Essay

Dry rations

A human being survives by his ability to forget.

– Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales

IN THE PAST decade or so, no country has learned so much about its past as Russia, and no country has been so little moved. From its declassified archives have flooded tales of repression and horror in minutest detail; its people, meanwhile, have continued their somnolent reverse march towards tyranny, led by a former secret policeman who a generation or two earlier would in all likelihood have been orchestrating firing squads and torturing the innocent into fantastical confessions. In the Western intelligentsia, of course, there remains an ugly ease with the legacy of Soviet tyranny; announce yourself a communist and people will still slap you on the back and call you "comrade". Yet it is stupefying to learn, as a recent poll suggested, that seven in 10 Russians hanker nostalgically for the certainties of their grim criminal empire and three-quarters favour censorship in their press. For most of the 20th century, Russians were mute; now, it seems, they are deaf.

Are these two facts related? Russians, as Stalin himself boasted in a famous interview with Emil Ludwig in 1932, were never simply captives of communism: "Do you really believe that we could have retained power and have had the backing of the vast masses for 14 years by methods of intimidation and terrorisation?" Even Stalin's most significant Russian biographer Dmitri Volgonokov has to admit in Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy(Prima, 1996): "No other man in the world has ever accomplished so fantastic a success as he: to exterminate millions of his own countrymen and receive in exchange the whole country's blind adulation."

Stalinism's eerie afterglow might even be detected in Iraq, wrecked well before its invasion by the misrule of Saddam Hussein – inter alia, a devoted pupil of Stalin, who kept volumes of his collected works at each imperial palace. American neo-conservatives saw a society under totalitarian control as akin to hostages held at gunpoint; hence their blithe expectations of dancing in Baghdad streets as Ba'athists were run out of town. Stalinism shows us otherwise – how a regime and its people can so interpenetrate and mutually accommodate that even when the regime perishes, its hair and nails, as it were, can continue growing.

Some have seen Russia as habitat suited to despots, perceiving the antecedents of Bolshevism in the country's immemorially violent history – a history, moreover, of inflicting violence on itself. "What a people!" exclaimed Napoleon as Muscovites burned their city rather than capitulate to him. "They are Scythians! What resoluteness! The barbarians!" In Stalin in Power (Norton and Company, 1990), Robert Tucker places Stalin firmly in the tradition of Peter the Great, emulating Peter's use of serf and prison labour to construct St Petersburg and in such exercises of homicidal futility as the Baltic-White Sea Canal and Igarka railway. That alone, however, is not a wholly satisfactory explanation. It might be truer to say that the Bolsheviks' path to power was smoothed by Russia's equally strong history of quiescence. Russian theatre's most famous stage direction is the last line of Pushkin's Boris Gudonov: "Narod bezmolvstvuet" (The people remain silent). The silence in Tsarist times was partly an outcome of their dispersal within a vast land where four in five Russians were peasants, and partly an artefact of the brutal brevity of lives; at the turn of the century, Russian life expectancy was 32 years (against, for instance, 47 in France). "What an astonishing thing is the death of a Russian peasant!" writes Ivan Turgenev in Sketches from a Hunter's Album (1852). "He dies as if performing a ritual act, coldly and simply." It was Lenin's genius to recognise this, distinguishing the Bolsheviks from earlier demotic movements in Russia, like the Decembrists and the Narodniki, by dealing death an honoured place in his politics; as his biographer Robert Service observes, he regarded "the death of innocent individuals as part of the unavoidable messiness of historical progress". The 30 million deaths caused by famine of 1891, for instance, Lenin viewed not merely with equanimity but with exultation: "Famine, in destroying the outdated peasant economy, will ... usher in socialism ... Famine will destroy faith not only in the Tsar, but in God, too." Lenin's retinue competed to emulate his Bolshevik tverdost (hardness); thus formulations like Trotsky's: "We must put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life." This comfort with cruelty also made up for the Bolsheviks', at least at first, relatively paltry numbers.

When Lenin swept to power in October 1917, he proclaimed Russia "the freest country in the world". What he did not reveal was how intent he was on changing this. The apparatus of state control sprang up almost overnight. The Bolsheviks were rewriting the penal code to mandate arbitrary arrest and violence within a month of taking power, rejecting the idea of an independent judiciary as "one of the most widespread sophistries of bourgeois science". Their secret police, the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission), forerunner to the NKVD and KGB, purported to be an interim measure, but rapidly became permanent. The Bolsheviks found concentration camps ready-made, confining their enemies in prisoner-of-war compounds emptied by the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany, but they soon surpassed themselves: by 1921 there were 84 camps in 43 provinces.

