History: Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938

Political Genocide in the USSR – Review of new book by Russian historian Vadim Z. Rogovin (Mehring Books)

After great crimes ‘against humanity’, there is usually some kind of atonement, blame is apportioned, the guilty are charged and sentenced, and the lessons are hopefully learned. But not always. The Turkish genocide against the Armenians has still not received full historical recognition. The crimes of the Nazis against the Jews have been pored over again and again, but not how the Nazis rose to power with the help of the capitalists, both in Germany itself and in Europe, Britain, etc., nor that for Hitler, his main target was the organisations of the working class

In the ‘transition’ to capitalist democracy from the Franco regime in the1970s, the pacto de olvido (pact of forgetting) allowed the torturers and hangmen of the fascist regime to go unpunished. Only now are the bodies of those murdered by Franco being dug up with the hope that those who suffered, their families, will receive their due historical recognition and hopefully an indictment is brought against Franco, his dictatorship and those who supported him. A similar historical reckoning has been partially carried out in Argentina – driven on by the heroic ‘Mothers of the Plaza’ who fought to bring to book the right-wing military officers who not only murdered their sons and daughters, the ‘disappeared’, but also stole their grandchildren. A similar task remains to be carried out in Chile where those who supported the murderous regime of General Pinochet have yet to be brought before the bar of history. Other examples include South Africa and its ‘truth commission’.

Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938

However, from the standpoint of the labour movement and Marxism, the greatest ‘blank page’ is the role of Stalinism, and particularly the crucial role played by the purge trials of 1938 which have left their mark on the former Soviet Union (USSR) even today. Solzhenitsyn, the alleged chronicler of the crimes of Stalin, was not objective in dealing with these events in his ‘hailed’ work ‘Gulag Archipelago’. He never mentioned that the main defendants in the Moscow Trials were Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov. He scandalously underestimated and downplayed the crucial and heroic role of the thousands of Trotskyists who resisted Stalin and Stalinism to the end – relegating them to an historical footnote. Although largely unknown outside Marxist circles, they provide an inspiration for the struggle against Stalinism and its ‘legacy’ in today’s barbaric Russian capitalism.

Solzhenitsyn – who started off as a radical critic of Stalinism and ended as a Great Russian chauvinistic, nationalistic mystic – tried to show that Stalinism was an ‘outgrowth’ of Bolshevism and the ‘genuine’ expression of the Russian revolution. Many have sought to imitate him since then – for instance Oliver Figes in his book ‘Whisperers’ and Robert Service’s latest book on Trotsky. But now we have this magnificent book from the late Vadim Rogovin which shatters the thesis of the Solzhenitsyns et al. But it does a lot more. It illuminates for a new generation just how Stalin and Stalinism used the purge trials to consolidate his regime and how this put its lasting stamp on Russia. In fact, between Stalinism, the regime of a greedy privileged bureaucratic elite, and Bolshevism existed a “river of blood”. On virtually every page Rogovin shows this, refuting in the process the arguments of the Solzhenitsyns. He describes how the mechanism of Stalinism as a political system took root and grew, how it caught up in its machine and demoralised the heroic generation that had made the October revolution.

Stalinism as a social and political system has largely disappeared with the collapse of the USSR and Eastern Europe 20 years ago. Only remnants remain in the state in China, and outposts like North Korea. It is highly unlikely that the working class will ever again fully tolerate the rule of a greedy, bureaucratic elite. But that does not mean that elements of the same bureaucratic approach towards the state and society in a future ‘socialist’ regime cannot manifest themselves. Cuba today, despite its considerable social achievements and its planned economy, does not have workers’ democracy. Also, in Venezuela the Chávez government has carried through some progressive measures that have benefited the working class and the poor, which we wholeheartedly support. But unfortunately, this has been accompanied by an increasingly top-down elitist approach carried out in a semi-militaristic fashion, which can and has alienated many workers who have been elbowed aside by the Chavista ‘cadres’. One of the factors that leads to the use of these methods is that there has not yet been a full mass accounting, from a socialist and Marxist standpoint, of the real causes of Stalinism and its record. Leon Trotsky’s ideas and analysis in the 1930s were a small voice which did not then reach a mass audience. It is time to prepare the ground for this today. Rogovin’s book is a big step towards this.

