By Lynne Viola

Oxford University Press. 268 pages. £20/$29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-067416-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“The 1930s were years of mass repression in the Soviet Union. From 1930 to 1939, close to 725,000 people were executed, over 1.5 million were interned in prisons and labour camps, and well over 2 million were forcibly exiled to ‘special’ or ‘labour settlements’ in the far hinterlands of the Soviet Union”.

I don’t suppose these figures will come as a surprise to many people. The numbers of the injustices committed in the period concerned have been known for some time. What is, perhaps, not as widely known is that, towards the end of the 1930s, the purges affected the one-time purgers. There were a series of investigations, interrogations, and secret trials of members of the NKVD, the state security police, who had been responsible for carrying out the arrests, torture, and executions of those victimised during The Great Terror.

Lynn Viola makes the point that it has often been assumed that many of the victims of NKVD brutality were “members of the Communist Party, the Soviet government, and the intelligentsia”, but that, in actual fact, the “overwhelming majority” were “ordinary people, mainly peasants, caught up in two large mass operations launched in these years: one against former kulaks, recidivist criminals, and other ‘anti-soviet’ and ‘socially dangerous’ elements’, and the other against a series of non-Russian nationalities”.

The question is why some NKVD personnel suddenly found themselves facing prosecution for transgressions of “socialist legality”? The answer appears to lie in the desire of those higher up the ladder of command to clear themselves of any blame for what had happened. And, of course, the man at the top of the ladder was Stalin, who was responsible for launching the purges in general. Viola locates the necessity, in Stalin’s eyes, for a “social cleansing” in the events of the Civil War in Russia following the 1917 Revolution. And then there were the problems arising from the policy of the collectivisation of agriculture when it was thought necessary to eliminate the “kulaks”, the supposedly more-affluent peasants who hoarded grain and other goods, and so defied the authorities. To Stalin, and his cronies, there were sufficient “enemies within” to justify their elimination in the interests of the planned socialist utopia. Jews, Poles, and Germans living in the Soviet Union became targets for NKVD investigation. Outsiders could not be trusted.

Viola’s study is based on what happened in Ukraine. The reason is fairly obvious. Access to the records in Russia is now largely limited following a brief period of openness when the Soviet system collapsed. Not so in Ukraine after its break with Russia. Viola doesn’t say it, but I suspect that the Ukrainians are more than happy to provide evidence of communist, and in particular, Russian misdeeds. One of the targets of the NKVD in the 1930s had been Ukrainian nationalism, and especially what could classed as “Ukrainian counter-revolutionary bourgeois nationalism”. Any number of people could be rounded up under that classification.

What is particularly terrifying is that in 1937 the NKVD headquarters compiled “a set of control figures for the number of people to be arrested in the course of mass operation 00447. The total numbers of planned arrests was 268,950, divided between a first ‘most dangerous’ category (75,950) and a second ‘less dangerous’ category (193,000)”. Those in the first group were destined to be shot, those in the second would be sent to labour camps. Operations were set to start in August, 1937, and to end in four months. It doesn’t take many stretches of the imagination to guess what was likely to happen when targets for arrests were then sent out to various district offices of the NKVD. Set targets and people will strive to achieve them and bend rules to do so.

What did happen becomes evident when Viola looks at the testimonies of various NKVD officers who were unlucky enough to fall foul of the purge of their ranks. In order to meet their quotas they weren’t averse to manufacturing evidence and obtaining confessions by means of beatings and other forms of “persuasion”. One of the excuses for abusing prisoners was that the interrogators had to obtain fixed numbers of confessions each day or night. And the numbers referred to were staggering. One accused NKVD officer, while admitting that no-one had actually told him to use torture to get prisoners to comply, claimed that he was expected to provide “100 confessions a day”. How else could he get that number of confessions quickly if he didn’t beat his victims? This does sound somewhat fanciful, and suggests someone desperate for an excuse. A likelier figure was the seven confessions that an efficient officer was said to be able to come up with each night.

The process was so streamlined that confessions were decided in advance and all a prisoner was required to do was sign a blank paper. Naming names was an essential part of the procedure. The other details were filled in later. District offices of the NKVD competed for the number of arrests and confessions, and if their quotas were falling short they simply arrested anyone who might appear to be unconventional in any way. Viola says, “In some cases, city NKVD organs, as in Moscow, made use of the mass operations in order to rid their city of undesirables – homeless people, beggars, prostitutes, and petty criminals”.  There were cases where someone was arrested because they had annoyed an NKVD operative. Viola points to the fact that local police were involved in the arrest procedures, and they sometimes had a reason for wanting a certain person out of the way.               

