The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Soviet Military.
Even as historians troll through newly opened Soviet archives, the Great Terror launched by the regime in the 1930s remains one of the major mysteries of the Stalinist years. Earlier analyses contended that the purges were best explained by the ambition of Stalin, suspicious to the point of paranoia, to increase his personal power and eliminate potential enemies and rivals. Revisionist historians of the late Cold War period and after turned that story on its head and proposed that Stalin had been relatively insecure in a dysfunctional system, and rival political factions used terror as a means to enhance their own position. In an account that challenges both the earlier orthodoxy and the revisionist account and uses an impressive array of archival material, Peter Whitewood argues, "Stalin attacked the Red Army because he seriously misperceived a serious security threat"; thus "Stalin seems to have genuinely believed that foreign-backed enemies had infiltrated the ranks and managed to organize a conspiracy at the very heart of the Red Army" (12, 276).
Central to Whitewood's analysis is the importance of Marxist ideology as the lens through which Stalin and leading Communists understood the world. That lens distorted the level of threat both foreign and domestic, and the Red Army in particular was perceived "as an obvious target of foreign agents and domestic counterrevolutionaries throughout the 1920s and 1930s" (13). Whitewood believes that Stalin, acting from vulnerability and misperception, rather than strength and confidence, took these threats seriously and responded with the devastating execution of his leading officers and the arrests of thousands of others. Convinced that another war lay not far in the future, and that an anti-Soviet "Fifth Column" existed in the army, there was no alternative--so Whitewood contends--to the purging of the military and the subsequent "mass operations" that targeted former kulaks, criminals, and national minorities. Suspicion of the army was not new in the late 1930s. Already during the Civil War [1918-1921], the principal secret police agency, the Cheka, and its successors considered the army to be riddled with spies. Bolsheviks were deeply suspicious of the so-called "military specialists," those who had served in the tsarist army and now made up a large part of the officer corps of the Red Army.
The "political police's particular conception of army vulnerability... eventually achieved dominance in 1937" (42). This siege mentality fostered an affective disposition in people like Joseph Stalin to see and exaggerate dangers to the weak and beleaguered Soviet state. Yet, through the 1920s, Military Commissar Voroshilov managed to shield the army from suspicions that foreign agents or Trotskyists had made the state's military arm vulnerable. The old doubts lingered, but no purges took place until many rank-and-file soldiers supported those who resisted the drive to collectivize the peasants in 1928. Two years later the police rounded up and arrested military specialists, fabricating a scenario that they had conspired to overthrow the Soviet state.
Already predisposed to see foreign agents worming their way into the Soviet system, Stalin was especially receptive to the conspiracies "uncovered" by his political police. One might doubt that he sincerely believed that the accused were guilty and simply calculated that unity and conformity were more important than innocence or guilt in the light of imminent war, but there is no uncertainty that Stalin was the ultimate wrecker of the Red Army. Despite excessive repetition of main points, occasional speculation, and a rather convoluted prose style, Whitewood's study gives us the most suggestive solution that we have to date to the mystery the dictator's decimation of his military.
Ronald Grigor Suny
University of Michigan
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|Author:||Suny, Ronald Grigor|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2018|
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