Rogovin is nothing if not thorough. His detailed description of the crimes of and the bureaucratic system he presided over could be a little daunting to those unacquainted with this period. But this is the first time this book has been translated into English and is a ‘must’ for all those who wish to understand what happened in Russia and its consequences for today. Those who are already familiar with the events covered, through Trotsky’s writings and those of other conscientious historians of the period, will find a mine of additional information which may not be necessarily of interest to the ‘general reader’ of this work but is a vital addition to our knowledge of this period. But even those without knowledge of Stalin or Stalinism will find much in this to understand what happened and hopefully lead them towards clear Marxist, that is, Trotskyist, conclusions. Indeed, one of the great merits of Rogovin is that, unlike others, he faithfully reproduces at each stage the analysis of Trotsky, supplemented by his own research and other sources. What a contrast to writers, even those who “admired Trotsky”, who mangled, sometimes unconsciously, Trotsky’s thoughts and conclusions on the analysis of Stalinism! Even those who have already read Trotsky’s material beforehand can gain enormously by going over his analysis set in the context of the development of the trials, the reaction to them, how the purges unfolded, their aftermath and the imprint left on Russian society today.


Truth about Great Purges

The Great Purges and trials unfolded roughly from July 1936 to the end of 1938. Not to this day has the ‘entire truth’ about them been published because, as Rogovin writes, this “threatened to undermine the post-Stalin political regime”. Following the famous Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956 only ‘admissible’ doses of some truths were allowed by Stalin’s heirs. Even then these mixed up partial truths with “untouched Stalinist myths and falsifications”. Stalin was toppled from his pedestal as the ‘supreme leader’ by Khrushchev’s revelations at the 1956 congress. Nevertheless fearing to go too far, both Khrushchev and the Russian Stalinist leaders that followed him were incapable of going to the end. Later they even accepted a partial rehabilitation of Stalin.

At the end of the 1980s, as Rogovin points out, with the flood of new material about the Great Purge it would have been possible to have presented a clear picture of the reasons for the purges and the trials. However, the collapse of Stalinism in the late 1980s and early 1990s – and the return to capitalism which followed – put paid to any attempt to honestly investigate these events. The few who tried to do this were overwhelmed by the wave of malicious anti-communist propaganda, in so-called ‘democratic’ journals which maliciously distorted what had happened. Rogovin was correct when he wrote: “These ideological operations served the same purpose as the historical falsifications produced by the Stalinist school: to cauterise, deceive, distort and poison the historical memory and social consciousness of the Soviet people.”

Stalinist totalitarianism, it was argued, arose from the ‘criminal’ character of Bolshevism. Rogovin meticulously and step by step refutes the wilful distortions of what took place and particularly the attempts to relate the purge trials and monstrosities of Stalinism to the heroic period of the Russian revolution and the democratic regime of Lenin and Trotsky. In fact, Stalinism was not an ‘outgrowth’ of Bolshevism but its negation. This is clearly underlined by the chapter ‘Mass Operations’, describing how the Great Purge was initiated at the CPSU’s Politburo meeting of 2 July 1937.

Scale of repression

The scale of the repressions, the arbitrary selection of victims and how their punishment was carried out is both nauseating and overwhelming. A first directive in 1937 proposed arresting more than a quarter of million people; around 72,000 were to be convicted with a devised plan “to shoot 10,000 people in the camps”. One bureaucrat described how this was carried out: “In the course of one evening we would go through up to 500 cases, and we tried people at the rate of several per minute, sentencing some to be shot, and others to various prison terms… We weren’t able to even read the summons, let alone look at the material in the dossiers”!!

At the beginning of 1938 three people, a troika, in Moscow “reviewed the cases of 173 invalids in prisons; 170 of them were sentenced to be shot”. One ratifying the sentence testified later: “We shot these people, only because they were invalids who were not being admitted to camps.” While the social bases of fascism and Stalinism were different – one resting ultimately on capitalism, the other on a planned economy –there was nevertheless a symmetry, as Trotsky commented, in their arbitrary, bloodthirsty methods. In fact, the murderers and torturers of the Nazi SS openly confessed that they learnt from the Russian ‘security’ apparatus, the NKVD.