The classic excuse of “following orders” was often given as a reason for an officer’s behaviour. This, needless to say, could be pushed up the line, though it was never going to reach the very top. But, on the whole, it was rank-and-file NKVD members who were most likely to be tried for their actions. It seems to be a fact that many of them came from working-class or peasant backgrounds, and were ill-educated. They had risen through the system of Communist Party membership and related activities. Joining the NKVD gave them a special status and various privileges.

Their roles as NKVD officers, with the powers that gave them, could lead to them taking a particular pleasure in abusing intellectuals, or those seeming to be better-educated. Viola refers to the case of Lidiia Iosifovna Bodanskaia, “head of the Art Department of the Khar’kov regional committee of the party”. When she was later brought in as a witness against Ivan Stepanovich Drushliak, an NKVD interrogator noted for his harsh methods when obtaining confessions, she said that she’d signed any documents under duress. Viola suggests that Drushliak may have “resented this older woman’s education and intelligentsia background”.

Another NKVD officer, Vasili Romamovich Grabar, was “a product of a Stalinist state-orchestrated social mobility, who had climbed the rungs of Soviet power from very humble beginnings”. He had learned his trade “in the violent grain requisitioning campaign of the late 1920s, riding roughshod over a peasantry that had been robbed of its humanity and fleeced of its grain”. Like so many of his kind he was also able to look to his own interests: “He was an operator, who exploited his positions and connections in the food and trade sectors of 1920s Berdichev for gain”

That personal gain was something that frequently marked the activities of NKVD personnel can be seen in the accounts Viola gives of the work of the execution squads. With so many people being condemned to death, it was necessary to form these units to function almost on an assembly-line basis. Victims were taken to a room to be documented and told they were to be transferred elsewhere, to another room where they were instructed to strip before having a bath in the interests of hygiene, and then to a third room where they were shot.

At first, their clothes were buried with them, but after a time the execution squads were allowed to take what they wanted. Problems arose when victims’ relatives came across items of their clothing being sold at local markets. Money that was taken from those to be killed was used to buy alcohol for members of the squads. With executions in some cases adding up to forty per night the executioners clearly needed to dull their senses. They justified their seizure of clothing and other goods on the grounds that they did a particularly nasty job and deserved to be rewarded for it. In certain ways this sort of behaviour characterised the general crudity of many NKVD operatives. Often from rough, poverty-stricken backgrounds, and with experiences of war and famine when young, their collective ruthlessness overcame any scruples they may have had as individuals.

It may be true that Stalin was the person who triggered the purges, whether by or of the NKVD, but there doesn’t appear to have ever been a shortage of people willing to carry out the necessary work. Human nature being what it is, ambition and careerism no doubt played a part in persuading people to participate in activities that others might regard as repugnant. There is, also, the tendency on the part of some people to go along with what everyone else does, perhaps because they don’t want to be seen as deviating from the interests of the group.

Fear can be a factor, too, with possible threats of being viewed with suspicion, and thought of as subversive as those who have been arrested, likely to be in everyone’s minds. It’s easier to conform than appear to stand out. And the “doctrine of superior orders” often comes into play. It takes a brave man to refuse to obey an order by a senior officer because of moral objections to carrying it out. When one commander asked Nikolai Ezhov, head of the NKVD, what should be done with disabled and elderly people among those arrested, he was told to “Take them all to the woods and shoot them”. One wonders if he actually followed orders? It’s more than probable that he did.

Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial is the sort of book that soon makes it obvious that it is dealing with a situation where logic often didn’t apply. As Viola tracks individual cases, the attitudes of the interrogators can only be made to seem logical in the madness of the wider situation. One prisoner, baffled as to why he was being asked to confess to alleged crimes he knew nothing about, asserted that he was innocent and “loyal to the party of Lenin”. His interrogator promptly replied : “We know that you are dedicated to the party of Lenin, but you betrayed the party of Stalin”. As Viola says: “It was impossible to win this contest”.

Despite all the evidence of abuse of power that accumulated as NKVD officers were investigated and tried, it does seem that, on the whole, they were treated better than their victims. Their trials had a semblance of legality, and they were allowed to make statements about their actions and call witnesses to testify to their claimed good behaviour, loyalty, and efficiency

Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial is a fascinating, if at times shocking book. Shocking because it shows how people given a little power will often abuse it. The excuse of following orders from above runs through many of the testimonies by NKVD operatives that Viola quotes from. But it is clear that personal ambitions, greed, and other factors were also relevant. Some NKVD officers enjoyed inflicting physical punishment on those who wouldn’t co-operate. The situation gave them licence to indulge their sadism and justify it on the grounds of confronting criminality or terrorism. There may be a lesson to be learned here about giving too much power to organisations which function under claims of secrecy in the defence of state security.