Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Road to Terror: Stalin and the self-destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov (Part of the Annals of Communism series)

Part of the “Writing Stalin” sub-series

The first thing you will notice about The Road to Terror – okay, perhaps the second thing once you get over the immensity of Stalin’s moustache on the cover – is that it is a very big book.  This is not a book you can pop in your handbag.  (Well, I can – I have a very large handbag – but I am the kind of strange person who carries books on Stalinism around to begin with.  I don’t think it is good for my posture though.)

Before you run away in horror, there is an excellent reason for this grandiosity of scale.  The Road to Terror is first and foremost a reference book.  It contains 199 documents, taken from the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI) in Moscow and translated with astonishing sensitivity by Benjamin Sher (and having met a few of these in their original Russian, I cannot emphasis enough what an outstanding job Mr Sher has done).  J. Arch Getty provides an eloquent commentary, which to my eye places the documents in context without taking away from their starring role.  The choice of documents is unfailingly excellent: every piece brings some kind of insight, whether into the actions of the Party or of a given individual.  Some, like the letter sent by defeated oppositionist Nikolai Bukharin to Stalin from his prison cell in 1937, are of exceptional interest.  In other words, The Road to Terror is the perfect accessory for the Soviet historian on the run.  But is it really suited for “the interested general reader”, as the Annals of Communism mission statement claims?

After a great deal of consideration – such a great deal that I am hours late posting this piece – I would say a hesitant yes: but the interested general reader must know how to use the book.  While it is structured in chronologically ordered sections, simply starting at the beginning and reading to the end would be an overwhelming experience.  Moreover, as Getty is consistently careful to point out, the language of the Party leadership is sometimes deceiving, often convoluted and always invested with a great deal of secondary meaning.  The political vocabulary of the 1930s may seem identical in some respects to that of 1917, but there is at the very least a shift of meaning at work in many of those apparently familiar phrases.  And the acronyms and neologisms deserve a dictionary to themselves.  (The short standard glossary at the front of the book is arguably not quite sufficient for those without a previous Soviet history education.)

I would contend that the value of The Road to Terror for the general reader is not as a primary work of reference, but as an accompaniment to something like Stalin’s Russia.  Once you have a grasp of the structures of power in the USSR of the 1930s, then you can better appreciate the details of the exchanges between Stalin and individual Central Committee members; when you understand the overall impact of censorship, then you can better grasp the mechanisms of its implementation; once you have been given an overview of the culture of denunciation, then you can place individual cases in their context.  Coupled with a good general history of the period, The Road to Terror is an excellent induction into the complexities and surprises of working with archival documents.  Alone, however, it has the potential to be a bewildering experience, and worse yet to convey a sense of false perspective.  199 documents is a tiny selection in the context of the sea of paper surrounding the workings of Stalinism.  (Arch Getty and Naumov’s selection, luckily, happens to be fascinating.)

On that note, I would like to close with an excerpt from one of the particularly striking documents in this collection.  This is an exchange between Stalin and Bukharin at the Central Committee plenum of December 1936.

Stalin:  …If a person says openly that he adheres to the party line, then, in accordance with the established, widely known traditions of Lenin’s party, the party considers that this person values his ideas and that he has genuinely renounced his former errors and has adopted the positions of the party.  We believed in you and we were mistaken.  We were mistaken, comrade Bukharin.

Bukharin:  Yes, yes.

Stalin:  We believed in you, we decorated you with the Order of Lenin, we moved you up the ladder, and we were mistaken.  Isn’t it true, comrade Bukharin?

Bukharin:  It’s true, it’s true, I have said the same myself.

Stalin:  [apparently paraphrasing and mocking Bukharin]  You can go ahead and shoot me, if you like.  That’s your business.  But I don’t want my honor to be besmirched.  And what testimony does he give today?  That’s what happens, comrade Bukharin.