The second “mass operation” was taken against representatives of a number of nationalities, primarily those having their own territories which had been part of the Russian empire, but which had become independent states after the October revolution (Poles, Finns, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians). The Stalinist reprisals were especially ferocious against communists from these states, who were arbitrarily condemned as agents of the governments of these countries. Most had been forced to seek exile in the Soviet Union because of the oppression and terrorism they had found ‘at home’. Leopold Trepper, the famous and heroic leader of the Russian underground intelligence organisation under the Nazis, the ‘Red Orchestra’, and who broke from Stalinism and praised Trotskyism, estimated that 80% of the revolutionary emigrants in Russia were repressed and many, if not most, were shot during Stalin’s Great Purge.

Many of them were tortured and the repression reached such lengths that the Bulgarian émigrés warned the Bulgarian head of Stalin’s Comintern Georgi Dimitrov: “If you don’t do everything necessary to stop the repressions, then we will kill Yezhov [head of the NKVD, who himself was later purged and shot], this counter-revolutionary.” Eight hundred Yugoslav communists were also arrested. Tito, who became head of the Yugoslav Stalinist state after the Second World War, played a role in organising the destruction of his own party in Moscow. When Tito enquired about who was now to lead the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY), Dimitrov was surprised: “You are the only one left… It’s a good thing that at least you are left, otherwise we would have to disband the CPY.” Those Yugoslavs arrested and shot were killed with the benediction of Tito and Milovan Djilas, who himself was later a ‘dissident’ under the Tito regime and was cast out of the magic circle of ‘Titoism’. Thos charged were expelled from the CPY on charges of ‘Trotskyism’. This did not stop some misguided ‘Trotskyists’, the predecessors of the present United Secretariat of the Fourth International, later describing Tito as an “unconscious Trotskyist”. They even organised work brigades of young people in the 1950s to assist the Yugoslav state in its first period in power when Tito came into collision with Stalin.

A similar repression was launched against the Communist Party of Poland, which had committed the unpardonable sin of actually supporting the Left Opposition in 1923-24. The seventy-year old Adolf Warski, one of the founders of the social-democratic and communist parties of Poland, was shot. The same fate was meted out to the leaders of the Communist Party of Germany who had sought refuge in Russia from the horrors of Nazism only to meet with the horrors inflicted by Stalin’s security apparatus. At the Ninth Congress of the Sozialistiche Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED), the governing party of the former German Democratic Republic, in January 1989, it was reported that at least 242 prominent members of the Communist Party of Germany had perished in the Soviet Union. By the beginning of 1937, the majority of Austrian Schutzbundists had already been arrested. They were members of the socialist military organisation which after the defeat of the anti-fascist uprising of 1934 had emigrated to Russia and had been received there as heroes.

The same fate was met by Hungarians, who probably constituted the biggest foreign national group living in the Soviet Union then. Ten of 16 members of the first Central Committee of the Communist Party of Hungary were killed, as well as 11 out of 20 people’s commissars of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. One of these victims was Bela Kun, who had led the Soviet Republic. At the end of the 1980s it was revealed in a hitherto secret document that Imre Nagy, who became the prime minister of Hungary in 1956, had played an active role in the 1930s in the decimation of the leaders of his own party. He had been for a long time a secret informer for the NKVD. Ironically, after the 1956 uprising he became prime minister of Hungary but was shot following its repression by the successors of the NKVD, the KGB.

Rogovin comments: “Altogether, more communists from Eastern European countries were killed in the Soviet Union than died at home in their own countries during Hitler’s occupation.” One leading Lithuanian communist commented that because of the decimation of the Lithuanian Communist Party’s Central Committee at the hands of Stalin and his executioners, “I alone remained alive! And I remained alive because I had been carrying out underground work in fascist Lithuania.” The same fate befell the Mongolian, Japanese and many other communist parties. Stalin’s seeming paranoia towards all things non-Russian (ironically, he was himself ‘non-Russian’, a Georgian) was revealed later in the secret archives of the NKVD where there was testimony against Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Communist Party of Italy, Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Jacques Duclos of the French Communist Party, Mao Ze-dong and many others. Latvians, many of them having participated in the underground struggle against tsarism, and in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, were ruthlessly suppressed by Stalin.

