May 21, 2014

RUSSIA: Case Study: Joseph Stalin's Purges. Wow. This Is A Great Read And Seriously Eerily Surreal. :/ Please Please Don't Let History Repeat Itself.

[source: Gendercide Watch]


Under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, tens of millions of ordinary individuals were executed or imprisoned in labour camps that were little more than death camps. Perceived political orientation was the key variable in these mass atrocities. But gender played an important role, and in many respects the Purge period of Soviet history can be considered the worst gendercide of the twentieth century.

The background

According to the historian Robert Conquest, Joseph Stalin "gives the impression of a large and crude claylike figure, a golem, into which a demonic spark has been instilled." He was nonetheless "a man who perhaps more than any other determined the course of the twentieth century."

Stalin was born Joseph Dzhugashvili in the Georgian town of Gori in 1879. In his youth he imbibed both the seminary training and the Great Russian nationalism that many would later link to his tyrannical exercise of power. He was an early activist in the Bolshevik movement, where he first assumed the pseudonym Stalin (which means "man of steel"), and was twice exiled to Siberia by the Tsarist authorities. When the Russian Revolution triumphed in October 1917, Stalin returned from exile, and was named General Secretary in 1922. The post was largely an undistinguished administrative one, but Stalin used it to fortify his power base and control over the bureaucracy of the ruling Communist Party. When the communist leader, Vladimir Lenin, died in 1924, a struggle for control broke out that pitted Stalin against his nemesis, Leon Trotsky, and a host of lesser party figures. Stalin's victory was slow and hard-fought, but by 1927 he had succeeded in having Trotsky expelled from the party and, in 1929, from the country (Trotsky was tracked down and killed by Stalin's agents in Mexico City in 1940).

By 1928, Stalin was entrenched as supreme Soviet leader, and he wasted little time in launching a series of national campaigns (the so-called Five-Year Plans) aimed at "collectivizing" the peasantry and turning the USSR into a powerful industrial state. Both campaigns featured murder on a massive scale. Collectivization especially targeted Ukraine, "the breadbasket of the Soviet Union," which clung stubbornly to its own national identity and preference for village-level communal landholdings. In 1932-33, Stalin engineered a famine (by massively raising the grain quota that the peasantry had to turn over to the state); this killed between six and seven million people and broke the back of Ukrainian resistance. The Ukrainian famine has only recently been recognized as one of the most destructive genocides of the twentieth century (see Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow, and the Web resources compiled by The Ukrainian Weekly). The Five-Year Plans for industry, too, were implemented in an extraordinarily brutal fashion, leading to the deaths of millions of convict labourers, overwhelmingly men. These atrocities are described in the corvรฉe (forced) labour case study. The millions of deaths in Stalin's "Gulag Archipelago" (the network of labour camps [gulags] scattered across the length and breath of Russia) are dealt with in the incarceration/death penalty case study.

A leader whose callous disregard for human life was matched only by his consuming paranoia, Stalin next turned his attention to the Communist Party itself. Various factions and networks opposed to his rule had managed to survive into the early 1930s; many in the party were now calling for reconciliation with the peasantry, a de-emphasizing of industrial production, and greater internal democracy. For Stalin, these dissident viewpoints represented an unacceptable threat. Anyone not unquestioningly loyal to him -- and many hundreds of thousands who were -- had to be "weeded out." The Communist Party would be rebuilt in the image of the "Great Leader." This was the origin of the "cult of personality" that permeated Soviet politics and culture, depicting Stalin as infallible, almost deity-like. (The cult lasted until his death in 1953, and provided George Orwell with the fuel for his satire Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a Stalin-like figure appears as "Big Brother.") Stalin's drive for total control, and his pressing need for convict labour to fuel rapid industrialization, next spawned the series of immense internal purges -- beginning in 1935 -- that sent millions of party members and ordinary individuals to their deaths, either through summary executions or in the atrocious conditions of the "Gulag Archipelago."

By the time Stalin's wrath descended on his countrymen and women, the USSR had already suffered a devastating decline in its cohort of younger adult males. World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent civil war that pitted "Reds" against "Whites," had inflicted its "heaviest" losses "in the age group 16-49, particularly in its male contingent," writes Richard Pipes, "of which it had eradicated by August 1920 -- that is, before the famine [of 1922] had done its work -- 29 percent." The monstrous famines of the early 1920s and early 1930s were indiscriminate in their impact on the afflicted populations. But the campaign of mass executions launched against the kulaks -- designated "wealthier" peasants -- also overwhelmingly targeted males. "In Kiev jail they are reported at this time [1929-30] shooting 70-120 men a night," reports Robert Conquest; a typical story "is of the Ukrainian village of Velyki Solontsi where, after 52 men had been removed as kulaks, their women and children were taken, dumped on a sandy stretch along the Vorskla River and left there." (Excerpts from Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow.) The vast majority of "kulaks" imprisoned in the labour/death camps were also male (see the incarceration/death penalty case study). The gendered impact of the Purge period itself on Soviet society we now turn to consider.

