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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