The third open trial (March 1938) is dealt with in some detail by Rogovin. The 21 defendants in the dock were former top leaders of the USSR, including Bukharin and Rykov, and former Trotskyists. These were only the most visible of those persecuted by Stalin but thousands of others were not allowed to appear in open trial. Many were shot without any trial and Stalin’s own signature was on the death sentences carried out. His malevolent personality was expressed in the case of Avel Yenukidze, himself a long-time collaborator of Stalin and the persecution of others, including the Left Opposition. He fell to the executioner’s axe because of a disagreement with Stalin over the fate of Lenin’s former close collaborators Kamenev and Zinoviev. He confided: “My entire crime consisted of this: when he told me (at the end of 1934 – VR), that he wanted to stage a trial and then shoot Kamenev and Zinoviev, I tried to talk him out of it. ‘Soso,’ [Stalin’s nickname] I told him, ‘there is no argument, they have done you a lot of harm but they have long since paid enough for it: you have expelled them from the party, you hold them in prison, their children have nothing to eat… They are Old Bolsheviks, just like you and me’… He looked at me as if I’d murdered his father and said: ‘Remember, Avel, he who is not with me is against me.’”

‘One-sided civil war’

Yenukidze, as Trotsky remarked, was a bureaucrat but he could not go all the way in wiping out all of those connected to the Russian revolution. But Stalin had other intentions. The purge trials of the 1930s were a ‘one-sided civil war’, the aim of which was to secure the bureaucratic counter-revolution personified by Stalin and his circle against the last remnants of the Bolshevik party and the connection that they still had with the Russian revolution itself. Many of those who faced trial and were shot had long since capitulated to Stalin. Rogovin’s description of the pitiful grovelling of such formerly giant figures as Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and even of the closest collaborator of Trotsky, Christian Rakovsky, shows the physical and moral degradation to which they had been reduced at the hands of Stalin and his henchman. Bukharin promised that if his life was spared he would conduct a campaign about the trials and wage a mortal struggle against Trotsky. In appealing for his life, he declared: “In recent years I… have learned to value in an intelligent way and to love you.” To no avail; he was shot, as was Rakovsky.

Stalin is once more in this book revealed as a master intriguer, one who fashioned evidence for the most ‘heinous crimes’ out of incidents in the past of those he wanted to crush. Bukharin, a leading member of Lenin’s intimate circle, was pictured as wanting to foment a civil war in the 1930s because of incidents around the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 1918, when Bukharin incorrectly opposed the treaty. Why then did such former major figures, of considerable intellectual calibre, debase themselves before Stalin and his apparatus? Why did Stalin need to annihilate those who had capitulated in this fashion? The author quotes the words of Victor Serge when he stated the difference between the Trotskyists and the Zinovievists and Bukharinites: “Our opposition is against the party of Stalin, whereas the opposition led by Zinoviev and Bukharin [formerly led] is within the party of Stalin.”

The bureaucratic apparatus resting on a planned economy is a regime of crisis by its very nature. The inevitable discontent of the masses at the constant zigzags of Stalinist policy provokes questioning and a challenge to this apparatus. In the period of the forced collectivisations – the late 1920s and early 1930s – Stalin could invoke as a scapegoat the threat of the nascent capitalists in the form of the ‘kulaks’ (rich peasants) to explain the difficulties of the Soviet Union, which were in reality the product of bureaucratic misrule. But after their annihilation, which cost the equivalent of a war – there were more victims than even in the civil war of 1920-21 – there was no obvious figure or trend that could be ‘demonised’. Trotsky and his son were therefore selected by Stalin as the main accused.

Stalin influence of Trotsky and International Left Opposition

Stalin also feared the influence of Trotsky, his son Leon Sedov and the International Left Opposition more than anyone else. Despite the paucity of his resources, Trotsky’s consistently brilliant and accurate descriptions of the waste and corruption arising from the bungling of the Stalinist bureaucratic misrule struck home. Even sections of the bureaucracy were affected by his and his international supporters’ diagnosis of the ills of the Soviet Union and the call for a political revolution to overthrow Stalinism.