The gendercide
Hello Papa I forgot how to write soon in School I will go through the first winter come quickly because it's bad we have no Papa mama says you are away on work or sick and what are you waiting for run away from that hospital here Olyeshenka ran away from hospital just in his shirt mama will sew you new pants and I will give you my belt all the same the boys are all afraid of me, and Olyeshenka is the only one I never beat up he also tells the truth he is also poor and I once lay in fever and wanted to die along with mother and she did not want to and I did not want to, oh, my hand is numb from write thats enough I kiss you lots of times ...
Igoryok 6 and one half years
- Letter to an imprisoned victim of Stalin's Purges, cited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 654-55.
The most prominent elements of Stalin's Purges, for most researchers, were the intensive campaigns waged within key Soviet institutions and sectors like the Communist Party, the Army, the NKVD (secret police), and scientists and engineers. In December 1934, the popular Leningrad party leader, Sergei Kirov, was assassinated, allegedly on Stalin's orders. This provided the spark for the escalating series of purges that Stalin launched almost immediately, under emergency "security" legislation "stat[ing] that in cases involving people accused of terrorist acts, investing authorities were to speed up their work, judicial authorities were not to allow appeals for clemency or other delays in which the sentence was death, and the NKVD was to execute those sentenced to death immediately." (Frank Smitha, "Terror in the Soviet Union".)

The "Old Bolshevik" elite was targeted in three key "show trials" between 1936 and 1938, in which leaders such as Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, and Grigori Zinoviev were accused of complicity in Kirov's murder and conspiring with Trotskyite and "rightist" elements to undermine communism in the USSR. The evidence presented against the accused was almost nonexistent, convictions relying on confessions extracted through torture and threats against family members. But convictions there were, and most of the Bolshevik "old guard" was sentenced to death or long terms of imprisonment. "Dumfounded, the world watched three plays in a row, three wide-ranging and expensive dramatic productions in which the powerful leaders of the fearless Communist Party, who had turned the entire world upside down and terrified it, now marched forth like doleful, obedient goats and bleated out everything they had been ordered to, vomited all over themselves, cringingly abased themselves and their convictions, and confessed to crimes they could not in any wise have committed." So writes Alexander Solzhenitsyn, adding: "This was uprecedented in remembered history." (The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1, p. 408.)

When the "Old Bolsheviks" had been consigned to oblivion, their successors and replacements quickly followed them into the void: "The new generation of Stalinist careerists, who had adapted themselves completely to the new system, still found themselves arrested. ... They were succeeded by younger but similar characters, who again often fell quickly." (Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, p. 224.) The purging of the army, meanwhile, saw about 35,000 military officers shot or imprisoned. The destruction of the officer corps, and in particular the execution of the brilliant chief-of-staff Marshal Tukhachevsky, is considered one of the major reasons for the spectacular Nazi successes in the early months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.)

But the impetus to "cleanse" the social body rapidly spilled beyond these elite boundaries, and the greatest impact of the Purge was felt in the wider society -- where millions of ordinary Soviet citizens assisted in "unmasking" their compatriots. Frank Smitha describes this mass hysteria well, writing that:
A society that is intense in its struggle for change has a flip side to its idealism: intolerance. People saw enemies everywhere, enemies who wanted to destroy the revolution and diminish the results of their hard work and accomplishments, enemies who wanted to restore capitalism for selfish reasons against the collective interests of the nation. If those at the top of the Communist Party and an old revolutionary like Trotsky could join the enemy, what about lesser people? In factories and offices, mass meetings were held in which people were urged to be vigilant against sabotage. It was up to common folks to make the distinction between incompetence and intentional wrecking [i.e., sabotage], and any mishap might be blamed on wrecking. Denunciations became common. Neighbors denounced neighbors. Denunciations were a good way of striking against people one did not like, including one's parents, a way of eliminating people blocking one's promotion, and ... a means of proving one's patriotism. Many realized that some innocent people were being victimized, and the saying went around that "when you chop wood the chips fly." As with Lenin, it was believed that some who were innocent would have to be victimized if all of the guilty were to be apprehended.
"Blind chance rules a man's life in this country of ours," said one NKVD officer, who found himself suddenly placed under arrest. For ordinary citizens, "Fear by night, and a feverish effort by day to pretend enthusiasm for a system of lies, was the permanent condition." (Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, p. 434.) Solzhenitsyn adds: "Any adult inhabitant of this country, from a collective farmer up to a member of the Politburo, always knew that it would take only one careless word or gesture and he would fly off irrevocably into the abyss." (The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, p. 633.)

