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A few bad apples: Stalin, torture, and the Great Terror

Between the summer of 1937 and November 1938, the Stalinist regime arrested over 1.5 million people for “counterrevolutionary” and “anti-Soviet” activity and either summarily executed them or interned them in the Gulag. This was the period that has come to be known as the Great Terror. During this time, large waves of arrests targeted political, national, and social categories of the population as Stalin endeavored to be rid of a purported “Fifth Column” within the borders of the Soviet Union. The mass arrests of largely innocent people was accompanied by widespread torture as the security agencies (the NKVD) forced confessions, largely false, out of their victims.

On 10 January 1939, Stalin wrote that the Central Committee of the Communist Party had permitted the use of what was euphemistically called “the application of physical measures of persuasion” in interrogations from 1937. To date, there is no extant written order on the use of torture during the Great Terror. Stalin’s admission demonstrates conclusively that directives on torture came from the top. Stalin also asked in his 1939 note why the “socialist” security agency needed to be more “humanitarian” than “bourgeois” security agencies, which routinely used “physical measures of persuasion” on their enemies. Stalin’s admission therefore was not an apology for the atrocities of the “Great Terror,” but rather an attempt to prevent the total destruction of the NKVD in the “purge of the purgers” that followed the end of the terror.

V.Ia. Grabar’, senior NKVD official in the Ukrainian republican NKVD. Image provided with exclusive permission of the State Branch Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine. Do not use without permission.

Although historians had no access to Stalin’s 1939 note until the turn of this century, few doubted either the widespread use of torture on the victims of the Great Terror or Stalin’s leading role in this horrendous episode of mass repression. When, on 17 November 1938, Stalin called a halt to the mass operations, they came to a rapid, if grinding halt. Yet, at the 18th Communist Party Congress in 1941, Stalin would label this repression a “success” in creating a unified Soviet nation, stronger than ever before. At the same time, he admitted that there were individual “violations of socialist legality” in the NKVD’s conduct of the terror. Stalin charged the NKVD leadership at all regional levels for these violations, in the process destroying clientele networks within the organs as they were called, as well as serving up scapegoats for the worst of the terror operations.

Stalin’s scapegoating of NKVD interrogators and other officials removed the blame from him. It permitted him to explain away “violations” in policy implementation as the work of “a few bad apples.” It was a face-saving measure for Stalin, and not unlike similar practices used by other governments to avoid blame. The same bad-apples approach to punishment was apparent in the US government’s actions in My Lai during the Vietnam War and at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq war. This allowed Stalin to distance himself from the worst of the terror’s atrocities. It also served a symbolic purpose: Stalin cast the Communist Party as the main victim of the malfeasance of the NKVD in the Great Terror. Stalin’s bad apples approach allowed him to create a narrative that pitted the NKVD against the Communist Party, airbrushing away the majority of the terror’s victims, who were neither Communist nor elite, and, importantly, ignoring the central role of the leadership of the Party in the Great Terror. The purge of the purgers became Stalin’s gift to the Party, serving to re-legitimize its authority and its power following two years of terror. Khrushchev would use a similar narrative in his famed “secret speech” at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, when, again, the Party would be portrayed (incorrectly) as the chief victim of the Great Terror, but this time placing Stalin (correctly) in the role of chief perpetrator and violator of “socialist legality.”

Featured image credit: “Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, 1936.” Image scanned from: “Сталин. К шестидесятилетию со дня рождения.” Москва, Правда, 1940. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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