Other figures were therefore linked to Trotsky in an absurd amalgam. The alleged collaboration went back to the pre-1917 period when they had seemingly been agents of foreign powers and were now agents of Hitler! Trotsky himself noted at the time that, according to the trial material, the figures on trial as well as ambassadors and marshals, had subordinated themselves to one person (himself) and on his orders had been destroying the nation’s productive forces and culture. He then added: “But here a difficulty arises. A totalitarian regime is the dictatorship of the apparatus. If all the key points of the apparatus are occupied by Trotskyists, who are at my command, why in this case is Stalin in the Kremlin, and I’m in exile?”

The attempt to picture Trotsky as wanting power for power’s sake and all the material riches with it was very easily rebutted by the modest – extremely modest – conditions of his daily existence. The author points out that it was the need for scapegoats for the economic dislocation, shortages, etc., which formed the raison d’être of the trials. In the Radek-Piatakov trial of January 1937 there was an attempt to remove responsibility from those at the top, Stalin and his clique, for the mistakes and failures in the area of heavy industry. The trial of the ‘Right-Trotskyist Bloc’ “spoke primarily of deliberate disorganisation of those branches of the economy most closely affecting the population: the municipal economy, trade, production of commodities of mass consumption, and so forth.” Hence the charges of sabotage, which absurdly led to railway carloads of eggs disappearing and a lack of basic community products. Alexander Orlov, an agent of the NKVD who defected and for a time came close to Trotskyism, commented later that the shortage of butter meant “a whole generation of children born after 1927… was unfamiliar with even the taste of butter. From 1928 until 1935, Russian citizens could see butter only in the windows of so-called foreign trade stores, where everything was sold only in exchange for gold or foreign currency.”

The international dimension of the trials – the linking of Trotsky and those allegedly connected with him at different stages with Hitler, Churchill or the Japanese Mikado, depending on the circumstances – was done in order to invoke the foreign ‘bogey’ which “threatened the Soviet Union”. In the chapter 18 ‘Trotsky on the Moscow Trials’, the author gives a faithful reproduction of Trotsky’s incredibly accurate analysis of the trials, the motives of Stalin, the role of the defendants, etc. He pointed out that the heads of Russian industry, transport, agriculture and finance were almost entirely saboteurs, according to Stalin. Yet these people had given the revolutionary movement 30, 40, even 50 years (as had Rakovsky) and had then conducted “subversive work” for the sake of restoring capitalism! Taken together, all these charges stained the honour of Bolshevism and exceeded even the slanders of the White émigrés, who had accused Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders of carrying out the October revolution on behalf of the German general staff.

Bureaucracy “…fights for its own income, its privileges, and its power”

The reasons and the methods employed in the Moscow trials were multifaceted. The rise of the bureaucracy had provoked opposition and indignation from the masses, particularly the growth of inequality. At the same time, the defeat of the Spanish revolution was bound to exercise an effect on even those from the previous period within the bureaucracy who accommodated themselves to the regime. The bureaucracy did not arrive at these monstrous trials by one leap but gradually in the process of fighting for its domination. As Trotsky stated, this rising bureaucracy “in words… fights for communism. In actual fact, it fights for its own income, its privileges, and its power”.

Fearing a mass uprising, Stalin looked askance at even those who were under his sway but were connected to the experience of the October revolution. In the event of an uprising, even discredited figures like Kamenev and Zinoviev could have become, in the first instance, immediate focal points of opposition for the masses. Nagy, formerly an agent of the NKVD, played a similar role in the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Therefore, as soon as there were opposition protests even among Stalinist-inclined sections of the apparatus at the repression, Stalin made the decision to liquidate the entire ruling strata in the form it had developed by 1937. Its place was taken by a new generation without a revolutionary past or links to the traditions of Bolshevism. Almost all the former representatives of the ruling layer were exterminated. The new layer of bureaucracy with no history became politically homogenous and fully subordinated to the will of the leader.

