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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.3 (2002) 160-161

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Book Review

The Road to Terror:
Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939

J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 635 pp. $37.50.

J. Arch Getty, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Oleg V. Naumov, deputy director of the former Central Party Archive in Moscow (RGASPI), have compiled a set of 200 translated documents on the Great Terror in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The documents include secret transcripts of Communist Party Central Committee meetings, secret police reports, and letters from Nikolai Bukharin and Nikolai Ezhov to Josif Stalin.

In the introduction to the book Getty suggests the following interpretation of the documents:

Stalin was the central person in the politics and political violence of the 1930s. But his was not the only or even perhaps the most interesting role in the tragedy. In the witch-hunts of the seventeenth century, to which the Stalinist terror bears many similarities, a small number of authoritative persons identified the victims and organized their execution. Behind and around them, though, were other groups and constituencies—among them, members of religious and political hierarchies, policemen of various kinds, and ordinary citizens—members of the "crowd"—who abetted the proceedings, [End Page 160] acquiesced in the process, or simply looked on, conceding that such ruthlessness was necessary, reasonable, or at least acceptable. (p. 7)

Unfortunately, the documents selected by Getty focus almost exclusively on the "self-destruction" of the Bolshevik elite. Only three documents (nos. 178-180) concern "mass operations." In this manner the Terror is reduced from a universal Soviet tragedy to a risky political game played by high-ranking party officials. Although the editors are persuasive in arguing that Stalin seemed to have no fixed agenda in promoting the Terror, they remain silent on key questions: What caused the Terror? What were the conscious aims of this campaign—if any? To what extent did Soviet citizens participate? How is it possible to explain that the number of victims—mostly ordinary people—was much greater than expected? Some aspects of these questions are explored in Oleg Khlevnyuk's Politbyuro: Mekhanizmy politicheskoi vlasti v 1930-e gody (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1996), but not in The Road to Terror. By concentrating on top-ranking Party officials, Getty and Naumov miss one of the most important revelations of newly available evidence from Soviet archives: in 1937-1939 Stalin's Terror mostly affected common people, those with no link to the Communist Party.

Getty and Naumov present a large number of documents that already have been published in Russian historical journals in the 1990s, including Izvestiya TsK KPSS, Voprosy istorii, and Istochnik. Many of the documents have also been cited by other historians. Unpublished documents come from Politburo and Central Committee collections, from personal papers, and from documents stored in Fond 89 of the former Central Committee archive of the Soviet Communist Party (an archive now known as RGANI) that were originally collected for a trial of the Communist Party in 1992. Unfortunately, some very interesting archival collections were not fully explored. Fond 6 at RGANI—the Party Control Commission files- contain reports written in the 1940s that describe the inner "logic" of some of the most odious "violations of socialist legality" committed in the 1930s. The same is true of other files stored at RGANI from several committees of inquiry on the murder of Sergei Kirov, as well as the "secret" sections of the personal files of Stalin, Ezhov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich, which were recently transferred from the Presidential Archive to RGASPI and are now partly declassified.

Overall, the book seems to be Getty's answer to the longtime detractors of the "revisionist " school of historians to which he belongs. Getty claims that "the main causal element in the literature has always been Stalin's personality and culpability. In...