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  • Archives of the TerrorDevelopments in the Historiography of Stalin's Purges
  • Oleg V. Khlevniuk (bio)
    Translated by Simon Belokowsky

Historical writing on Stalin's Terror has been extraordinarily significant and productive, reflecting broader trends in the study of Soviet history and similarly characterized by a dependence on new sources: above all, archival materials. For obvious and well-known reasons, there was a long period of time in which the study of Soviet history relied on periodicals, memoirs, and official publications. The archives, at least the vast majority of them, opened in a sudden avalanche. This new and different Russian Revolution, which took on the moniker "archival," offered historians unimaginable potential but simultaneously gave rise to significant problems. It was impossible to quickly absorb and parse the massive flow of information. Archival studies proceeded selectively and incompletely. Moreover, the Russian "archival revolution" remained incomplete. Many important documents were found only after a delay, even a significant one. Many remain inaccessible to this day.

Thematically speaking, Stalin's Terror and, above all, the purges of 1937–38 have received particular attention. This is not difficult to explain. In many respects, the Great Terror of 1937–38 was a unique event in Soviet history. As supplementary examinations of the statistics of the state security organs have shown, between October 1936 and November 1938, 1.7 million people were arrested in the USSR and 1.5 million of them convicted, including 740,000 who were sentenced to death.1 Such a large-scale and intensive period of arrests and executions in the course of a short period of time was unprecedented [End Page 367] in Russian history. Despite the uniqueness of this phenomenon, historians have every reason to consider the repression of 1937–38 as one of the key manifestations of Stalinism. The methods of organizing these purges and their political goals and consequences clearly reflected the essence of the system. As a product, the Great Terror has come to be what is almost certainly the most studied problem of Soviet history, occupying the attention of individual historians as well as teams working under the auspices of international efforts. We can now establish several important outcomes of the development of historical writing on the Great Terror and identify the stages of and certain prospects for its development.

Documents as Stages

The entirely logical starting point for reinterpreting the phenomenon of Stalin's Terror on the basis of newly available archival materials was the quest to establish with precision the number of its victims; administrative statistics made available in the early 1990s aroused great interest and served as a basis for the new historiography of the Terror. The results of the ensuing study of the declassified statistics can hardly be called revolutionary. These accounts showed that the "traditionalists" and "revisionists" had both been relatively far off from the true figures. Those shot and imprisoned in the camps for political reasons under Stalin were not to be counted by the tens of thousands,2 nor the tens of millions,3 but rather by the millions,4 although if we take into account all forms of state violence—including deportations, penal labor outside of camps, and so forth—then we can indeed speak of tens of millions of victims.

Despite significant progress, we cannot consider the study of Gulag statistics to be complete. We still lack certain universally accepted measures. There remains some significant indeterminacy in the distinction of "political" prisoners from other classes, particularly as it refers to those prosecuted multiple times. The administrative statistics demand critical study regarding the undercounting of victims of the Terror, and so on. Taken as a whole, [End Page 368] however, even the most basic figures confirm a key thesis of the "totalitarian" model, one never entirely rejected by sensible historians regardless of which "school" they favored: terror and state violence in its various forms played a significant role in Stalin's USSR. Without considering the factor of terror, it is impossible to fully comprehend any phenomenon of Soviet history in the Stalin period.

Parallel to the efforts to illuminate statistical information regarding the Terror, there proceeded the study of its underlying political mechanisms, which can be considered the...


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pp. 367-385
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