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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 752-759

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J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, eds., The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. Trans. Benjamin Sher. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. xxvii + 635 pp. ISBN 0-300-07772-6 (cloth); 0-300-09403-5 (paper). $45.00 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).
Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov, eds., Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents. Trans. Thomas Hoisington and Steven Shabad. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. xvii + 460 pp. ISBN 0-300-08480-3. $35.00.

The Soviet party and state archives were realms of silence, surrounded by high walls which concealed an inaccessible world. Inside, truths were kept which at best could be guessed but not revealed. For the rulers, it proved to be of greatest importance to erase from public memory those realities that differed from their staged representations of the social and political world. Throughout the years of Bolshevik rule, the Soviet archives therefore remained a terra incognita for domestic as well as foreign researchers. At most, they functioned as semipublic sacred sites, containing holy texts edited by exegetes. Historians who were dissatisfied with official representations, who dedicated themselves to the disclosure of secrets and the unveiling of hidden realities, were at best interpreters of what the silence of the sources revealed to them. Only with the opening of the archives was the Communists' monopoly on interpretation shattered, and could competing interpretations of the world step out of private shadow into the public light. The documentary evidence brought forth from its depths shattered, among other things, the belief--by now hardened into a conviction--that the Stalinist excesses of violence originated "from below." 1 J. Arch Getty and Lewis Siegelbaum, [End Page 752] social historians whose studies were previously informed by such convictions, have now presented two voluminous documentary studies on the history of Stalinism.

To be sure, neither Getty and Naumov's The Road to Terror nor Siegelbaum and Sokolov's Stalinism as a Way of Life purport to show new material that previously could not be read. Some of their documents have already been published elsewhere: Siegelbaum´s volume is a translation of Obshchestvo i vlast' (1998), 2 edited by Andrei Sokolov. In both books under review, the editors fit their documents into a teleology of events without explicitly informing the reader about this. Strictly speaking, these are not document collections but narratives in documentary form, which are to show what the editors believe to be the essence of Stalinism. They are stories that, in the act of constructing a chain of events, furnish an interpretation of them. Their actual essence resides not in the documents themselves, but in a number of editorial insertions and commentaries that bind the individual documents together. It is in these editorial passages that, at least in the case of The Road to Terror, Getty's interpretive voice comes to the fore.

What are the ideas that lend these stories their dynamic? Getty seeks to trace the origins and modes of operation of the Stalinist terror. He wants to write history from the perspective of the perpetrators and proposes an explanatory model that appears brilliantly simple. According to him, what can be termed "terror" arose out of a specific fear that began to grip the Bolshevik leaders in the early 1930s: fear of an uncontrollable, obstinate population, of disloyal party soldiers, and of enemies who were seen to have infiltrated party and state organs. Wherever tensions or critical situations emerged in the political or economic spheres, the Bolshevik rulers sensed the work of enemies who had to be uncovered. This phobia forged the members of the inner circle of power into a sworn community. The party became transformed into a monastic order with rigid rules of behavior and speech that regulated how things could be judged and discussed. Deviations from the official script were...


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