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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Stalin’s gift to the Soviet electorate

70 years after the Great Terror
17 April, 2007 - 00:00

Dramatis personae: the heroes, and victims of 1937. Left to right: Nikita Khrushchev, Andrei Zhdanov, Lazar Kaganovich, Kliment Voroshilov, Joseph Stalin, Viacheslav Molotov, Nikolai Kalinin, and Mikhail Tukhachevsky.

In March 1937 a series of repressions erupted in the USSR, which came to be known as the Great Terror after the publication of the eponymous book by Robert Conquest. Stalin declared that the subversive activities of saboteurs, spies, and fifth columnists the country were endangering the country.

Seventy years is the average life expectancy. Today there are no more people who remember Stalin’s campaign, but the events of the cruel year of 1937 imprinted themselves on people’s subconsciousness. For Ukraine this was another year of unspeakable horror after 1933. Scholars are still at a loss as to why it all happened.


The Great Terror does not fit smoothly into the 1937 calendar year. The starting point for Stalin’s action was March 1937, but it was only on July 2 that Stalin signed the decision of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) (CC VKP(B)) based on which was issued operations instruction #00447 for the Soviet NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs). This was the first in a long series of descriptions of “enemies of the people,” according to which 269,000 persons were to be exposed and repressed. The Great Terror came to an end in November 1938, when NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov was removed from office. He was shot after being indicted on the basis of a standard charge: “espionage on behalf of foreign intelligence services.”

In 1963 a commission set up by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC CPSU) found that 1,372,392 people were arrested in the USSR in 1937-38, of which 681,692 were shot. In Ukraine there were 265,669 arrests and 198,918 cases were committed for trial. Sixty-two percent (123,329 people) were shot to death, 34.7 percent (68,823) sent to labor camps, 2.1 percent (4,124) imprisoned, 0.5 percent (1,067) exiled, and 0.3 percent (658) released.

What distinguished the Great Terror from the Holodomor was not only the nature of the repressions but also the absence of a distinct national coloring. The Holodomor was the result of a Cheka-run all-out food confiscation campaign in January 1933. It took place when famine was spreading in the grain-producing regions of the USSR, including Ukraine, and was caused by the confiscation of the 1932 harvest. This grain procurement operation was in essence a terrorist activity, as it led to tens and hundreds of thousands of deaths, but it cannot be called a purposeful extermination campaign.

Unlike the famine of 1932-33, the Great Terror in the USSR was, from beginning to end, a Cheka operation aimed at destroying people. After the Holodomor and the accompanying decimation of the Ukrainian intelligentsia in 1933, there was no need to target Ukraine specifically. However, the long-suffering republic again found itself at the epicenter of repressions. Stalin’s enhanced attention to Ukrainian affairs manifested itself in 1937 perhaps only in the fact that the top leadership of the republic was being destroyed especially methodically. Ten out of eleven members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine (CC KP(B)U) were executed. It was purely by accident that the “all-Ukrainian headman,” Hryhorii Petrovsky, survived-thanks to the temporary chaos reigning supreme in the state government, which was caused by the repressions.

The all-Union census, conducted several months prior to the terror, allows us to compare the statistical contribution of each nationality to Ukraine’s population and arrested people. In 1937-38 Ukrainians comprised 78.2 percent of the country’s population and 53.2 percent of the arrested. Poles made up 1.5 and 18.9 percent, respectively, and Germans, 1.4 and 10.2 percent. These disproportionate figures were due to the special orders guiding Cheka officers: order No. 00439 of July 25, 1937, on the German operation and order No. 00485 of Aug. 11, 1937, on the Polish operation. These orders were a continuation of the Kremlin’s repressive policy, which began in 1935 with the deportations of Germans and Poles from Ukraine’s border districts.

I often have occasion to debate with Russian scholars who fail to distinguish between the Ukrainian Holodomor and the all-Union famine of 1932-33. They argue that the Stalinist repressions were class-rather than nationally-oriented. However, facts attest to the existence of both class-based and national repressions. There were special operations during the Great Terror, which targeted Poles, Germans, Latvians, Greeks, and other nationalities. Neither did the Kremlin overlook Russians, who comprised 58.3 percent of all those arrested in the period from October 1936 to July 1938.

In 2004 the Institute of Ukrainian History at the National Academy of Sciences organized a workshop on the collective work, The 1932-1933 Famine in Ukraine: Causes and Consequences. The late Viktor Danylov presented me with an unpublished table showing the national distribution of arrests made during the Great Terror. The figure in the paragraph above was taken from this table. It offers convincing proof that Stalin did not have an ethnic bias or ethnic preferences. However, it does not argue the absence of the ethnic component in Stalin’s terror.