Bukharin:  But I cannot admit, either today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, anything which I am not guilty of.  (Noise in the room.)

Stalin:  I’m not saying anything personal about you [informal ‘ty’]…

Bukharin’s fall is one of many compelling stories documented in The Road to Terror.  I hope that, despite its reservations, this review will convince you to take a look.

Yale University Press, 688 pp., ISBN: 9780300094039

6 comments on “The Road to Terror: Stalin and the self-destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov (Part of the Annals of Communism series)

  1. RosyB
    October 28, 2008

    Can you give us a short summary of Bukharin’s fall, Kirsty? For those of us who don’t have the context? That exchange is rather nasty, isn’t it? Is public humiliation the end of him?

    This book does look fascinating (and readable too from what you quote) but I suppose a lot of us might not get as far as Stalin’s Russia in the first place. I am one of those sitting thinking I’d like to know more but I know I’m not going to read several massive tomes to do it. Is there anything really really short you would recommend (very cheeky question I know.)

  2. RosyB
    October 28, 2008

    Is this public humiliation the end of him I meant to say.

  3. kirstyjane
    October 28, 2008

    Stalin’s Russia isn’t all that long, Rosy.;)

    I shall have to write here about Stephen F. Cohen’s comprehensive (and sympathetic) Bukharin biography at some point. Bukharin is a very interesting figure, highly intelligent and often romanticised in the literature around the period. He was not one of the leaders of 1917, but he was prominent in the Bolshevik movement, notably as a theorist and writer. He became Stalin’s ally in 1926. Then he clashed with Stalin over the collectivisation of agriculture in 1928. He was expelled from the Politburo in 1929, rehabilitated and put in charge of the newspaper Izvestiia in 1934, arrested in 1937 on charges of conspiracy and tried and shot in 1938.

    Bukharin did oppose Stalin in a number of ways. But on reflection, describing him in shorthand as an “oppositionist” might arguably give a false idea of his relationship to the Party and to the General Secretary. It is rather more complex than that…

  4. rosyb
    October 28, 2008

    Ah thankyou. I think if there is one fascinating aspect i’m picking up from your series it is how the figures shift uneasily in relation to each other and their views and allegiances often don’t seem easy to capture in one or two words. I keep wanting you to say “this person believed this” and “that person believed that” but it often seems to be about how they viewed the way the apparatus should be employed: which groups/institutions had more authority over this or that aspect and sit in relation to all those things rather than big theoretical differences of belief…or am i totally barking up the wrong Lelandii?

  5. kirstyjane
    October 28, 2008

    The intra-party struggle of the 1920s-1930s is mindboggling, Rosy, even if like me you (allegedly) know your way around the period. You are right that the ideological differences are not always as clear cut as they are later represented. Ironically, the USSR is so often represented as monolithic: one very valuable conclusion of The Road to Terror is that even in the 1930s its politics were still shifting and evolving.

    Not to mention that an order issued by Moscow was subject to interpretation as it filtered down the Party organisation to local level: the book has a wealth of examples of this with a series of documents regarding popular arrests, dekulakisation (the process of getting rid of the wealthy stratum of peasants) and the censorship of libraries. Stalin dominates, but there can be no question of representing Stalinism as a simple matter of one man deciding what to do. The reality as we see it in the archives is more complex. This is not intended to exonerate Stalin – something Getty is extremely careful to point out – but to show that the culture of denunciation, to take one big example, was a far more organic process than is traditionally thought.

  6. Jackie
    October 29, 2008

    One would definitely have to be interested in this subject to try this book, though I can also see how it might work as a curiosity. That must’ve been an enormous undertaking to gather and translate all of those documents. It had to have taken years!
    Thanks Kirsty for being realistic about how the general reader might approach this book. It doesn’t sound like something to read straight through, but might be interesting in short dosages.

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2008 by in Entries by Kirsty, Non-fiction: history, Russian Series and tagged , , , , .



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