. It was all through prisoners’ labour. Anyone who knows history at all will simply annihilate that myth about wellbeing under Stalin.

And yet the fear, the collective covering for each other, the inner slavery, fear of repression have remained in public thinking.

It’s hard to free oneself of fear. During Khrushchev’s Thaw society began finding out and understanding about the repression and Terror. The poet Anna Akhmatova wrote that two Russias– those who imprisoned and those who were imprisoned met and looked each other in the eye.  The process of coming to some understanding needed to continue, but it was stalled.  This stalling led to the emergence of the dissident movement and emigration. Dissidents lived as free people in a captive country.  During Brezhnev’s time, for each dissident actually imprisoned, there were 96 people who experienced the pressure of the repressive machine, being summoned for questioning to the KGB, threatened, coerced. There were around half a million who faced that. Now the fear has diminished, but it still remains in the blood. A generation has now grown up since perestroika and the disappearance of the repressive regime. They have grown up and live in a different society. And Maidan [the Orange Revolution; maidan literally means “square” which was where people held their ground during those days - translator] also gave a certain impulse, after all many were aware that they were risking a lot. And yet they went on Maidan, not sure that they would return alive. The effect of Maidan was in the liberation from fear of a huge number of people.

A lot of people from Kharkiv faced repression

Kharkiv was the capital city [for a long period under the Bolshevik regime – translator] and the repressions were severe.  There was the 1928 Shakhtinsk case, the trial of members of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine [SVU], and many other cases. During the Great Terror more than 20 thousand people were shot. The repressions continued into the 1940s.

In the 1970s and 80s the dissident movement in Ukraine was strong. It consisted of nationalist, general democratic and religious movements, as well as people fighting for the right to emigrate.  People listened to the BBC, Radio Svoboda [Liberty], Voice of America, and there was a lot of samizdat around. Kharkiv after all had a lot of institutes, students and intelligentsia with a technical background.  There was a special department within the KGB to deal with dissidents.

There is now freedom, and yet the law is broken. People get drawn into clan conflicts, and there are raider attacks. They raise tariffs; make areas more built up without asking. The judicial system doesn’t work and there’s no trust in judges.

It’s a whole jigsaw situation. Certainly the local authorities take decisions upon themselves, without consulting anybody. As far as I can see it’s impossible to resolve anything with building, land, etc without the involvement of corrupt setups. You simply won’t achieve anything without bribes and connections. In principle this is not a human rights issue, but the problem is there. On the other hand, people have gained freedom, to go abroad, for example, or to do business. And the standard of living is gradually rising. A middle class is emerging which seems less dependent on the authorities.  And yet as soon as people run up against bureaucracy, they confront the choice of either giving up their work or accepting the system, paying bribes, finding “protection” and so forth.  This cannot continue for long and there is no chance for a normal civilized society where corruption, theft, tax evasion and dirty business flourish. There are also a lot of people in poverty, simply eking out an existence. A lot is distorted, with businesspeople paying out wages in envelopes, avoiding paying tax.

We see how catastrophically double standards are taking root in society

It’s easy to explain that. “Our” people close to those in power are allowed to do anything; “the others” are not. Business and the power structure have become intertwined. Those who are “in” receive money, orders, land, the possibility to build, win tenders. But you have to be “in”, and people are pushed to try to become part of that in crowd.

– There is a problem with voters’ rights.  Party candidate lists and the party-based system of deputies leads to a situation where there is no individual responsibility, only collective – responsibility or lack of such, or closing ranks. You vote and then the party takes over. There is no right to ask what a specific deputy has done for the city, for a district or for one specific voter.

– The constitutional changes of December 2004 introduced a proportional representation system including for local councils. Parties, according to Ukrainian legislation are national and their programmes are for the whole country. Yet each district has its own interests and priorities which may run counter to those national interests or may focus on other problems.  And effectively at local level nobody is obliged to deal with local problems, they need to follow party instructions from the centre. At present after all those in power are mainly the generation of former Komsomol activists, and that’s their form of democratic centralism. They don’t have any need for outstanding individuals at local level who are able to think independently and freely, they need those who will carry out party decisions. That’s why a person capable and willing to do anything at local level has to curry for approval with the party boss. There are a lot of parties and each is like a mini CPSU [Communist Party]. The paradoxical thing is that the President doesn’t have to be a party person; s/he can put themselves forward, simply paying the requisite amount. Yet to become a deputy of a district council in the city you need to be a party member and get on the candidate list. This is where the increase in corporativism and corruption stems from, as well as an even stronger merging of business and political power. Deputies are so eager to get into office precisely because that gives them control over financial channels, benefits and boons.

What will the early elections change in this respect?

I don’t think they’ll change anything. For serious changes we need to change the Constitution, that is, bring in a new version.

The interviewer was Yevhen Maslov

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