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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.1 (2004) 233-235

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To the Editors

It is unusual to respond to a book review of another scholar's book, but since reviewer Oleg Khlevniuk and the editors of Kritika saw fit to publish a review of Marc Jansen and Nikita Petrov's Stalin's Loyal Executioner that Khlevniuk transformed into a lengthy and substantial criticism of my work (Kritika 4, 3 [2003]: 760-67), I would like to make a few comments.

Khlevniuk is a diligent scholar who is probably as familiar with the archival sources for the 1930s as anyone, and I have tremendous respect for his pioneering archival work. I was therefore surprised that his review skipped so lightly over the source issues, both in Jansen and Petrov's work and in the works of Gábor Rittersporn, Roberta Manning, Robert Thurston, and myself, whom he criticizes. Had he focused on the source base of Jansen and Petrov's book, for example, he would have noted that their most sensational revelations, comprising more than one in seven of the footnotes, are from the NKVD interrogations of Ezhov and his henchmen. As everyone knows, these stories were invented by the police and beaten out of the accused. After advising caution with such sources, Jansen and Petrov proceed to cite them as fact. This is the equivalent of writing that Bukharin was a saboteur and assassin based on his own interrogation record.

Instead, Khlevniuk aims his criticism at me. He attacks my view that there were important local influences on the Great Terror of the 1930s, and especially on the bloody "mass operations" of 1937-38, which accounted for the overwhelming majority of the Great Terror's victims. Khlevniuk argues that "the available facts known to us today lead precisely to this conclusion," namely that these operations were "centralized actions planned by Stalin and his associates." Despite its strident and categorical tone, this assertion is simply not true. Khlevniuk ignores a vast documentary base that shows that the launching and administration of the terror were a joint effort between Stalin's center and various regional party and police interests. Of course, I never wrote, as Khlevniuk accuses, that "regional leaders forced Stalin to begin mass operations," or of a "chaotic terror initiated by local officials," but the fact remains that local party and police organs were lobbying in the spring of 1937 for decisive measures against reactivated "anti-Soviet elements" emboldened by the revised Supreme Soviet election rules. This came at a time when Stalin, [End Page 233] in contrast, was insisting that the locals deal with opposition by employing political propaganda, and when NKVD chief Ezhov was denouncing "mass operations" as messy and ineffective. That Stalin reversed himself, abandoning political means and embracing mass operations a few months later, surely means that local influence on him was not insignificant or irrelevant, as Khlevniuk thinks. It is at least suspicious that Stalin approved new election rules and the mass operations on the same afternoon. Archival documents demonstrate that everyone from provincial party secretaries to arrested victims to Nikolai Bukharin all believed that the mass terror was related to local turmoil caused by the elections. 1

Powerful as he was, Stalin had to function within a matrix of competing interests and powers. Local leaders had to obey him, of course, but they were also able to press their cases with him; and to some extent, he had to listen. He was not stupid; he needed them to run the country, and they were closer to the ground than he was. But Khlevniuk is having none of it. For him, there was only one actor and one planner. He was omniscient and omnipotent, and everyone else was afraid and consequently obedient. Muscovite grand princes are supposed to have said that everyone in the country except for them was a slave. In the real world, of course, such a totalitarian fairy tale was no more true for them than it was for Stalin, whatever either may have wanted.

"Centralized actions planned by Stalin"? After a long campaign...


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