"The dictatorship – and take this into account once and for all – means unrestricted power based on force, not law," Lenin announced in January 1918. A couple of months later, the Bolsheviks closed their first newspaper, Russkiye Vedomosti, because of the publication of an article critical of Lenin, on a charge of "attempting to influence people's minds"; on that, it was clear, the Bolsheviks intended establishing a monopoly. By the time their incomparably vicious revolution had taken 14 million lives, writes Donald Rayfield in Stalin and His Hangmen (Penguin, 2004), "nobody dreamed of influencing the government; people were reduced to fear, their best hope that they would be left alone".

 

RUSSIANS HAD THE world's first Marxist government; they could also be thought of as fundamentalism's first victims. While the public writings of the early Bolsheviks are usually austere and technocratic, their private musings are often wracked by an eerie religiosity. "What was the October Revolution, what indeed is the Communist Party, but a miracle?" asked Lenin's colleague Georgy Pyatakov. "A real Communist ... that is, a man who was raised in the party and has absorbed its spirit deeply enough becomes himself in a way a miracle man." The Bolsheviks anticipate Hitler's verity that "any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain"; for them, as Orlando Figes observes in his cultural history of Russia Natasha's Dance (Penguin, 2001), revolution "was a bloody purgatory on the way to heaven on earth".

This was not, of course, a faith based on Christian charity. Human feelings – sensations like love, pity and beauty – were to be resisted. "Life is such that it rules out sentiment and woe to the man who lacks the strength to overcome his feelings," diarised the Cheka chief Feliks Dzerzhinsky. "My thought orders me to be terrible and I have the will to follow my thought to the end." Even aesthetic experiences could become a torment, Lenin once complaining to Maxim Gorky how music disturbed him:

It acts on my nerves. It makes one want to say a lot of sweet nonsense and stroke the heads of people who live in a filthy hellhole and yet can create such beauty. But you can't stroke anyone's head today you'll get your hands cut off. The need is to beat them over the head, beat them mercilessly even though we, as an ideal, are against any coercion of people.

Communism offered an alternative theology. Where Christianity saw man in God's image, communism regarded him as a product of historical development; changing historical development, consequently, would beget a new man. "To produce a new 'improved version' of man," said Trotsky, "that is the future task of communism." And while man was inherently imperfect and incomplete, of course, he could be liquidated in vast numbers without compunction.

In the wake of revolution, the Communist Party built its mandate not on popular support but on the people's trauma, deprivation and inanition. In 1922, Petr Gannushkin, Russia's leading psychiatrist, confided to Lenin his conviction that half the country's population was suffering from mental illness: "It is not normal for sons to kill their fathers and fathers their sons." Stalin, however, thrived amid such abnormality; under him, the wide popular consensus for a politics without conflict and division would be transformed into a system in which opposition was identified as a challenge to social consent and political harmony, and such "equality" as existed was based on absence of rights rather than presence.

 

THIS IS NOT the place to analyse Stalin's psyche, beyond remarking that Trotsky's famous quotation does not seem to traduce him. "The sweetest thing in life," Stalin is alleged to have told a dinner also attended by Dzerzhinsky and Lev Kamenev, "is to mark a victim, prepare the blow carefully, strike hard, and then go to bed and sleep peacefully." Stalin's latest biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore comes up with a succinct formulation in Stalin: Tsar of the Red Court (Knopf, 2004): "Koba [Stalin] was convinced by the universal panacea of Marxism, a 'philosophical system' that suited the obsessive totality of his character. The class struggle also matched his own melodramatic pugnacity. The paranoid secrecy of the intolerant and idiosyncratic Bolshevik culture dovetailed with Koba's own self-contained confidence and talent for intrigue." Montefiore might have added a coda. A failing ideology – and communism would prove nothing but a failure in providing its people with adequate income, food, housing and goods – needs an unending supply of enemies to explain its shortcomings. Only a psychopathic personality like Stalin was capable of generating them.

The events that established Stalin's power are not so well known that they don't benefit from brief recapitulation. Stalin was always resistant to Lenin's New Economic Plan (NEP), in which the Bolsheviks briefly reconciled with "bourgeois specialists" in order to stabilise the economy, fearing it would "stifle the socialist elements and resurrect capitalism". His ballon d'essai was the Shakhty trial in March 1928, where 53 engineers from the Shakhty coal mines in southern Ukraine were arrested on bogus charges of "wrecking" – a word soon pressed into common coinage for acts of industrial sabotage and the deliberate creation of shortages, which helped explain why there was never enough of anything. Stalin marked the five death sentences with a bleak warning: "We have internal enemies. We have external enemies. This, comrades, must not be forgotten for a single moment." The case anticipated the final repudiation of the NEP in April 1929, when the XVIth Party Congress announced a program of crash industrialisation and the collectivisation of farmland that became the first Five-Year Plan.