I believe that we will be able to find a common language with Russian historians if we clearly distinguish the Kremlin from Moscow and the regime from the country. Even the Communist Party of the time was not responsible for the actions of Stalin’s clique. Let me use the arguments presented in Danylov’s last publication, The Soviet Village in the Years of the Great Terror. On April 14, 1937, the Politburo of the CC VKP(B) set up a permanent commission in order to prepare and resolve secret issues (secret from the Politburo!). This five-man commission, consisting of Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, and Yezhov, dealt primarily with issues related to the terror. In 1937- 38 Yezhov was in Stalin’s office 278 times and spent a total of 833 hours there. Only Molotov, the head of the Council of People’s Commissars (Radnarkom), communicated with the secretary general more frequently. This shows who the true spearheads of the terror campaign were.

In 1997 a fundamental study entitled The Black Book of Communism was published in Paris. It was written by an international group of authors; translations into many languages soon followed. The chapter on “The Great Terror” was penned by the well-known historian Nicolas Werth. He argued that the repressions of 1937-38 pursued two objectives: first, to subject the provincial bureaucracy to the center and second, to destroy all suspects who figured in Cheka dossiers-members of other political parties, opposition members from the VKP(B), and members of the privileged classes. Werth was right but the terror did not target only the elite. Hundreds of thousands of absolutely ordinary people died in the inferno of repressions. Still unanswered is a question that was first formulated by the Moscow-based dissident historian Mikhail Gefter in the popular Gorbachev-era journal The 20th Century and the World (1990, no. 9): “I am a historian, but can I understand why the events of 1937 happened? I have not found a single example in world history when at the peak of a country’s success millions of its absolutely loyal citizens were being destroyed.”

Nonetheless, an answer to this question does exist. If we reject all speculations (e.g., that Stalin was paranoid), what remains is one indisputable fact: the procedure of forming Soviet government bodies underwent a radical change.


In November 1917 the Bolsheviks established what is known as the dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletarian masses were proclaimed the sovereign subject of power, and councils (soviets) consisted of representatives of workers and peasants. In the periods between congresses the legislative, executive, and judicial power was in the hands of executive committees-bodies elected by councils. These committees passed laws and were a day-to-day governing body that lent an ear to the electorate’s commands.

Lenin discerned that this government organization offered his party colossal opportunities for securing invisible dictatorship. The formulation of electors’ orders, the nomination of candidates to congresses of councils and making sure that these candidates were successfully elected, supervision over the activities of deputies and, if need be, their recall from office-all these functions were to be performed by a structure placed outside the bounds of the constitution.

The Bolshevik party apparatus governed social life indirectly — through Soviet government agencies. This indirect approach was deemed advantageous, as it enabled the party to resolve key issues without taking upon itself direct responsibility for the current state of affairs.

The power invested in Soviet government bodies was secondary in nature but nevertheless real. The dictatorship of party committees was not reflected in constitutions and thus did not mar the constitutional image of the councils. Power was usurped by committees on the personal level rather than the institutional one. Decisions adopted by party committees were implemented precisely because plenipotentiary representatives of the Soviet government were members of this party and abided by its iron party discipline.

The usurpation of the power with which the councils were constitutionally invested had to be repeated every time elections were held. That is why elections to Soviet government bodies were always an extremely important matter for party committees, from the lowest ones all the way to the Central Committee. In order to maintain its control over the country, the state party elaborated election procedures that ensured the desired composition of government bodies according to all parameters: class origins, party membership, demographic features, and personal traits.

The “party-soviet” dictatorship system was based not only on coercion but on propaganda. The system’s immediate connection with citizens enabled the rallying of millions of people to carry out top-priority tasks earmarked by the party leadership. The councils employed hundreds of thousands of deputies and became an efficient conveyor belt stretching from the state party administration to the entire population. The same conveyor-belt function was performed by the multimillion-strong “external” body of the party, as well as by trade unions, the Komsomol, Pioneers, and Octobrists.

To ease the burden of orchestrating elections to the councils, the idea of equal representation was abandoned. The Constitution of the Soviet Union stipulated that workers had a five-time greater share of votes than peasants. The non-labor class was completely stripped of the right to vote. Up to 10 percent of the population belonged to this category of non-voters.

Enterprises, organizations, and educational institutions were selected as electoral districts. Candidates were nominated on behalf of party and trade union organizations. They were typically voted in merely with a show of hands. Electors who disagreed with nominations were immediately subjected to administrative influence.

Direct elections were held only to local councils. Delegates to all congresses — from the raion to the all-Union level- were deputies from local government bodies. Appropriate party committees scrutinized the lists of congress delegates and members of councils’ executive committees, from the bottom to the All-Union Central Executive Committee.

