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The Great Fear
Stalin's Terror in the 1930s

by James Harris, 2016

James Harris is a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Leeds, in England. His publisher, Oxford University Press, describes his book as "a new and original explanation of the Stalin's Terror." The book is also described as presenting "a new and original explanation of Stalin's Terror based on intelligence materials in Russian archives."

Harris discusses his book at theconversation.com The book is not yet available from my great Franklin County public library.

Harris writes:

Archival revelations have not, it must be said, established that Stalin was actually a nice guy. Quite the contrary. But they have poked rather large holes in the traditional story.

Harris writes that when Stalin's private papers were released in 2000, historians found that, in private as well as public, "Stalin was committed to building socialism rather than a personal dictatorship for its own sake." With more digging into the archives,

it gradually became clearer that the violence of the late 1930s was driven by fear. Most Bolsheviks, Stalin among them, believed that the revolutions of 1789, 1848 and 1871 had failed because their leaders hadn't adequately anticipated the ferocity of the counter-revolutionary reaction from the establishment. They were determined not to make the same mistake.

In other words, Stalin's terror was really the terror of a wide group (which fits with my view that Hitler's policies including his genocide were a big group phenomenon), and Stalin's terror was similar to Robespierre's.

Harris writes that Russia's Bolsheviks spent much of the 1920s and 1930s anticipating invasions from hostile capitalist states, and they were intensely concerned about internal threats from "scheming factions, disloyal officials, wreckers, saboteurs." Many of these "threats," writes Harris, were products of Stalin's overambitious plans. Stalin:

had demanded 100% fulfillment of production targets that could not be met, and he and his colleagues in the Kremlin misinterpreted the resultant dissent, resistance and breakdowns as evidence of counter-revolutionary conduct. And certain workers and peasants – who had reason to resent the regime – were viewed as dangerous potential recruits to this fictional counter-revolution.

Harris writes that from the winter of 1936 to the autumn of 1938 "approximately three quarters of a million Soviet citizens were subject to summary execution. More than a million others were sentenced to lengthy terms in labor camps."

The resultant maelstrom of violence massively weakened the USSR rather than strengthening it, but the ultimate victory of Soviet forces in World War II appeared to justify the Terror. And the emergent Cold War seemed to justify the view that the capitalist world would stop at nothing to undermine Soviet power.

In his article on the website TheConversation.com, Harris goes on the describe Nikita Khrushchev as wanting to limit the power of the Soviet Union's political police. "But he also wanted to communicate to the Soviet political elite that they would not be blamed for the violence of the Stalin era, though they had been deeply and directly involved." So Khrushchev, writes Harris, "blamed the Terror on Stalin and his 'cult of personality,' and historians in the West followed his lead."

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.