Industrialisation was implemented with breathtaking incompetence. The plan demanded an impossible 20 per cent annual growth in industrial output; and it had, for propaganda reasons, to occur in four years rather than five. The labour force grew: 3.1 million industrial workers in 1928 had become 8.3 million by 1940. But industrial production stagnated as the old core of skilled workers was swamped by novices. The quality of urban life, meanwhile, was devastated by 10 million peasants deserting the land: the average living space enjoyed by Muscovites shrank by a third in 10 years.

Collectivisation laid the country waste. The first three months of 1930, when 10 million peasant holdings were amalgamated by force, precipitated the only significant insurrection in the Soviet Union's history, peasants destroying their livestock rather than capitulating: stocks of cattle and horses would almost halve; sheep numbers would shrink two-thirds. The result, after a brief remission, was famine, aggravated by increasingly draconian edicts like the "ear law" promulgated in August 1932 in which "any theft or damage of socialist property" became punishable by 10 years in a labour camp or death, and the extension in April 1935 of eligibility for capital punishment to children as young as 12. Stalin would later confide to Churchill his own estimate that collectivisation had cost 10 million lives – although, he quickly added, this had been "absolutely necessary".

In short, the Five-Year Plan was a disaster of stupefying proportions: in An Economic History of the USSR 1917-1991 (Penguin, 1993), Alec Nove calls it "the most precipitous peacetime decline in living standards known in recorded history". But if there was anything this regime had now mastered, it was the apportionment of blame. First it was the alacrity of the apparat (thus Stalin's notorious self-exculpation inPravda in March 1930: "Dizzy with Success"); then were produced the "wreckers", the most prominent being exhibited in show trials orchestrated by the infamous Nikolai Krylenko and Andrei Vyshinsky. The system, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn explains in his description of the Promparty Trial of November 1930 in the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago (Harper & Row, 1973), now worked with exemplary efficiency:

For the engineers ... there was no way out. They were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. If they went forward it was wrong, and if they went backward, it was wrong, too. If they hurried, they were hurrying for the purpose of "wrecking". If they moved methodically, it meant "wrecking" by slowing down tempos. If they were painstaking in developing some branch of industry, it was intentional delay, sabotage. And if they indulged in capricious leaps, their intention was to produce an imbalance for the purpose of wrecking. Using capital for repairs, improvements ... was tying up capital funds. And if they allowed equipment to be used until it broke down, it was a diversionary action! ... Throughout the trial, Krylenko forced the defendants to concede apologetically that they were "scarcely conversant" with or were "illiterate" in politics. After all, politics is much more difficult and much loftier than some kind of metallurgy or turbine design. In politics, your head won't help you, nor will your education. Come on! Answer me! What was your attitude toward the October Revolution when it happened? Sceptical. In other words, immediately hostile. Why? Why? Why?

For the modern lay reader, perhaps the most arresting detail of the Promparty Trial is that, as it concluded, an estimated half a million people marched the streets of Moscow with banners inscribed: "Kill the wreckers!" "No mercy to class enemies!" "Death!" "Death!" "Death!" In barely a decade, one is left to conclude, a people had been persuaded not simply to fear terror, but to identify with it. The regime welcomed this spontaneous vindication of its rectitude; more accurately, it attested its success in abolishing not merely private property but private space. Isaac Babel's famous slant on Soviet Russia, that the only privacy one enjoyed was in the dead of night with the sheets pulled over one's head, underestimated it: the only way to accommodate the state's encroachments was, in a sense, to divide one's consciousness, to cultivate what in Russian is called dvoeverye (double belief). The Promparty Trial demonstrations are an early enaction of Robert Conquest's explanation of Stalinism as involving "fear by night and a feverish effort by day to pretend enthusiasm for a system of lies", with the profundity of the sublimated fear engendering an enthusiasm bordering on ecstasy. Few have put this better than Lev Kopelev, later a dissident but in the 1930s a young and eager official, in No Jail For Thought (Secker & Warburg, 1977):

In the terrible spring of 1933, I saw people dying from hunger. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes. And corpses corpses in ragged sheepskin coats and cheap felt boots, corpses in peasant huts, in the melting snow of the old Vologda, under the bridges in Kharkov ... I saw all this and did not go out of my mind or commit suicide ... nor did I lose my faith. As before, I believed because I wanted to believe.