Khrushchev, for instance, was not an old Bolshevik and had not participated either in the tsarist underground, the revolution or the civil war. He, like many of his ilk, had been promoted to the leadership. This was to have a decisive effect in the aftermath of the overthrow and death of Stalin, and the ‘thaw’, opening up, that took place under his rule. The purges, the monstrous trials and the mass executions renovated the bureaucracy under Stalin’s whip. This, in turn, had a decisive effect on changing the character of the bureaucracy. The development of a ‘fascist’ wing was reflected in Fedor Butenko, an envoy to Romania, who announced his break with Bolshevism in 1938. A few days after his announcement he surfaced in Rome, where he declared he had never been a communist by conviction and that in his political views he was closer to Ukrainian fascism. Trotsky subsequently commented: “Did [Butenko] have to renounce much? Did he have to destroy much within himself? We do not think so. A very significant and growing part of the Stalinist apparatus consists of fascists who have not recognised themselves. To identify the Soviet regime as a whole with fascism is a vulgar political mistake into which ultra-left dilettantes are inclined to fall who ignore the difference in the social foundations. But the symmetry of the political superstructures, the similarity of the totalitarian methods and psychological types, is striking. Butenko is a symptom of enormous importance: he shows us the careerists of the Stalinist school in their natural form.”

At the same time sections of the former bureaucracy, such as Ignace Reiss, defected towards the left, towards the Fourth International. Reiss himself was murdered by Stalinist agents. But as Trotsky went on to comment the “ranks of the Soviet apparatus are filled with bureaucrats of a bourgeois frame of mind”. Rogovin correctly points out that this layer grew considerably in the 1980s as the stultifying effect of the bureaucracy began to choke up the pores of the Russian planned economy.

Immortal and heroic resistance of Trotskyists

There are many informative and illuminating chapters in this book, too numerous to relate here. But the heroic role of the Marxists, particularly the Trotskyists in the camps, is tremendous. The incidents that Rogovin deals with are quite well known from earlier scattered fragments, including the (successful) hunger strike and uprising in Vorkuta in 1937. Sketched out here is the immortal and heroic resistance of what were at one time 10,000 Trotskyists who shouted their defiance of Stalin and their support for Trotsky and the Fourth International in the frozen tundra. Their hunger strike in March 1937 ended in complete victory. From this, they were treated as political prisoners, with all their demands met. But this only set the scene for brutal reprisals, carried out in the strictest secrecy. One thousand two hundred Trotskyists were gathered in a brick factory, 20 kilometres from the Vorkuta mine. The executions were carried out by one Kashketin, an NKVD officer suffering from “schizoid psychoneurosis”. The order for the executions was personally signed by Stalin.

Some of those, like Poznansky, a former secretary of Trotsky, were tortured with particular savagery during their interrogation. This was followed by group shootings with almost daily tens of prisoners sent into the tundra. According to Rogovin, “they shot not only the Trotskyists themselves, but any members of their families who were with them”. He goes on: “When a husband was shot, his imprisoned wife was automatically sent to be shot; with the most significant oppositionists, their children who had reached the age of 12 were also subject to shooting.” One such operation lasted ten hours. This mass slaughter of the “bravest of the brave”, taken together with the mass purges, played a crucial role in breaking the knot of history, of throwing back the ‘memory’ of the working class. No significant group was then left in Soviet society capable of challenging Stalin on a clear programme of workers’ democracy.

In that sense, the collective memory of the masses and their ability to gather themselves together later to challenge in a conscious way the Stalinist regime was eliminated. In particular a socialist alternative, the programme and ideas of workers’ democracy, was wiped out in the Soviet Union as a conscious force. This is why Trotsky, in the aftermath of the trials, said that the centre of gravity in the world revolutionary movement had passed temporarily from Russian soil – where a dark Stalinist night ruled – to other regions of the world. Of course, this did not prevent spontaneous movements in the direction of political revolution – as Hungary in 1956 showed – on the part of the masses. Uprisings took place in opposition to the suffocating influence of Stalinism.

The author poses the question, who benefited from the Great Purge? The answer he provides, and which history attests to, is a new layer of the bureaucracy without connections to the past, and raised in an increasingly bourgeois milieu, whose identification with ‘socialism’ was a comfortable, closeted existence of their privileged layer. If they and Stalin were not overthrown then, especially after the catastrophe of the beginning of the Second World War, it was mainly because of the advantages of a planned economy that allowed the regime to play a relatively progressive role for a period. This was the case even after the Second World War, when the ‘Soviet Union’ made a rapid and phenomenal recovery from the devastation of the war.

