- Stalin’s Rule of Terror
Nearly ten years ago, Jörg Baberowski, a distinguished German historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, published a concise, lucid, and readable account of Bolshevik terror.1 Preparing for an English edition of that book a few years later, he did additional research and ultimately came to doubt his own earlier account. As he writes in the introduction to the present volume, “My own book did not suit me any more … much of what I once thought to be right seemed to me to be nonsense seven years later … it quickly became clear to me that I would have to refute what I had written earlier” (10). So he decided to rewrite the book completely. The result, the present book, is an important and thought-provoking work.
In his 2003 book, Baberowski stated that red terror should be attributed to the culture of violence that was particularly prevalent in the Caucasus, where Stalin grew up. It was almost innate to Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin and to the rest of his entourage, whether Caucasian or Russian, who grew up in a similar environment of brutality characteristic of the lower classes of the Russian Empire. Baberowski drew a distinction between this culture of violence and the “European culture” in which other Bolshevik leaders (Vladimir Il´ich Lenin, Lev Davidovich Trotskii, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, Grigorii Evseevich Zinov´ev, and the like) were socialized. Stalin’s government was a clan and a mafia of fanatics who lived in a fantasy world of ubiquitous conspiracy and the intrigue surrounding it. The Stalinists used backward and [End Page 670] barbaric methods of terror to destroy their supposed enemies and to realize their goals of modernizing Soviet society.
In his new book, Baberowski hardly discusses “culture.” Nor does he emphasize the role that Stalin’s associates (his “clan”) played in the extensive and brutal application of political terror. It is rather Stalin himself who is shown making all important decisions, including those on terror. Stalin was a dictator, despot, psychopath, sadist, and paranoiac, according to Baberowski, who unleashed his vicious and criminal energy on the communist experiment. What mattered was the power of Stalin, the master of life and death in the Soviet Union. With a passion for violence, Stalin made decisions and carried them out according to his will. It was Stalin the Despot who started and ended the Great Terror in 1937–38. Baberowski contends that ideas do not kill and that violence should be understood not in terms of its origin but in terms of its dynamic. He positions himself to see the world through Stalin’s eyes so as to explain this dynamic and to understand how his extraordinary terror became normality during his reign.
Baberowski’s stress on Stalin thus differs from his earlier emphasis on “culture,” ideology, and the clan.2 The new turn he takes creates its own problems, however. Was Stalin’s terror possible without ideology? What conditioned the dynamic of his violence? It is not entirely clear from this account. By emphasizing Stalin the Dictator, Baberowski naturally downplays the significance of the system (“the totalitarian regime”) itself. By the same token, he is also critical of the “revisionist school,” which, he contends, shows power as diffused thoughout the country and depicts Stalinism “from below” (18–19, 217–18, 546).3 Moreover, he goes on to take to task the “subjectivist school,” which, according to him, wrongly assumes that individuals could have had free will under Stalin (20–21).4
Baberowski is quite right that without Stalin the kind of violence that took place in the Soviet Union would not have been possible. True, this does not preclude the culpability of others, including Lenin himself, whom he [End Page 671] characterizes as “a vicious mastermind” (ein bösartiger Schreibtischtäter) and to whom human tragedies, sorrow, and misery meant nothing (66). However, Baberowski immediately qualifies this by concluding that Lenin was not a “cynic.” By contrast, the author is unstinting in his colorful...