 

SYSTEMS OF DVOEVERYE gradually pervaded every aspect of Soviet life: even time itself. The present became simply a period in which "the radiant future" was being built. In her primerEveryday Stalinism (Oxford University Press, 1999), Sheila Fitzpatrick explains: "Ordinary citizens ... developed the ability to see things as they were becoming and ought to be rather than as they were. An empty ditch was a canal in the making; a vacant lot where old houses or a church had been torn down, littered with rubbish and weeds, was a future park." Death became a kind of down payment on that beckoning tomorrow. As Grygoriv Petrovsky, the titular president of the Ukraine, told the American radical Fred Beal in 1932: "We know millions are dying. That is unfortunate but the glorious future of the Soviet Union will justify it." Auschwitz's infamous false promise, that work would make one free, was an unconscious homage to the pledge adorning the entrance of the camp at Solovetsky where half the inmates died every year of starvation and typhus: "With an iron fist, we will lead humanity to happiness."

Perhaps the Soviet Union's most confronting dvoeverye, however, involved guilt and innocence. On December 1, 1934, Leonid Nikolayev, a Communist Party member aggrieved to have lost his job, entered the Smolny, the Leningrad party headquarters, and shot the local chieftain, Sergei Kirov, as he walked down one of its ornate passages. Conquest calls it "the crime of the century". Irrespective of whether Stalin ordered the assassination – and even now it is unclear – literally millions of people went to their deaths for complicity in one or other part of the byzantine conspiracy that was purported to underlie it. That very day, Stalin drafted what became known as the "1st December Law" allowing for immediate execution of accused terrorists without appeal. The scene was set for what Montefiore has defined as "democide" – "the class struggle spinning into cannibalism".

The visible culmination was seen in the show trials of those who had been members of the party's inner circle: Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and Georgy Evdokimov in August 1936; Pyatakov and Karl Radek in January 1937; Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov and Nikolai Krestinsky in March 1938. But these were about theatre rather than justice. The Great Terror was, for two reasons, chiefly random: firstly, to dramatise the degree of risk to the Soviet state, because a society conditioned to terror requires an exponential increase in dosages to repeat the initial level of effectiveness (as the NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov put it: "Better that 10 innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly."); secondly, because its target was not those culpable of treason, but merely those capable of it.

In a sense, this was a tribute to the skill with which Russians had cultivated their dual existences. Andre Gide returned from his 1936 visit to the Soviet Union with a disturbing reflection: "In the USSR, everyone knows beforehand that on any and every subject there can be only one opinion. Every time you talk to one Russian you feel as if you were talking to them all." The conformity was so "easy, natural and imperceptible that I do not think hypocrisy enters into it". For the regime, however, this uniformity of word and deed was unsettling. "If everyone claimed to agree," notes Fitzpatrick, "how could one know what they were really thinking?" The Great Terror, then, was a repression based not on unrest, but on lack of unrest. It was the most stalwart sectors of Soviet society that sometimes had most to fear: in June 1937, the flower of the Red Army's officer corps, having "admitted their treacherousness, wrecking and espionage", was abruptly liquidated. There were, quite simply, no longer sufficient oppositionists to satisfy Stalin's appetite for paranoid delusion and to explain the state's chronic dysfunction. Nobody, in fact, put it better than Stalin, in a speech of November 1937: "We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts – yes, his thoughts – threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!"

The Great Terror's great irony is its coincidence with reform to allow elections – if elections like no other. Soviet democracy was essentially a simulacrum of Soviet justice; there could no more be two candidates in an election than there could be two possible verdicts in a trial. Announcing the new constitution in November 1936, Stalin revealed that there was no need for any more than one party because division between "capitalists and workers, landlords and peasants" no longer existed. Stalin's speech on election day contains the sublimest fantasy: "Never before in the world have there been such genuinely free and genuinely democratic elections, never!" One could, as Lyubov Shaporina recalled in her remarkable diary (reprinted inIntimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, New Press, 1995), almost die laughing:

I went into the booth, where supposedly I was going to read a ballot and choose my candidate for the Supreme Soviet "choose" means you have a choice. There was just one name, already marked. I burst out laughing uncontrollably, right there in the booth, just like a child. It took me a long time to compose myself. I leave the booth and here comes Yury, stony-faced. I lifted my collar and ducked down into it so that only my eyes were visible; it was just hilarious.

Meanwhile, the arrests continued. And, if it stretches our credulity, arresting, interrogating, incarcerating and executing innocent people has a certain ineluctable logic. For a start, Solzhenitsyn points out, the innocent are tractable:

Maybe they won't take you? Maybe it will all blow over? ... The majority sit quietly and dare to hope. Since you aren't guilty, then how can they arrest you? It's a mistake! They are already dragging you along by the collar and you still keep exclaiming to yourself: "It's a mistake! They'll set things straight and let me out!" Others are being arrested en masse, and that's a bothersome fact, but in those cases there is always some dark area: "Maybe he was guilty ... ?" But as for you, you are obviously innocent!

