From 1928 to 1953, Joseph Stalin created a state in which terror controlled the daily lives of individuals. Whether it was the fear of a lack of food, being arrested and taken to the gulag, or even being executed, terror absorbed virtually every ounce of one’s energy. Terror consumed the masses in a way that Stalin and his small circle could never have achieved on their own. It was not a terror consisting of the government versus the people, above versus below; it was much more complex than that. An individual’s role could be reversed instantly. An NKVD official, an executioner of sorts, could be arrested and shot.
The terrorist could become the victim. But more important to maintaining the strength of the terror was that the reverse phenomenon also occurred, and was encouraged: any individual could become a terrorist. And when given the opportunity, many would not hesitate to accept the invitation to become as close to executioner and terrorist as their status would allow. They would do anything for their country.
Stalin encouraged his fellow comrade Soviets to give the names of and turn in anybody who was acting illegally against the State. Whether it was one’s neighbors, co-workers, or even friends, it was understood that enemies of the people must be exposed. In one case, well known and praised throughout the Soviet Union at the time, a son turned in his own father. Pavlik Morozov was 14 years old when he exposed his own father to the Soviet Authorities for alleged ‘grain hording.’
Morozov’s father was killed, and the son was deemed a national hero by Stalin and the Soviet Union. After he was killed by his village, a park was named after him in Moscow. He was the epitome of the ideal Soviet Citizen, one who reveals all enemies of the people, one who exposes any member of the society who interferes with the goals of the State. Morozov represented the chilling society that Stalin had created, one in which anyone could be a terrorist, and one in which, when given the chance, many would become a terrorist. According to journalist Adam Hochschild, who visited Russia in the early 1990s, Stalin’s terror essentially catered to Russian culture and tradition.
Hochschild claims that the first inherently Russian characteristic is the “old Russian tradition of absolute power at the top and passive obedience at the bottom” (Hochschild, 118). Since the days of the Czar, there had always been a Russian mentality to follow the orders of your superiors without ever questioning them. Consequently, in the Soviet Union, if Stalin gave an order to root out the enemies, you followed that order. To Morozov, Stalin and the State were higher authorities than his father, so their orders were above anything else and must be followed.
The second inherently Russian characteristic Hochschild describes is “the country’s long love affair with creeds that promise a millenarian deliverance from all suffering” (Hochschild, 119). Stalin proposed an ideal state for Russia, and many were too seduced by propaganda of increasing literary rates and high industrialization to even let themselves acknowledge the purges and collectivization. In Sarah Davies’ book Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia, she includes numerous letters written by people during Stalin’s rule. Among them, an old woman writes on her devotion to Stalin and how much better her life is now than it was before: “I live very well and think that I will live even better.
Why? Because I live in the Stalin epoch….” It seems that she does not have any real reasons for why she is happy. It has been so deeply ingrained inside of her that Stalin is a wonderful and just ruler, that she automatically believes that she is happy. The conditions of her own existence do not even seem to matter to her. All that matters is that Stalin is a great leader so she must be happy. She continues: “May Stalin live longer than me” (Davies, 156)! Even to this old woman, the State is all that matters. The good of the Soviet Union is all that is important. Her own life is meaningless. Just as her life is unimportant to her in comparison to the State, Morozov must have felt the life of his own father was meaningless in comparison to the good of the State. He chose Stalin’s words over his father’s life.
The third and final reason for Russian tradition’s role in supporting Stalin is based on the idea of scapegoats. In Russia’s history, certain people and groups had continually become scapegoats for society, and were branded as being the reasons behind all the problems facing the country. He writes: “Finally, one thing that distinguished the culture of Soviet totalitarianism from that of many others was the insistent pressure for everyone to join in the scapegoating” (Hochschild,121). “But Stalinist scapegoating had particularly deep roots to draw on. In Russia, it has always been a short step from that millenarian promise to persecuting people accused of standing in the way of its fulfillment” (Hochschild,120). Stalin made it clear that individuals were to blame for any problems in the country. To Pavlik Morozov, his father was standing in the way of his country’s fulfillment.
While historical accounts and facts are necessary to understanding the mindsets that could go into such a society of terrorism, literature can also help us to understand. In Lydia Chukovskaya’s novel Sofia Petrovna, Petrovna is a kind, intelligent, and successful middle-aged woman. The reader quickly admires her, yet at the same time some of her reactions to situations seem extremely puzzling. As different men she knows are arrested, she is shocked, but still believes in the perfection of the state over her desire to believe that the men she liked and respected are innocent. This is an intelligent, well-educated woman, who is completely blind to the truth.
“Nothing can happen to an honest man in our country. It’s just a misunderstanding” (Chukovskaya, 37). While Petrovna is never an accomplice as a terrorist in the way that Pavlik Morozov was, it is the Petrovna mindset of the State as a perfect entity that makes it possible for individuals to take on the role of executioner against their neighbors and friends. Even to Petrovna, the word of Stalin carries more weight than anything else, including her family.
Later in the novel, we see examples of other people willingly taking on the role of terrorist. The kind elevator woman in the office in which Petrovna and her friend Natasha worked suddenly turns against both of them when Natasha is fired. After publicly connecting Natasha to the already arrested supervisor, she says: “It’s not the old days now! Under Soviet rule there aren’t no little people, everyone’s big” (Chukovskaya, 66)! In a sense, the woman’s statement is quite poignant. She just became “big” by actively pursuing the role of executioner, of terrorist. She had the ability to take down someone of a higher status than her and, thanks to Stalin, for the first time in her life, feels “big.”
In some cases, even after terrorists became victims, they still pursued the role of terrorists. Grigory Roginsky, a deputy to the chief prosecutor at the Great Purge show trials, was himself ultimately sent to the gulag. But according to Hochschild, even in the camp he argued with other prisoners, defended mass arrests, and sent appeals for even harsher punishments for enemies of the people. Writer Eugenia Ginzburg met with another imprisoned officer who secretly warned her, “Treason-appalling treason… has worked its way into every branch of government and the party…” (Hochschild, 130). It is quite terrifying that these men were not in the least bit disillusioned with Stalin or the party after being imprisoned. They were victims, and all they wanted was to be terrorists again.