Electioneering techniques were above criticism. Anyone who ventured any critical remarks was immediately charged with anti-Soviet conduct and repressed. Therefore, dissenting voices were anonymous. A flier that was circulated in January 1929 by the Socialist Revolutionaries (so-called SRs) in Dnipropetrovsk stated: “The Bolsheviks imposed on us open voting in council elections. Can’t we elect freely when we elect openly? Who, being watched by the party cell kingpin, will have the courage to vote for an honest non-party candidate or raise his hand in a vote against a wicked communist if he is nominated by the party cell?”


Committee members who specialized in organizing council elections were shocked to read a brief notice in newspapers about the decision passed by the February 1935 Plenum of the CC VKP(B). The Plenum suggested that the next All-Union Congress of Soviets consider the issue of amending the Soviet Constitution as part of its agenda. It emphasized the need to democratize the electoral system by replacing unequal representation with an equal one and multilevel open elections with direct and closed ones.

In February 1935, the 7th All-Union Council of Soviets set up a constitutional commission headed by Stalin. On June 12, 1936, the commission published the draft of the new constitution and a nearly six- month discussion ensued. In Ukraine 13 million people took part in it — a record high for the organizational and mass propaganda activities of the party and government apparatus. On Dec. 5, 1936, the 8th Extraordinary Congress of Soviets adopted a new constitution.

The constitution proclaimed that in the Soviet Union the construction of socialism was complete. In this connection and according to the still valid 1919 program of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) (RKP(B), the class criterion was to be abandoned both in the distribution of voting rights and the formation of government bodies. Therefore, multilevel elections were replaced by direct ones and secret balloting was introduced. Peasants were given the same rights as workers in electing and running for election to all government bodies. Electoral districts in cities had to reflect the residential distribution of electors rather than being tied to production facilities (factories, institutions, etc.). Congresses of councils on different levels were replaced by sessional meetings of local and republican councils and the Union’s Supreme Soviet. New councils were beginning to exhibit the features of the parliamentary system.

The fundamental changes to constitutional norms did not alter the real government system one iota. Councils were not an independent branch of power prior to that and were unable to become one in the parliamentary system. Party committees maintained their control over state and society. However, their dictatorship was officially denied and hidden behind the empty phrase, “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Constitution of the Soviet Union declared that the Communist Party was the governing nucleus of all public and state organizations, but this declaration was legally void.

Numerous documents have already been published, which confirm the growing discontent of the party and government staff with Stalin’s dictatorship. Apparatchiks were dissatisfied with another power hierarchy that he had built-the one in the system of state security agencies. A protest against the terrorist methods of governance was spreading throughout the entire society.

Stalin could not be a dictator by relying only on the GPU-NKVD (State Political Directorate-People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs). He needed strong support from the party and government apparatus. In order to secure this support the secretary general made bureaucrats face the danger of free elections. Wielding control over state security bodies, Stalin was the only one who could avert the threat of new people appearing on all the rungs of the Soviet administrative ladder. Cognizant of this, Soviet apparatchiks had to rally around the secretary general to jointly counter the threat posed by Stalin’s constitution — without a hint of irony, the most democratic constitution in the world.

Everyone understood that in helping to hold democratic elections state security agencies could employ the usual Cheka methods of state terror. In this way, the party and government apparatus gave Stalin carte blanche to carry out repressions on any kind of scale. In the situation engineered by the secretary general, those who refused to follow orders mechanically were to perish in the inferno of terror. There was no shortage of eager successors.


Embodied in the 1919 program of the RKP(B) was a plan that the party chiefs had for carrying out communist reforms. This program, with its violent trial-and-error implementation, was considered valid until Khrushchev’s day. Some elements were successful, while others had to be temporarily shelved or permanently abandoned. Since the 1938 publication of the Brief History of the VKP(B), which glossed over the party’s failures and emphasized its achievements, the history of the USSR unfolded as a succession of tasks set by the prescient leadership for the people and fulfilled by the heroic efforts of the latter. Only on one occasion did the gift of foresight fail the leadership — on June 22, 1941. The suddenness of the attack was used as an excuse for all the failures that the Red Army experienced over the next 18 months.

The above implies that what Stalin had in mind was a certain sequence of actions stipulated by the party program. The proclamation about the successful construction of socialism would by necessity entail certain actions on his part and these he calculated well in advance. The proof is found in the changes that were introduced in the criminal procedure codes of the Union republics after Kirov’s assassination in December 1934. Technically, they provided for mass terror, even though for a certain period of time they were not implemented.

On the day Stalin’s constitution was adopted, an announcement was issued about scheduling the elections to the USSR’s Supreme Soviet at “an early date.” However, they were delayed for an entire year, until Dec. 12, 1937. Instead of the election, in February-March 1937 Stalin organized a plenum of the CC VKP(B), which set the Great Terror in motion. The delay was necessary in order to prepare the electorate properly.