A privileged caste consolidated

The bureaucracy was consolidated and formed a privileged caste in the heat of these events. The accepted ‘norm’ was rule from the top and commandism as a method. Khrushchev himself recalled how engineers placed under the famous Stakhanovite Diukanov complained about “the methods of leadership” used by the latter: “If something wasn’t right or something wasn’t done, then he had one argument: ‘Watch out or I’ll spank your ass!’ And twice a day, each one of us, the engineers, went to see him to be spanked.”

Rogovin gives examples of the pro-bourgeois antecedents of many of the bureaucracy who after the Great Purges climbed the career ladder on the coat-tails of Stalin. This ruling elite which arose from these purges dominated society for half a century. Even after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU they held back from really investigating the antecedents of the purges, the crimes of the Stalinist regime, because this would have threatened the foundations of their rule. Khrushchev’s slight lifting of the carpet to reveal the Stalinist crimes in the so-called ‘thaw’ led to political revolution in Hungary in 1956. Terrified, the bureaucracy clamped down, eventually removing Khrushchev himself. Rogovin comments: “Continually changing their slogans, these ‘heirs of the heirs’ of Stalin led the nation with blindfolded eyes towards collapse, economic chaos, and political catastrophe. Thus the Great Purge redounded on the fate of our country a half century later.”

The orgy of capitalist propaganda which has flooded the post-1989 Russia has for the time being crowded out those voices like Rogovin, demanding a real examination of the Moscow Trials. The bourgeois heirs of the Stalinist bureaucracy that led society to the impasse of the late 1980s cannot carry through this examination. Therefore, in the land of the October revolution and the giants which it produced, the real lessons of these events and its subsequent degeneration along the lines of Stalinism remain unknown by the majority. Trotsky is a slandered figure in modern-day Russia, particularly by the pro-capitalist parvenus who have arisen from the bureaucracy. In their enthusiastic embrace of capitalism, they wish to obliterate all of the real lessons of Stalinism and the heinous purge trials. Rogovin’s book provides us with the political ammunition to counter this.

Deliberate falsification by pro-capitalists supporters

In the capitalist world there is a deliberate falsification of how many were actually killed in the purges, with crude equations made to the number of victims of Hitler. Rogovin demonstrates in a detailed fashion that the numbers of purge victims is enormously exaggerated. Yet even for one person to be tried and convicted on trumped-up charges is a crime. But the purpose of this capitalist ‘scholarship’ is to heap more and more responsibility onto the shoulders of Stalinism and thereby, according to many of these writers, of ‘Bolshevism’ for this terrible chapter. The task of the new generation, particularly the working class, is to rescue from under the heap of lies and distortions the real reasons for the Moscow Trials, the role of its main defendants, Leon Trotsky and his son, Sedov, to explain the clear ideas of socialism free from the influence of Stalinism, and to unfurl the banner of workers’ democracy. In this book, Rogovin takes a giant step in this direction.

Without conscious control of the state machine by the working class, even if they carry through a revolution, the tendency towards bureaucracy can develop. Not just in economically underdeveloped countries – as Russia showed – does this constitute a danger. Everywhere, even in the ‘advanced’ industrial countries, the problems of a conservative bureaucratic layer in the trade unions and workers’ movement manifest itself today. On the morrow of a successful revolution these tendencies will manifest themselves. They can only be checked by a programme of workers’ control and management. This is the lesson of Stalinism and why the causes of its development must be understood today.

Trotsky predicted that, on the morrow of his overthrow, statues of Stalin would be toppled in the squares and streets of Russia, and in their place would be placed plaques and statues of the heroes of the Left Opposition, who fought and perished in Vorkuta and the other torture chambers of the NKVD. The first part of his prediction has been fulfilled but unfortunately not the second. It will take a renovation and renaissance of the Russian working class, together with their brothers and sisters internationally for this to happen, as it will. Trotsky will, in time, become even more widely known, not least in the former USSR itself. And this in no small measure will be due to the efforts of the author of this book, Vadim Rogovin.

Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938: Political Genocide in the USSR by Vadim Z. Rogovin, published by Mehring Books, Oak Park, Michigan, USA.

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November 2009