Journal of Cold War Studies 2.3 (2000) 143-145
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The Road to Terror:
Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939
J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, eds., The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 635 pp. $35.00.
In the 1930s the Soviet Communist Party turned on its own membership with savage ferocity. In the period known as the Great Terror, huge numbers of people were swept up into the night and tortured into making false confessions to preposterous charges. They were then shot or imprisoned for many years in camps in the frozen tundra. Why did this happen? Even now, more than six decades later, there are no easy answers. The origins of the Great Terror remain one of the most controversial questions in the historiography of the Soviet period.
In recent years, however, our understanding of this and other aspects of the Soviet past has been advanced considerably by the steady flow of once highly secret documents from the archives of the now defunct USSR. A growing number of these documents have been translated into English and published in the West, where they have become an invaluable resource, accessible to anyone interested in some of the most important episodes of contemporary history. A pioneer in this process has been the Annals of Communism series sponsored by Yale University Press, which has already published a number of remarkably informative volumes. The latest installment in the series, however, has become a source of controversy. In selecting an editor for this collection of documents on the origins of the Stalinist terror, the publishing house chose a scholar who has established himself as one of the more extreme voices in the ongoing debate.
In an earlier book, The Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), J. Arch Getty challenged advocates of the "totalitarian" school who saw the terror of the 1930s as an instrument by which Josif Stalin first consolidated power and then exercised total mastery of the Communist Party and Soviet society at large. Against this view, Getty argued that the mass arrests and murders of the decade were, in the first place, not as numerous as the theorists and historians of the totalitarian school had presumed. The number of Stalin's victims, he said, lay not in the millions, as scholars like Robert Conquest had maintained, but in the "thousands." In the second place, according to Getty, the limited terror that did occur was less a product of Stalin's will than of the doings of wayward [End Page 143] underlings and the various pressures inside the "chaotic, irregular, and confused" administrative apparatus over which the Soviet dictator presided as a kind of moderator.
It is not hard to see why publication of The Origins caused a considerable stir in Sovietological circles and beyond. As more than a few observers have noted, the view of the Stalin era espoused by Getty proceeded in striking parallel to the theses advanced by various revisionist historians of the Third Reich, most notably the Holocaust denier David Irving. Both traveled a considerable distance toward minimizing the numbers of victims of, respectively, the Soviet and Nazi dictators, and both went an equally great distance to exculpate the top leaders of responsibility for their crimes. Indeed, in The Origins, Getty drew the comparison himself, if only to defend himself preemptively against the charge of being a Gulag denier.
In the Road to Terror, Getty has been compelled by the newly available evidence to alter his position considerably. Yet he does so without acknowledging precisely how far he has moved, while at the same time continuing to hurl darts at those of his critics whose perception of historical reality was far less clouded than his own. On the question of the number who perished in the purges, Getty has revised his own earlier death count sharply upward, and acknowledges a...