Eighty years ago, Josef Stalin ended the Great Terror, citing as his reason “local excesses” that had “come to his attention.” His November 17, 1938 decree ordered extra-judicial tribunals, called troikas, to stop their sentencing of political prisoners. The troikas lay at the heart of political terror. They provided a thin veneer of “socialist legality” to what was mass murder and wanton incarceration. Stalin’s November 1938 action stopped in its tracks a killing machine that had been executing an unfathomable average of 1,400 victims per day. It wasn’t until two decades later that an obscure intelligence officer tallied the victims of the sixteen-month reign of terror at 1,334,360. Of these, half were shot, and the rest sentenced to the Gulag.
Political terror continued after November of 1938, but at a less breakneck pace. World War II fed Stalin’s camps with POWs, foreign nationals, residents of occupied territories, and returning Soviet soldiers. The Gulag continued to grow until it reached its peak of 2.5 million prisoners shortly before Stalin’s death.
The November 17 anniversary has again passed largely without notice even though a solid percentage of Russian families have grandparents, great grandparents, and distant relatives, who were, to use the Soviet term, “repressed.” Every year, the number of Gulag survivors declines. About one in five were women. Due to their longer lifespans, they are the last witnesses, but they will soon be gone.
Since the opening of the Soviet archives, Gulag researchers have dispensed with any doubts about Stalin’s pivotal role in the Great Terror. Stalin carefully orchestrated the mass killing and imprisonments. He met for hours in his office with his handpicked loyal NKVD executioners. He personally signed off on “shooting lists” of state and party leaders. Although sometimes presented as a purge of state and party officials, the vast majority of repressed “enemies of the people” were ordinary workers and peasants. Stalin personally put in place a “conveyer” that processed massive numbers of victims through the faux judicial process of troikas; and he did not hesitate to turn on his loyal executioners. To their dismay, they found themselves on the receiving end of a bullet to the back of the head in Lefortovo Prison when the “Master” needed scapegoats.
The facts are in. The Kremlin cannot deny the Gulag in the face of massive, irrefutable documentation and public memory. This is a problem for the Kremlin because Stalin’s murder of millions does not fit Vladimir Putin’s narrative of Russia’s need throughout history for a strong and heroic leader. Indeed, the Kremlin’s media masters proclaim that Russia now needs a strong man to face down the decadent United States and its NATO stooges. Putin’s is a Russia of past glories—the defeat of Napoleon, the victory over Hitler in the Great Patriotic War, rapid modernization, and Orthodox faith. The Kremlin’s media bombards the Russian people that war is imminent. As a besieged fortress in a hostile world, Russians are told they need an iron-fisted leader, like Judo-master Putin. They should brush aside small matters like a stagnant economy or the unsolved murders of opposition figures.
So, one might ask: Has the Kremlin’s “Stalin was harsh but fair” campaign paid off?
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