The unfolding terror put an end to any talk of alternative nominations — such as took place during the discussion of the draft constitution. Electoral commissions pledged to register only one candidate for each deputy’s office — the candidate nominated by the “bloc of communists and non-party citizens.” Proposals of alternative nominations were viewed as anti-Soviet manifestations. However, in keeping with world practice, the ballots bore the following inscription: “Leave the name of the one candidate you are voting for and cross out the rest.”

Even when ballots contained only one name, in free elections voters were supposed to express their opinion in writing, i.e., by crossing out one word in the pair “agree-disagree.” Nevertheless, the organizers of the first and all subsequent Soviet elections by secret vote introduced a treacherous simplification of the ballot: it mentioned only the candidate’s name and the first nominating organization. This way, a positive vote did not require a written mark. A negative vote, on the contrary, would make it necessary to cross out the candidate’s name on the ballot. Thus, only those voters who intended to cast a nay vote had to go into one of the voting booths. The booths became a testing ground for loyalty.

Voters were at the disposition of a huge army of agitators, who were recruited according to the industrial feature of their milieu. An agitator was personally responsible for ensuring that all his voters went to the polls. But agitators were not responsible for ensuring that they voted as they should. Here, the key role in creating a proper atmosphere was played by the state security organs.

During the terrorist operations that came one after another, hundreds of thousands of people were physically exterminated, and millions were destroyed morally by being coerced into cooperating with the security agencies, public denouncements of so-called “enemies of the people,” and false testimonies against work colleagues, acquaintances, and even family members. People were entrusted with ballots only after they had been terrorized into a desirable condition.


This article began with a reference to the Holodomor, and I would like to end it on the same painful topic. More precisely, I would like to share my thoughts on possible ways of persuading scholars, the general public, and the government of the Russian Federation, as well as all Ukrainian citizens who identify with us, that Stalin’s terror had all three components — social-class, national, and individual.

The Russian government cannot be accused of defending Stalin. They have a pragmatic fear that Ukraine will demand financial compensation from Russia for the death of millions of Ukrainian citizens. This anxiety is shared by Ukrainian political figures, who are afraid of spoiling our relations with Russia. Recently I had a conversation with a high-ranking official in the “corridors of power.” He claimed that rather than genocide, what happened in 1933 was sociocide, which affected his non-Ukrainian relatives, among others. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide does not include sociocide in its classification of crimes. This is precisely the reason why he used the term “sociocide,” despite the fact that several years earlier, and in a different political situation, he had spoken with complete confidence about the fact of genocide.

Politicians must apply measures in order to convince their Russian colleagues that Ukraine does not intend to place the burden of responsibility for Stalin’s terror on Russia. Unfortunately, these intentions are occasionally declared by political extremists. But extremists are in ample supply everywhere, including Russia. Our scholars and journalists should aim at restoring the historical memory of the Ukrainian nation, which endured both physical and moral sufferings caused by Stalin’s terror. Isn’t it humiliating for us to pigeonhole the deaths of our family members: genocide goes here and sociocide goes there?

The Great Terror, just like the Great Famine, proves that the Stalinist repressions were omnivorous. They were an instrument of state policy. During the collectivization campaign peasants suffered from repressions, and this type of terror may be called sociocide. This is also another kind of genocide, but it does not appear in the UN Convention on genocide adopted on Dec. 9, 1948, only because Soviet representatives at the UN knew the history of their country all too well. Collectivization and the grain procurement policy led to the 1932-33 famine, which had an especially pronounced adverse impact on Ukrainian peasants.

There is a political reason behind this fact as well: Stalin wanted to engineer a severe famine in the Ukrainian SSR and Kuban in order to prevent a social explosion that was emerging as a result of the destructive grain procurement policy. During the Great Terror, Cheka officers were proportionally the largest victim category because Stalin needed to shift the blame for the mass persecutions onto others.

An instrument of state policy until the early 1950s, mass terror in Ukraine had two spikes — in 1933 and 1937. In both cases they hit the target. This can easily be checked against the experience of the oldest or even the middle of today’s three generations. People older than 40 can be asked two questions:

why didn’t you make any public mention of the famine in Ukraine, which at the time was common knowledge but officially silenced? Why did you vote in favor of the single candidate by avoiding the voting booth?

One should bear in mind that this state of affairs lasted from 1953 to 1987, i.e., over three and a half decades-without mass terror, only facilitated, if necessary, by preventive conversations in KGB offices. Stalin’s terror still has its stranglehold on us: we do not feel humiliated by the fact that we live in cities or walk down streets that bear the names of Cheka officers and their bosses.