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  • The Demonization of the Opposition:Stalinist Memory and the “Communist Archive” at Leningrad Communist University
  • Igal Halfin (bio)

The fate of the Opposition is key to any understanding of what made the Great Purge possible.1 While the events of 1934–38 are commonly portrayed as an unprecedented breakdown of all moral norms, it is also possible to present the Stalinist machine of destruction as a product of Bolshevism's own elaborate moral universe. The vast scale of communist violence was possible precisely because it was morally defensible in the eyes of its practitioners. Anatolii Vasil'evich Lunacharskii did not conceal the fact that the very same moral quest in communism – the desire to bring humanity to moral perfection – framed both communism's discourse of equality and justice and its discourse of purity and death. "We cannot introduce humanistic principles all at once," this prominent Party theoretician explained. "First we have to annihilate our enemies."2

Oppositionism, within this worldview, was an evolving historical construct, one which described the spiritual predicament of erring Communists.3 By the time of the Great Terror, this spiritual state had come to signify the embodiment of deliberate evil in communist political discourse. From these first principles, Communists maintained that the omnipresent and omnipotent counterrevolutionary plot had to be forestalled, and violence was a legitimate way to do so. To demonstrate the course of this evolution, this article traces the appearance of Opposition from 1921 (although any such dating is tentative, one can say that party groups that refused to disband following the 10th Party Congress's ban on [End Page 45] factions were the first to be considered at least potentially treacherous), until 1937, when almost everyone who had ever been identified as an "oppositionist" was tried and shot. In examining "the Opposition" and "oppositionists" as historical constructs I focus on the way in which the Party scrutinized members' pasts, and especially how it constructed an "oppositionist" profile for individuals who oftentimes had little or nothing to do with intra-party battles of the 1920s or the early 1930s.

If the demonization and eventual mass destruction of oppositionists was not the heart of the Great Purge of 1936–37, then it was certainly its preamble. Usually the campaign against the Opposition is understood solely as a product of Stalin's paranoia, as part of his sinister attempt to consolidate personal power and eliminate potential enemies. Historians of the Great Purge have traditionally been concerned with the power struggles among the communist elite, the intentions of its leading members, and the amount of resistance they encountered.4 In contrast, this article understands the Opposition as something the party protocol regarded as the paragon of deliberate evil. Crucial to this argument is an understanding of how the Opposition became identified with irredeemable evil. Without comprehending how Stalinists understood evil, we cannot understand the cruelty of the mass repressions of the 1930s.

What stands at the center of the pages below is the radicalization of the messianic motives in the Stalinist 1930s and, more specifically, the impact of this development on the hermeneutics of the self. Contemporaries understood oppositionism less as a course of action than as a spiritual predicament – a dangerous infirmity of consciousness at best, an expression of evil intent at worst. That is, oppositionism is best understood not so much as a political movement or an ideological platform, but rather as a diagnosis produced by the hermeneutical discourse of communism. This communist hermeneutics of the soul – a complex ritual of words and deeds designed to permit the Party to determine who was worthy to belong to the brotherhood of the elect and who should be kept out at all costs – was embodied in a wide gamut of consciousness-probing practices. [End Page 46] Purges, comrade trials, and campaigns of self-criticism were the most prominent among them. Digging into the deepest recesses of the self, communist hermeneutics set itself several related tasks. Among them were establishing what had brought an erring comrade into the camp of heterodoxy; determining whether he could again see the true light of communist truth and return to the fold; and, if not, pronouncing him to be an irredeemable, lost...


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