“Language has unmistakably made plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium. It is the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the ‘matter itself’ is no more than the strata which yield their long-sought secrets only to the most meticulous investigation. That is to say, they yield those images that, severed from all earlier associations, reside as treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights–”
Walter Benjamin, from “Excavation and Memory,” Selected Writings, Vol. 2, part 2, 1927–1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999)
“Stalin did not initiate or control everything that happened in the party and country. The number of hours in the day, divided by the number of things for which he was responsible, suggests that his role in many areas could have been little more than occasional intervention, prodding, threatening, or correcting. In the course of a day, Stalin made decisions on everything from hog breeding to subways to national defense. He met with scores of experts, heard dozens of reports, and settled various disputes between contending factions for budgetary or personal allocations. He was an executive, and reality forced him to delegate most authority to his subordinates, each of whom had his own opinions, client groups, and interests.” (Getty, John Arch. Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985, pp. 203)
With regards to Stalin’s role in sending people to gulags or to their deaths, it is important to establish that Stalin did not bear responsibility for all of the excesses which occurred in the USSR (for the most part in the period known as the “Great Terror”). Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD from 1936 to 1938, fabricated a number of cases against innocent people with the intention of arousing dissent among the Soviet people while acting as a spy for Germany (Yezhovschina), and in the process withheld important information from Stalin. (Mark Jansen & Nikita Petrov, Stalinskii pitomets – Nikolai Yezhov, Moscow 2008, 367-79).
“By the fall of 1938 Yezhov’s leadership of the NKVD was under steady fire from various directions. The regime responded officially on Nov. 17, in a joint resolution of the Sovnarkom and the party Central Committee. This document went to thousands of officials across the USSR in the NKVD, the Procuracy, and the party, down to the raion level. Thus, the acknowledgement that grotesque mistakes and injustice had occurred spread widely–hardly the action of a government that wanted to continue fighting its citizens. The resolution began by stating that in 1937-38 the NKVD had carried out “major work” in destroying enemies of the people. More remained to be done in this sphere, but the struggle now had to adopt more “perfect and reliable methods.” This was all the more necessary because the “mass operations” of the preceding period, with their “simplified conduct of investigations and trials,” had led to “a number of serious shortcomings and distortions in the work of the organs of the NKVD and the procuracy.” Enemies of the people and foreign spies had penetrated the security police and the judicial system and had “consciously…carried out massive and groundless arrests.” NKVDisty had completely abandoned careful investigative operations and had recently adopted “so-called ‘limits’ [quotas]” for arrests. Agents had wanted only to obtain confessions from arrestees, regardless of evidence or lack of it.” (Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 114)
“Two years of arrests and executions had occurred, and it was known that a high proportion of the victims did not belong to the categories of people describable as “anti-Soviet elements.’ It is quite possible too that Yezhov misled Stalin about aspects of the process.” (Service, Robert. Stalin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2005, p. 369)
“He [Yezhov] confessed to having been recruited as a spy for German intelligence in 1930, when by order of the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture he had visited Konigsberg for the purchase of agricultural machines and to having spied on behalf of Poland, Japan, and England, to having directed a conspiracy within the NKVD, and to having plotted against Stalin and other leaders.” (Jansen, Marc & Petrov, Nikita. Stalin’s Loyal Executioner: Yezhov, Stanford, Calif: Hoover Institution Press, c2002, p. 183.)
Stalin must undeniably shoulder some blame for the excesses which occurred by the very fact that he was the head of the CPSU while all of this occurred. If one, however, wishes to know to what extent he was directly responsible, this is something of a point of contention. Ian Grey’s biography of Stalin cites Medvedev as the source for the statistic of 44,000 people whose deaths were directly attributable to the signatures of Stalin and Molotov,
“According to Medvedev, Stalin with Molotov signed during the years 1937-39 some 400 lists, containing the names of 44,000 people, authorizing their execution. Stalin could not have known or studied the cases of so many people, and he had to accept the advice of men who he disliked and distrusted like Ezhov. He would have acted, however, on the principle that such sacrifices were completely justified by the purpose being pursued.” (Grey, Ian. Stalin: Man of History. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979., pp. 290.)
However, on page 497 of his book, he notes that there actually exists no source for this; in Molotov Remembers, we actually find evidence which suggests that this statistic is probably not entirely truthful,
“GOLOVANOV: Stalin also tried to find out from me who had me expelled from the party. I realized that if I indicated that person to him, the next day the man would be out of the Politburo. I never divulged the name to him….
MOLOTOV: Khrushchev brought his lists of enemies of the people to Stalin. Stalin doubted the numbers reported–“They can’t be so many!” “They are–in fact, many more, Comrade Stalin. You can’t imagine how many they are!”
GOLOVANOV: I have a friend who used to work with me as a flight engineer when I was a pilot in civil aviation. He studied at the political academy, switched to research work, and taught at the general staff academy. As the campaign of exposures and denunciations was launched, he was transferred to the Institute of Marxism-Leninism to pour over documents in search of execution orders and so forth signed by Stalin. He did not find a single paper of that kind bearing Stalin’s signature.“ (Chuev, Feliks. Molotov Remembers. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1993, p. 296)
Certainly, this does not prove that Stalin never authorized any executions, but rather suggests that the figure of 44,000 people is suspect to say the least. For the occasions in which Stalin did sign death sentences, he was by no means solely responsible,
“I was never really in on the case [the Leningrad trial] myself, but I admit that I may have signed the sentencing order. In those days when a case was closed–and if Stalin thought it necessary–he would sign the sentencing order at a Politbureau session and then pass it around for the rest of us to sign. We would put our signatures on it without even looking at it. That’s what was meant by ‘collective sentencing.’” (Talbott, Strobe, Trans. and Ed. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little Brown, c1970, p. 256)
Just as Stalin was, to some extent, guilty for the excesses that occurred, so too was he responsible for ceasing future excesses. Stalin ordered the arrest and later execution of Yezhov for extreme excesses committed against the Soviet population. Under Beria, Yezhov’s successor who Stalin appointed, mass arrests declined and an increasing number of prisoners were released.
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