It needs painstaking work, not resolutions, to mark Great Terror anniversaries

The 75th anniversary of the Great Terror is coming up. Formally, the impulse was given by the VKP (b) plenum held on February 23 to March 3, 1937. Joseph Stalin addressed the plenum with the report “On Shortcomings in Party Work and Measures to Eliminate Trotskyites and other Double-Dealers,” in which he repeated his doctrine on the “aggravation of class struggle along with the development of socialism.”

In general, the count of the Soviet terror should be kept from the 1917 Bolshevik coup. From then on, it never stopped even for a day. This bloody bacchanalia had its ups and downs which reflected the scale, not the essence, of executions, exiles, and deportations.

In 1920 the disenfranchised, i.e., representatives of the so-called bourgeoisie, old-regime professionals, rich merchants, kulaks, and nationalists were the object of terror – especially the latter, in which case the struggle sometimes assumed absurd forms.

When Moscow decided to change the script of Turkic languages from Arabic to Latin and then Cyrillic, a large number of Tatar, Azeri, Uzbek, Kazakh, Crimean Tatar and other intellectuals were executed on charges of Arabism. In other words, if Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat in the Arabic ligature were found in the house of a Tajik teacher, arrest and deportation were the lightest punishment. And if it was a Koran, the culprit was shot immediately. The so-called Arabists, most of which did not even speak the Arabic language, were persecuted as cruelly as were, for example, Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar intellectuals on charges of bourgeois nationalism. Another woe for Turkic peoples was pan-Turkism. Almost all the participants in the congress of Turkic scholars, held in Baku, were executed on these charges.

Among the Soviet republics, Ukraine was the “leader.” Show trials and executions of the so-called nationalists began earlier and reached a mass scale in the late 1920s-early 1930s. Stalin and his inner circle were very well aware that the planned collectivization would encounter stubborn resistance of the Ukrainian peasantry. The Holodomor could only be organized if the intelligentsia, the people’s elite, had been wiped out. The task was to break the backbone and deprive the nation of the bearers of its culture, language, and history, as well as to make people oblivious of their origin and home. In 1937 the NKVD knew no restraint. In Kyiv oblast, 87 insurgent sabotage and terrorist organizations and 365 insurgent sabotage groups had been “exposed” as soon as by December 1937. The same thing in Ukraine’s other regions…

The term “Great Terror” was introduced by the Anglo-American researcher Robert Conquest in his book titled The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s. In this country, the period of 1937-38 was called Yezhovshchina after the NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov. The mayhem of those years made so deep an imprint on the people’s mind that the so-called second call in 1948-49, when even more people were arrested, deported and executed than 10 years before, no longer surprised anyone. They got used to it.

Researcher Mikhail Voslensky believes that the root cause of the Great Terror was the formation of a large stratum of professional bureaucrats in the USSR by 1920 because the Bolsheviks had established state control over all the sides of public life. The “Leninist call-up” in 1924 opened the Communist Party’s door to a large number of farsighted careerists in whose eyes the “old Bolsheviks” had turned into an undeservedly privileged stratum and an obstacle on the way to power. This may be right, but only partially, because both the former and the latter would die in the fire of mass repressions.

And the “struggle between the old and the new party nomenklatura” does not explain at all the repressions against the national minorities, especially the Polish. Besides, the latter comprised not only ethnic Poles, but also those who were prosecuted in the so-called “Polish line,” a thing the NKVD interpreted very loosely. In September-November 1938 alone, when repressions were somewhat on the wane, almost 37,000 people were convicted “in the Polish line,” including about 20,000 Poles, over 5,000 Belarusians, almost 5,000 Ukrainians, and over 3,000 Russians. Even some Moldavians and Tatars were given short shrift. There is evidence about a number of instances when the arrested Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians were tortured into “confessing” that they were Polish. They were all accused of being Polish intelligence agents. According to declassified information of the Central Military Archive in Warsaw, the total number of Polish secret agents (in all countries) was not more than 200 in 1937-38. Incidentally, the Polish intelligence service mainly focused its attention on Nazi Germany, not on the USSR.

At first glance, the facts of mass repressions must be a reliable inoculation against old-time legends and stereotypes. But they are not. In the neighboring Russia as well as in this country, myths are spreading about Comrade Stalin’s noble struggle against the enemy’s agents on the eve of the war with Germany – we only managed to win in the terrible war because the valiant NKVD men exposed and destroyed them. But none of those who exalt the Father and Teacher want to reflect on a simple question: if there were so many enemies of the Soviet system in a country “where man breathes so freely,” it may be something wrong with this very system? If one can breathe well and freely, why on earth should he or she be the enemy of their own country? It is useless to expect an answer because the makers and inspirers of these myths are pursuing quite a clear goal – to whitewash the tyrant Stalin and his henchmen and to cast a shadow on those who fought for an independent Ukraine.

Let us now switch from a not-so-distant history to the present day. Member of Parliament Yaroslav Kendzior has moved a draft resolution “On the 75th Anniversary of the Great Terror and the Honoring of the Memory of its Victims.” Naturally, it is necessary and noble to remember victims and honor their memory. But still there are some doubts.

Everything is in fact confined to passing resolutions and proclaiming anniversaries. Let us recall the government’s attempts to solemnly mark Victory Day. On the holiday’s eve, war veterans, whose number is incessantly diminishing, are talked about, greeted, and given flowers, gifts and rations. Music and words of greeting blare out. And that’s all. The authorities get away with a routine bureaucratic report on the work done. It is just an ostensible show of care for war veterans many of whom have departed this life, having failed to live to see decent living conditions.

Instead of passing resolutions on another anniversary of the Great Terror, one must do painstaking educative work to debunk legends and stereotypes of the past. Historians should be encouraged, not hindered, as has been the case lately, to study all the aspects of this event and bring new documents into academic circulation.

There is a lingering suspicion that the authorities are afraid of the past for political reasons – they fear to hurt a territorially large neighbor that looks on Stalin and his regime as a role model. And what our authorities are still more afraid of is democratic potential of the people. For whenever people find their way round in the past, they begin to reflect on the present day and the near future. This prompts many of them to ask “improper” questions which the authorities are unable to answer.

The impression is that nobody, from the Minister for Education and Science to Presidential Administration officials, knows the following law of history: the truth will always come out. In addition, history exacts a cruel revenge for flouting its lessons.