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On the subject of the labor camps
Started by brendanhadfield 2 years ago
I'm almost confused as to why Stalin unleashed this terror. I know it's a silly question because I'm sure the entirety of Russia was also confused but did Stalin begin this terror because of his own insecurity that people weren't loyal to the communist party? Or was this a way to reduce to population in order to clear communal apartments and offer more jobs as a way of showing that communism was working?

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Prof. Palmer replied 2 years ago...

You have asked an excellent question - one that scholars continue to debate the subject to the present day.

To begin, please keep in mind that the labor camp system and the "Great Terror" unleashed in 1937-38 are separate (but related) issues, though the origins of both can be traced to the period that followed on the heels of the Bolshevik seizure/consolidation of power. The camp system arose as early as 1918 when the Bolshevik Party, under Lenin's orders, began targeting the members of other political parties, former officers of the tsarist military and bureaucracy, religious leaders, "class enemies," and, indeed, most anyone the regime suspected of harboring "anti-Bolshevik" sentiment. The camps system subsequently expanded in a series of "waves:" in the mid-1920s in conjunction with the first show trials (targeting industrial "wreckers" and "saboteurs") again in the late twenties following the "de-kulakization" campaign in the run-up to the first Five-Year Plan. (In this instance, millions of peasants were dispatched to prison/exile for opposing the state's confiscatory policies.) Another "wave" would come during the Great Patriotic War (aka "World War II"); this one targeted certain ethnic minorities, Soviet soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Germans, etc.

The Great Terror can be traced to the practice of periodic Party "purges" (or, "chistki" in Russian) that began in the closing years of the Civil War (1920-21). These early purges were designed to shore-up the quality of the Bolshevik "cadres" (or bureaucracy) that had grown rapidly during the Civil War. The purges targeted members of the Party rank-and-file who were believed to be little more than opportunists, careerists, incompetents, etc. Those "purged" in the early 20s were simply kicked out of the Party.

What made the Great Terror (1937-38) different was that unlike earlier "purges" Stalin fixated his attention on the highest-ranking members of the Party leadership including prominent, long-time Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin. They were accused of being "enemies of the People," subjected to humiliating show trials; and then summarily executed. Why did he do this? In no small part to eliminate rivals and to clear the way for the promotion of individuals loyal to him. Those purged were also made public scapegoats for the failures and shortcomings of Party policy. Soon thereafter, other prominent personages such as military officials, leading scientists, artistic figures were swept up into the mix. What made this process new (and terrifying) was the atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding it all. Where, earlier, those targeted for removal had belonged to "suspected" classes and groups, in '37-'38 those purged (and executed) represented the cream of Soviet state and society.

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