- Stalinist Purges during and after World War II as Retribution
The subtitle of Vanessa Voisin’s book— l’épuration soviétique—more conventionally would be translated as “the Soviet purge.” However, in French scholarship, the term épurationis used both in reference to Lenin- and Stalin-era purges and to the “purification” of European societies in the aftermath of World War II and Nazi occupation. It is also close in meaning to the word “retribution” that has been used in English-language publications in reference to the post–World War II quest for justice and punishment of collaborators and war criminals, which occurred in liberated territories all over Europe, sometimes in the form of spontaneous popular violence, sometimes presided over by the revamped judiciary. 1 The polysemantic nature of the French épurationreflects the complex problematic that is the focus of this peculiarly framed and methodologically innovative book.
The central question Voisin grapples with is whether and how Stalinist persecution of Soviet wartime collaborators was part of the Europe-wide process of épurationand to what extent it constitutes the continuation of the 1930s Stalinist purges. 2 In the Soviet Union, prosecution and punishment of [End Page 216]collaborators started as soon as the first districts were liberated from the Nazi occupation in late 1941, and thus it began earlier than in other countries on the continent. Still, the near-synchronicity of Soviet and European épurationsinvites systematic comparison. At the same time, in the Soviet Union retribution was entrusted to the same punitive institutions—the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) and the procuracy—that served as pliable instruments of Stalinist terror in the 1930s. Therefore, it is no less important to trace continuity and changes in Soviet repressive practices. The combination of such synchronic and diachronic approaches constitutes an important characteristic of the book.
Fostering comparison between Soviet practices and Europe-wide épuration, Voisin leaves out those features that constituted a uniquely Soviet experience and had no similarities with the policies of other anti-Nazi allies. Thus she does not investigate deportations of “enemy nations” during and in the immediate aftermath of World War II or the brutal Stalinist “pacification” of the western periphery of the enlarged USSR. Even the Soviet treatment of military collaborators—such as vlasovtsy, participants in the General Vlasov’s army—is explicitly bracketed-out. Also, the handling of prisoners of war, although investigated, is not the focus of her attention.
Voisin analyzes collaboration using the example of exclusively Russian regions. In all likelihood, the number of voluntary and ideology-driven collaborators in the western borderlands was much higher than in Russia per se, even if the extent of collaboration in all its manifestations may have been comparable. 3 But determined to analyze Soviet épurationin a pan-European context, Voisin deliberately avoids interference of “ethnic” factors in the story she tells. Such narrowing down of the book’s focus allows Voisin to concentrate on exactly those aspects of retribution in the Soviet Union that are the least researched (30).
What, however, wascollaboration and/or treason? Voisin refuses to treat this question from a legalistic perspective. She maintains that German policy [End Page 217]was so brutal that most of the time Soviet citizens in the occupied territories faced a “nonchoice” between collaboration and death (72). Although around 1.2 million people served as policemen or were enlisted in various auxiliary units of the Wehrmacht and “many hundreds of thousands” were employed in various branches of the economy and administration in the occupied zone, “only a few tens of thousands” took the side of the Nazis voluntarily. The majority of the population initially adopted a wait-and see attitude (61,71). While the scope of collaboration in the occupied Soviet Union dwarfed that in most other Nazi-occupied countries, the main motivation of the collaborators was not ideological commitment or personal gain but simple fear as well as desire to survive under extremely harsh...