Little wonder that the war appeared to many as a sort of spiritual purification, a violent purging of the ‘inhuman power of the lie’ that had stifled all political discussion in the years before. ‘The war forced us to rethink our values and priorities,’ remarks Lazarev, ‘it enabled us, the ordinary soldiers, to see a different kind of truth, even to imagine a new political reality’.
This rethinking became more widespread as the war neared its end and much of the vast Soviet army entered into Europe, where the soldiers were exposed to different ways of life. By the start of 1944, the Soviets had amassed an army of 6 million men, more than twice the size of the German army on the Eastern Front. In June 1944, just as the Allies launched the invasion of northern France, the Red Army burst through the bulk of the German forces on the Belorussian Front, retaking Minsk by 3 July and pushing on through Lithuania to reach the Prussian border by the end of August. Meanwhile the Soviet troops on the Ukrainian Front swept through eastern Poland towards Warsaw. In the southern sector, where the German forces soon collapsed, the Red Army swept across Romania and Bulgaria to reach Yugoslavia by September 1944. The Soviet advance was relentless. By the end of January 1945, the troops of the Ukrainian Front had penetrated deep into Silesia, while Zhukov’s Belorussian Front had reached the Oder River and had Berlin in its sights.
Hardly any of the Soviet soldiers had ever been to Europe. Most of them were peasant sons who had come into the army with the small-world views and customs of the Soviet countryside and an image of the wider world shaped by propaganda. They were not prepared for what they discovered. ‘The contrast between the standard of living in Europe and our own in the Soviet Union was an emotional and psychological shock, and it changed the views of millions of troops,’ observed [war correspondent] Simonov. Soldiers saw that ordinary people lived in better houses; they saw that the shops were better stocked, despite the war and looting by the Red Army; and that the private farms they passed on their way to Germany, even in their ruined state, were far superior to the Soviet collective farms. No amount of propaganda could persuade them to discount the evidence of their own eyes.
The encounter with the West shaped the soldiers’ expectations of the future in their own country. Peasant soldiers were convinced that with the end of the war the collective farms would be swept away. There were many rumours of this sort in the army, most of them involving promises by Zhukov to the troops. Retold in a million letters from the soldiers to their families, these expectations spread throughout the countryside, resulting in a series of peasant strikes on the collective farms. Other soldiers talked about the need to open the churches, about the need for more democracy, even about the dismantling of the Party system root and branch. The film director Aleksandr Dovzhenko remembered a discussion with a military driver, a ‘Siberian lad’, in January 1944. ‘Our life is bad,’ the driver had said. ‘And all of us, you know, just wait for changes and improvements in our lives. We all wait. All of us. It’s just that we don’t all say it.’ ‘I was astonished by what I heard,’ Dovzhenko noted in his diary afterwards. ‘The people have a tremendous need for some other kind of life. I hear it everywhere. The only place where I don’t hear it is among our leaders.’
Officers were in the forefront of this army movement for reform. They openly expressed their criticisms of the Soviet system and their hopes for change. One lieutenant wrote to the Soviet president Mikhail Kalinin in 1945 with a ‘series of considerations to put to the next meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet’. Having been to Maidanek, the Nazi death camp in Poland, and having seen the consequences of a dictatorship in Germany, the officer demanded an end to arbitrary arrests and imprisonment in the Soviet Union, which, he said, had its own Maidaneks; the abolition of the collective farms, which he knew were a disaster from what he had been told by his own troops; and a list of other, more minor grievances, which his soldiers had asked him to convey to the president.
Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas. For those who cared to look back at history, there was an obvious parallel with the war against Napoleon in 1812–15, when the returning officers brought back to tsarist Russia the liberal thought of Western Europe which then inspired the Decembrist uprising of 1825. Political activists attending a conference at the Second Belorussian Front in February 1945 called for efforts to counteract the pernicious influence of the West.
Daily Archives: 24 April 2008
How did people respond to the sudden disappearance of colleagues, friends and neighbours in the Great Terror? Did they believe that they were really ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, as claimed by the Soviet presses? Surely they could not think that of people they had known for many years?…
Nadezhda Grankina encountered many Party members in the Kazan prison in 1938. They all continued to believe in the Party line. When she told them of the famine in 1932, they said ‘it was a lie, that I was exaggerating so that I could slander our Soviet way of life’. When she told them how she had been kicked out of her home for no reason, or how the passport system had destroyed families, they would say, ‘True, but that was the best way to deal with people like you.’
They thought I had got what I deserved because I was critical of the excesses. Yet when the same happened to them, they thought it was a mistake that would be fixed – because they had never had any doubts whatsoever, and whatever instructions had come down from the top, they had always cheered and carried them out … And when they were being expelled from the Party, none of them stood up for each other; they all kept quiet or raised their hands in support of the expulsion. It was some kind of universal psychosis.
For the mass of the population there were always two realities: Party Truth and truth based on experience. But in the years of the Great Terror, when the Soviet press was full of the show trials and the nefarious deeds of ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, few were able to see through the propaganda version of the world. It took extraordinary will-power, usually connected to a different value-system, for a person to discount the press reports and question the basic assumptions of the Terror. For some people it was religion or their nationality that allowed them to take a critical view; for others a different Party creed or ideology; and for others still it was perhaps a function of their age (they had seen too much in Russia ever to believe that innocence protected anybody from arrest). But for anyone below the age of thirty, who had only ever known the Soviet world, or had inherited no other values from his family, it was almost impossible to step outside the propaganda system and question its political principles.
The young were particularly credulous – they had been indoctrinated in this propaganda through Soviet schools. Riab Bindel remembers:
At school they said: ‘Look how they won’t let us live under Communism – look how they blow up factories, derail trams, and kill people – all this is done by enemies of the people.’ They beat this into our heads so often that we stopped thinking for ourselves. We saw ‘enemies’ everywhere. We were told that if we saw a suspicious character on the street, we should follow and report him – he might be a spy. The authorities, the Party, our teachers -everybody said the same thing. What else could we think?
After leaving school, in 1937, Bindel found a job in a factory, where the workers regularly cursed the ‘enemies of the people’.
When the factory had a breakdown, they would say: ‘Comrades, there is sabotage and treachery!’ They would look for someone who had a blemish on his record and call him an enemy. They would put him in prison, beat him up until he confessed that he had done it. At his trial they would say: ‘Look at the bastard who was working secretly among us!’
Many workers believed in the existence of ‘enemies of the people’ and called for their arrest because they associated them with the ‘bosses’ (Party leaders, managers and specialists) whom they already blamed for their economic difficulties. Indeed, this mistrust of the elites helps to explain the broad appeal of the purges among certain sections of the population, which perceived the Great Terror as a ‘quarrel among the masters’ that did not affect them. This perception is neatly illustrated by a joke that circulated widely in the years of the Terror. The NKVD bangs on the door of an apartment in the middle of the night. ‘Who’s there?’ the man inside asks. ‘The NKVD, open up!’ The man is relieved: ‘No, no,’ he tells them, ‘you’ve got the wrong apartment – the Communists live upstairs!’