Innocent people have not contemplated defences, excuses or alibis; the more unflinching their loyalty, in fact, the more they wish to oblige. Ol'ga Adamova-Sliozberg, a young female ministry official, sat there quietly preparing for her next day's conference as the NKVD searched her apartment:

I wrote and pasted, put the materials in order, and as I wrote, it seemed to me that nothing had happened, that I will finish the work and hand it over, and then my [minister] will say to me: "Good girl, you didn't lose your head, didn't attach any importance to that confusion." I myself don't know what I was thinking about at that time, the inertia of work, or perhaps confusion from fear, were so great that I worked for four hours precisely and effectively as if I were in my own office in the [ministry]. The detective in charge of the search finally snapped: "You'd do better to say goodbye to the children."

Such people were easily processed. There was no need to seek evidence, because it didn't exist, and no need to anguish over an outcome, because it was already predestined. "We never arrest anyone who is not guilty," an arresting officer told S.G. Durasova. "And even if you weren't guilty, we can't release you, because then people would say we are picking up innocent people." Interrogation proceeded on the assumption that everyone is guilty of something, with the standard opening question being an invitation to self-incrimination: "Will you tell me what hypothesis you have formed of the reason for your arrest?" The victim was compelled to form the right line of confession; as the infamous MGB "investigator" Mikhail Ryumin explained to one prisoner: "The question of your guilt is decided by the fact of your arrest...Tell us everything and we ourselves will decide what is true and what is a lie."

In this way, the state turned dvoeverye back on its practitioners. If you could simultaneously be a believer and a sceptic, you could simultaneously be blameless and culpable. The great theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold – arrested in June 1939, days after describing state-sponsored theatre as "gloomily well regulated, averagely arithmetical, stupefying and murderous in its lack of talent" and destined to be shot in February 1940 – described how the humiliation of arrest and incarceration turned him, as it were, against himself:

Immediately after my arrest I was cast into the deepest depression by the obsessive thought: "This is what I deserve!" The government thought, so I began to convince myself, that the sentence I had received was not sufficient ... for my sins and that I must undergo another punishment. I split into two individuals. The first started searching for the "crimes" of the second, and when they could not be found, began to invent them.

Where self-torture did not work, of course, the state helped, and that applied not simply to the prisoner but to his relatives: Meyerhold's wife was found dead with 17 stab wounds and her eyes cut out. The Slovak novelist Jan Johanides has theorised: "'I have a wife and children' is the best cog in the machinery of tyranny"; Stalin rotated that cog to irresistible effect. Soviet law explicitly contained the charge ChSIR – member of a family of a traitor to the fatherland – and its unwitting perpetrators were grist to the interrogation mill: in Let History Judge (Oxford University Press, 1989), Roy Medvedev describes how a confession was finally wrung from the tough old Bolshevik Stanislav Kossior when his 16-year-old daughter was raped in front of him. The objective was expressed most clearly in the boast of the NKVD "investigator" V.I. Komarov after interrogating Jewish prisoners: "I tore their souls apart."

 

IN ITS ATTITUDE to confession, the regime had cultivated its own form of dvoeverye. It was common knowledge how confessions were maintained. Stalin joked about reporting to Yezhov's successor, Lavrenti Beria, that he had lost his pipe, then calling him back a few days later to explain that he'd found it. "Impossible," said Beria. "Three people have already confessed." Confessions, nonetheless, were always read as though they had emerged unbidden and uncoerced. "Stalin was not delusional," write Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov in their masterful anatomy of the state apparatus at work, Stalin's Last Crime (HarperCollins, 2004). "He knew that some or all of the confessions were not necessarily true in the pedestrian meaning of the term in which statements corresponded to observable facts. For him, this distinction made no difference. If certain 'facts' were not empirically true, they became functionally true to suit political purposes that, in Stalin's universe, represented a higher reality."

With guilt established by arrest and ratified by interrogation, trials, except where they involved opportunities for public execration, were predominantly procedural, even on the rare occasions when the defendant demurred. Although Evgenia Ginzburg pleaded not guilty to being an enemy of the state at her trial in February 1937, for instance, the judges still needed only seven minutes to sentence her to 10 years in a labour camp. "Don't you know that Comrade Kirov was killed in Leningrad?" they asked. When Ginzburg said that she'd never been to Leningrad and that Kirov's death was in any case almost three years past, they replied: "But he was killed by people who shared your ideas, so you share moral and political responsibility." For all their absurdity, however, trials were integral to Stalinism's sense of its own legitimacy, exploiting the vestigial idea that guilt and innocence were distinguishable even as they travestied it. "No one tried and sentenced the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe," notes Anne Applebaum in her history of the Soviet prison-camp system Gulag: A History (Doubleday, 2003). "But the vast majority of inmates in Soviet camps had been interrogated (however cursorily), tried (however farcically) and found guilty (even if it took less than a minute)." The trial was the final prostration of the system's victims and continued performing that function long after Stalin. Applebaum cites an exchange from the trial of the poet Joseph Brodsky on trumped-up charges in 1961. Asked if he had any petitions, he inquired: "I would like to know why I am arrested." The judge admonished him: "That's a question, not a petition." Brodsky replied: "In that case I have no petitions."

