Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
The core fact of Soviet history is the Great Terror, the semi-judicial murder of almost seven hundred thousand people between 1936 and 1938. It was the high point of Bolshevik violence, the peak of arbitrary dictatorship (more people were in camps in 1945, but that is a different high point). Other forms of mass destruction combined together into the Stalinist system of violence: population resettlement, the Gulag network, not to mention the catastrophic side-effects of agricultural collectivization and breakneck industrialization. But ‘1937’ was Stalinism in perfect focus.
Even so: executions alone were not the full picture, even in 1937. This was not just a terror state, but a welfare-terror state.
Take September: just one terrible month. There were tens of thousands of arrests and shootings across the Soviet Union. On 28 September, Olimpy Kvitkin was one of the victims. He was buried in a mass grave at the Donskoi Cemetery in Moscow. Kvitkin was the statistician in charge of the 1937 census. When the census revealed a shrinking population, plainly the consequence of violence, the data were withheld and Kvitkin was arrested. So were many of his colleagues.
In the same month, a young girl, K., entered the seventh class at her school in Moscow Region. She was achieving excellent marks and was an activist in her Pioneer group (the Pioneers were the national children’s organization). Awarded a place at the country’s showcase Pioneer camp, Artek, she was advised not to go: following a bout of malaria, she was badly anaemic, and the journey to Crimea was long. But she went anyway. At Artek, she was put under constant medical supervision, spent her time in the sun, and combined schooling with other activities. The six-week trip transformed her health and left her with the most positive of memories.
A few weeks later, the Party’s Central Committee discussed an ‘urgent task’ at its January plenum meeting: of how ‘to combine Bolshevik intransigence towards enemies of the people with constant Stalinist care for the people, sensitivity and attention to the Soviet citizen – the builder of socialism.’
It’s easy to mock the rhetoric, which on one level is openly cynical. But mockery is not explanation. Plainly, the paradox that the January Party Plenum crystallized is a first-rank problem. How and why did this extremely violent dictatorship set up the framework (no more than that) of a welfare system in the 1930s?