For the last few weeks I have been going through books on Soviet Russian history, motivated by a slight panic that next year isn't that far away and I need to find useful books for History Honours. My motivation has slowly turned into real interest as I read anecdotes and information that are almost too bizarre to be believed. I'd like to share some with you - but before I do, here's as small a summary as I can write for the uninitiated:
From the mid-twenties to the early-fifties, Stalin was the dictator who ravaged Russia and surrounding nations. The thirties in particular were drenched with blood and one of the major things that happened in them is referred to as the Purges, in which Stalin systematically exterminated and exiled anyone who could possibly have anything against him and even those who obviously didn't, using the NKVD, the Russian police force who later became the KGB. They were given labels such as Trotskyist (Trotsky was another Communist leader who had opposed Stalin and eventually fled the country) or saboteur etc. Prisoners would be forced to confess to ridiculous crimes, and then to denounce others.
Here's some of the stranger stories that come out of this period.
- A 65-year-old woman from a collective farm near Moscow who met Evgeniya Ginzburg was somehow denounced as a trotskistka (Trotskyist), a term she was so far from understanding that she confused it with traktoristka (tractor driver), and said to cellmates in prison, “I don't understand, they don’t put old women like me on tractors.” Having received a ten-year sentence for Trotskyist terrorism, she asked Ginzburg, “Are you one of those traktoritski too, dearie?”
- A war game in the army had a marshal simulating attacking Russia from the west. "General Lukirsky concluded that the Red Army would have to retreat to the east, but they would stabilize their line just outside Moscow. He was arrested and shot for “letting the enemy get to the gates of Moscow”.
- Both arrests and charges operated according to a quota system. A cellmate of Evgeniya Ginzburg: “as a Tartar it was simpler to put down ‘bourgeois nationalist’. Actually they had me down as a Trotskyite first, but they sent the file back saying they had exceeded the quota for Trotskyites but were short on nationalists.”
- Made-up confessions were encouraged to be dramatic. "A workman from Kiev gave a detailed account of attempts to blow up a bridge a kilometer long with several kilos of arsenic. Another explained his activities in an organisation aiming at the construction of a number of artificial volcanoes in order to explode the entire Soviet Union. Another prisoner admitted that he had informed the Polish consul of the weather as shown in a forecast put up regularly in a public park."
- The Arctic explorer Papanin was trapped on an ice floe in the Arctic circle for weeks with three associates, one of which was a NKVD man, and a dog. His diary was later published, but censored. In the uncensored version, he writes that the explorers and the dog celebrated Stalin’s birthday and the other Communist festivals by holding demonstrations on the ice, marching up and down with banners, since none of the quartet would dare suggest that the activity was preposterous.
- From Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago: At the conclusion of a conference in Moscow, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone leapt to his feet, and the small hall echoed with stormy applause… for three, then four, then five minutes. The NKVD was standing in the hall watching to see who quit first! After eleven minutes of applause, the director of the local paper factory sat down – and everyone else stopped with a sigh of relief. That same night the factory director was arrested and given ten years.
- 'The NKVD built a case against a young man who was the champion stamp collector in the north Caucasion town of Kholodnogorsk, on the grounds that his collection contained a German stamp with Hitler on it as well as an English one with Queen Victoria that was worth more than its Soviet one with Lenin. The young man was forced to confess that he “led a counterrevolutionary organization masked as a stamp collector society”. '
- Prisoners in independent parts of the country independently devised large-scale denouncing, reasoning that this would drive the system to such grotesque extremes that society would collapse unless it was halted. One imprisoned doctor from Kharkov pleaded guilty at once and listed on paper the several hundred doctors of Kharkov, all of whom he knew by name, as enemies whom he had recruited. His interrogator balked at arresting all Kharkov’s doctors, and so the prisoner reported him for shielding members of a counterrevolutionary organisation.
- One cabdriver’s interrogator wanted him to confess to his crimes without being told what they were. Eventually, after a long night of interrogation, he finally confessed, and was hit in the face for crimes he did not even know he had confessed to.
- There was a lack of hay or fodder for livestock – so Soviet agronomists created a new form of silage called ‘twig fodder’, officially proving that small branches of pine and fir trees were rich in calories and vitamins, assuming that horses and cattle would eat them. Anyone who disagreed was sent to a concentration camp. The result: starving and dying horses, and officials too scared to report what was actually happening.
Though the entire history of this time in Russia is tragic, there are other stories which I will not repeat that are absolutely heartrending. You may remember that sometimes I have written posts about becoming a tyrannical dictator and sending people to the gulag - well, I want to announce that further study of history has totally killed that joke for me and I will no longer be mentioning it.
If you are interested in reading the most well-written and amazing memoirs on this subject, look up Evgeniya Ginzburg's two books Journey Into The Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Gripping and bizarre yet moving reading.
[These stories were taken from Stalin and the Shaping of the Soviet Union, by Alex de Jonge; chapter four Soviet Politics 1917-1991, by Mary McAuley; and chapter seventeen Stalin in Power, by Robert C. Tucker.]
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