Above all, persecution of the innocent achieves one end: it establishes the state's monopoly not merely on legality but on morality itself, with its crimes explained as necessary precautions to prevent graver injustice. In Vladimir Nabokov's Bend Sinister (Vintage, 1990), Krug asks the dictator Paduk whether his friends have been arrested to leave him "shivering in a void"; on the contrary, Paduk insists, it serves to demonstrate that "the state is your only true friend". Some, of course, knew this anyway. We should here, perhaps, distinguish between the fates of those within and without the party. Arrested party members had already internalised this monopoly. Among the most affecting artefacts of Soviet subjection are the recorded responses of party potentates to arraignment, imprisonment and execution.

Zinoviev (in a letter to Stalin): "I am reaching the point where I stare for long periods at portraits in the newspapers of you and other members of the Politburo with the thought: look into my soul, can't you see that I am no longer your enemy, that I am yours body and soul, that I have understood everything, that I am ready to do everything to earn forgiveness, mercy?"

Kamenev (at his trial): "No matter what my sentence will be, I in advance consider it just. Don't look back. Go forward, together with Soviet people, follow Stalin."

Mrachkovsky (at his trial): "I am a traitor who should be shot."

Bukharin (in a letter to Stalin): "I still want to do something good. And now I must tell you straight: my only hope is you."

Voznesensky (in a letter to Stalin): "It's hard to be apart from one's comrades. I understand the lesson of partymindedness. I ask you to show me trust." (He froze to death in the back of a prison van.)

Kuznetsov (at his trial): "I'm a Bolshevik and remain one in spite of the sentence I have received. History will justify us."

Yezhov (last words): "Tell Stalin I shall die with his name on my lips."

Yakir (in a letter to Stalin): "Every word I say is honest, and I shall die with words of love for you, the party, the country, with boundless faith in the victory of communism." (Stalin wrote on the letter: "Scoundrel and prostitute.")

Abukamov (in a letter to Stalin): "I assure You, comrade Stalin, that whatever assignment You may give me, I am always ready to fulfil it in any circumstances. I have no other life than to struggle for the work of comrade Stalin."

An exception was Yezhov's NKVD predecessor, Genrikh Iagoda, who regarded his arrest as perverse proof of God's existence: "From Stalin I deserved nothing but gratitude for my faithful service; from God I deserved the most severe punishment for having violated his commandments thousands of times." Otherwise, these are pleas not simply to live, but somehow to go on serving. They are the noises of a kind of moral exhaustion, the last of a lifetime of steady submissions to the party weal, evoking Arthur Koestler's vivid image of the Soviet leadership in Arrow in the Blue (MacMillan, 1970): "History had squeezed them out to the last drop, had burnt them out to the last spiritual calorie; yet they were still glowing in cold devotion, like phosphorescent corpses." Death, too, was in some senses little worse than survival, with its heavy-hanging yoke of complicity. Khrushchev's most recent biographer, William Taubman, sees the Great Terror as his subject's turning point: "Until 1935 or perhaps 1936, it was possible for someone like Khrushchev to believe in Stalin. After that it was too late not to." It was in this period that Khrushchev most distinguished himself, consistently outstripping the quotas of arrests he had been set, until even Stalin exclaimed: "There can't be that many." Khrushchev reassured him: "There are in fact more." In doing so he would develop arms, as told the playwright Mikhail Shatrov, "up to the elbows in blood".

 

FOR THOSE OUTSIDE the party, the quotidian reality was more grinding, more fearful. Richard Overy's recent comparative analysis of Nazism and Stalinism, The Dictators (Penguin, 2004), concludes that the watchword of Germany was "vengeance", of Russia "vigilance". The security apparatus was immense: the NKVD's photo archive was at one time the world's largest, containing 10 million images. But the ethos of scrutiny pervaded society; in 1939, Overy reports, the USSR contained 589,000 miners, and 2.13 million guards and watchmen. People were listening and one daren't say the wrong thing, like the elderly photographer denounced by his apprentices and executed for remarking that the quality of photographic paper was better before the revolution. People were looking and fate awaited those simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In April 1937, two policemen drove into a village of a hundred households and arrested every man between 20 and 50 on charges of sowing too late for sabotage reasons; none was seen again.

