Nemtsov or Kirov? Russia’s Descent Into Terror

March 19, 2015
A woman holds up a picture of Stalin during Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech on Crimea in Sevastopol, Crimea, Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | AP/Vadim Ghirda

In the aftermath of the murder of Nemtsov there have been comparison’s to the murder of Kirov in 1934, marking the beginning of the Terror unleashed by Stalin. Despite the flagrant nature of this murder, and the circumstantial evidence linking it, if not Putin himself, to members of the political elite (such as Kadyrov in as much as he retains a prominent, politically important position protecting him from immediate removal) comparisons between the two leaders obfuscate regimes. The comparisons are not only of different eras but different circumstances, and more importantly, designs. To understand the differences, the rationale of terror and purges needs to be examined. Especially as the vitriol and divisive nature of any examination simultaneously concludes one as a Putin apologist or Russophobe.

The applications of terror by both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were characterized not only by their size but in part by the arbitrariness of its application. The “citizen” or “comrade” could be swept up by accusation, suspicion and intrigue as quickly as genuine opposition. Despite appearance, the terror was designed and implemented to serve the regime, and were explicitly political in design if not in presentation. By examining Stalin’s use of terror, along with some comparison’s to Hitler and Nazi Germany, we can begin to examine some of the causal dynamics that not only instigated and propelled the terror but determined its victims and termination.

To both regimes the use of terror was designed and implemented to solidify the standing and support of the regime. A public narrative was critical in not only justifying but enlisting the support of the population and members of the coercive organizations. Each used a narrative of a body politic that was infected and diseased; for communists it was the presence of counter-revolutionaries and bourgeois, for Nazism it was primarily ethnic, in the form of the Jews. To cure the nation/party of all that was holding it back, these elements had to be eliminated. The only way for the state/party/ideology to fully embrace its destiny was the elimination of any and all that challenge and corrupt those good members of society/party. In that sense it was an effort, or portrayed as such publicly, to not only rid those that were deemed as corrupt but, perhaps more importantly, to prevent those good citizens and comrades from being infected by their machinations and venal attempts to undermine the state ideology.

The presence of elements that needed to be purged was one aspect of the need for the terror; the other was immediacy and crisis. Both Stalin and Hitler fostered a view of a regime in crisis that, unless dealt with immediately, would mean the end of their glorious efforts to defeat the challengers to their ideology. It is a powerful narrative that seeks to destabilize the sense of complacency in society and inject a choice that requires the removal of infectious elements and the continuation of their revolution, or complacency and the death of their efforts. One can look, for the sake of simplicity and length, at the fire of the Reichstag in Germany and the killing of Kirov in 1934 as the events that ignited the efforts of the regimes to portray the severity of the crisis and forces aligned against their respective revolutions. Most powerfully this justified the elimination of opponents within the party and regime who were seen as the most corrosive (leading to the night of the long knives and the elimination of the SA, or Sturmabteilung, Germany’s Storm Troopers). The events justified a response to such intrigue, one that demanded increasing coercion and, ultimately, terror.

Yet the implementation of the terror was not instantaneous and was the culmination of multiple processes and efforts over a sustained period of time. For Soviet Russia, terror was part of its birth, exercised in defense of the revolution and to protect itself against the marauding armies of the White’s and counterrevolutionary forces. Led by Dzerzhinsky, the terror during the civil war was rampant, omnipresent and vicious, in part because it had to be. Terror was seen and utilized as a necessary instrument to protect and, importantly, sustain the revolution. Yet, when the civil war ended and the existential threat posed by foreign adventure and white armies was eliminated, the rationale for anarchic terror was reduced. While still present to varying degrees, the end of the civil war meant a return to directed coercion and an effort to institutionalize and rationalize it with limits and rules on its application. This was in part due to the leadership consisting of many of the more intellectual comrades that had spent much of the pre-revolution in the salons in Europe with Lenin rather than the younger and more rural activists that had spent much time in the Tsar’s prisons and the frontlines fighting for the revolution. The gradual elimination of these more intellectual cadres, led by Stalin, and the promotion of those who were younger and hardened by the civil war traced an evolution of coercion in the USSR. As members who were more comfortable with the use of violence, and hungry for promotion the legal constraints on repression were gradually reduced and justified. Genrikh Iagoda started the purge and terror but was soon replaced by Nikolai Yezhov who had no qualms about arbitrary terror and the fabrication of evidence that his predecessor had. Yezhov was finally replaced with Lavrentiy Beria, brought in not only for his ruthless efficiency and loyalty, but to also place the blame on Yezhov for the excesses of the terror, removing the party and Stalin from blame for its excess.

