The Social Origins of Terror and Repression in the Soviet Union: Victims and Perpetrators, 1936–39

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:50 AM
Regent Parlor (New York Hilton)
Wendy Z. Goldman, Carnegie Mellon University
In the Soviet Union, at the height of what was later termed ‘the Great Terror”  between 1937 and 1938, over 1.3 million people were convicted of “counter revolutionary crimes” and of these, 683,000 were executed.  Triggered by a political assassination, the terror rapidly mounted as various groups of former communist oppositionists were arrested.  Each new wave of arrests produced new confessions, which heightened suspicions of internal dissent.  The Stalinist leadership feared that former oppositionists would ally with discontented social groups, including dispossessed peasants, to create instability in the event of war.  Within the Communist Party, comrades turned against each other, zealously combing their records for hints of former oppositionism among their fellow members.  Anyone with associational or family ties to a victim quickly came under suspicion.  Terror swept schools and work places as people tried to insulate themselves from victims by deploying a host of strategies, including preemptive denunciation, that only helped to widen the terror.  The line between victims and perpetrators became increasingly blurred.  This paper examines the social context of the terror, examining the strains created by rapid industrialization and collectivization, the role of the state, and mass participation in denunciation and accusation.