Suspicion always fell on those with foreign contact, however fleeting and fragmentary: from sportsmen and scientists to esperantists and philatelists. Buynovsky in Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich(Sphere, 1970) owes his incarceration to a month on a British cruiser as a liaison officer: "Then, after the war some British admiral who should've had more sense, sent me a little souvenir with an inscription that said: 'In gratitude'. I was really shocked and I cursed like hell, so now I'm inside with all the others." And while the Great Terror involved about three-quarters of a million executions, incarceration, which under Stalin engulfed as many as 18 million people, was little less than an annihilation of the individual. Glebov speaks for a generation of prisoners in Varlam Shalamov's short story "An Epitaph" from Kolyma Tales(Penguin, 1994):

I wouldn't want to go back to my family now. They wouldn't understand me. They couldn't. The things that seem important to them, I know to be trivial. And the things that are important to me the little that is left to me would be incomprehensible to them. I would bring them a new fear, add one more fear to the thousands of fears that already fill their lives ... prison is freedom.

"Prison is freedom": only in a society where contradictory ideas cohabited so easily and essentially would such an expression be possible. But a key to understanding Soviet Russia is to perceive that the reverse was even truer. In order that the slightest remission might feel like liberty, every aspect of life was designed to deaden the human spirit and to deepen dependence on the state. Public language in the West has merely been impoverished; in Russia in the 20th century it was killed, almost outright, in an effort to take truth with it. The regime's response to famine was to ban the word "starvation", to its own murders to abandon the word "death"; thus the immortal musing of Koestler's Rubashev:

"Death" was rarely spoken of and "execution" was hardly ever used; the customary expression was "physical liquidation". The words "physical liquidation" again evoked only one concrete idea: the cessation of political activity. The act of dying itself was a technical detail; death as a factor in a logical equation had lost any intimate bodily feature.

This bizarre cast of mind can be traced to the dawn of the revolution when, in a gesture of disingenuous humanity, the Bolsheviks briefly revoked the death penalty. Soon after, in January 1918, Admiral Alexei Shchastny was tried for refusing to scuttle the Baltic Fleet and sentenced to be shot. A murmur filled the court, silenced quickly by Krylenko's clarification: "Shchastny is not being executed. He is being shot." A minor but telling dvoeverye – to be shot was not to be executed – and an early proclamation that not even language could exist independently of the state. And though the death penalty was soon reinstated, the simultaneously lulling and chilling distinction between being executed and being shot somehow survived. "The fear rises in my throat when I hear how calmly people say it," Shaporina meditated in her diary in October 1937. "He was shot; someone else was shot, shot, shot. I think that the real meaning of the word does not reach our consciousness." Rayfield records that soldiers being disciplined in the Second World War had so little horror of firing squads that Stalin was forced to reintroduce hanging as a method of execution. "Shot", it should be said, is merely one example among many. Applebaum's Gulag, for example, contains a chilling dissertation on the lexicon of NKVD telegrams following the Great Terror. Men were "accounts", exiles were "rubbish", prisoners being investigated were "envelopes", pregnant women were "books"; one camp was even codenamed "free". But in this dictatorship of the proletariat, perhaps the word most abused was "work", repeated as emptily as in Trofimov's slogan in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (1904): "We must work". This abiding dvoeverye, borne out in enduring Sovietisms like "work is something horses die of" and "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us", is called by Russians tufta: going through the motions of work, cheating on required norms. And this, in the end, tufta was all communism was good for: a mass mime of choreographed contentment.

 

LIFE IN RUSSIA was never again quite so helpless and hopeless as in the Great Terror, but, thanks to its foundations, was irreducibly fake. Even the solitary notch on Stalin's gunbelt, the defeat of Nazism, simply demonstrated the capabilities his regime otherwise ground beneath its heel. Stalin's exhortatory methods were unchanged: in 1941 and 1942, almost a million servicemen were tried and 157,000 shot as enemies of the people for crimes like rolling a cigarette with a German propaganda leaflet or admiring the quality of German aircraft design. The state's crimes continued: the gulag's 1.7 million labourers were used so unsparingly that 930,000 died during the war; about 1.5 million Tatars, Chechens, Inguish, Kalmyks and other subject peoples were deported at the cost of 530,000 lives. Standing taller, thanks to the bigger pile of bodies beneath him, Stalin won the elections of December 1947 with a memorable 131 per cent of the vote. Paranoid and punitive to the last, not to mention increasingly anti-Semitic, he ruled until perhaps the most undeserved natural death in history in March 1953.