Much has been written about the absurdly minor infractions for which individuals were sentenced to ten years in labour camps -- standardly a death sentence. "A tailor laying aside his needle stuck it into a newspaper on the wall so it wouldn't get lost and happened to stick it in the eye of a portrait of Kaganovich [a member of the Soviet Politburo]. A customer observed this. Article 58, ten years (terrorism). A saleswoman accepting merchandise from a forwarder noted it down on a sheet of newspaper. There was no other paper. The number of pieces of soap happened to fall on the forehead of Comrade Stalin. Article 58, ten years." (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, p. 293.)

The gendering of the witch-hunt was cast into particularly sharp relief in those cases where most, sometimes almost all, adult males among a given population were rounded up for mass arrest and probable death. Writes Robert W. Thurston: "According to some reports, entire groups of men were taken in one swoop by the NKVD. 'Almost all the male inhabitants of the little Greek community where I lived [in the lower Ukraine] had been arrested,' recalled one รฉmigrรฉ. Another reported that the NKVD took all males between the ages of seventeen and seventy from his village of German-Russians. ... In some stories, the police clearly knew they were arresting innocent people. For example, an order reportedly arrived in Tashkent to 'Send 200 [prisoners]!' The local NKVD was at its wits' end about who else to arrest, having exhausted all the obvious possibilities, until it learned that a band of 'gypsies' (Romany) had just camped in town. Police surrounded them and charged every male from seventeen to sixty with sabotage." In the city of Zherinka, "'Ivan Ivanovich' ... had his wife sew rubles [Soviet currency] into his coat because the NKVD was taking all the men in his town." (Thurston, Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996], pp. 79-80, 150.)

As the above examples suggest, the campaigns were further fuelled by the "denunciation quotas" established under the authority of Nikolai Yezhov, who took over as head of the NKVD in September 1936 and immediately widened the scope of secret-police persecutions. (Soviet citizens often referred to the Great Terror as the Yezhovshchina, "the times of Yezhov.") Relatives of those accused and arrested, including wives and children down to the age of twelve, were themselves often condemned under the "counter-terrorism" legislation: "Wives of enemies of the people" was one of four categories of those sentenced to execution or long prison terms. Women accounted for only a small minority of those executed and incarcerated on political grounds (perhaps 2 percent of the former and 5 percent of the latter). Conquest notes that "Women on the whole seem to have survived [incarceration] much better than men," although "in the mixed[-sex] camps, noncriminal [i.e., political-prisoner] women were frequently mass-raped by urkas [male criminals], or had to sell themselves for bread, or to get protection from camp officials.") But wives spared arrest or state-sanctioned murder nonetheless encountered extreme hardship. "For the wives ... life was very bad," writes Conquest. "... All reports agree that the women lost their jobs, their rooms, and their permits, had to sell possessions, and had to live on occasional work or on the few relatives who might help them. Ignorant of their husbands' fate, they faced a worsening future." (The Great Terror: A Reassessment, pp. 235, 264, 315) As Solzhenitsyn puts it:
There in that stinking damp world in which only executioners and the most blatant of betrayers flourished, where those who remained honest became drunkards, since they had no strength of will for anything else ... in which every night the gray-green hand reached out and collared someone in order to pop him into a box -- in that world millions of women wandered about lost and blinded, whose husbands, sons, or fathers had been torn from them and dispatched to the Archipelago. They were the most scared of all. They feared shiny nameplates, office doors, telephone rings, knocks on the door, the postman, the milkwoman, and the plumber. And everyone in whose path they stood drove them from their apartments, from their work, and from the city. ... And these women had children who grew up, and for each one there came a time of extreme need when they absolutely had to have their father back, before it was too late, but he never came. (The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, p. 664.)
By 1938, Conquest estimates that about 7 million Purge victims were in the labour/death camps, on top of the hundreds of thousands who had been slaughtered outright. In the worst camps, such as those of the Kolyma gold-mining region in the Arctic, the survival rate was just 2 or 3 percent (see the incarceration/death penalty case study). Alexander Solzhenitsyn calls the prison colonies in the Solovetsky Islands "the Arctic Auschwitz," and cites the edict of their commander, Naftaly Frenkel, which "became the supreme law of the Archipelago: 'We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months -- after that we don't need him anymore.'" (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, p. 49.)

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