The terror allowed Stalin to promote a generation loyal to him with limited connections to Lenin or the other leading lights of the Bolshevik movement. Those who were promoted were also more beholden to Stalin and dismissive of intellectualism — enabling Stalin to promote those who were loyal to him directly, but also to break the horizontal lines of loyalty that competed with the vertical loyalty connected to Stalin. The Bolsheviks who launched the revolution had loyalties and comradeship with each other that challenged not only Stalin’s control of the party but its ideological content as well. It was in this sense that Stalin made sure a new generation was loyal to him and distrustful of each other.

The progression and gradual replacement of older, more intellectual Bolsheviks with younger, violence prone comrades in the pursuit of promotion is more of an outcome than a cause of the Terror. Yet the calls from below were not the primary causal force of the purges and, in contrast to Brzezinski, terror was not inherent to Communism as the relative stability—stagnation of the Brezhnev years demonstrates. While it is clear that younger cadre’s used the terror to denounce their superiors and subsequently gain promotion to their vacated position, the momentum of the terror soon meant these “little Stalins” became victims as well. As mentioned above, this prevented the development of loyalty among compatriots who could unite and question, or even challenge, the authority and directives of top. It was in this way that the purge allowed the promotion of a new generation but also destroyed any horizontal loyalty bonds that had developed in the interim. This went for the population as well, with family members turned informers against each other and the belief that one could rely only upon the party and Stalin.

The progression of promotions of new members who would be loyal to Stalin roughly tracks the same rationale of those that were promoted under Putinism — efficiency replaced by demonstrated loyalty.

However, the Terror and its excess soon began to challenge the vertical loyalty of the party and people as the accusations and imprisonment of purported counterrevolutionaries, Zinvoveites, Trotskyites, and Kulaks undermined not only the political but economic stability of the country and party. The terror had to be reined in and limits placed on its arbitrariness. To do this Stalin and the party could not be seen as condoning or as managing the execution and displacement of comrades, ethnic groups and the population as a whole. Thus Yezhov and most of his executioners and underlings were blamed for the Terror and its arbitrary unleashing upon society and the party. In so doing Stalin, and the party, remained free from the stain of the terror and were in fact seen as the benevolent saviors of the vicious Yezhov.

The fear of being stained by excesses against opponents is the clearest similarity between Stalin and Putin, not in terms of magnitude but stain. Whatever the rationale and design behind Nemtsov’s death, it is clear that Putin is horrified at the prospect of being associated with his death — hence the investigation and prompt arrest of Nemtsov’s purported assassins.

Understanding both the circumstances and designs of terror help differentiate not only the potential rationale but possible implications of murders such as Nemtsov’s. An environment of fear and the view that opposition means a potential traitorship to Russia and its ruler has been cultured in Russia today. However it is a far cry from the pervasive distrust among society and view of an omnipresent security force which existed under Stalin. Gulags and charges of counterrevolutionary activity have been replaced by those of legal persecution and financial malfeasance. Widespread killings aren’t needed (Putin’s Russia is different from Stalin’s, and it can afford to be so). Physical repression has, in large part, been replaced by careful ideological and media manipulation designed to choreograph the ideas and view of the population. Yet the underlying distrust of those who would question and challenge the regime as “counterrevolutionaries” has returned in vogue. Putin is the embodiment of Russia, just as Stalin was, and challengers are Trotskyites.