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Reviewed by:
  • Tragediia RKKA, 1937–1938
  • David R. Stone
Oleg Fedotovich Suvenirov, Tragediia RKKA, 1937–1938. Moscow: Terra, 1998. 528 pp. ISBN 5-300-02220-9.

Oleg Fedotovich Suvenirov's Tragediia RKKA is the work of a lifetime. In its stunning erudition and overwhelming empirical base, it is a testimony to the best in the Russian and Soviet traditions of military scholarship and to decades spent in the study of the Soviet Army. It is also the work of a lifetime in the negative sense that Suvenirov's training as a political officer limits his look at the root causes of the devastating purges in the Red Army in 1937 and 1938 that he otherwise chronicles so well. By focusing exclusively on the machinations of the NKVD, Suvenirov fails to portray the true complexity of Soviet military politics and so draws an incomplete picture of the purges. This criticism should not, however, take away from what is by far the most comprehensive and sophisticated work on the military purges to date.

Born in 1917, Suvenirov by the time of the purges was a history student in Leningrad, training to become a political officer in the Red Army. Too young to be drawn into the purges, Suvenirov can instead testify personally to the atmosphere that surrounded them, how true believers accepted as he did the unconditional guilt of those accused of treason. In some cases, he offers personal testimony. He questions Roy Medvedev's account of the purges in Leningrad and, in particular, the role of Medvedev's father, not just on the basis of the evidence he found of Medvedev's father serving as an NKVD informant, but through his own acquaintance as a young graduate student with the principals involved (113–14).

Suvenirov's source base is equally impressive. He draws extensively on the holdings of the Russian State Military Archive (covering the Red Army through 1941) and the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (the pre-1953 party archive). His greatest achievement, however, is what he has uncovered from the Archive of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation (AVKVS RF). This is an astounding trove and it provides a staggering level of insight into the purge process. These sources, unfortunately, do not include fond numbers, and Suvenirov provides little insight into their general availability. He also follows the standard practice of not identifying the document he is citing, listing only fond, opis', delo, and list. [End Page 680]

Taking advantage of his archival base, Suvenirov can pile detail on detail, going far beyond the relatively scanty aggregate information hitherto available. This enables a much fuller and more devastating picture of the terror, where the victims are not faceless but instead are presented as individuals with the individual cruelties and absurdities of their cases portrayed in a terrible litany.

As horror follows horror, Suvenirov's most damning findings often, ironically, consist of what he finds to be rare. Only a few officers, for example, were arrested unlawfully without the permission of People's Commissar of Defense Kliment Efremovich Voroshilov. Most had their arrest fully approved by the docile servant Stalin had installed at the head of the Red Army. Only a few officers were arrested on the basis of no evidence at all; generally some denunciation was required (84–85). In only one case did an officer turn himself in for counterrevolutionary activities, which the NKVD duly ignored as obviously fictitious (91). No officers resisted arrest, despite their ostensible preparation for the violent overthrow of the Soviet government (136). Only a few officers were actually shot without trial (at least before World War II). Most had the cold comfort of at least some judicial process, even if only a NKVD dvoika or troika (229). Only a few officers were the victims of group trials; most had their guilt proclaimed in individual, secret hearings (245–46). Only a few officers were accused of actual murders, or even actual criminal actions. Most were accused of plotting crimes, not of carrying them out (261).

Suvenirov structures his book around the path followed by individual officers through Stalin's maelstrom. His first chapter explores the atmosphere in...


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