Recent events prompted me to dust off my books on the Soviet Union, especially those chronicling the Stalinist purges of 1936-38, which claimed over half a million lives. There was a time when reading such works was an intellectual curiosity; now they resonate on a much more visceral level.
Such brutal political “cleansing” stems from two motives: a yearning for power and a quest for purity. It is almost impossible to disentangle them, which is perhaps what makes it such a lethal combination. Discussing Joseph Stalin’s career, historian Robert Conquest says, “There is no doubt that… doctrinal convictions remained the justification, and self-justification, of his whole career, and that the definition and extirpation of heresy, or the attribution of heresy to enemies of rivals, was a major element in his life.”
The extremes of terror and denunciation take on a nightmarish, absurdist quality right out of Kafka. Indeed almost all of the arrests by the Soviet secret police were based on fabricated evidence, being the product of petty jealousies or attempts to fill monthly quotas. People were denounced as “fascists” and “enemies of the people”— terms of abuse so nebulous and vague as to be impossible of refutation.
But there was a method to the madness. The advantage of such paranoia, which Orwell flawlessly recreated in his fictional Oceania, is that with the looming threat of such arbitrary accusations any real nucleus of opposition was eliminated through fear of even the slightest misstep. In his study of Communism Richard Pipes refers to continual crises being “artificially concocted to justify the dictatorship.” (In a more candid moment the Cuban Marxist Fidel Castro admitted that “the revolution needs the enemy.”) These perpetual “dangers” not only serve to distract people from revolutionary inadequacies, they also validate increasingly extreme measures. Any setback to the glorious Five-Year Plan is blamed on “saboteurs.” That these individuals are guilty of any real crime is irrelevant; rather, what is truly unthinkable is the idea the revolution does not work.
As for attempts to appease the radicals, these are invariably futile because the campaign for perfection is self-perpetuating as each individual or faction tries to outbid the other in righteousness. The only real deterrent to terror is the rule of law and the freedom of dissent. But since revolutionaries suppress such institutions early on in their impatience for change, victims are left with nothing to appeal to. This might seem a small price to pay for the the true believers. The irony, however, is that among the numerous victims of Soviet ideological correctness were thousands of loyal Communists, many of them Bolshevik veterans of the 1917 Revolution, and even some of the architects of the purge itself were caught up in the lethal apparatus they had constructed.
One may argue that such political systems cannot endure forever. The brutal tyranny of Stalin came to an end… but at all too high a price.