Age, Class, and Credulity in the Great Terror

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 172-174:

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!’

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