In some ways, however, Stalinism's ghastliest feature was its posthumous consequences – that there weren't any. In December 1955, Khrushchev, having eclipsed and executed his great rival, Beria, two years earlier, proposed an inquiry into Stalin's crimes. Resistance, led by Stalin's chief henchmen Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich, was vocal. "Examining possible mistakes by Lenin's successor will raise doubts about the correctness of our whole course," exclaimed Kaganovich. "People will even say to us: 'Where were you?' " A compromise was struck: Khrushchev's commission, headed by former Pravda editor Pyotr Pospelov, would meet for only a month in secret session; its 70-page report nonetheless revealed 2 million arrests and almost 700,000 executions between 1935 and 1940. "The facts were so horrifying that in certain very difficult passages Pospelov's voice shook," recalled one politburo member, "and once he broke down and sobbed."

Yet while Khrushchev's famous repudiation of Stalin at the XXth Party Congress may have been an epochal moment for fellow travellers in the West, its reception in the Soviet Union was mixed. At the Central Committee Plenum in June 1957, again in camera, Molotov was asked to account for days like one 20 years earlier when he and Stalin had personally approved 3147 death sentences – and then gone to the cinema. "I accept that responsibility," answered Molotov, "as do other members of the Politburo." The transcript, not made public for another 40 years, is a tissue of disgusting evasions.

Khrushchev: "Who authorised torture to produce false confessions?"

Molotov: "All politburo members."

Khrushchev: "But you were the second-in-command after Stalin, so you bear the main responsibility, and right after you, Kaganovich."

Molotov: "But I raised more objections to Stalin than any of you did; more than you did, comrade Khrushchev."

The nearest Soviet history came to a reckoning, Taubman notes, was a squib: "The prosecutors themselves were guilty." No wonder Khrushchev railed: "All of us together aren't worth Stalin's shit." But, fearful that the party would unravel if Stalin were totally discredited, he did nothing more. He may even have read the runes correctly, at least at the time. A young Komsomol official near Stavropol found that many "refused to believe" Khrushchev's congress speech, scorned "washing one's dirty linen in public", and cleaved to the belief that the Great Terror had been worth it: after all, the party officials it eliminated had been their oppressors, hadn't they? And by the time that Mikhail Gorbachev was himself positioned to challenge this attitude – for it was he – the passage of three decades had further entrenched it.

 

OBEDIENT MARCHERS WERE marking May Day in 1986 when Kiev was saturated with radioactive caesium and strontium from their government's disintegrating nuclear power station at Chernobyl, at the eventual cost of at least 2500 lives. It was Soviet Russia's climactic metaphor: the people going through the motions of celebrating a state that set their lives at nought. Academics and journalists are inclined to speak of communism as naturalists of an extinct species. But its poison lingers in the Russian body politic like the radiation in Kiev – in the strain of lives mingling public guilt and private innocence, the atomisation of society, the decrepitude of institutions and the recrudescence of authoritarianism – and one wouldn't want to bet against a comparable Ba'athist legacy in Iraq. Geared solely to its own perpetuation, neither regime left its people anything to build on; the old habits of getting by and making do have instilled an abiding susceptibility to violence.

Who knows how long it takes to break the mind-forged manacles of totalitarianism? God allotted the Israelites forty years of desert wandering to unlearn the habits of mental slavery to the Egyptians before admitting them to the promised land – but that option, of course, isn't open. No wonder the past can seem so beguiling. "A nation trampled by despotism, degraded, forced into the role of an object, seeks shelter," wrote the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski of the Iranian revolution. "But a whole nation cannot emigrate, so it undertakes a migration in time rather than space. In the face of circling afflictions and of reality, it goes back to a past that seems a lost paradise. The old acquires a new sense, a new and provocative meaning."

During the patient, painstaking and humane interviews that undergird her history of death and mourning in Russia, Night of Stone (Viking, 2001), Catherine Merridale found respondents cynical about their history but fearful of rejecting it too wholeheartedly: it was, after all, all they had. "Russia's is a culture in which the idea of individual responsibility remains too vague," she concluded. "It is a society in which the law is a cipher, where people do not believe fundamentally that legal or democratic processes can help them." What puzzled and moved her most of all was the desperately circular nature of the remonstrations they allowed themselves; in order to assert facts about themselves, they had to continue colluding in mass fiction.

It seems absurd, but some of Stalinism's survivors still work hard to demonstrate their innocence, and what they need is proof, not of the madness of the system as a whole, but of the error that was made in their one individual case. They prepare their files of documents before we meet, they point to articles of the law, they tap the pages with their fingers, check that they are understood.

They were victims then and victims now – but today of the very accommodations, compromises, deceptions, hypocrisies and, of course, forgettings that made totalitarianism survivable.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review